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5 things to watch for in Bills vs. Panthers | Week 15

Josh Allen 17 Buffalo Bills at Carolina Panthers,August 16, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium. Photo by Gregg Forwerck
Josh Allen 17 Buffalo Bills at Carolina Panthers,August 16, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium. Photo by Gregg Forwerck

1. Josh Allen expected to start

Josh Allen was a question mark heading into Sunday's game after participating on a limited basis in practice Wednesday and Thursday. But head coach Sean McDermott on Bills flagship station WGR Sportsradio 550 said that Allen would be a full participant in practice Friday and it's anticipated he will start this weekend against the Panthers.

"He should be ready to go," said McDermott. "We'll talk again today after practice, but he'll be full for practice (Friday). And at this point, we plan on him starting and being ready to go."

Allen was an injury question mark after suffering a sprained foot when he was tackled from behind on a scramble at Tampa Bay by LB Devin White. Allen has been a limited participant in practice this week.

By midweek Allen said his foot felt "quite a bit better."

If Allen for some reason can't finish the game on Sunday, the Bills would turn to backup Mitchell Trubisky, who was signed as a free agent this past offseason for this express purpose, in what was widely seen as a 'go for it' season.

"That's why we brought Mitch in," McDermott said. "He's more than capable. We have 100 percent confidence in Mitch to go out and execute at the level that we expect him to execute at, for us to play good football and winning football and so there's no hesitation whatsoever there."

Trubisky is 29-21 in his career as a starting quarterback, including a 6-3 mark with the Bears last season.

2. Preparing for a platoon

Speaking of quarterbacks, the Panthers have had a bit of a carousel at the position this season. Sam Darnold, whom Carolina acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Jets, started the season, but suffered a fractured scapula behind his throwing shoulder. He was placed on injured reserve a month ago but was designated to return from I-R this week as he began practicing.

In no way is he expected to be ready for Sunday's game against the Bills, which means that they'll again turn to Cam Newton to start. Newton is in his second stint with the Panthers after he was released by the New England Patriots right before the start of the regular season.

Newton has appeared in four games, making three starts with the Panthers going 1-3 in those games. He's completed just over 58 percent of his passes for 467 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He's also rushed for 112 yards on 26 carries with four touchdowns.

"It's a flow of the game kind of thing," said Panthers radio color analyst Jim Szoke in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week as to how the rotation between quarterbacks has gone. "In the Washington game a couple of weeks ago, Cam was playing well and had three touchdown drives, so PJ didn't play. Then Cam struggled mightily against Miami two games ago and had some issues this past game against Atlanta. If the team needs a spark or change of pace, or package of plays they'll turn to PJ Walker. I don't think it's premeditated. If things are going well, he'll stay on the sidelines. Other than that, it could be PJ Walker time at one point or another."

Bills safety Jordan Poyer admits it does require extra study time on their part defensively to prepare for the two quarterbacks, knowing it's likely both will see action.

"Two different styles of quarterbacks," said Poyer of Newton and Walker. "Obviously, a vet in Cam Newton, who has the ability to run the football and throw the football. PJ (Walker) is a little bit more of a thrower. It is challenging though. We've got to understand who is in the game and never know how they're going to try to play the game out. Just got to be ready for everything. But too very talented players that we have to prepare for."

3. Areas to exploit?

Carolina comes into Sunday's game with the number one pass defense in football. Statistically it's given up even fewer yards through the air than Buffalo's defense, which ranks second in the NFL. Part of their success can be attributed to their ability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The Panthers rank fourth in the league in sacks per play as they have 32 quarterback takedowns on the season, which ranks 10th. But in their last three games Carolina has seen some of their impressive defensive statistics slip.

They've been vulnerable against the run the last three weeks, giving up an average of 143 yards a game on the ground. That's second worst in the NFL over that span. It's due mainly to the 190 rushing yards the surrendered to Washington and the 128 rushing yards they gave up to the 27th ranked rushing attack of the Atlanta Falcons.

Their third down defense, which is still eighth best in the league has also had some struggles of late. They've allowed 19 conversions on 41 attempts for a success rate of better than 46 percent. Prior to that Carolina allowed third down conversions at a rate of just 33 percent.

