A quarterback change a quarter through the season has so far yielded positive results for Buffalo, as Kyle Orton’s 3-1 record bested E.J. Manuel’s 2-2, and has gotten the Bills to 5-3 at the bye week.
However, there are some issues that need to be fixed over the time off. Since rushing for 193 yards on 5.8 yards per carry in the opener against Chicago, Buffalo has rushed for only 598 yards (85.4 yards per game) on just 3.4 yards per carry. Falling to the 23rd ranked rushing attack (98.9 yards per game) after being the second-best rushing team in 2013 (0ver 144 yards per game) does not help a still developing passing game with a new quarterback and young receivers.
With a greater dependence on the passing game, an offensive line that was built to be a power running unit is forced to pass block just over 39 dropbacks a game, even though the Bills only had 21 against the Jets on Sunday. On the season, Buffalo has allowed 23 sacks, tied for 4th-most in the NFL, but 17 of them have come in the last four games with Orton under center.
While the offense is having to deal with increased pass rush in recent weeks, the Bills defense has brought pressure consistently on offense, ranking first in the league in sacks with 28, while also topping the league in interceptions with 12 and total turnovers forced with 18. But great defense and timely big plays in the passing game from Orton to Sammy Watkins will not be enough in the second half of the season to make a playoff push, both because of colder weather coming and some tough games remaining on the schedule.
After this week’s bye, the Bills play at home versus Kansas City (4-3), go to Miami (4-3) on Thursday night, return home to play the Jets (1-7) and Browns (4-3), before a very tough final quarter of the season (at Denver, home vs. Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England). Even if their defense continues to play at an elite level, Buffalo will need to have better production out of the run game and better protection for their quarterback in order to compete with more efficient offensive teams, especially versus elite signal-callers like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers.
Since two blowout losses put Miami at 1-2 on the season, the Dolphins have had four solid performances in a row, with only an Aaron Rodgers buzzer-beating touchdown pass keeping them from a four-game winning streak.
But not all is peaches and cream, as 14 of Miami’s 27 points versus a lackluster Jacksonville Jaguars’ came on pick sixes, and the offense struggled mightily in the first half, only recording three first downs. One player who is still frustrated from Sunday’s results is wide receiver Mike Wallace, according to the Associated Press’ Steven Wine (via Yahoo! Sports):
The Dolphins overcame their latest sputtering performance, winning 27-13 Sunday at woeful Jacksonville thanks to two interception returns for touchdowns. But Wallace left the stadium after the game without talking to the media, and he was still stewing 48 hours later.
”We didn’t do nothing,” the veteran receiver said Tuesday. ”We’ve got to do better.”
Wallace said he can’t identify the problem, but added progress needs to come quickly because the Dolphins face several high-scoring teams in the next month, starting with San Diego on Sunday.
”It’s frustrating. It has got to change,” Wallace said. ”We’re not going to get nowhere like that.”
Miami finally began to click in the third quarter after Wallace made a 50-yard reception, his longest of the season. Since joining the Dolphins in 2013, he and Ryan Tannehill have struggled to connect on deep balls, even though the speedy Wallace frequently finds himself open.
”Finally got one, so it was cool,” he said. ”That’s what I do.”
As he fielded questions about Miami’s malaise, the normally loquacious Wallace kept his answers short, perhaps reluctant to say too much. But his expression and body language made his sour mood clear.
It probably didn’t help that while Miami struggled Sunday, his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, netted 522 yards passing in a 51-34 victory over Indianapolis.
Miami ranks 25th in the NFL in passing yards and 13th in total offense. Wallace didn’t say if took issue with play selection, but he didn’t endorse them either.
”I run the plays that they call,” he said.
When asked to assess his own performance this season, Wallace said, ”Not good. It could be a whole lot better.”
On the season, Wallace has 32 catches for 418 yards and 5 touchdowns, but his ability to stretch a defense with his speed has not been used nearly enough. It will likely have to be on Sunday, as Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers come to town after a ten day break and a two-game losing streak with the ninth-best scoring offense in football (25.6 points per game).
Rivers will not make the same mistakes through the air that Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles did, so Ryan Tannehill will likely at least have to duel with the perennial Pro Bowler to a tie, and hope a Dolphins defense that has allowed only 17 points per game in the last four contests can limit San Diego’s offense enough to win. A win in this game would help establish Miami as a team to that can be a player in the AFC playoff hunt.
New York Jets
With Michael Vick starting for Geno Smith on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, what was once supposed to be a great quarterback situation, with Smith parlaying the great play of the final quarter of his rookie season into a breakout sophomore campaign has seemingly fallen apart.
