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5 things to watch for in Bills at Chargers | Week 16


1. Intentional approach

The Bills feel they've rediscovered the kind of team they can be over the past two weeks with impressive victories over the Chiefs and Cowboys. Winning in two very different ways also has them confident that they can adjust through the course of a game if necessary to find a winning formula.

What has also been noticeable the past couple of weeks is the offense's ability to get on the board early. In each of their last two games, Buffalo has scored on two of their first three possessions. ESPN NFL analyst, Dan Orlovsky, in his weekly appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ believes jumping on Los Angeles early could discourage a Chargers team that's had a rough week already.

"With the situation that's in LA, I think there's one thing that is the most important part for Buffalo this week, they've got to jump on them early just like the Raiders did," said Orlovsky. "This is one of those games where you just jump on them, and you get this team to start thinking about vacation plans. Buffalo obviously has a bigger purpose to go and try and chase down."

Defensively, the Chargers gave up three touchdowns on the Raiders' first three possessions last week, but against the Broncos and Patriots the previous two weeks, they surrendered just a single touchdown on the first three possessions (six total) by both of those opponents.

Outside of their sack total this season, the Chargers defense doesn't excel in many areas, but Bills head coach Sean McDermott is unfazed by the narrative that the Chargers season is awash.

"For us, it starts by taking it one day at a time and one week at a time," said McDermott. "We've got to be very intentional about what we're trying to do and how we're trying to get it done this week."

Scroll to see photos from the Buffalo Bills Week 16 practice as the team prepares to take on the Los Angeles Chargers.

2. Chargers regrouping

Los Angeles took the extra time after their humbling 42-point loss at the hands of the Raiders last Thursday night to regroup. Chargers ownership decided to fire their general manager and head coach and name outside linebackers coach, Giff Smith, as interim head coach.

"We flushed that game," said Smith of their 63-21 defeat. "It was embarrassing to everybody involved in it. I take that with me, since I'm the man in charge now. We're moving past that. We have three weeks to show the character of the men and the coaching staff that we are, to go out there and compete. That's what we're looking to do, compete, and try to win these next three games. The ownership is totally on board, wants to win, and that's huge. That message was relayed to the team. That's everything that we're doing, our focus is on the Buffalo Bills."

Already out of the playoff race at 5-9, the Chargers have the freedom to let it all hang out and try any play concept they choose, which leaves the Bills in the position of being prepared for just about anything come Saturday night.

"There are going to be a lot of unknowns when we head out there," head coach Sean McDermott said. "So, we've got to make sure again, that we are playing good team football, we're all disciplined the way we need to be disciplined, and focused where we need to be focused. And I think that's a big part of the challenge this week."

Smith, 55, has 12 years of NFL coaching experience, including three seasons under former Bills head coach, Chan Gailey, from 2010-2012 when he served Buffalo as their defensive line coach.

"I'm an honest person. I'm going to tell the truth," Smith said this week of his coaching style. "I'm very direct. I believe in clarity. There's not gray. And I believe in giving. I've always believed in that, that's my faith. I guess that's how I would describe it. You have to have your brother's back when you go out there. If that makes me old school, then I'm definitely old school."

As for the players, starting QB Easton Stick, who will be making his second start in place of Justin Herbert, admits it hasn't been an easy week.

"It's been a tough few days, for sure, for all of us and for a lot of different reasons, Last Thursday, obviously, we were embarrassed. That's tough to get over, that lingers. Then, obviously, the moves that were made the next morning are tough. You put a lot into this, you put everything into this. So, when it doesn't go well, I certainly feel responsible. I know that all our guys do. But you can tell with the guys, we came back in good spirits. [Interim Head Coach] Giff [Smith] has done a really good job of organizing the group and making sure everybody understands what we're playing for, that's each other. We're really looking forward to playing. We're going to go through this thing together."

"We're presuming they're going to have a spark and take pride in being professionals and have outstanding personnel. If you watch the film, you're very impressed," said Mitch Morse. "We understand the competitive edge is going to be about who shows up and outcompetes the other. We saw it happen with the Raiders. The week after McDaniels left, the Raiders were on fire. We are expecting them to be fired up."

3. O-line peaking

Buffalo's offensive line has been rounding into form of late playing some of their most consistent ball down the stretch of this 2023 campaign. They've helped to produce three of the five biggest rushing days of the season over the last five weeks, including last week's season-high 266-yard day on the ground.

