With the bye week behind them, it's back to work for the Buffalo Bills. They've kept their heads above water in the first third of the season and may have surprised some fans with back-to-back wins over Denver and Atlanta. But the meat of the schedule is here, and they get to dig into that meat with a home game against Tampa Bay this Sunday. Here are the top seven storylines for this week's matchup with the Bucs:
1. "DEFEND OUR DIRT"
Head Coach Sean McDermott has been repeating that saying to his players the last few weeks — "Defend our Dirt."
By dirt, he means the A-Turf surface at New Era Field.
"We've adopted the mantra of 'Defend our Dirt,'" McDermott said last week, in an appearance on The John Murphy Show. "The players tap a sign in the hallway every time they go out onto that field, a sign that says 'Defend our Dirt.' They know what it means," he says.
"There's a lot of sweat equity that has been put into this football team and into this team, from both players and fans."
The Bills play back-to-back home games coming out of the bye and three of their next four are in Orchard Park, where Buffalo is 2-0 this season. Tampa Bay is 0-2 on the road to start the season.
It sets up well for the Bills to stake out their turf this week.
- NEED A JUMP START ON OFFENSE**
The Bills have squeezed out wins in three of their first five games thanks mostly to their defense. The offense has been a struggle. And after running the gauntlet the last four weeks, going up against four of the NFL's top 10 defenses, the Bills match-up with a defense they may be able to handle this week. Tampa Bay is ranked 30th overall in defense; 31st against the pass.
But the Bills have to help themselves offensively and they have to do it on first down. Buffalo is getting just 4.4 yards per play on first downs this year – 28th in the NFL. And they're third in the league in the most negative yardage plays on the ground. The Bills average four plays per game that go for minus rushing yardage this year. Only the Bears and the Colts have more negative rushing plays.
"The biggest theme is that we're going backwards too much, too many negative plays," Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison said after doing some self-scouting during the bye week. "We're trying to get that corrected—the technique. And just awareness-self-awareness."
3. WILL THE 'NEXT MAN UP' PLEASE STAND UP?
Buffalo's lack of offensive production can be directly traced to a lack of offensive firepower. And that's a function of injuries. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews may try to push his way back into the lineup during the practice week, just two weeks removed from surgery on his thumb. Tight End Charles Clay will miss the first of multiple weeks with his knee injury suffered in Cincinnati.
The Bills are desperate for someone, anyone, to jump up and make big plays. Buffalo's wide receivers caught just three passes on 12 targets in the Bengals game. Tight Ends Nick O'Leary and Logan Thomas figure to try to pick up some of the slack with Clay out.
The door is wide open for an offensive playmaker to emerge—sooner rather than later.
4. O-LINE STILL IN AUDITIONS?
The Bills move into the middle part of the schedule with some lingering questions on the makeup of the offensive line. Incumbent left tackle Cordy Glenn hasn't taken an offensive snap since week two but he may be worked back with the starters this week in practice. Rookie Dion Dawkins has done a decent job in his place. And now veteran Seantrel Henderson is ready for duty after coming off his five game suspension.
At right guard, it's "still a competition" between Vlad Ducasse and John Miller, according to Dennison. The sooner the Bills can settle on a solid starting five upfront, the better their chances for building some cohesion on offense.
5. TYROD ON THE MOVE AGAIN?
Tyrod Taylor's unique skill set features his ability to run and he made opposing defenses account for him in the run game in each of his first two years a starter. He's averaged 570 yards on the ground in each of the last two seasons, and more than 5.5 yards per carry.
So far this year, Taylor has not been a big factor in the run game. With 13 yards rushing against Denver, 12 against Atlanta, and just 3 versus the Bengals, Taylor has gone three consecutive games with less than 20 yards rushing per game, for the first time since he came to Buffalo.
Whether it's by design, or a function of the way defenses are playing him, a resurgence in Taylor's ability to run, even the threat of him running, would seem to go a long way towards helping the Bills move the ball more productively.
- JAMEIS OR FITZ? WILL BUCS KEEP BUFFALO GUESSING?**
Tampa Bay is likely going to try to keep the Bills off guard when it comes to the health of starting quarterback Jameis Winston. He suffered a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder against Arizona last Sunday.
Bucs Coach Dirk Koetter says Winston won't throw Wednesday at practice, and he's non-committal about Thursday. Fitzpatrick is slated to take all the first team reps Wednesday for Tampa Bay.
It's likely Winston will be ready, but it's enough of a question mark to get the attention of Bills Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier.
"It's definitely a challenge," Frazier said this week. "You'd like to know for sure which quarterback you're going to be facing. That's all right. We'll definitely have to put together a plan for both, and just be prepared for whichever one winds up starting."
7. ANOTHER BIG PLAY RECEIVER TO DEAL WITH
With memories of A.J. Green's big plays fresh in their minds, Buffalo has to get ready for another king-sized, big play wideout to deal with.
Tampa's Mike Evans is 6-5, 231 pounds. He's caught 27 passes already this season (more than all of Buffalo's wide receivers combined). Three of his catches have gone for touchdowns. And he's got former Washington and Philadelphia standout DeSean Jackson drawing attention on the other side.
Bills rookie Tre'Davious White struggled with Green early in the Bengals game, but rebounded nicely to make big plays as the game went along. Buffalo's first round draft pick looks like a quick study and has exactly the kind of mental makeup teams look for at the cornerback spot.