Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field:
1. Feed the ball to LeSean McCoy early and often. And not merely because of the whole Shady homecoming/revenge factor. His considerable motivation to have the game of his life as a way of showing up Chip Kelly matters and that, too, is something the Bills should not hesitate to feed. But the offense clearly functions at its best when the running game is rolling from the start. Tyrod Taylor is a far better quarterback when his throwing complements the run and is set up by success on the ground rather than having to be the primary means by which the Bills move the ball.
McCoy, who has hit the 112-yard rushing mark in three of his last five games, should feast on one of the NFL’s worst defenses against the run. He is the healthiest he has been all season, which isn’t typical for any player entering Week 14. But the main problem that was slowing McCoy earlier in the year, a significantly pulled hamstring he suffered in August, has healed and he’s running and cutting without even the slightest hesitation. One of the bigger shortcomings of the Eagles’ defense is eliminating cutback lanes.
Another reason for McCoy’s early struggles was that his offensive line had yet to fully grasp the complex run-blocking scheme of offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Only recently have the linemen reached a point where the many variations and technical elements involved with the way the Bills block for the run are second nature. And as McCoy is carrying the ball, as a runner or receiver, he must be mindful about not trying so hard to extend a play while being tackled that he fumbles. His coaches have been pounding that message home to him all week.
2. Tyrod Taylor has his second game in a row of showing complete command of the offense. Taylor has had other good performances this season, and even some that have been very good. However, last week’s victory against Houston was the first where he consistently went through the full progression of his reads and found the right targets against the right coverage, as drawn up in the game plan. Taylor showed no real panic, even on the few occasions that the Texans managed to get pressure (he was sacked only once and hit only three times).
The line’s tremendous work in neutralizing J.J. Watt was a major factor, of course, but so is Taylor’s steadily growing confidence in himself and his surrounding cast, as well as his better understanding of the offense. Throws to wide-open tight ends, such as the one Taylor made to Charles Clay for the decisive 40-yard touchdown last Sunday, are more prevalent against the sort of 3-4 scheme the Texans play. They have been available against other opponents who play a similar defense, but Taylor hasn’t always seen them because of his tendency to go where his first read takes him. Similar plays to Clay and recently activated rookie tight end Nick O’Leary are going to be again available against Philadelphia’s 3-4 defense, and don’t be surprised if Taylor hits them for big gains.
The fact the Bills are 6-0 when Taylor attempts 30 or fewer passes and 0-4 when he throws more than that is no mirage. He clearly excels when he’s able to be selective with his throws, especially his amazingly successful downfield shots, and he also thrives by being mindful about taking good care of the football, as reflected by his four interceptions in 10 starts. Still, Roman is going to keep challenging him to go through his reads as fully as possible and deliver game-breaking passes.
3. Stay sharp and alert against the Eagles’ super-fast offense. The Bills’ defense hasn’t gone against anything like it will see Sunday from the Eagles. The speed of Kelly’s offense makes it difficult for defenders to get properly positioned for each play, an area where the Bills have had more than their share of problems this season. Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman are likely to have to take the less-is-more approach by streamlining the amount of sub-packages they use, with specific groupings of personnel assigned to handle different responsibilities that suit their physical makeup and skill set.
They also are expected to make some changes to the language used to call defensive signals so that they can be relayed faster from the sideline to the field and then distributed throughout the defense. Ryan’s twin brother, Rob, has had some experience with this approach and no doubt shared plenty of helpful information on that front during his not-so-coincidentally timed visit to the Bills’ practices during the week.
Coaches and players need to be on high alert on the sidelines and ready for whatever substitutions the Bills want to make defensively if/when the Eagles’ offense huddles, which it does on occasion. The communication between Buffalo’s defensive players is always better on the road because of the reduced crowd noise when the home team’s offense is on the field.
4. Don’t let disgruntled DeMarco Murray have a rushing performance that equals or trumps the one McCoy is looking to have. Although the Eagles scored a stunning victory against New England last week, Murray was fuming afterward over the fact he was on the field for only 14 of 50 snaps. Darren Sproles, a much better fit in Kelly’s scheme, led the Eagles with 19 touches. Murray took his grievance to team owner Jeffrey Lurie, and it wouldn’t be the least bit shocking to see him have a greater role Sunday – especially as a way for the Eagles to answer the anticipated strong ground game by McCoy with a big one of their own. Let’s face it. Murray represents everything that is driving McCoy to want to humiliate Kelly. Murray was the man Kelly acquired from the Dallas Cowboys and paid handsomely to replace McCoy, whom Kelly traded away at least in part because he didn’t want to pay him at the lofty level he was already being paid before the Bills paid him even more.
The Bills will likely do their share of crowding of the line to discourage the Eagles from having Murray, a power runner, plow his way through the middle. The danger in that, however, is that if the Bills fail to maintain good gap integrity or someone misses a tackle (remember, AJ Tarpley, who was a disaster against Kansas City, is going to be playing), Murray could tear off huge runs.
5. Watch the screen … and all other aspects of the Eagles’ passing game! The Eagles aren’t great at anything, but they do have a fairly effective screen game. And that’s because they have Sproles, who is one of the best in the league at operating in space. The Bills’ poor tackling has been a season-long problem, especially when it comes to preventing shorter throws from springing for long gains. They will be focused on making sure Sproles doesn’t do too much significant damage, which likely means that the secondary is going to be heavily involved in covering short and intermediate passes as well as the deeper stuff.
The back end of the Bills’ defense figures to be under at least some duress considering that Stephon Gilmore, one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, will be out with a shoulder injury. Rookie Ronald Darby, who is also having an outstanding season, is going to need to be at the very top of his game to make sure that Jordan Matthews, the Eagles’ best receiver, doesn’t go off for a big day while Darby also keeps an eye on Sproles. Look for Sam Bradford to go right after Leodis McKelvin, who will replace Gilmore, at least in the early going … and, depending on the results, possibly throughout the game.