The Buffalo Bills should find out tonight just how much progress they have made in stopping big plays when they face the explosive Jacksonville Jaguars' passing attack.
Since being shredded to pieces by long passes against Indianapolis, the Bills have done a better job of preventing the quick strike the past two games. But tonight they face an opponent with almost as much big-play ability as the Colts.
Jacksonville boasts the player who has the most catches and receiving yards in the NFL over the past five years - Jimmy Smith. Containing Smith, receiving partner Keenan McCardell and quarterback Mark Brunell figures to be a key to the Bills' chances of getting their first win of the year in the nationally televised game at Alltel Stadium.
The 0-4 Bills are 8 1/2 -point underdogs against the 2-2 Jaguars.
"To me, if you can win out there (on the outside), you've got a good chance of winning against the Jaguars," Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said. "You have to stop the long ball. You have to stop passes going over your head. That's where you win the ballgame. Once you do that, you get to the point where you can say, "Let's play football.' If the corners can hold up we've got a better chance of winning the ballgame."
"I think the last couple games we did well in not giving up anything cheap, anything deep," safety Keion Carpenter said. "We have to give our offense a chance."
From 1996 to 2000, Smith caught 450 passes for 6,599 yards. Only Jerry Rice caught more passes for more yards in any five-year period in NFL history.
Smith was a huge question mark this offseason because he spent 28 days in the hospital and underwent three operations to treat a blockage in his small intestine in May. His weight dropped from 210 to 180 because he couldn't eat solid food for almost a month.
"When you're laid up in the hospital, you realize how many food commercials are on TV," Smith said. "Even dog food commercials started to look good."
But Smith has rebounded and feasted on opposing secondaries the first month of the season.
He ranks third in catches (with 30) and second in yards (371).
The Jaguars are aiming to get their offense back on track after losses the past two games to Cleveland and Seattle.
The problem for Jacksonville is it will be without star running back Fred Taylor and Pro Bowl left tackle Tony Boselli. Stacey Mack and Elvis Joseph will fill in for Taylor. Journeyman Todd Fordham takes Boselli's spot.
The middle of the Jaguars' offensive line isn't overpowering, either. This could be a chance for the Bills' slumbering pass rush to awaken.
"(The pass rush) is important to allow us to play the man-coverages the coaches would like to play," cornerback Antoine Winfield said.
Stopping the run will be huge because Brunell is such an efficient precision passer. If he stays out of third-and-long situations, he usually gets into a rhythm and is superb at finding his second, third and fourth options in pass patterns. The Jaguars also have a tendency to abandon the run if it doesn't work early.
"Mark's first two games he was in total control and did an outstanding job of taking care of the ball," Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said. "Then he got hurt (a concussion) against Cleveland. I'm very confident he'll be back this week to where he was the first two games."
One thing the Bills can't count on tonight is getting cheap turnovers from Brunell. He has a superb track record of avoiding pickoffs and has thrown only one in three games this year.
The Bills' defense is overdue for a pickoff or fumble recovery. The Bills' "D" has not forced a turnover in 2 1/2 games.
"We need to shorten the field and help our offense out," coach Gregg Williams said. "We've had our hands on so many balls and we have not turned the ball over for our offense.
"Against our defense, if teams are going to use extremely quick rhythm in throwing the football, then we've got to devote people into coverage. We've put guys in coverage when we've seen that style of attack against us, and we've had opportunities to have interceptions."
Likewise, Williams said the Bills need to get the opposing offense off the field with good coverage if it insists on keeping people in the backfield to pass-block.
"The second thing you'll see people doing a lot is sending out one and two and only three receivers," Williams said. "They're max-protecting a bunch. We've got to make them pay when we are in the coverage part of our defense, and we haven't done that."