The Buffalo Bills trip to Texas for a Week Four match-up against the Houston Texans brings them face-to-face with former quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and that could work to their advantage.
Both teams started the season with surprising 2-0 records but both suffered setbacks last week that they are looking to bounce back from. The Texans’ loss to the New York Giants came without the services of their starting running back – and the AFC rushing leader through the first two weeks – in Arian Foster and the team could once again find themselves facing the Bills with Foster on the sideline as he continues to deal with hamstring issues that have bothered him in the past.
Foster is Houston’s best offensive weapon, considering the formidable wide receiver duo of Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins rely on the capabilities of a decidedly average quarterback to get them the ball.
Without Foster the Texans turned to Alfred Blue – a sixth round rookie – last week but weren’t able to utilize him much after falling behind early. With more of the offensive load placed on Fitzpatrick’s shoulders his bad habit of making poor decisions and forcing throws re-emerged.
After not turning the ball over at all in the first two games, Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions and nearly lost a fumble as well.
While the Bills’ passing defense has struggled – ranking just 26th in the league – their front line is still one of the best at creating havoc for opposing quarterbacks. The issue has come in the secondary where Leodis McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore, and slot cornerback Nickell Robey have all struggled with Robey losing playing time to second string corner Ron Brooks in the last few games.
The only bright spot right now is Aaron Williams (14 tackles against San Diego) and Corey Graham who has rated as one of the best corners in the league this season. Of course, that’s assuming that Doug Marrone and Jim Schwartz actually decide to start him this week.
However the Bills’ ability to stop the run has been one of the best in the league – they are allowing just 83 rushing yards per game good for sixth in the NFL – and shutting off the running game should force Fitzpatrick and the Texans into more passing situations, increasing the probability of a Fitzpatrick mistake.
Conversely, Houston has been near the bottom of the league in both run and pass defense and the absence of first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney – out for at least four more weeks with a knee injury – means that once again star defensive end JJ Watt is largely on his own.
Though Watt has had a solid start to his season the Houston defense has accumulated just four sacks and is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 72 percent of their passes (30th in the NFL).
Houston has been just as bad against the run, giving up 5.18 yards per rush, the second worst rate in the league, highlighted by the 176 yards they gave up to Rashad Jennings alone last week. The Bills, an offense predicated on the run, should look to take advantage of this ‘weakness’ early and often and it is important that they are able to gain consistent yards on the ground rather than breaking off an occasional big run which is what their rushing attack has primarily relied on over the first three games.
The running game became a bit more difficult last week when guard Chris Williams exited the game with a back injury forcing the Bills to once again shuffle their offensive line. Additionally through the first two games, the starting unit had only given up one sack but surrendered three to the Chargers last week.
With Williams’ status up in the air its looking increasingly like rookie Cyril Richardson could see his first NFL start. Giving their quarterback more time to throw is especially important with an inexperienced one under center who often struggles to make it through all of his progressions.
That brings us to Buffalo’s offense, more specifically, its passing game. While EJ Manuel has done well taking care of the football and is responsible for just one turnover in his first three games he has not been asked to do much and his progression from last season has been minimal.
Whether it is a symptom of the coaching staff’s limited confidence in Manuel’s ability to ‘put the team on his shoulders’ and take over a game or whether Manuel himself panics when his first read isn’t open, succumbing to the checkdown, the majority of the passing game seems to be of the short swing pass variety.
Problems with his accuracy tend to crop up on intermediate or long passes, with Manuel prone to throwing behind or at the feet of his receivers, leaving him more likely to make use of his running backs or tight end Scott Chandler as his primary targets.
Indeed, against San Diego last week Manuel was just 7 of 21 for 49 yards on completions to his wide receivers. The lack of use of the deep ball is not helped by the fact that rookie star receiver Sammy Watkins is still dealing with a painful rib injury suffered during the preseason that makes him reluctant to invite any type of contact.
Because of this Buffalo’s offense does not always run as efficiently as it should with all the weapons they have available and as a result they are not built to play from behind. Since the start of the 2013 season the Bills are 0-10 when they trail by 10 points or more.
Both the Texans and the Bills are looking to right the ship after last week’s losses and continue along the original narrative to start the season – that of the surprise sleeper team. There are many questions to be answered on both sides of the ball for what amounts to two teams with several remaining flaws.
How each team responds to last week’s setback will go a long way to determining how the rest of the season will play out for them.