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Bills' O-line must play its best game yet this season

Take Five / By Vic Carucci

Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium:

1. The Bills’ offensive line plays its best game of the season – maybe of several seasons. This is likely asking too much, even with the expected upgrade that veteran Kraig Urbik should provide as the replacement for struggling rookie Cyril Richardson at left guard. Since the start of the season, the line has regressed, especially in the area of pass protection. And not all of that has been Richardson’s fault. Right guard Erik Pears has had his issues as well, along with right tackle Seantrel Henderson.

The Jets simply have too much pass-rushing talent for even the best offensive lines to handle. Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, the top sackers on the line, will line up in various spots, along with linebackers Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples, who also bring strong pressure, in the Jets’ constant search for favorable matchups. Kyle Orton will cause some sacks because of his lack of mobility, his insistence on hanging in the pocket as long as possible, and his discretion when it comes to taking a sack rather than forcing a bad throw. But if the Bills aren’t careful, the Jets could very well dictate the outcome of the game in this area alone.

2. Exploit the vulnerabilities in the Jets’ secondary. There are plenty of big plays to be had in the passing game, and Orton is more than capable of delivering them – if he has the time. Rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins had his coming-out party against Minnesota last week, and there’s plenty of reason to expect that he will have more opportunities to do the same against the Jets.

Watkins’ exceptional ability to beat his man off the line, make moves to shake free from coverage, and catch the ball has quickly made him the biggest impact player on the Bills’ offense. After the New England Patriots effectively erased Watkins from Buffalo’s game plan two weeks ago, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett seems to have figured out how to devise formations and pass patterns to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The Jets have no one capable of holding up in single coverage with Watkins, so the extra attention he draws should help open things up for Robert Woods and emerging No. 3 receiver Chris Hogan.

3. Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown step up to the challenge of replacing injured Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Dixon can be explosive and, with even a little help from the line, is capable of being a solid runner. Jackson was exceptional in pass-protection, but Dixon is pretty good in that phase as well. Although the Bills lose Spiller’s game-breaking impact, such as the 53-yard run against the Vikings that ended with him suffering a broken collarbone, they will gain a better pass-blocker in Brown. The Jets’ defensive line will make that extremely difficult, but the Bills must be as persistent as possible running the ball in order to help try to soften the Jets’ pass rush.

4. Don’t allow Jets quarterback Geno Smith to gain a shred of confidence. The Bills are the NFL’s leader in sacks, with 24, for a reason. They have some superb talent on their defensive line, which is where their top three sackers reside: tackle Marcell Dareus, with seven, and ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes with 5.5 each. They need to consistently limit Smith’s ability to go through his progressions and get him to panic, as he is prone to do when under duress. In seven games, Smith has nine turnovers and has been sacked 15 times.

5. Prevent recently acquired Jets pass-catching/rushing threat Percy Harvin from making game-changing plays while also keeping the Jets’ ground game in check. These are enormous challenges, even for a defense that ranked a respectable 11th in the NFL overall and was fourth against the run after Week Seven.

Although Harvin has had limited time to learn and practice in the Jets’ offense, he still figures to have a significant role in their game plan. The Jets could use him in a variety of ways: jet sweeps, bubble screens, even behind center in wildcat formation where he could run or throw depending on the play call (as opposed to leaving it up to him).

The Bills’ defense needs to be disciplined and aware of Harvin’s location on the field at all times, and be ready to swarm to him instantly. The Jets will look to exploit the inside rushing lanes that the Vikings successfully found last week. Running back Chris Ivory can be a force, as he demonstrated with his 107-yard ground effort against the Patriots last week.

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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