When the Bills last played the Atlanta Falcons in 2005, a strong rushing attack led the way. Running back Willis McGahee gained 140 yards on 27 carries, but was upstaged by a Michael Vick led Falcons offense in defeat. Of course, much has changed since then and based on numbers alone, the Bills could have success in another area this Sunday.
In many games this season, the offensive unit has failed to sustain drives and score points, mostly because of the stagnant passing game. Not only do the Bills hold league rankings of 30th in passing yards per game, but quarterbacks have vastly underutilized the receiving talents of Terrell Owens and Lee Evans.
Both players have seen their usually productive numbers drop in 2009, but a revival of sorts could be on the horizon in Atlanta this weekend.
The Falcons are struggling defensively ranking 30th in pass defense and 28th in passing average. So, if establishing production from the passing game remains a priority with two weeks remaining in the season, the Bills might see opportunities from a secondary yielding 254.8 yards per game. For two teams also struggling on third downs—the Bills rank last converting just 25 percent of their third downs and the Falcons rank the same in defending them, dead last in league with opponents converting a whopping 46.6 percent.
"It's all about opportunities," Owens said. "That's what you look for in any game is opportunities."
The vague statement doesn't say much, but the Bills have displayed success against similar teams this season. They've found ways to expose weaker defenses against the pass and several big plays came against opponents such as Tennessee (31st), Miami (23rd) and Jacksonville (27th).
Against the Jaguars in Week 11, Ryan Fitzpatrick had 297 yards passing while Owens caught nine balls for 197 yards—including a team-record 98 yard touchdown pass. A few weeks later versus the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick recorded his second 200-yard passing effort and found Owens for another long touchdown in a 31-14 home victory. And it was Fred Jackson with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans against the Titans.
In preparation for Buffalo this week, Falcons coach Mike Smith highlighted his own team's struggles.
"We've not played defense as efficiently as we liked this year," Smith said. "We have always prided ourselves on scoring defense, to me that's the most important statistic. But we have not played very good pass defense, and I think it's a factor of a number of things."
One element, according to Smith, is the highly competitive schedule pitting them against many elite passers. The Falcons have given up 300 yards or more in the passing game seven times, including 296 to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
More important, however, is the young and relatively inexperienced secondary. At one corner is rookie Christopher Owens, who was burned for a long touchdown against the Jets last week. Right cornerback Brent Grimes and free safety Thomas DeCoud are in their second seasons, while six-year veteran Erik Coleman is the leader of the group.
"We're very young, got a young group of players that are learning on the job, and it's been a learning experience for all of them this year," Smith said. "They've played a lot better ball here it spurts during the second half of the season."
The secondary has shown progress, but the defense is certainly not helped by injuries, contributing just 11 interceptions. Much of the youth in the secondary has been plugged in out of necessity.
Safety William Moore and corner Brian Williams were lost for the season. Third-year corner Chris Houston missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, and did not practice Wednesday. The interception total isn't helped by a defensive line producing only 25 sacks, and the loss of defensive tackle Peria Jerry weakened a consistent pass rush.
Taking advantage of the depleted secondary initially falls on the Bills unsettled quarterback position. It appears Brian Brohm will get his first NFL start Sunday, but interim head coach Perry Fewell did not rule out Fitzpatrick calling him day-to-day with an ankle injury.
Brohm worked extensively in first team drills this week. However, his knowledge of the offense is minimal and must learn quickly considering his practice repetitions prior to this week were with the scout team.
All the more reason the receivers must help the young quarterback in any capacity and hopefully make plays against Atlanta.
"There's got to be a comfort level out there for him, so I'm pretty sure he'll have a few jitters here and there being a new situation for him," Owens said. "So, we got to help him out as a team. As a receiver we have to be on the same page and I want to help him out, communicate, let him know we're going to make plays for him, and not put too much on his shoulders."
Although the starter remains unsettled until later this week, Brohm is preparing like one. He's watched film of the Falcons, and taking advantage of their vulnerabilities rests on execution.
"Watching film on them, they're a fast team. Most dome teams they build around speed, so the defense is fast and going to fly around," he said. "They have some good players, the stats may say otherwise, but they have good players who are fast and will fly to the football. We just have execute our offense as best as we can."