When the Buffalo Bills travel to Detroit to face the Lions in Week Five it will mark both the debut of the Bills’ new starting quarterback Kyle Orton and the return of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to the city where he was fired as head coach.
Both have the potential to be significant factors in this match-up of two teams now headed in opposite directions. Detroit sits atop the NFC North at 3-1 – the same place they found themselves to start the 2013 season before collapsing down the stretch, while the Bills are coming off two straight losses in which their passing offense struggled so badly as to force them to bench second year starter, EJ Manuel, in favor of veteran Orton.
For an offense already laboring to gain some traction and now starting a quarterback that has only been in their system for four weeks, Sunday’s game against a Detroit defense among the best in the league presents a formidable challenge. Despite losing starting linebacker Stephen Tulloch to a torn ACL and with a defensive backfield – never a strength to begin with – on their third string slot corner – the Lions have the top ranked defense in the league, allowing only 267.3 yards per game.
Moreover the Lions rank in the top six in several other major defensive categories including pass yards allowed (second), points per game (fourth), and rush yards allowed (sixth). The Lions held Aaron Rodgers to just 162 passing yards in a Week Three win over Green Bay.
With a strong defensive front anchored by controversial tackle Ndamukong Suh and one of the best coverage linebackers in the league in underrated DeAndre Levy (allowing them to mask some of their backfield issues) the Lions have most of the key pieces in place to fluster even the best of offenses.
Buffalo, currently ranked 27th in total offense, generating only 320.8 yards per game, and 31st in pass yards per game (198.5) does not qualify as such an offense. In fact the Bills have thrown for less than 300 yards in 27 consecutive games – the NFL’s longest current streak.
On paper, the Bills have a plethora of offensive weapons with two top flight backs in CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson who are just as capable of making plays in the passing game out of the backfield as they are on the ground, coupled highly-touted receiver Sammy Watkins and two other solid receivers in Mike Williams and Robert Woods.
Outside of Jackson, none of these players have managed to consistently live up to their potential in the first four games whether due to poor quarterback play or play calling for offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, or more likely, a combination of both.
While the running game has been seen as Buffalo’s strength – and when you are averaging less than 200 yards in the air per game it almost becomes that by default – it is too often dependent on explosive plays that don’t offer a regular and reliable method of producing yards and first downs.
The Bills need to find some type of passing attack to complement the run game and Orton, at this point, is more of a threat to do so than Manuel.
Orton does not have great accuracy on deep throws, especially those outside the numbers (sound familiar Bills’ fans?), but he is able to make sound decisions and go through all of his progressions quickly without locking in on his first option, something Manuel struggled with. Orton is not particularly mobile so the read option plays that Hackett had used are most likely off the table.
As long as Orton has picked up the majority of the Bills’ playbook – and certainly head coach Doug Marrone would not have made the change if he wasn’t confident in this – the offense should work more efficiently under Orton.
The Bills’ offense will need to step up, as their defense which has carried the team, may be without their most important player, tackle Kyle Williams, after Williams suffered a knee injury late in the Bills’ loss to the Houston Texans last week. Williams was unable to practice on Wednesday and the Bills are preparing to play as if they will be without him.
This would mean some combo of Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles to replace Williams, leaving a previously stout Bills’ run defense more susceptible to big runs up the middle.
The Bills could also be without starting weakside linebacker Nigel Bradham. That loss may be more easily mitigated by the high level of production they are receiving from rookie linebacker Preston Brown who would simply move into an every down role as he did when Bradham was suspended for the first game of the season.
The Bills’ run defense is where they now excel, ranking second against the run (behind the Seattle Seahawks) in yards per rushing attempt at 2.9. The Lions, however, are almost totally reliant on the passing game and now have a solid number two receiver to pair with Calvin Johnson after adding Golden Tate in the off-season.
The Lions were able to overcome the New York Jets fierce pass rush last week even with Johnson at less than full strength (2 catches for 12 yards) due to an ankle injury suffered the week before by assigning a heavier load to Tate ( 8 receptions for 116 yards vs. Jets) but don’t expect that to hold up especially with running back Reggie Bush contributing minimally to the receiving game and tight end Joseph Fauria out.
With several of his options gone Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford might turn to rookie first round pick Eric Ebron to shoulder some more of the load in the passing game. Stafford has been smarter with the ball this year and is not forcing throws nearly as much as he has in the past when he seemed to be overconfident that Johnson would go up and get them and bail him out.
Still the Bills will need to completely seal off the run – mainly in the form of Bush as Joique Bell still has not cleared concussion protocols- and get to Stafford at a greater rate than they did against the Texans’ Ryan Fitzpatrick last week. A formidable task to be sure without Kyle Williams in the fold.
Ultimately, with a road game against one of the best defenses in the league and with a new starting quarterback, the Bills’ defense is still going to have to shoulder the load if the Bills are to pull off the road upset.