The Buffalo Bills started the 2008 season on fire, going 5-1, but it got ugly after that as they went 2-8 the rest of the way en route to a 7-9 finish. The Bills became the fifth team in the last 31 years to start 5-1 and not make the playoffs. So they went out and took drastic measures, and in the process kind of got drastic results.
The biggest, and most risky, was the signing of Wide Receiver Terrell Owens. They also traded pro-bowl Left Tackle Jason Peter to Philadelphia for draft picks, expecting Langston Walker to take his place. Then they drafted a pass catching Tight End in Shawn Nelson, and signed free agent running back Dominick Rhodes. Things looked good on paper.
In the real world, it hasn't worked out. So far, Owens has been quiet in the locker room. Unfortunately, he's been quiet on the field as well. Walker couldn't cut it and was released after the Bills tried to trade him and found no takers. The same thing happened with Rhodes, he just wasn't good enough to make the roster. Nelson has been ok, but has yet to crack the starting lineup.
So an offense that in July looked like potential world beaters has ended up performing more like egg beaters. Buffalo has the NFL's 25th ranked offense, which is exactly where they finished a year ago.
On defense they've regressed, going from the 14th best last year to 21st. Their goal in the offseason was to improve on their poor sack total, and they did that, but in shoring up the pass defense and pressure they forgot how to stop the run. The Bills are last in the NFL in that category.
The Bills opened the season with a near upset in New England, then beat up on Tampa Bay at home before getting blown out by the Saints and Dolphins, After a narrow loss to the Browns at home they managed a win at the Jets, and now they're coming to Charlotte.
Buffalo starter Trent Edwards (91-153, 985 yards, 5 TDs, 6 INTs, 19 sacks) received his second concussion this season during the second quarter of the Bill's win over the Jets last week. He hasn't returned to practice, and may not play for Buffalo this Sunday. Edwards is the kind of quarterback who can look great one minute, and suddenly look really poor, particularly when under pressure. He has a big arm and can throw deep well, but doesn't have mid-range accuracy. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick (10-25, 116 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) isn't necessarily starter material, but his teammates believe in him and he has a big arm as well. Most of the Bill's passing plays focus on short, high percentage passes.
"In Buffalo this week the newspapers reported that running back Fred Jackson said "I wouldn't really say there's any difference from my standpoint," when asked to compare the two quarterbacks. You can almost fill in the rest of the sentence: "they both suck." Fitzpatrick is a Harvard man, maybe he'll be smart enough to figure out why the Bills can't throw the ball. Assuming he has time to think before Peppers puts his head in the dirt, that is."
"Buffalo has great running backs, and they don't need their Quarterbacks to be anything more than game managers. They fired their offensive coordinator during the preseason and have gotten off to a slow start, but they still throw with authority and have the potential to exploit any secondary that cheats too much towards the line. And these guys are both smart, and more than capable of finding the holes in the Carolina zone. It's easy to look bad under the Jets' pressure. Against Carolina's? Not so much..."
Buffalo boasts a two-headed monster at running back. Marshawn Lynch (44 carries, 134 yards, 13 rec, 110 yards), is the bruising, physical back that can wear you down all game, and he's very well complemented by Fred Jackson (98 carries, 415 yards, 20 rec, 177 yards, 1 TD). Jackson is a speedy, athletic type who excels at catching balls out of the backfield and who is also a very dangerous return man.
"A two-headed monster that has one touchdown between them after five games? Maybe you're talking about the characters in Monsters, Inc. that make you laugh, right? Buffalo can't run the ball on the Panthers, period. Lynch is getting 3 three yards per carry, and Jackson biggest talent is an ability to lull defenders to sleep with his bevy of dance steps behind the line of scrimmage. Hollis Thomas, Hollis Thomas, Hollis Thomas... 'nuff said."
"Marshawn Lynch served a three game suspension to start the year and is just now getting his game legs back. He's a real go-to guy when you have to have one or two yards, and he's a serious receiving threat out of the backfield. The Panthers have done a decent job in the past few games against old and busted players, but now they will face a genuine duo that really complements one another well. I expect them to look decent early but fold late, much like Tampa did last week."
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Buffalo has an almost embarassment of riches at the Wide Receiver position. Lee Evans (16 receptions, 227 yards, 2 TDs) and Terrell Owens (15 receptions, 215 yards, 1 TD) form one of the most talented starting duos in the NFL, while Josh Reed (12 receptions, 119 yards, 1 TD) is great out of the slot.
At Tight End, Derek Fine (7 catches 47 yards) is Buffalo's version of Jeff King. He's a well rounded player; a solid receiver and good blocker in the running game. The Bills also run with rookie Tight End Shawn Nelson (6 catches, 60 yards, 1 TD), who's more of a receiving threat than Fine but not as good at blocking.
