Here are my five takes on the Buffalo Bills’ game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at New Era Field:
1. Josh Allen’s return at quarterback presents a bit of a wild card for the Bills.
Except for that highly impressive first half at Minnesota, he hasn’t done a whole lot to make Bills fans terribly anxious to get him back from the injury to his throwing elbow that kept him out the last four games. Matt Barkley’s heroics in the Nov. 11 mauling of the New York Jets also minimized some of the urgency to have the rookie under center again.
Still, Allen is the face of everything coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane are trying to build for the long haul. These final six games are largely devoted to developing him and seeing what else they have in other first- and second-year players upon whom they’re leaning for sustainable success. For McBeane, the investment in the seventh overall draft pick creates a simple organizational mantra: “It’s Josh or bust!”
With Allen’s rawness — which could very well be exacerbated by his missing so much playing time — there are bound to be mistakes. The key is not making so many that he’s unable to see the benefits of all that he was able to absorb as a spectator.
The biggest lessons the Bills hope Allen learned while watching Barkley and Derek Anderson (who won’t be available Sunday while still in concussion protocol) was realizing he doesn’t always have to make splash plays, that it’s OK to occasionally throw the ball away or take a sack.
Allen's ability to play well enough to help the Bills win can be greatly helped by an offensive line that had one of its better showings of the season against the Jets both in pass protection and, especially, in opening holes that contributed to LeSean McCoy's 113-yard, two-touchdown day. If McCoy remains at top form, Allen can thrive every bit as much as Barkley did and could very well end up with even better numbers.
2. Defending the pass is arguably the only thing the Jaguars do well enough to have a shot at winning the game.
Make no mistake, the Jaguars’ six-game losing streak is something they’ve achieved on merit. They’re not a good team that’s playing poorly. They are flat-out bad, taking a shocking plunge after reaching last January’s AFC Championship Game and nearly pulling off a stunning upset of the New England Patriots.
The Jaguars do have some noteworthy talent on defense, and their work against the pass does rank as some of the best in the NFL. But all that has been good for is three wins against seven losses and four defeats by six or fewer points. The Jags’ offensive ineptitude hasn’t helped the defense’s cause, although it’s hard to respect any part of a defense that couldn’t protect a 16-0 lead in last Sunday’s 20-16 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One signature of Jacksonville’s pass defense is tight coverage. Opposing quarterbacks generally see small windows through which to throw. Credit cornerback Jalen Ramsey for being a large part of that, even if he does have a tendency to run his mouth.
The Jaguars’ ability to blanket receivers could pose obvious trouble for Allen (who Ramsey has publicly described as “trash”) in terms of his ability to make quick reads and get the ball to receivers before those windows close. However, it’s also fair to think Allen’s ultra-powerful arm — assuming it isn’t compromised by any lingering effects of his elbow injury — could provide the necessary velocity for him to squeeze some passes into his receivers’ hands.
Speaking of which, Allen will need some help from his receivers, some of whom actually stepped up against the Jets after mostly forgettable performances through the first nine games. Jason Croom has emerged as the Bills’ most effective tight end, which helps the team weather the likely absence of Charles Clay, who is listed as doubtful with a injured hamstring.
3. The Bills’ defense should have no problem making life miserable for Blake Bortles, who has been a disaster.
Bortles’ poor play is the primary reason the Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the league. He’s generally indecisive and shows little in the way of pocket awareness, which is even more of a problem for him behind terrible pass protection.
The Bills’ defense is one of the NFL’s best, and consistently plays at a high level in all phases. It should feast on Bortles’ inability to get the ball out of his hand quickly and his tendency to panic as his pocket collapses, which happens regularly. The most dangerous aspect of Bortles’ game is scrambling, something that repeatedly burned the Bills in last January’s wild-card playoff loss at Jacksonville.
Look for the Bills to devote a “spy” to Bortles while their pass rush focuses on keeping him in the pocket. Ends Shaq Lawson (elbow) and Trent Murphy (knee) are listed as questionable, although McDermott expressed confidence Friday that Lawson — playing the best football he has since the team made him a first-round draft pick in 2016 — will be on the field Sunday. Lawson echoed that sentiment after Friday’s practice.
4. As well as the Bills’ defense has performed, it can’t allow itself to give up chunk runs by Leonard Fournette and/or T.J. Yeldon.
Fournette is pretty much all that the Jaguars have in the way of an offensive threat. He has an impactful combination of elusiveness and power to consistently reach the second level, with plenty of speed to pull away from defenders in the open field.
The Bills can’t let this game turn into what happened in their 37-5 loss against the Indianapolis Colts, when Marlon Mack shredded them for 126 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Mack found too many gaping holes that the Bills created by poor gap integrity and only made matters worse with poor tackling.
Sunday is a game where, regardless of the dim playoff hopes, the Bills need to play with a high degree of effort and physicality. The Jaguars will probably show up with that sort of approach, but seeing a season that had brought such promise go up in smoke is likely to leave them with little interest in keeping the throttle down if they’re met with significant resistance.
5. Any lingering ill feelings from Doug Marrone quitting on the Bills after the 2014 season are far greater with fans than they are with players.
After all, there aren’t many players left from the last of Marrone’s two-year stint in Buffalo. Officially, the total is four, but that’s only if you count the one game wide receiver Deonte Thompson played with the Bills in 2014.
Expecting a whole lot of “Marrone hate” on the part of defensive tackle Kyle Williams, end Jerry Hughes and punter Colton Schmidt to carry the locker room is a bit of a reach. What won’t be a reach, though, is the thought that at least some fans will derive more satisfaction from sending Marrone back to Jacksonville with a loss than they will from getting any sort of revenge for the playoff defeat.