It’s game two of the Bills four-game tour of the NFC South. And it’s Buffalo’s first visit to Atlanta since 2009, when they lost a Week 16 matchup at the Georgia Dome 31-3. Then second-year quarterback Matt Ryan threw three touchdown passes for the Falcons that day, including one on Atlanta’s first play from scrimmage.
This week Buffalo will play in the sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Bills are up against the defending NFC Champions. Here are the top six storylines this week as the Bills get ready to take on the Birds:
1. WHAT’S UP WITH SHADY AND THE RUN GAME?
It’s been Buffalo’s bread and butter for a couple of years—a solid run game. But the last two weeks, the Bills have lost their footing on the ground. After racking up 190 yards in the opener against the Jets, the Bills have run into a brick wall against the Panthers and Broncos.
Buffalo ran it 23 times in Carolina and averaged 3.0 yards per carry. It got worse against the Broncos Sunday: 33 rushing attempts averaging 2.3 yards per rush.
What’s the problem?
“You have to be able to do both: run and pass,” says Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. “We just keep working on our techniques and fundamentals, make sure we get them in the right spot.”
Dennison and Head Coach Sean McDermott say Buffalo’s last two opponents have loaded the box with eight or more defenders. Last Sunday, the Bills made the Broncos pay by throwing it downfield.
One thing the Bills have demonstrated in recent years is that they’re stubborn when it comes to running the ball. So look for more smash mouth football this week against the Falcons. And Atlanta gives up 4.8 yards per opponents rushing attempt—fourth worst in the league.
2. TALL ORDER FOR BUFFALO’S DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
Buffalo’s brand new secondary has been playing to rave reviews in the first three games of the year. Every one of the four new starters has an interception already this year. And the Bills are the only team in the NFL that has not allowed a passing touchdown.
But the challenge is big this week. And talented.
Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu may be the most physical, skilled WR tandem in the league. At 6-3, 220 pounds, Jones is setting records in his seventh year in the league. He’s averaging 96 yards receiving per game in his career, which is the most any receiver has ever averaged per game in his career.
Buffalo’s corners, Tre White and E.J. Gaines, will be giving up size to Jones and Sanu. And the key may be to match the Falcons WRs physicality right at the line of scrimmage. It’s likely to be an all-day battle in Atlanta on Sunday.
3. IT’S WHAT’S UP FRONT THAT COUNTS
The best friend for the Buffalo secondary is the Buffalo defensive line. And the Bills will need their strong pass rush and stout defense against the run to keep Atlanta’s high powered offensive machine in check.
The Bills are ninth in the league in sack percentage and sixth overall on defense. And along with strong play up front from Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Shaq Lawson, they’re getting meaningful contributions from the backups.
Buffalo’s steady defensive line rotation has been a success. Hughes and Williams average about 70-percent of the defensive snaps, Lawson is getting about 62-percent. Behind them, Ryan Davis, Adolphus Washington and Cedric Thornton average about 40 percent of the defensive snaps. It will be all hands on deck again this Sunday, especially if veteran Marcell Dareus is out of the lineup again.
4. A MAN AND A PLAN**
It’s only been three games, but Sean McDermott’s organizational style and attention to detail have already paid dividends for the Bills. That was evident in the way the Bills mastered some situational football last week against the Broncos and executed some key drives that they never seemed to get right in recent years.
With 42 seconds left in the first half and two time outs, Buffalo moved from its own 25-yard line to the Broncos 37 quickly and efficiently, using the sideline and both time outs. It set up Stephen Hauschka’s 55-yard field goal that tied the game at 13.
In the fourth quarter last week, leading by seven, the Bills held the ball for 7:30 (half of the quarter!) and got into positon for a 27-yarder by Hauschka that made it a two-score lead. The drive was helped along by a ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct call on Broncos LB Von Miller, but it was a thing of beauty to watch Tyrod Taylor and the offense milk the clock, secure the football, and put the game out of reach. It was the kind of fourth quarter drive the Bills couldn’t master against the Jets two weeks prior. Clearly the coaching staff put extra work into executing the critical four-minute drill.
That kind of clock management could be critical this week in keeping the Falcons offensive weapons on the sidelines for as long as possible.
5. BLOCKING OUT THE NOISE
Tough to say what kind of distractions await the Bills and the rest of the NFL regarding the firestorm over National Anthem protests. Last week’s controversy erupted on Friday night before the Sunday game, and with the volatile atmosphere in the White House, there’s no telling what might come up this week.
Suffice to say, the Bills did a good job last week of discussing the issue internally and formulating an on-field plan to demonstrate unity and sensitivity to the important issues being discussed nationally. They will need to be ready for a similar approach this week.
6. DIMARCO RETURNS TO ATLANTA
Bills FB Patrick DiMarco has played in all three games so far this year, starting two of them. And this week he returns to Atlanta, where he spent the four most productive years of his six-year NFL career.
Last year, DiMarco was a regular contributor for the Falcons Super Bowl run. And in 2015, he made the Pro Bowl at fullback, catching 13 passes that year, two of them for touchdowns.
The Florida native made his mark in Atlanta off the field as well. He was the Falcons 2015 nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his charitable work in Atlanta. He’s just settling in with Buffalo and the Bills, and this week has probably been circled on his calendar for a while, as he returns to his former team.