The only way to move up in the standings is to stack wins. The Bills have a chance for that this weekend when they head to Houston to play the Texans. It’s the first of another round of back to back road games for the Bills.
Here are some of the issues for Bills fans to keep an eye on this weekend:
1. BUFFALO WINS THE CLOSE ONES
Last week’s one-point win over the Titans demonstrated the current winning template for the Bills—tight defense, some takeaways, and just enough offense.
And just enough, means just enough. The 13-12 victory means the Bills have 7 wins and 2 losses in one-score games since Sean McDermott took over last year. The Bills have the best record in the AFC in one-score games since the beginning of last year. Carolina leads the league at 10-2.
2. DEFENSE LEADS THE WAY
When the Bills have won this year, it has been outstanding defensive play in the forefront. They gave up just six points at Minnesota, and 12 to the Titans last Sunday. The Buffalo defense is ranked 6th in the league one third of the way into the season, dramatic improvement over last year’s ranking of 26.
NFL Analyst and writer Andy Benoit, who crunches video at his home in Boise, Idaho and writes about it for Sports Illustrated, sees a Buffalo defense that benefits from its’ second year under Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott.
“I think being just year two in McDermott's scheme helps and when you disguise a little bit,” Benoit said this week on One Bills Live. “They disguise with their front, guys then have to get to their coverages from different locations. They’re taking different paths to where they’re going after the snap and that probably takes some time and chemistry to learn too. You have to have your spatial awareness relative to the defender next to you. So, I know they have some changes at linebacker, but having a lot of guys back here at year two in this defense, I think that’s been a big deal for them.”
3. HUGHES ADAPTING TO NEW TACKLING TECHNIQUE
Jerry Hughes has been one of Buffalo’s most effective defenders in the 2018 season so far. He leads the team with three sacks, and he’s been getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And Hughes is doing it without running afoul of the league’s new focus on protecting quarterbacks from damaging hits.
He’s only picked up two penalties so far this season, one for offside, one for a neutral zone infraction. In his first five seasons in Buffalo, Hughes was flagged a total of five times for roughing the passer. He had four unnecessary roughness calls during the same time frame.
Hughes says he and his defensive teammates are working on sack and tackling techniques in practice to avoid getting flagged for the new rules emphasis—a defender placing his entire body weight on a quarterback during a sack or tackle.
“Every sack you’re aware because if you use your momentum and you fall through like you’ve been taught since Pee Wee-- finishing an actual tackle you know, that’s a penalty,” Hughes said this week on One Bills Live. “So, for now, it’s been just lunging, grabbing and gator rolling. What we call gator rolling--where you just rapidly spin the guy around that way it forces him to hang on to the ball so he’s not throwing just anywhere.”
4. ANDERSON ON THE SIDELINE SUNDAY
There will be an extra quarterback on the sideline headset for the Bills Sunday. 14-year veteran Derek Anderson was signed to the roster Tuesday to help mentor rookie QB Josh Allen. Head Coach Sean McDermott says the Bills plan is for Nathan Peterman to remain the number two QB this week.
Peter King of NBC Sports.com says Anderson is a perfect fit as a meeting room and practice mentor for Allen and Peterman.
“I'm bullish on that,” King says. “As sort of, the mentor/helper—he makes these guys better and will make this quarterback room better. I think it's a really good move by the Bills.”
5. TRADE RUMORS IN THE BACKGROUND
The Bills just got LeSean McCoy going with his game against the Titans. And then they spent much of the week answering questions about a rumor McCoy might be traded back to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he spent the first six years of his career.
There are good arguments for and against a McCoy trade. And Bills Hall of Fame RB Thurman Thomas says the Bills at least have to listen.
“Like I keep saying, I don’t want to see it, but I think you have to also look at the situation with the Philadelphia Eagles too. It’s a tough position to be in. I know Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott are probably like, ‘This is what we have to have in order to trade him. No more no less.’”
6. BILLS OFFENSE STALLS ON FIRST DOWN
Buffalo’s offensive shortcomings so far this season are well documented: 31st in yards gained, last in passing yards, last in scoring, etc.
And it all starts on first down. The Bills average just 2.98 yards gained on first down through five games, the lowest mark by any NFL team since 1991. The NFL average is 5.74 yards gained per first down.
The struggle on first down extends into second and third downs for the Buffalo offense. The Bills average yards to go on third down is 8.9 yards, the most in the NFL. They’ve gone three and out 35-percent of the time, more than any other team. They’ve given up ten sacks on third down (most in the NFL) and have six giveaways on third down (most in the NFL).
The numbers reflect how much of a struggle it has been for the Buffalo offense through five games. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but plenty of time to do it.
7. MIA IN AFC EAST
The Bills head into week six of their schedule and they still haven’t had a whiff of the AFC East. They’re still two weeks away from their first division game (October 29 vs New England).
It’s the deepest into a season Buffalo has ever gone before their first divisional game. Ten years ago, they didn’t play an AFC East game until week seven.
It’s a horse race in the division five games in—New England and Miami each have three wins, the Bills and the Jets each have two.
The Jets are home to Buffalo’s next opponent, Indianapolis, Sunday at 1pm. The Dolphins are home at the same time to play the Bears. The Patriots play the marquee game of the NFL weekend, home against the Chiefs Sunday night.
It’s worth noting that with 11-games left this season, ESPN rates the Bills remaining strength of schedule as the third easiest in the league. Their remaining opponents have a .500 winning percentage and six of the Bills final ten games are at home.