A persistent problem for Carolina's defense has been keeping opponents out of the end zone once they crack the Panthers 20-yard line. Matt Rhule's defense is giving up touchdowns more than two-thirds of the time (67.6%). That ranks 26th in the league.

Might Buffalo at least attempt a few more carries with their backs against Carolina knowing they have great success in thwarting the downfield passing game of their opponents? The Panthers allow a passer rating of just 76.4 on passes of 10 air yards or more. Stopping the run has proven more difficult where they rank 20th in the league.

4. Larger role for Gabe Davis

With veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders listed as week to week with a knee injury suffered last week in Tampa Bay, it likely means more time on the field for second-year receiver Gabriel Davis.

Davis, who saw the most snaps he's had in a game this season this past week (65), figures to play a similar role on Sunday.

"Gabe's a productive player," said head coach Sean McDermott. "You open up the season, you see what he did in the back of the end zone, I think the touchdown we had he made a contested catch. He also made a deep ball; up the seam catch I believe in that game. So, we were aware of it from the start and really not a whole lot different from last season to be to be honest with you. Those are conversations that we've been having all the way through the season, and it was good to see him have the game that he had this past week."

Davis has four touchdown receptions in limited action this season, including scoring plays in each of the last two games. In the three games where he has gotten more than 50 percent of the snaps Davis has either scored a touchdown or gone over 100 yards receiving (Wk 1, Wk 10, Wk 14).

"I'm just happy to get an opportunity to go out and make some plays like I did last week. So hopefully I can just keep doing that and we can keep moving forward," said Davis in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "I prepare every single week as if I'm going to be out there for 100 percent of the plays in case somebody does go down. I'm a team player and I'll do whatever it takes to win. Hopefully come out with a victory."

5. Righting the ship

Both the Bills and Panthers have found stacking wins difficult of late. Carolina has suffered a four-game losing streak earlier this season and are currently on a three-game losing streak to slip to 5-8 on the year. It has been a precipitous fall from a 3-0 start as they've now lost eight of their last 10.

The problems as Panthers head coach Matt Rhule sees it has been tied to two things, lack of player availability on offense, due to injury, and turnovers.

"On offense, we've struggled," Rhule said. "When we've played well on offense, against the Saints or Arizona. Our success offensively comes down to being able to score 24, 28 points. Obviously, Christian (McCaffrey) is a guy we've built a lot of this around. He's been unavailable for large portions of the year. Offensive line-wise Matt Paradis was a captain for us at center, he tore his ACL. We've had a ton of injuries that caused shuffling of the offensive line. That's been a challenge for us.

"Then at quarterback Sam (Darnold) was 4-5 as a starter. He got banged up. Obviously, PJ (Walker) came in started a game and won it. Cam's been here for three games now. There's just been a lot of shuffling, a lot of turnover offensively. Last week we did some good things on offense, but we turned the ball over three times. When you're facing a team like Buffalo that is one of the top teams in the NFL at taking the ball away you realize it can get ugly if you do that. We're trying to be explosive and be aggressive while at the same time not beating ourselves, and not turning the ball over is a real key."

Carolina has beaten just one team this season with a winning record (Arizona).

Meanwhile Buffalo has dropped four of their last six games. Bills players believe they've recaptured their identity after an inspiring second-half performance in Tampa Bay last week that overcame a 21-point halftime deficit to force overtime.

Now their job will be to apply that kind of consistent play right from the start of Sunday's game.

"I think it's about execution and situational football," said Josh Allen. "Red zone, for example, we've got to be better in that aspect, and again, there's a lot of shoulda, coulda, wouldas in our season this year, and a couple plays go our way instead of the other way, the talk might be a little different. That's the ebbs and flows of the game of football. That's why we love it. That's why we play it. That's why we've got to learn from it. And that's why we've got to use it to our advantage in the next few weeks, starting again Sunday with the Carolina Panthers. A really good defense that we've got to be ready for and we've got to utilize everything we've learned in the past going forward. And it's only going to help us out in my opinion."

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