Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans at Ralph Wilson Stadium:
1. Make this game all about not allowing Brian Hoyer to be anything more than pedestrian. You probably thought I was going to go a different way here, didn’t you? You were expecting the top take to involve what needs to be done against J.J. Watt, weren’t you? We’ll get to him, but the reason I’m starting with the quarterback is because the game’s outcome is likely to have a more direct link to Hoyer than it will to Watt.
Hoyer is far from supremely talented, which explains why he is on his fifth NFL team and was benched early in the season. He’s the Texans’ default choice for the starting job, and his limitations are many. Whatever success Hoyer has had, especially during Houston’s four-game winning streak, has come mainly from a scheme that calls for him to constantly throw in the direction of DeAndre Hopkins and manufacture plays with creative formations and gadgetry. Otherwise, Hoyer has a tendency to force throws because of his insistence on delivering the ball as quickly as possible.
As much as the Bills have struggled on defense, especially with the line still adjusting to a scheme that doesn’t give it full freedom to go after the quarterback, there should be more pressure/sack/interception opportunities in this game. And it will likely come by using the art of deception to cause Hoyer to hold the ball too long.
“We want to try to give him the illusion of this being there and then take it away and get him to go to his second decision,” defensive end Mario Williams said. “And by doing that, we’ve got to make hay up front.”
2. Tyrod Taylor has to step up in ways that he has shown only occasionally this season. Yes, we’re going to get to Watt, but there’s another important element to address on the quarterback topic. Even though their numbers are fairly similar, there is no comparison between Taylor and Hoyer when it comes to pure throwing and running talent. The only edge Hoyer has is experience. However, after nine NFL starts, Taylor has shown the capacity to perform at a high level, the kind that is capable of carrying a team to victory as a passer and runner. That has to happen Sunday.
Quarterback careers are defined by these types of games. Taylor came up short last week at Kansas City, and the loss severely damaged the Bills’ playoff hopes. He delivered nicely with his throwing arm in the first half, but couldn’t sustain it in the second. Now, with the price of a loss being virtual elimination from the postseason, it is primarily on Taylor to come through with a performance of a lifetime.
Media aren’t allowed to watch full practices, but he had what team sources say was his best performance of the year (one veteran defensive coach actually called it the best practice he had ever seen from a quarterback) on Thursday. Not a single pass hit the ground. Will that mean anything on Sunday? Who knows? But Taylor’s game-day showing needs to be at least nearly that flawless if the Bills are going to win.
3. Figure out ways to prevent J.J. Watt from taking over the game. If you want to argue that this belongs at the top, go ahead. It’s here, because it is a given … and also unlikely to be achieved. Watt is playing at a level that makes him a serious candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player, let alone Defensive Player of the Year for a third time. The assumption is that he will have his way with the right side of the Bills’ offensive line because the starters will be missing: tackle Seantrel Henderson, with an illness, and rookie guard John Miller, with an ankle injury.
Veteran guard Kraig Urbik is a journeyman, and would figure to have his share of struggles as any plug-in player would likely have. The intriguing situation is at right tackle, where Jordan Mills will step in for his first Bills start. The Bills signed Mills from the Detroit Lions’ practice squad, but what’s easy to overlook is that he made 29 starts the previous two seasons with Chicago while Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer was the Bears’ offensive coordinator. That’s significant because Mills is well versed in the intricacies of Kromer’s blocking scheme, which puts a high premium on intelligence.
Kromer and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have devised a plan that will have multiple blockers responsible for Watt on every play while still having enough protection to handle the rest of the Texans’ front. Expect left guard Richie Incognito to be a huge factor working in concert with tight ends on pulls and traps. The primary coaching message the Bills’ offensive linemen have heard all week is to be thoroughly on point with their movement off the snap because the slightest lean or tilt in the wrong direction can give Watt all that he needs to blow into the backfield for a big play.
The Bills have used practice-squad defensive lineman Jerel Worthy to play the part of Watt on the scout team. Worthy has done his best to replicate Watt’s relentlessness when it comes to chasing down plays.
“It was fun to be a superstar of a defense and be able to dictate how things go,” Worthy said. “I got to move around a lot this week playing various positions, covering, three-technique (outside shade on the guard), five-technique (outside shade on the tackle), running off the edge.”
4. Don’t let DeAndre Hopkins have a Watt-like game on offense. The Texans have targeted him an NFL-leading 142 times and connected with him 81 times, which is fourth-most in the league, for 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns. If they have any chance of moving the ball effectively, it will happen because of Hopkins. But that doesn’t have members of the Bills’ secondary shaking in their cleats. Nor should it. Cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore have done an excellent job this season of containing other top receivers, such as the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. Buffalo’s secondary also was superb in blanketing tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second game against New England. Of course, each challenge is different, and with Hopkins it begins with the fact the Texans are relentless about throwing the ball in his direction. They’re so determined to put the game in his hands that they make many of their throws to him on first down off of play-action.
Hopkins runs tremendous routes. He’s one of the NFL’s best at making double moves and getting defenders to take false steps. He’s also highly aggressive and will attack the ball in the air, using his strength to muscle defensive backs out of his way. That will come in handy against the physical style that Darby and Gilmore like to play. The bottom line is that, without injured Arian Foster, the Texans know they have little chance of putting together an effective running game. The Bills should be fully expected to prevent Alfred Blue, Chris Polk, and Jonathan Grimes from trampling them the way other no-name backs – such as Kansas City’s Spencer Ware – have done through the years.
5. LeSean McCoy warms up for his Philadelphia homecoming with a monster game. The Texans’ defense is good, ranking sixth in the NFL overall. It is at its best against the pass, ranking third in that category. But it can be vulnerable against the run, where it ranks 16th. And the Bills have to be ready to exploit that with McCoy getting back to the 100-yard form he had in back-to-back games before his 70-yard performance against the Chiefs.
The key in the last game, as in the previous two, is that the Bills made a concerted effort to feed him the ball. They should not hesitate to do that again Sunday, and will probably do their fair share of running right at Watt – which often is the best way to deal with a dominant front-seven player. Don’t be surprised if McCoy is able to tear off a couple of long gains as the Texans sell out to crowd the line in an effort to force Taylor to win the game with his arm.