After a thrilling last-second, come-from-behind victory in Detroit against a good Lions team, the Buffalo Bills are now 3-2 through five weeks of the 2014 season and sit atop the AFC East standings along with their opponent in week 6, the New England Patriots. This is certainly a strong start to the year by most anyone’s standards. The Bills already have two nice road wins under their belt and are 1-0 in a division that seems there for the taking.
However, throughout the past decade-plus of mediocrity, we have seen this story before. The Bills have started out this season on a high, only to falter, oftentimes in dramatic fashion, down the stretch run. 2008 ring a bell? That team reeled off 5 wins in 6 games to begin the season and Tom Brady (in his prime) suffered a season-ending knee injury in week one that made the Patriots as vulnerable as ever.
We all know what happened next. Trent Edwards lost whatever mojo he had during those first six weeks, the Matt Cassell-led New England team barely faltered and the Bills dropped 8 of their final 10 matchups to finish with another disappointing 7-9 record and land in the AFC East basement once again.
So, with another strong start unfolding this season, I wanted to examine five players that will be most important to this version of the Buffalo Bills actually being able to sustain their early season success…
1. Kyle Orton
I’ll go ahead and get the predictable one out of the way. Though I always say that the common mantra of ‘Quarterback-driven league’ is a bit overrated, it was clear in his first start with the Bills how important Kyle Orton will be to the team moving forward. Last Sunday in Detroit – against one of the best defenses in the NFL – Orton led the Bills to a huge comeback victory after a 14-3 halftime deficit and against tall odds. It was a great team win, no doubt, but it was a win that I am unsure they get had E.J. Manuel still been the starting quarterback and playing in Detroit.
In his first start since week 17 last season, Orton displayed an ability to quickly read a defense and deliver the ball on time to open receivers. He was also mostly accurate with those throws. In my opinion, what he showed last week was a significant upgrade over what the team was getting from E.J. Manuel throughout most of his 14 starts over the past two seasons.
Orton also showed a willingness to throw the ball downfield, as evidenced by multiple chunk plays to Sammy Watkins and a big 42-yard gainer down the right sideline to Marquise Goodwin in the 4th quarter. The latter was an absolute dime. The stats reflect that strong play – as Orton finished the game 30/43, 308, 1/1. Most impressive to me was his 7.2 yards/attempt. That is above-average for an NFL quarterback and is consistent with his career average over his past 42 games played.
The Bills are still a team that wants to run the ball first. That hasn’t changed. But when the run isn’t effective on any given Sunday, or the score dictates, they need to be able to win in the passing game as well. Last week, Kyle Orton showed that he has the ability to do make this happen. It will be extremely important that he is consistently able to do this as the season rolls on.
2. Marcell Dareus
Kyle Orton may have been the best offensive player on the Bills last Sunday. Marcell Dareus was the best player for either team in that game. Truly a man among boys at times, Dareus flashed his incredibly disruptive ability many times throughout his first three seasons in the league, but he is doing it on a weekly basis so far in 2014. NFL interior offensive linemen should beware.
Dareus already has 5 sacks on the young season, just 2.5 shy of his career-high. But with him, the stats don’t really tell the whole story. He is such a load in the middle at over 330 pounds – with the quickness of a defensive lineman about 30 pounds lighter – that his presence has to be accounted for on every single snap that he takes the field. This means teams are almost always committing an extra blocker to him. Almost every single play. What does that mean? It means frequent one-on-one matchups for Kyle Williams along with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes on the outside. Those guys are going to win those matchups more often than not. They have the dominance of Marcell Dareus to thank for making it a bit easier on them.
In the opinion of this writer the Bills have, bar none, the most talented defensive line in the league. Marcell Dareus is what makes that group go. He has played at an All-Pro-level so far this season, and if he continues to do so, this defense should be scary good all season long.
3. Stephon Gilmore
Since we were just talking about the defensive line, lets stay on that side of the ball and look at the key player on the back-end of that defense. Stephon Gilmore is the Buffalo Bills #1 cornerback. There are no if, ands or buts about that. Though he has been criticized at times, particularly after the San Diego game in week three this season, he has played much better this year than many would think. Constantly drawing the opposing teams number one receiving target, Gilmore has as much responsibility as anyone on the defense.