"It doesn't take a Harvard educated quarterback to know that the Buffalo receivers are under-utilized. But they obviously are, and that just underscores the total lack of confidence that the coaching staff has in it's quarterback position. After Carolina puts a few TDs on the board Sunday and the Bills have to throw it, everyone will see why."
"The Bill's offense is a funny thing. They have great players at every skill position, and so far they've kind of overlooked their receivers. The Panthers have been good against the pass because running on them is so easy, but this might be the game where that changes. There's no way Gamble and Marshall can stay with Evans and Owens. We better hope the Bills don't figure out what we already know."
The Buffalo Offensive Line is the most inexperienced group in the league. Four of the starters had never taken an NFL snap before this season, and three are rookies. The veteran leadership and the glue that holds them together is a familiar face to Panther fans, center Geoff Hangartner. The Guards are both rookies, Andy Levitre and Eric Wood, and they've played very well to date. Wood is looking like a future pro-bowler, in fact. At the tackles, however, Buffalo has had issues. Demetrius Bell and Jamon Meredith are still raw, but show promise. Being rookies, they're prone to making mistakes and can be vulnerable to edge rushers.
"Levitre and Wood? Are you serious? This is a joke, right? Oh, it's the LINE that's a joke here, I get it. One of the biggest reasons Edwards gets such happy feet is the lousy protection offered by this unit. They've given up 19 sacks so far, and he's gotten yet another concussion as a result. Harvard-boy better get some quick feet himself, this unit almost demands it. Wood gets a good push inside, but Hollis Thomas, ok?"
"Nothing says "disappear" to Peppers like a matchup he's supposed to dominate. While he's trying to bull when he should speed, and while Brown is spinning around and being pushed ten yards past the play, Wood and Hangartner will be taking apart the interior of the Carolina line and punching open holes for Lynch and Jackson. The Bills have a tight end who can block AND catch as well, so there's also the traditional outlet for the passing game that can be exploited. Expect a clean uniform at the end of the day for the Bill's quarterback, no matter who lines up under center."
The Buffalo line is strong in the middle, with defensive tackles Marcus Stround (30 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kyle Williams (30 tackles, 1 sack) plugging the gaps. But on the edges, defensive ends Aaron Schobel (24 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception) and Chris Kelsay (27 tackles, 2 sacks) are a little undersized at 261 and 243 pounds, and can get swallowed up by large offensive tackles in the running game. Along with injuries to the Linebacker unit, this is a big reason that the Bills are the worst team against the run in the NFL. They're built to pressure the passer, but unless the offense provides them with a big cushion they can be exploited late in the game by a strong running team.
"Stewart and Williams are going to utterly destroy this unit. Even the center of the line is a little light, and neither of them can occupy two blockers. That means that Vincent will be there to take out Posluszny, Hoover can bust through to take down SS George Wilson, and Stewart can hit the secondary with a full head of steam. Or Otah can swallow Kelsay and King can seal the end for Williams to make a big burst to the edge. This unit can bring pressure, but they have to stop the run first. And they can't do that."
"Stewart and Williams can't run every down, eventually you have to put the ball in Jake's hands. And you especially have to do it when you have a locker room feud brewing between Steve Smith and whoever is deciding not to get him the ball. Jake is going to have to throw it, and that means he'll have to drop back, and that means he's getting sacked. All of these guys can rush the passer, and they actually get after him. Jake's going to cough it up at least twice Sunday, and this unit will be the reason."
The Bills have had some injury issues in this unit, which has really hurt the entire defense. Starters Kawika Mitchel and Marcus Buggs have both been placed on Injured Reserve. Middle Linebacker Paul Posluszny (15 tackles, 1 INT) is back after missing four games since breaking his left arm in Buffalo's season opener. He played well enough against the Jets, and should be back in top form against the Panthers. At the outside linebacker spots Buffalo is going with Keith Ellison (61 tackles) and probably Ashlee Palmer (12 tackles). Palmer is a rookie and has been beaten off the edge a few times, which has compounded Buffalo's problems against the run. Jon Corto (6 tackles) is listed on the official depth chart as the starting OLB across from Ellison, but he has yet to start a game this year. The odds are either he or Palmer will get the nod.
"This unit is a train wreck. To compare with the Panthers, Posluszny is their best linebacker ,and he was the second best linebacker on his college team. The best linebacker on his college team can't crack the Panther starting line-up. Ellison is a prolific tackler, but they always seem to happen five yards past the line of scrimmage. Palmer's a rookie and Corto's in his second year, and both are about as good as you can expect young undrafted free agents to be. No wonder the Bills are that bad against the run."