Bills center Mitch Morse is proud of the way the group has jelled but does not believe the front five have peaked yet.

"You still feel like there's more to this for us and that's the approach we take in practice and how we attack meetings," said Mitch Morse in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "Coach Kromer treats us like professionals so we reciprocate that and work when it's times to work and rest when it's time to rest. But I would say even though we lost that Denver game when we were able to run the ball effectively. We pulled one another aside and said the fate of this team is in everyone's hands, but we must continue to do our job and take pride in being a professional. This is a real special group that really cares about each other."

ESPN's Dan Orlovsky believes Buffalo's offensive line is the area where the team has made the greatest improvement from 2022 to 2023.

"Last year, at this time, I felt very confident that the flaw of the football team was the offensive line," Orlovsky said. "I did not think it was going to be a unit that was going to be good enough to go into the playoffs and go on a run. And I don't feel that way this year. I think this offensive line has become a strength. It absolutely has. Now part of it again, is because of the style of play that they're allowing these guys to play. Instead of constantly being on their heels there's been opportunity to impose their will on guys. I think that's step number one.

"Step number two is Joe Brady having the willingness to just continue to hand the ball off last week. He just seemed to have the mindset of like, 'I don't have to overthink this.' And I think the last part is Brandon Beane, the GM, saying, 'I've got to make sure that I put enough people around Josh.' Where he doesn't feel like he has to do it himself. Their last outing was one of those games where I think for the first time, they felt Josh didn't need to do it himself, and I think that is something that is got to be wildly encouraging."

Buffalo's stiffest test with the Chargers looks to be their pass rush, which ranks sixth in the league in sacks and has logged more sacks on third down (26) than any other team in football. They're led by University at Buffalo product, Khalil Mack, who has 15 sacks on the season.

4. More Cookin'?

The reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week is coming off a career game against the Cowboys last week. James Cook had a career-high 221 total yards from scrimmage along with a pair of touchdowns in Buffalo's 21-point victory in Week 15.

Suddenly, the second-leading rusher in the league with 968 yards and third in the league in total yards from scrimmage with 1,401 behind only San Francisco's Christian McCaffrey and Miami's Tyreek Hill, Cook has vaulted to the top of the league thanks to a five-game streak with 100 or more total yards from scrimmage.

"James is an easy guy to cheer for - does everything right throughout the week," said RT Spencer Brown. "How he complements the offensive line after good drives, always says thanks. And then like, just the juice he has, the burst he has, playmaking ability. I mean, he's just a really, really good team guy that you really want to cheer for and see do well. He's carrying the rock. I think he's really grown from some of that adversity early and he's carrying it over late in this year and it's really showing."

As hot as James Cook has been since Week 10, the Chargers' run defense has noticeably cooled. Ranked 12th in the league in run defense in Week 10, Los Angeles has slid to 18th in the league since then. Over their last six games, the Chargers have allowed more than 145 rushing yards per game (146.2), 4.8 yards per carry and eight rushing touchdowns.

They've also allowed more than 155 total scrimmage yards (156.7) to opposing running backs since Week 10, the fourth highest total in the league over that span.

5. Big play opportunities?

Provided the Bills can stay in favorable down and distance there could be some opportunities down the field for Buffalo's passing game.

The offensive unit has only completed the 14th most pass plays of 20 yards or more (40), due largely to opponents playing a cover two shell to prevent any big plays in the pass game, even though they're tied for the sixth-most touchdowns off such plays (8).

To counteract those defensive efforts by their opponents, Buffalo has worked to increase their yards after the catch. The Bills currently rank ninth in that category with almost 1,700 yards after receptions (1,693).

Orlovsky is convinced with good scheming that the Bills will be able to cause confusion with the coverage assignments in the Los Angeles secondary.

"You can create a lot of blown coverages," said Orlovsky. "They blow a lot of coverages in LA. And I think (offensive coordinator) Joe (Brady) will take advantage of that. And I think I think they come out guns blazing on Sunday."

On 54 downfield targets, the Chargers defense has given up 54 completions of 20 yards or more, good for third most in the league this season. On those 54 completions they've also surrendered 11 of those for touchdowns, good for the second-most scoring plays on 20-plus yard completions in 2023. The Chargers' defense has also allowed 718 yards after the catch this season, also the second highest total in the league this season.

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