Here are my five takes on Sunday’s home-opener between the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers at New Era Field:
1. Josh Allen’s starting debut is bound to inject some desperately needed life into an offense and a team that went skidding off the road from the very start of last Sunday’s Dumpster fire in Baltimore.
He’ll make some big plays with his big arm and will do his share of moving the sticks with his legs, too. There also will be blunders, the kind a rookie is bound to make in his first NFL start.
The difference between this game and what Allen did after replacing Nathan Peterman early in the third quarter against the Ravens is that he has had a full week to practice as the starter. He will be better prepared to find those areas of the Chargers’ defense that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll -- whose greatest skill is supposed to be identifying opposing defenses’ weaknesses -- has shown him how to exploit.
Peterman was benched, first, for melting down for the second time in three career NFL starts. However, another key factor was his inability to generate significant plays or provide even the smallest spark that the Bills had to have when everything was unraveling.
Look for a game plan that should be (or, at least, had better be) heavier with run plays than last week’s. It also likely will have Allen throwing plenty of screens and passes designed to have him get rid of the ball quickly enough to beat blitzes.
But it would be wrong to assume that there won’t be some longer-developing pass plays that allow Allen to take some deep shots. After all, that is among the primary reasons he will be behind center and Peterman will be watching.
2. The Bills’ defense can’t truly be as bad as it looked against the Ravens, can it?
If so, it might not be too soon to take a shovel to the rest of the season. Despite all of the attention given the quarterback situation, the Bills were counting on the moves they made to upgrade their defense -- which were done while virtually ignoring offensive line and wide receiver -- to show up immediately and help carry things along as the offense resolves its issues. That didn’t come remotely close to happening in Baltimore.
The Ravens faced almost no pass rush, which changed significantly Thursday night and had plenty to do with their loss to the Bengals. Against the Bills, Joe Flacco was able to patiently make his progression reads and find his targets, most of which had no problem separating from coverage.
If that happens Sunday, Philip Rivers is going to have far more than the 424 passing yards he had in the Chargers’ season-opening loss against Kansas City. Rivers connected on an NFL-best eight passes of 20 yards or more, while leading the league with 23 completions that generated first downs. And just think about how much better his stat line would have looked had his receivers not repeatedly dropped passes?
The Bills need to do something to shake up a woeful secondary. With rookie Taron Johnson out with a shoulder injury, it would make sense to move Phillip Gaines, who started Sunday while Vontae Davis was a healthy scratch, to take over at slot corner and insert Davis as a starter opposite Tre’Davious White. After all, supposedly, that was what the Bills intended when they signed Davis as a free agent.
Meanwhile, the Bills continue to be at Square One in trying to figure out how to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Their most effective lineman Sunday was end Shaq Lawson, who was widely seen as being on the bubble before the season. An injured hamstring will sideline him Sunday.
Rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds made some splash plays, but where was tackle Star Lotulelei, the Bills’ prized free-agent acquisition? Where was end Trent Murphy, their other big free-agent pickup? If the Bills don’t tighten things in their front seven, running back Melvin Gordon is going to do a whole lot of damage, especially up the middle.
3. What a time for the offensive line to try to get its pass-protecting act together.
When the Bills faced the Chargers last season, L.A.’s intense pressure went a long way toward forcing Peterman to throw five first-half interceptions in one of the greatest defensive performances in franchise history. The Chargers won’t have injured end Joey Bosa, who caused most of the havoc, but they’ll still have their other stud pass-rusher, Melvin Ingram, who returned a fumble 39 yards for a touchdown in the previous meeting.
The Bills’ revamped offensive line had an atrocious debut. It was hard to expect anything different, given the key players it lost and the failure to find meaningful help in the offseason.
Poor protection could easily become every bit as large a problem for Allen as it was for Peterman. The Bills will count on Allen’s much greater mobility to help him get out of jams and are hoping his powerful, 6-foot-5, 237-pound frame will allow him to withstand some of the pounding he’s bound to take.
The key will be pocket awareness, undoubtedly a major point of emphasis in practice this week.
4. LeSean McCoy’s disappearing act had better only have been a one-week thing.
For all of Allen’s ability to give the offense a boost, none of it will matter if McCoy ends up having another seven-carry, 22-yard rushing game as he did against the Ravens. McCoy’s four first-half touches pretty much told the story about an offense that spent far too much time going backwards.
Some of his problems had to do with the line’s inability to give him running room, some had to do with the Bills falling behind quickly and abandoning much of their plan to establish a solid run presence. But some of it might very well have been a sign of where McCoy’s game is at age 30.
He has to be immediately explosive to create a threat that the Chargers must respect. It should help that L.A.’s defense is going to have to honor Allen’s ability to fire deep. That, at least early in the game, should help open a bit of running room.
One shred of hope for the Bills is the fact McCoy ran for 114 yards and had two touchdowns against the Chargers last season. The emergence of Marcus Murphy as a running option could make things slightly easier for McCoy. But the biggest factor will be whether the Bills are able to do something about the Chargers’ run-stuffers, led by linebacker Kyle Emanuel.
5. How much will the Bills be able to plug into the energy of the home-opening crowd?
Counting on an energetic crowd could be asking a bit too much, especially after the horror show Bills fans watched last weekend. Fans are usually stoked for the home-opener, and the anticipation of seeing Allen’s first NFL start should help move the enthusiasm meter.
Still, all of that could vanish quickly if the Bills don’t make something positive happen right away. Bills players need to show that they have the pride necessary to prove they won’t be embarrassed two weeks in a row.
The Chargers also are looking to rebound from a poor opening-day effort that included many dropped passes and other mistakes. This time, they’re the ones having to travel across three time zones. It's up to the Bills to take advantage of having their body clocks set to the right time, especially in the early going.