Smith’s ten minutes in the Buffalo game were the final straw, as the missing of a wide open Percy Harvin on a crossing pattern and three interceptions were enough to go to the 34 year old Vick. Facing off against his former head coach in Philadelphia (Andy Reid) for the second time on the trip to Arrowhead Stadium, the veteran signal-caller will enjoy playing versus the man who helped bring him back into the NFL, but won’t let the game be too big for him (via nj.com’s Darryl Slater):
“I love Andy Reid for the man that he is,” Vick said. “As far as the football game, football is football. I just want to go out there and do what’s best for the team and hopefully try to get a win. But it is kind of ironic that the first chance I get to start is against my former coach. Would I have wanted it that way? No, honestly. But it is what it is. It’s a great opportunity and I just have to try to take full advantage of it.”
The best thing for Smith at this point after a disastrous start to the season is to learn from the bench, as he has not been awarded that opportunity in his career until now. Vick would be a great veteran presence to help the Jets navigate the most adverse periods of time, but with New York already at 1-7 and a game versus the Steelers after playing the Chiefs this weekend before a bye week, any sort of upside to go for the postseason with a more steady hand at the signal-caller position (ala Kyle Orton in Buffalo) appears to be gone.
That being said, it will be interesting how the offense will be run with Vick’s mobility (8 carries for 69 yards against the Bills on Sunday), Harvin’s speed and ability to the run ball, and the backfield tandem of Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson that has been underutilized this season (only 168 combined carries despite 743 yards for 4.42 yards per carry). With the passing game ranked dead last in the NFL at 179 yards per game, a dependence on the run game and short passing game as an extension of the run game appears to be the best way to get the most out of a struggling offense that is fifth-worst in points (18 per game).
A good end of the season run by Vick could be enough to save the jobs of head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik due to the amount of injuries at positions like cornerback and safety, and the turnover at quarterback and receiver. However, improvements will have to be seen soon, or there will be a lot of changes in New York during the offseason.
New England Patriots
The sixteenth matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (Brady leads the rivalry with a 10-5 record) is again one that will decide the best team in the AFC.
In the month of October, no quarterbacks have played any better, as Manning (14 touchdowns to 2 interceptions) and Brady (14 touchdowns without an interception) are both on four game winning streaks and playing as good, if not better than at any point in their careers. A key figure in the relatively new Patriots-Broncos rivalry is Aqib Talib, as coverage of Demaryius Thomas in last year’s victory at Foxboro (only 4 catches for 41 yards and a touchdown) helped limit Manning to only 150 yards passing in the game, by far the lowest output of his record breaking season in a 34-31 win for New England, overcoming a 24-0 halftime deficit.
When Talib was injured early in the AFC Championship game, Thomas caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, and Manning threw for 400 yards with the help of both Demaryius and Julius Thomas, the tight end who did not play in the regular season matchup. Thomas recorded 85 yards on eight catches, helping the Broncos win 26-16 and go on to the Super Bowl.
The game being played in Denver certainly helped the Broncos, so the Patriots will do everything they can to get a win and have an important tiebreaker that may come into play later in the season. Talib’s presence for Denver is intriguing not only because of his knowledge of the New England offense and defense after being there for a year and a half, but whether he could be put on tight end Rob Gronkowski, as he was matched up with Jimmy Graham last year and held him without a catch for the first time since October of 2010.
If Talib could take away Gronkowski, Bradley Roby has proven capable of taking away opposing teams’ No.2 receivers, and would be given that opportunity versus Brandon LaFell, and Chris Harris is among the best nickel corners in the game, and would match up well with Julian Edelman. Plus, the Broncos have the league’s best run defense, allowing only 72.4 yards per game on the ground, so if it can force the Patriots to play on long downs, it will allow DeMarcus Ware (7 sacks) and Von Miller (9 sacks) to tee off against Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer at the tackle spots, two players who have issues with speed rushers.
New England was able to replace Talib with Darrelle Revis, and Revis has returned to form as a shutdown corner, severely limiting players like A.J. Green, Sammy Watkins, Eric Decker, and Brandon Marshall in the last four weeks. If Revis can do the same with the league’s leader in receiving yards per game in Demaryius Thomas (109.6), the Patriots can use a combination of Brandon Browner, Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, and Alfonzo Dennard to limit Denver’s other great targets in Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas.
New England has its first opportunity to validate its offseason moves this Sunday, as the elite corner that helps their team out the most will likely be on the winning sideline.
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