LONDON – Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium:
1. Play a defense that everyone, including the players, understands and embraces. The continued disconnect between the Bills’ defensive line and coaches is an embarrassment. There is no reason that the most talented and expensive front four in the league should be generating minimal sacks and pressure. And the members of the unit know it, which is why they’ve openly complained about Rex Ryan’s scheme preventing them from being as aggressive as they were last season when they were the key to the Bills leading the NFL with 54 sacks. On Wednesday, Ryan said their comments had some validity. But on Friday, he declared, “We will play our defense.” His clear expectation is that the players need to adapt to what he and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman are drawing up and calling on Sunday rather than the other way around. That’s risky, but Ryan loves to take gambles and he loves betting on himself even more. Regardless of the Xs and Os, the Bills will have no excuses if they fail to put consistent heat on quarterback Blake Bortles and force him into errant throws and turnovers. He is a good, young quarterback, but no one is going to mistake him for Tom Brady, Eli Manning, or Andy Dalton.
2. LeSean McCoy must be able to carry the offensive load. In last week’s loss against Cincinnati, he showed few, if any, lingering issues from the hamstring injury that caused him to miss the previous two games. In fact, for the first time this season, McCoy looked like the explosive, elusive runner the Bills thought they were getting when they acquired him from Philadelphia. McCoy needs to be at least at that level on Sunday. He has to make up for what the offense is likely to lack with EJ Manuel at quarterback and a receiving corps missing Sammy Watkins, who is out with an ankle injury, and Percy Harvin, who didn’t make the trip because of what the team has described as “personal reasons.” The Bills’ only hope for keeping the Jaguars’ defense off-balance is for McCoy to shake loose for some long gains, such as the 33-yard run he had on the first play from scrimmage against the Bengals. It won’t be easy, because the grass surface at Wembley is notoriously slick and he’ll have a tough time gaining and maintaining traction, especially when cutting. The Bills also should have McCoy make a significant contribution catching passes.
3. EJ Manuel provides at least solid quarterbacking. It might be asking too much, given his struggles against the Bengals and his mostly disappointing body of work since joining the Bills as a first-round draft pick in 2013. But if there ever was a time for Manuel to avoid huge mistakes and give the Bills enough competence to get through a game without starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor and other key players on both sides of the ball, this is it. Competent quarterbacking should be good enough against one of the worst teams in the league. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week he wants Manuel to be less cautious in his approach and more willing to cut it loose with his throws. That has pretty much been the story of Manuel’s NFL career. He simply doesn’t trust what he sees when he looks across the line before the snap or when he scans coverages while dropping back. Manuel continues to mainly work with only half the field, because he doesn’t fully go through route progressions. The Bills need him to step up and make the bigger plays that aren’t so obvious as well as those that are there for the taking.
4. Offensive line overcomes the absence of two starters. This might be one of the Bills’ bigger challenges of the game. Right tackle Seantrel Henderson is out with a concussion he suffered last Sunday, while right guard John Miller returned home because of a death in his family. The biggest problem could very well be with Henderson’s replacement, Cyrus Kouandjio, who is making his first NFL start. The former Alabama standout couldn’t play his way into the lineup after the Bills made him a second-round draft pick last year. He doesn’t seem to have made a whole lot of progress, particularly in pass protection. Given Manuel’s tendency to hold the ball too long before throwing, the Jaguars could easily exploit Kouandjio’s shortcomings. Veteran Kraig Urbik will take over for Miller, and should at least be serviceable. Maybe the Bills’ best hope for the offensive line to hold its own will come from the return of Aaron Kromer, the man who was hired to coach the group, from a suspension that kept him out of the first six games. The Bills appear to have been missing Kromer’s edge in experience over his temporary replacement, assistant line coach Kurt Anderson, when it comes to in-game blocking adjustments. Kromer wasn’t permitted be around the team during his suspension, but he kept up to speed on the line’s performance.
5. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Cut down on penalties! The Bills have become very good at making excuses. The coach doesn’t hesitate to mention how injuries are piling up and the negative impact they’ve had on the team’s morale. And players are all aboard with the narrative that NFL officials are “targeting” them with the abundance of yellow flags they’ve drawn. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, one of the Bills’ most penalized players, was quick to point that out after the Cincinnati game, during which Buffalo was assessed eight penalties for 93 yards to the Bengals’ three for 20 yards. Let it go. Playing the part of the victim not only is a bad look but it does nothing to solve the real problem, which is an extreme lack of discipline throughout the roster and particularly on special teams. Even with starters missing and a 1-5 opponent, the Bills aren’t good enough to play anything less than the cleanest game possible to win.