Since Jim Schwartz came in and brought with him a defense that most times relies on only four guys to pressure the quarterback, it becomes all the more important to have defensive backs who can stick with opposing receivers long enough for their talented defensive line to get home.
The Bills have plenty of talent in the defensive back group, but none matches that of Gilmore. He has flashed ‘shutdown’ ability at times throughout his first few seasons and the Bills defensive staff trusts him to follow around premier receiving threats on a weekly basis. I think we will see that ability come to fruition more and more as this season goes on. Gilmore now has plenty of experience as an NFL cornerback and he’s too talented for it not to begin to show on a consistent basis.
They know that their defensive line is going to often pressure the opposing quarterbacks, but when that line doesn’t get enough pressure on any given down, it’s up to the defensive backs to stick with their guys and make a play. Stephon Gilmore is this team’s unquestioned #1 cornerback, and he has as much responsibility in this regard as anyone.
4. Cordy Glenn
Cordy Glenn doesn’t get talked about very often. For some players, that would be concerning. For a starting left tackle in the NFL, it’s exactly what you want. Glenn played perhaps his best game of the year last Sunday in Detroit and is rounding into the form that made him a top-10 left tackle in the entire league for much of last season after missing the bulk of training camp with an unexplained illness. Everyone knows how important the left tackle position is – it is undoubtedly the most important position along the offensive line – and the Bills are very dependent on Glenn to stay both healthy and productive.
The importance of Cordy Glenn goes beyond just his solid play on the field. If he were to ever be forced out of the lineup due to injury, it would wreak havoc (bad havoc) along the Bills’ offensive line. Rookie Seantrel Henderson would presumably shift over to the left side from his normal right tackle spot and lord only knows who would take his starting place if that were to happen. Though I think Henderson has shown very well for himself, that would be a tall-task for any rookie and it’s difficult to imagine what the Bills would do to replace his presence on the right side. Folks, it would not be good.
Cordy Glenn is not only a well-above average left tackle in this league, with the potential to be a great one, he is also one of the most irreplaceable players on the entire team. Hears hoping Glenn stays healthy and productive through the rest of the season. It’s imperative that he does.
5. Sammy Watkins
The Bills had a decent group of wide receivers prior to making the jump to the 4th overall pick in the 2014 Draft and nabbing the best wide receiver in the nation. But that’s all they were. Decent. Sammy Watkins brings another level of athleticism and explosiveness that is matched by few wide receivers in the entire league. Just five weeks into his NFL career, he is already the clear #1 target on the team, no matter who is throwing the ball. The 12 targets that he garnered from Orton last week show that this won’t be changing anytime soon. Finally getting back to full-speed after a rib injury that has bothered him since the end of training camp, Watkins is beginning to display the speed, hands and explosiveness that made him a top-5 pick.
Robert Woods, Mike Williams and Marquise Goodwin are nice players. Even Chris Hogan can do some things working out of the slot. However, none of these guys probably have the ability to be a true #1 wide receiver in this league like Sammy Watkins does. He is a game-breaker in every sense of the term. The Bills have not had a talent like him at this position since Eric Moulds. Taking Watkins out of the lineup would put enormous pressure on those other four guys to make big plays on a consistent basis, and truly, to play above their heads a bit. He is, in my opinion, the most important skill-position player on the Bills team, bar none.
If Sammy Watkins can continue to get healthy and stay healthy, he will develop into one of the premier receiving threats in football. Not in two years. Not next year. This year. There is very little doubt in my mind about that. He demands the attention of every defense and allows the other wide receivers to play a supporting role that they’re more cut-out for. His presence in the lineup, and continued development, is surely one of the key factors for the Bills to be able to continue their winning ways.
There you have five players that I believe are the biggest keys to the Buffalo Bills maintaining their early season success. Who do you think are the most important player moving forward? Agree with any of those? Who might I have missed? Let us know, and as always, go Bills!