Here are my five takes on the Buffalo Bills’ game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium:
1. The Minnesota Vikings’ defense isn’t just dominant. It is downright frightening.
The Vikings’ front seven is big, physical and likely will have its way with a Bills offensive line that is struggling to put five legitimate starters on the field. The fact coach Sean McDermott actually felt compelled to say Friday, two days before kickoff, that he wouldn’t rule out changes to the group is a sign of how much trouble the Bills are having in that area.
Ryan Groy is struggling at center, but the larger issues appear to be at guard. It wouldn’t be a shock if the Bills decided to replace Groy with Russell Bodine, not so much because Bodine is a better center, but because it would allow them to move Groy to either left or right guard. The biggest problem area seems to be with John Miller at right guard.
Josh Allen can undoubtedly help the cause up front by getting the ball out of his hand much faster than he did while being sacked five times against the Los Angeles Chargers last Sunday. But that game was at New Era Field. This one is in a dome, and the extreme crowd noise will pose major challenges for Allen’s ability to communicate with the rest of the offense and vice versa. Expecting the Bills’ silent-count system to work efficiently with a rookie quarterback could very well be expecting too much.
If ever there was a game when Allen needed Kelvin Benjamin, who has been dealing with a sore hip from last Sunday, and other receivers to create separation from defenders, this is it.
2. Even with a healthy LeSean McCoy, the Bills would have a massive chore trying to run the ball effectively.
As it stands, McCoy’s status for the game is up in the air; he’s listed as questionable due to cracked rib cartilage he suffered when the 320-pound Groy inadvertently fell on him last Sunday. It’s clear the Bills are pushing McCoy and McCoy is pushing himself to try to play, because of the desperate need to jump-start a running game that has done little through the 0-2 start. Still, one has to wonder just how effective McCoy would be considering he has been kept out of contact in practice all week.
After two games, the Vikings have allowed 94 rushing yards per game, which ranks 13th in the NFL. It’s easy to envision defensive tackle Linval Joseph destroying the middle of the Bills’ offensive line, which doesn’t appear to have an answer for his size, strength or athleticism.
On top of what the Vikings’ linemen and linebackers do to stuff the run, there also is one of of the NFL’s top safeties, Harrison Smith, ready to come flying in from the secondary like a heat-seeking missile. His 15 tackles aren’t simply the result of cleaning up what the front misses. Smith has made a number of plays close to the line.
3. If the Bills’ secondary thought they saw dynamic receivers the past two games, wait until they get a load of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Thielen and Diggs are as good a pass-catching duo as any in the NFL. They offer a lethal combination of precise route-running, reliable hands and explosiveness after the catch. They also have a smart and patient quarterback in Kirk Cousins, who can maximize their skills. Cousins has solid numbers with 669 passing yards, six touchdown throws and a passer rating of 108.7.
So far, the Bills haven’t demonstrated they can prevent any sort of passes from being completed: short, intermediate or deep. And don’t count the second half against the Chargers, because with a comfortable first-half lead and a stranglehold on the game, L.A.’s offense took its foot of the gas.
Meanwhile, the Bills are still sorting out who will be their starting cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White after Vontae Davis, the free agent player they signed to be that guy, retired at halftime last Sunday. The primary candidate, Phillip Gaines, is questionable with the elbow injury he suffered against the Chargers. The Bills will also have to find answers beyond who will try to prevent Thielen and Diggs from catching the ball. Cousins also has a highly effective target in tight end Kyle Rudolph.
4. Where is the Bills’ pass rush?
It’s a familiar question and continues to beg for an answer. The Bills managed to get a pair of sacks in each of their first two games, but none of the pressure they generated against the Ravens’ Joe Flacco or the Chargers’ Philip Rivers came at any meaningful point of either game.
When it mattered, Flacco and Rivers had time to comfortably scan the secondary to make first, second, third and even sometimes fourth reads. It’s hard to see how the Bills are getting any appreciable return so far in the big offseason free-agent investment they made in tackle Star Lotulelei or end Trent Murphy. Their pass-rush will be without injured end Shaq Lawson.
The Bills can help their pass rush by being stout against the run. One of their few bright spots has been the ability to plug up the middle, as was the case against the Chargers who gained all of four yards on five runs between the tackles. However, Bills opponents have been able to find success running outside, and even without injured starting running back Dalvin Cook, the Vikings have a capable backup in Latavius Murray.
5. Exactly how much stock should anyone place in the importance of defensive play-calling?
It was a significant topic of discussion after the Chargers game when McDermott revealed he had taken those duties away from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier at halftime. The defense did show a noticeable spark, holding the Chargers to only three points through the final two quarters. However, how much of that was directly linked to play-calling is debatable.
McDermott seems to be unnecessarily drawing too much attention to the issue by being evasive when asked who will be calling the defensive plays Sunday. If he is, in fact, taking it over permanently and merely is trying to allow Frazier to save face, that doesn’t make McDermott come off as a strong leader.
His decision would be easily respected if he simply came out and made it public. By saying things like “it’s a team effort,” when the question of who will be the defensive play-caller is asked, it sounds as if he is trying to cover up something that doesn’t require that sort of secrecy. There is no obvious competitive advantage to keeping the Vikings guessing as to whether McDermott or Frazier will call defensive signals.
As former coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst for NBC’s Football Night in America, told me the other day, he “never thought it made much difference who called the defenses or who called the plays, because a lot of that you kind of worked on and scripted during the week. And the head coach is listening.” For the record, Dungy has a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.