The Buffalo Bills face their toughest test of the season Sunday.
The 3-0 Atlanta Falcons are the defending NFC West champions, and a team that coach Sean McDermott knows well after going up against them twice a year during his six seasons as defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
"The weapons that they have on this offense, starting with the quarterback, with Matt Ryan and what he’s done over the course of his career. Being in the NFC South like I was, I had a chance to go up against, or coach against Matt, I should say, and watch his career really take off," McDermott said. "That’s been fun to watch, a young player develop, certainly an elite quarterback. Then, with Julio Jones the same way. Watching him come into the league, had some production early in his career, had a few injuries here and there, and then to really take off the last year or two, been very impressed by that. ... What we have to do is start at ground zero and make sure we are who we are, and that means a fundamentally sound defense in everything we do. We have to play extremely sound defense, team defense, and make sure we’re communicating. I don’t know if you’re ever going to take a player of that caliber away, but you have to know they’re going to make some plays and we have to make plays on our end as well. We look forward to it and it’ll be a big week from a standpoint of us spending time in the film room, knowing what they do best, and earning the right to win."
Here is how the Falcons and Bills match up:
When the Bills run: This should come as no surprise, but defenses are loading the box against LeSean McCoy. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bills have faced a league-high 11 plays per game with eight defenders in the box and 29 plays per game with seven defenders in the box, which is the third most in the NFL. “I think we’ll be fine,” offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. “Persistence is our biggest thing. We’ll just keep working at it. Our guys are resilient, nobody blinked on the sideline, they just kept grinding, knowing that somebody will make a play here or there.” Things should get a bit easier Sunday. Atlanta is giving up 4.8 yards per rush, which ranks fourth worst in the NFL. EDGE: Bills.
When the Bills pass: With defenses stacking the box, quarterback Tyrod Taylor has to take advantage of the opportunities that presents. He did so in Week Three, throwing for 213 yards and a pair of touchdowns in one of his best games with the Bills. boots. “If they’re down in there, then they’re not deep,” Dennison said. “We counteract it by throwing it over their heads, which we made some explosive plays.” Expect the Falcons to try to jam the Bills’ wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Star pass rusher Vic Beasley (hamstring) and safety Ricardo Allen (concussion) are not expected to play against the Bills. EDGE: Even.
When the Falcons run: The duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are an underrated pairing. Freeman is a one-cut runner with excellent vision and the speed to stretch defenses on the outside. He has dominated the carries early this season (52 to Coleman’s 20), but that ratio should even out as the season goes on. Atlanta ranked fifth in rushing in 2016, an attack that is powered by an offensive line that ranks second in the NFL according to analytics website Football Outsiders. Buffalo’s rushing defense didn’t look as dominant without Marcell Dareus in Week Three, but it didn’t embarrass itself by any stretch against the Broncos. EDGE: Falcons.
When the Falcons pass: There are no shortage of options for quarterback Matt Ryan, starting with arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Julio Jones. No. 3 receiver Taylor Gabriel has game-changing speed, while tight end Austin Hooper scored an 88-yard touchdown in Week One. Ryan is content to work the underneath areas of the field – as 76 of his passes have been short and just 17 have been classified as deep by the NFL’s official statistics. The Bills are the only team in the NFL not to allow a passing touchdown through three weeks, but this will be the biggest test they’ve faced to date. EDGE: Falcons.
Special teams: Both field goal kickers come in hot. AFC Special Teams Player of the Week Stephen Hauschka went 4 for 4 last week, including two from 50-plus yards. Atlanta's Matt Bryant was 3 for 3 against Detroit, with two of those coming from 40-plus. Atlanta ranks second in the NFL in special teams, according to Football Outsiders. Return man Andre Roberts is averaging more than 12 yards per punt return. The Bills wisely went back to Brandon Tate as their returner last week. EDGE: Falcons.
Coaching: So much for any Super Bowl hangover. The Falcons can become the fourth team in the last 35 years to lose in the title game, but start 4-0 the next year. Dan Quinn gets credit for helping the Falcons get past that heartbreak. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has resurrected his career after losing his job as the head coach at the University of Southern California for reasons relating to his battle with alcoholism. If Atlanta can beat Buffalo and Miami, it will take a perfect record into a Super Bowl rematch with New England in Week Seven. Bills coach Sean McDermott has gotten off to a good start on his own, bouncing back from a tough loss in Week Two to see his team put together a complete performance against Denver. EDGE: Falcons.
Prediction: Falcons 30, Bills 17.