"It's experience, not talent that is the problem here. Ellison and Palmer are both fast and sure tacklers, but they can get caught out of position and need strong leadership on the field to be effective. That comes in the form of Posluszny. Poz not only provides leadership and presence, he brings a lot of energy, and finishes plays strong. Williams and Stewart may try the middle, but after a few pops from Poz, they'll look for the cut outside. The run defense has been bad, but it's getting better. The Jets' Thomas Jones had gaudy stats, but they were bolstered by two long runs outside, and those problems have been fixed. Take them away, and he was held to 73 yards on 20 carries. That's what the Bills are capable of doing to Williams' stat line."
This is where the Bills defense shines. They work very well against the pass, and it's not just because of the pressure the line can bring. Despite being thrown on more than most teams, the Bills are still tops in the NFL in yards per attempt and completion percentage. They're second in opponent passer rating and interceptions. Leading the way is rookie Free Safety Jairus Byrd (25 tackles, 3 INT) with three picks. He's joined by strong safety George Wilson (29 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT), and backed up by run stopper Donte Whitner. Cornerbacks Terrence McGee (26 tackles) and Drayton Florence (15 tackles) are a decent starting pair, and nickel back Reggie Corner (19 tackles, 1 INT) has been solid. The Bills are loaded at the DB position, and will rotate bodies in and out to keep them fresh.
"This is where the Bills are good, but they're one dimensional. Unless you can stop the run, you can't stop the Panthers. And the Bills will have to stop the run if they want to take advantage of this unit's talent. And that won't happen. So they won't. And at the end of the day, Buffalo will maintain it's lofty position in the defensive pass rankings, but will have another L to put on their permanent record."
"This is not the team you want to face if you're trying to get your quarterback on track. Carolina is going to have to choose, do they try and keep Smith happy and throw the ball to him (or in his general direction, if you're Delhomme), and risk multiple interceptions, or do they play it safe and just run the ball? John Fox better pray that his defense holds, because this is a team that you just can't throw on. Not that Davidson won't try, of course..."
"This should be a pretty easy game. The Panthers have favorable matchups everywhere they look, and the Bills are on the road with their season in a death spiral. Dick Jauron lost control of this team before the season started, and what was once a promising lineup is now a bunch of guys playing together hoping to look good and avoid injury.
When the Bills have the ball they won't know what to do with it. When they throw it, it will be quick passes for short gains. Jauron doesn't trust either of his quarterbacks, and with good reason. If they try to go downfield the protection will collapse and Peppers will be in the quarterback's face before he can get rid of the ball.
When they try to run, Carolina already has the middle covered and the Bills will discover what genuinely fast and athletic linebackers look like in action. Davis will have a field day stringing the plays outside, while Beason will prevent any movement down the field.
And then comes the T.O. show. If the Bills aren't on track in the first half, he'll lose it at halftime and the team will be even worse in the second.
When Carolina has the ball the plan is simple. Run. Run again. Repeat as necessary. The Panthers will pound the ball over and over, and by the middle of the third quarter they won't have to punt again.
With all that running, the play action should be a great option. Expect the Panthers to engage Smith early with short crossing patterns and slants, to take advantage of the inexperience of the Bills' Linebackers and to get him involved in the game. Carolina will take the Bills secondary seriously, and will stay conservative in the air.
Buffalo has a poor offense and a one-dimensional defense. The Panthers are built to stop offenses like the Bills', and should have an easy time keeping them contained. They may not score a lot in the first half, but in the second they'll dominate both time of possession and on the scoreboard.
Carolina 24, Buffalo 6"
"Carolina is the one-dimensional team in this contest, not Buffalo. The Bills are a team on the mend, one that knows what's wrong and one that's working as a team to make things right. They have a ton of talent at the skill positions, a great defensive secondary, a solid defensive line, and their defensive general back.
When the Bills have the ball they'll play conservative with their backs, and reckless with their receivers. Fitzgerald has a cannon for an arm, and Carolina is as vulnerable to the long pass as they are to backup quarterbacks who've been pressed into starting roles.
The Bills' receivers are big and physical, and both have great hands. Buffalo may have to punt a lot, but they'll score on a few big plays to their big names.
When Carolina is trying to move the ball they'll see eight men in the box on every play. Look for the Bills to sell out against the run and make Delhomme beat them through the air. If they coax him into those rainbow passes he tried against Tampa, they'll intercept him every time.
With a few big plays on offense, Carolina will eventually have to abandon the run to catch back up. And then the comparisons to the Eagles game will begin. The Buffalo defensive line is built to bring pressure, and it can create just enough to make the secondary not just effective, but deadly.
The most reliable prediction you can get in this game is that Bank of America stadium will be half empty by the time the fourth quarter starts.
Buffalo 20, Carolina 10"