After eight weeks of their 2014 NFL campaign, the Buffalo Bills have to be pretty pleased with where they stand in the grand scheme of things. They sit at 5-3, just a game out of the New England Patriots for first place in the AFC East and are in the very thick of the AFC playoff picture as a whole. Before the season, I predicted a 10-6 record for the Bills leading to a Wild Card berth. They are well on their way to doing just that – and the division crown is certainly within reach as well.
Many teams would be awfully envious of the Bills’ first couple months. They have put themselves in a position to play very meaningful games in December; particularly if they take care of business throughout a pretty light portion of their schedule these next four weeks after the bye (vsKC, @MIA, vsNYJ, vsCLE). The Bills have done some very good things to get to this point. Namely, the defense, Kyle Orton and Sammy Watkins. However, there are certainly some things that need to be worked on throughout this important bye week in order to improve and continue to contend down the stretch. Lets take a look at the five things that I feel the Bills need to use this extra practice time to focus on…
Figure out the Run Game
This was an easy one. Like many others, I thought that the rushing attack on offense would be one of the strengths of the entire team coming into this season. That was their philosophy; they had a great stable of backs; they brought in a couple of big offensive linemen in the off-season to help. Nonetheless, it has been extremely disappointing thus far. The Bills hit the midway point of the year averaging only 98.9 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry as a team. Those numbers are good for 24th and 27th in the entire league respectively.
Despite the fact that Kyle Orton has been nothing short of a revelation since taking over for E.J. Manuel and bringing the passing game to new heights, the Bills still want to be a team that relies on the run and they need to be much more efficient in order to do so. Finally allowing Kraig Urbik to get off the bench and into the left guard spot should help in the long run. Part of what has really held down the Buffalo rushing attack has been the extremely subpar play by their guards – they’ve maybe been the worst group in the league this year – and a steady veteran like Urbik will help. Now they just need to find a replacement for Erik Pears. Regardless, it’s tough to imagine the guard play being any worse than it has been through eight weeks. Almost seems impossible, really. To me, it’s been the main culprit, and it must improve for the Bills to have success in the ground game.
We’ll stick with the offense and something that I feel like I’m writing about every few weeks: Success (or lack thereof) on 3rd down. The Bills enter week 9 ranked 27th in the league in 3rd down conversion percentage with a 35.7% conversion rate. To put that number into perspective, there are four teams in the league that have a conversion rate of 50% or better – Dallas, New Orleans, Kansas City and San Diego. 35.7% is simply not good enough and has to be a focus of the coaching staff throughout this bye week.
Now, some of the blame for this poor 3rd down conversion rate can be blamed on the first two downs. The Bills, as we just pointed discussed, are not having success running the football, and it’s often putting the offense in 3rd and mid-long positions rather than 3rd and short. This allows opposing defenses to pin their ears back and rush Bills quarterbacks in obvious passing situations. Either way, that conversion rate needs to be north of 40% for the rest of the season if Buffalo wants to stay in the race. They need to be able to consistently sustain drives and let the defense get a break while, hopefully, putting more points on the board. 3rd down success should be a huge talking point this week at One Bills Drive.
Turning the Corner
Heading into the season, the Bills’ cornerback group appeared to be one of the strengths of the team. Deep and talented, they seemed ready to emerge as one of the elite units in all of football. However, they’ve certainly underwhelmed as a group as times this season (see San Diego and New England games). While Corey Graham shined, especially early in the year, and Stephon Gilmore has been mostly his solid self, Leodis McKelvin and Nickell Robey have both really struggled at times this season.
McKelvin has been much better as of late and looked like the ball-hawking corner we saw much of last year the last two weeks – especially in the win against Minnesota when he picked on rookie Teddy Bridewater for two interceptions. Here’s hoping that McKelvin continues to improve, because the way he was playing the first five weeks of the season was extremely concerning. He was bad. Robey, however, has continued to struggle. Perhaps the best slot corner in the league as a rookie last season, Robey has been consistently getting lost in coverage this year. He needs to step his game up in a big way during this bye week.
The Bills cornerback group as a whole needs to do just that. They’ve been burned by two good quarterback this season – Philip Rivers and Tom Brady – and that can’t become a trend moving forward. After all, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and another date with Tom Brady, this time in New England, await during the last quarter of the season.
This one goes for pretty much everyone involved in the team – offense, defense, special teams, coaches, etc. The Bills need to become a more discipline bunch moving forward. Through eight weeks, the team has committed 68 total penalties to a tune of 567 penalty yards. Only two teams have been penalized more times and only one team has been docked more penalty yards. When you are taking penalties at that rate, it is doing nothing more than killing drives for your offense and sustaining drives for the other team you’re on defense. Both the players and the coaches need to be better, but discipline starts with the coaches. They need to make it a priority. It better be, or else it may come back to haunt them more and more as the second half of the year rolls on. Not much more needs to be said about this one.
Find More Ways to get 14 the Ball
I’ve been waiting for this one, because I just love talking about the guy. Sammy Watkins has been absolutely amazing just eight weeks into his NFL career. He has already proven to be well worth a top-5 pick in the draft. He has displayed rare speed/acceleration, agility, great hands and has also proven to be a craftsman in the route running department. He is the complete package and is starting to pile up some pretty ridiculous numbers for a rookie wide receiver. He sits at a 38/590/5 slash line right now. He is averaging 15.5 yards per catch. He is really good at football.
The Bills have been calling his number quite a bit – he’s averaging over 8 targets per game – but I want them to find ways to get it to him even more. Screens, jet sweeps, direct snaps, I don’t really care. Get the ball into 14’s hands however you can, as many times as you can. I’d like to see him get at least 10 targets every single game moving forward, and they should be handing the ball to him at least once or twice per game as well. He is already one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL and can score from anywhere on the field. If the Bills make a concerted effort to get the ball in his hands even more than they already have been, he is going to put the offense on his back. He is already the best player on it. Feed 14 and good things will happen.
There you have the five things that I believe the Bills must work on during the bye week in order to put themselves in position for a successful second half of the year. What do you think Buffalo needs to be focusing on? Did I miss anything? Let us know, and as always, go Bills!