Here are my five takes on the Buffalo Bills' game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at New Era Field:
1. Avoid a playing-down-to-your-opponent repeat.
The Bills were better than the Cincinnati Bengals, yet found a way to lose to them on Oct. 8. They're better than the Buccaneers, too, and they simply can't allow themselves to squander an opportunity to beat an inferior opponent at home.
The Bills' defense did enough for the team to enter the bye with a 4-1 record, rather than the current 3-2 mark, and in greater control of its ability to challenge the vulnerable-looking New England Patriots' forever perch atop the AFC East. It took a horrific offensive showing for that not to happen, and the Bills need to demonstrate they're better than that – which they are.
The Buccaneers have enough problems in all phases the Bills can and should exploit if they're the legitimate contender they're capable of being in this wide-open league.
2. Do not let Jameis Winston beat you.
For the most part, the Bills have held their own against aggressive passing attacks. They gave up plenty of yards through the air against Andy Dalton and the Bengals, but still did a good job of keeping them out of the end zone and forcing turnovers.
Jameis Winston enters the game after missing most of the week of practice while recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered against Arizona last Sunday. Close Buccaneers observers were expecting Ryan Fitzpatrick to start against his former team, raising questions as to how physically ready Winston is to play his best.
The Bills need to do enough with their pass rush and coverage to keep Winston off-balance and never allow him to get as comfortable as Fitzpatrick was when he shredded Buffalo with the New York Jets on Thursday Night Football last season at New Era Field. The Bills must apply as much heat as they can using a four-man rush so they can keep at least seven defenders in coverage and cause Winston to force bad throws.
The biggest difference between this season and last year is the Bills have a stronger secondary that should hold up better against the challenge of a deep-passing attack the Buccaneers are expected to launch. Mike Evans could do the same sort of damage that A.J. Green did at Cincinnati, but the key is to prevent others from lighting it up and especially not allow Winston to have an easy time of finding targets.
Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer should be able to swipe one or more of Winston's throws.
3. Show that the running game does, in fact, have a pulse.
The Bills are beyond the point of crisis with their running game. The loss at Cincinnati exposed the offensive line's inability to hold its own against a quicker and more physical defensive front. One-on-one battles were consistently lost as Bengal defenders repeatedly zipped into the backfield with ease to pull down LeSean McCoy before he could even reach the line. That is, when they weren't caving in the exterior and forcing him to turn inside … and into the waiting arms of other defenders.
It's easy and fair to point to the wide-zone blocking scheme that offensive coordinator Rick Dennison favors being mostly a poor fit for the linemen. As this group showed in helping the Bills lead the NFL in rushing the past two seasons, it is better working in more of a power-oriented scheme that asks left guard Richie Incognito to frequently pull rather than running outside in unison for stretch runs.
But that doesn't explain everything. The Bills need a talent upgrade up front. Whether that means Seantrel Henderson, back from his five-game suspension, taking over at right tackle for Jordan Mills or a healthier Cordy Glenn returning as the starter at left tackle remains to be seen. The situation at right guard, where the Bills tried Vlad Ducasse in place of John Miller, is also an area of major concern.
4. With or without Jordan Matthews, the rest of the receiving corps needs to, once and for all, do something more than wear uniforms.
Matthews' return from thumb surgery should help, assuming he's physically able enough to contribute at the level of a No. 1 receiver. Still, the Bills need to get a whole lot more from rookie Zay Jones. As a second-round draft pick, he was supposed to make his presence felt far more than someone who isn't able to deliver in big moments.
Jones has to have a break-through game, and this could very well be it. The Buccaneers' defense ranks next-to-last in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game and are 30th in passing yards allowed per play.
Being without tight end Charles Clay has to hurt, because he's the Bills' best playmaker. But the combination of their other two players at the position, Nick O'Leary and Logan Thomas, could provide a little bit of a jump-start to the passing game. With the Buccaneers likely to follow the template used by every Bills opponent and crowd the line, there should be opportunities for O'Leary and Thomas to find openings on short and intermediate routes in the middle.
5. Sean McDermott has to show he has learned a thing or two from the "bye-week master" and his primary mentor, Andy Reid.
Reid, who is responsible for pretty much everything McDermott does as a coach, is credited with discovering the formula for having a team ready to play after a bye. His 16-2 post-bye record in 18 seasons as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, with whom McDermott got his NFL start under Reid, makes that undeniable.
Reid believes in giving his players plenty of rest during their in-season break, something McDermott did. Reid also believes in using as much of the non-practice time to get with his coaches and figure out ways to improve everything his team was doing before the bye. Only time will tell whether McDermott and his staff were able to achieve that.
The bottom line is that the Bills are beginning a stretch of five games – including three at home – against some of the more beatable opponents on their schedule before facing Reid's Chiefs at Kansas City on Nov. 26. This is an opportunity to firmly gain some footing and get some traction.