Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys at Ralph Wilson Stadium:
1. Will the players feel compelled to (dare we say it?) play for their head coach’s job security? The thought that Rex Ryan’s future with the Bills could be in jeopardy after only one season seemed unthinkable earlier in the year. And perhaps it still should be. He has four years left on a guaranteed contract worth $27.5 million. Despite the unfulfilled promise of a playoff appearance and a defense that regressed badly on his watch, he seemingly would merit at least another season to try to clean up this mess. But that’s in the regular world, where reasonable thought actually comes into play on occasion. In the NFL, where knee-jerk reactions often are the norm, one-and-dones have a way of happening.
And if the players go through the same sort of sleep-walk routine at home that they did during the first half of last week’s loss at Washington, the Pegulas aren’t likely to be amused. There has to be some sign of inspired play in these final two games – provided, of course, they have the desire to keep Ryan around. Losing is one thing. Looking bad in the process is something else entirely.
2. The run defense must avoid being trampled by Darren McFadden. The Cowboys are a bad team. They are a shell of the club that won 12 games last year. But they do rank 10th in the NFL in rushing. They do have McFadden, who is eighth in the league with 898 yards. And they do have a big, powerful offensive line. Given that their quarterback is Kellen Moore (a.k.a., per Ryan, the “little bitty dude”), it’s reasonable to expect the Cowboys will make an effort to try to run the ball as often as possible. The Bills could have problems dealing with a straightforward, power run game – especially with a defensive front that is likely to do plenty of rotating in an effort to give reserves more action while preserving the health of front-liners. Tackling has not exactly been one of the strong suits of Buffalo’s defense, and it will be interesting to see how willing members of the unit are to bring down the 6-foot-1, 220-pound McFadden when he gets a full head of steam.
3. Manufacture a running game with Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee. They actually provided the most effective rushing the Bills had against the Redskins last week after LeSean McCoy exited with the knee injury that will keep him out of this game. Williams and Gillislee should have some success against the Cowboys’ mediocre run defense. Williams’ inside power should help do plenty to soften things up for the Bills’ passing game. And the Cowboys’ overly aggressive defensive front, which is geared more toward getting after the quarterback, should help create opportunities for Gillislee to break long runs, such as the 60-yard touchdown he had against Washington.
4. Tyrod Taylor uses his arm and legs to make the most of his final two chances to make the case that he’s a long-term answer at quarterback. He hasn’t done a whole lot of spectacular work in the past two weeks. Taylor did have a couple of nice long scoring throws to Sammy Watkins against the Redskins, but that came in garbage time with the Bills’ fate sealed. He needs to show how consistently effective he can be much sooner. And against the Cowboys, who have a strong pass rush, he’ll likely need to do it as much with his legs as with his passing arm. Taylor is going to have his share of chances to run for long gains because of the Cowboys’ tendency to sell out with their pressure. He’s likely to struggle at times to find open receivers, because he’ll be missing Robert Woods, who is out for the balance of the season with a groin injury and therefore won’t be able to help draw coverage away from Watkins. Taylor needs to be patient and continue to improve with making reads and eliminate those occasional misfires that come when he clearly gets too anxious to deliver the ball to an open target.
5. The defense cannot allow itself to lose a game against Kellen Moore, who is making his first NFL start. Although the Cowboys figure to employ a run-oriented game plan, Moore is going to have to make the occasional plays with his passing arm. His left-handed style is awkward to defend, and despite his smallish frame, he does have the capacity to move around and the smarts to find open receivers. He also has a highly talented target in tight end Jason Witten. The Cowboys’ best receiver, Dez Bryant, is doubtful with foot and ankle injuries and probably won’t play next week, either. But Moore still has one of the NFL’s best tight ends in Witten. As they proved last week in giving up a pair of touchdowns and other big plays against Jordan Reed, the Bills do a terrible job of covering tight ends as well as pretty much any throws to receivers in the flat.
Still, the Bills’ mostly non-existent pass rush has got to be able to find a way to at least cause Moore to feel uncomfortable in the pocket. If he’s allowed the same sort of time to sit back and throw that most opposing quarterbacks have enjoyed this season, this could very well be another long day for Ryan and his much-maligned scheme.