This Sunday, the Buffalo Bills (2-2) travel south to take on the Tennessee Titans (2-1) after a demoralizing 24-10 loss to the New York Giants last week. The Bills are banged up on both sides of the ball, with running backs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, right guard John Miller, tight end Marquies Gray, and safeties Aaron Williams and Baccari Rambo all dealing with injuries.
The Titans are coming off a bye week and have been one of the more surprising and exciting teams at the start of the season, with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota playing at a high level. In three games, Mariota has completed 62.9% of his passes for 833 yards (8.6 YPA-4th highest among QBs), throwing eight touchdowns to just two interceptions.
When the Titans Have the Ball
On the surface the Bills’ defense hasn’t played up to the lofty expectations that Rex Ryan set prior to the season, as they’ve surrendered the fourth-most passing yards in the league (1,191) and have recorded just seven sacks. However, the team’s inability to get to the quarterback can be directly attributed to the fact that three-of-the-four passers they’ve faced are notorious for getting the ball out extremely fast.
In week one Andrew Luck averaged 1.79 seconds from snap to throw. Tom Brady averaged 1.99, Ryan Tannehill averaged 2.4 and Eli Manning averaged 2.1. Marcus Mariota has averaged 2.67 seconds from snap-to-throw this season—the fourth longest total among quarterbacks.
Despite the ridiculously fast timing from snap-to-throw, Buffalo’s 67 total quarterback pressures (7 sacks, 18 hits, 42 hurries) still ranks eighth in the league. This pressure has forced quarterbacks into rushed throws that have benefitted the Bills’ defense. They’re allowing 57.3% of passes to be competed (5th-best) at 6.3 yards-per-attempt (4th). They’ve intercepted six passes (3rd) and defended 31 (1st). So while the pressure hasn’t resulted in sacks, it’s still been effective.
Against Marcus Mariota, look for the Bills to go back to a game-plan similar to that of week one’s against the Colts, that featured blitz after blitz after blitz. Ryan has been historically successful against rookie passers, thanks to his exotic schemes that confuse inexperienced passers.
When facing pressure, Mariota has been one of the worst passers in the league, completing 15-of-31 passes (48.4%) for 247 yards, so you can bet Rex will be bringing the heat all day long.
Tennessee’s offensive line is the fourth-youngest in the NFL, with a combined 128 starts between the group. In three games, they’ve surrendered 12 sacks, four QB hits, and 26 hurries. However, they have an extremely talented left tackle in Taylor Lewan and a rising star in right guard Chance Warmack. Lewan is ProFootballFocus’ No. 6 graded tackle on the season, allowing two sacks and three hurries, while dominating in the run game. On the right side, rookie right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, who’s allowed the 11th most pressures (4 sacks, 2 hits, 7 hurries) will have his work cut out for him against Mario Wiilliams, who ranks eighth in total pressures (1 sack, 3 hits, 8 hurries).
Buffalo’s defense has done a spectacular job taking away opposing wideouts outside the hashes, thanks to dominant play by Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, who you could make a strong argument for being the best cornerback duo in the league right now.
Opposing quarterbacks have completed 54-of-99 passes (54.5%) for 547 yards (5.52 YPA) and three touchdowns on passes outside the hashes. However, the Bills have really struggled defending the middle of the field, allowing 55-of-85 passes to be completed (64.7%) for 671 yards (7.8 YPA) and seven touchdowns on passes between the hashes.
Marcus Mariota thrives when working the middle of the field, completing 77.7% of his passes for 436 yards (9.6 YPA) with six touchdowns and zero interceptions, compared to a 56.7 completion percentage and 314 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions on passes to the outside.
Buffalo will need to focus on Kendall Wright, who’s emerged as Mariota’s favorite target, catching 13 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns on 20 targets. He’s a savvy route runner that excels from the slot and has the ability to gain big chunks of yards after the catch—his 7.2 YAC average ranks 3rd among receivers with at least 10 receptions.
Key Matchup: DT Marcell Dareus vs. Titans C Brian Schwenke, LG Byron Bell
Marcell Dareus is one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the NFL, capable of single-handedly destroying games by pressuring quarterbacks and blowing up running plays. Through three games, Dareus has recorded 1 sack, 1 QB Hit and 7 QB Pressures, which rank 11th among defensive tackles. Considering the amount of double teams Dareus sees from the nose tackle position, that’s an outstanding number. He also ranks 9th in run stop percentage, making nine tackles against 44 rush attempts.
He’ll likely be double teamed by Brian Schwenke, who’s graded as PFF’s 26th ranked center of 34 qualifying players, along with Byron Bell, who ranks 45th of 79 guards. The two have combined to allow just 1 sack and 8 pressures but haven’t been able to generate much movement in the run game, as Titans’ running backs have gained just 73 yards on 23 carries when running behind them.
When The Bills Have The Ball
The Bills offense took a step back against the Giants with Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy and John Miller sidelined. With LeSean McCoy out and Karlos Williams questionable with a concussion, Buffalo will need to try to take advantage of an inconsistent Titan’s passing defense that’s allowed just 195 yards-per-game, but faced the fewest pass attempts in the league. They’re giving up 8.2 yards-per-attempt (26th) and 15.3 yards-per-reception (31st).
Tyrod Taylor has been extremely effective when he’s had decent protection from his offensive line, completing 71.7% of his passes for 988 yards (8.2 YPA) with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Like the Bills, the Titans strength is in their front seven. Jurrell Casey is one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the league and will see most of his snaps against Richie Incognito or Cordy Glenn from the three or five technique 3-4 defensive end position. He’s the most efficient pass rusher at his position, recording 2 sacks, 2 hits and 9 hurries in 65 snaps rushing the passer.
On the opposite side, edge rusher Derrick Morgan is another underrated player that’s quietly emerged into a well-rounded defender. He ranks fourth in pass rushing efficiency among 3-4 outside linebackers, racking up three sacks, 1 hit and 11 hurries, while ranking 11th in run stop percentage with 9 tackles in 62 snaps against the run. He’ll be battling with right tackle Seantrel Henderson, who’s had a wildly inconsistent season so far, who’s allowed eight pressures and grades out as ProFootballFocus’ No. 37th ranked tackle of 55 qualifying players.
The Bills will likely turn to Charles Clay for the second consecutive week to handle a big load in the passing game, where he’ll look to exploit a weak group of safeties in Michael Griffin and Da’Norris Searcy, along with some rather average coverage linebackers in Zach Brown and Avery Williamson. Tennessee has allowed 12 receptions for 210 yards and two scores to tight ends in three games this year, and Charles Clay has proven that he can be a legitimate weapon, leading the Bills with 21 catches for 255 yards and 2 touchdowns, including seven plays that went for 20+ yards.
Key Matchup: WR Percy Harvin vs CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Without Sammy Watkins in the starting lineup, Percy Harvin needs to step up. He’s caught 19 passes on 26 targets for 218 yards and a touchdown this year and has seen 15 targets in Watkins’ absence. While Harvin is moved around a bit, he’ll likely see the majority of his snaps against Titans’ third-year cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
Wilson, who stands 6’1” and weighs 200 pounds has allowed just five receptions on 14 targets. His 35.7% completion percentage allowed is the fourth-lowest among cornerbacks. However, those five receptions have gone for 124 yards and a touchdown, including catches of 50 and 48 yards. He’s not the fastest cornerback (4.53 40-yard dash) and is susceptible to double moves that can result in big gains. Percy Harvin—who runs a 4.39—should be able to make a few plays on Wilson, so long as he can beat him off the line. Harvin has three receptions for 20+ yards, so he’ll look to build on that this Sunday.