October 12, 2012
The Buffalo Bills head into the desert Sunday for a gut check game against the Arizona Cardinals. Buffalo was one of the trendy picks as a sleeper in 2012 and many in the media projected them to snap the longest current playoff drought in the National Football League. The Bills have not been in the postseason since 1999, when Doug Flutie was benched in favor of Rob Johnson based on one meaningless start in the regular season finale.
The rest is history: the football gods were angered by the benching of Flutie and with Buffalo clinging to a 16-15 lead in the dying seconds, allowed the controversial “Music City Miracle” to take place, with Kevin Dyson taking the kickoff back to the house and giving the Titans a 22-16 win. That Dyson was stopped a yard short of the potential tying touchdown in the Super Bowl a month later was little consolation to Buffalo fans.
The last time Buffalo played the Cardinals was in 2008, when the Bills, who were flying high at the time, headed to Arizona to face Kurt Warner and company. Buffalo was a surprising 4-0, having beaten Seattle, Jacksonville, Oakland and the Rams. Meanwhile, Arizona was 2-2 coming in, having lost their previous two games, including a 56-35 beating by the Jets the week before in which Brett Favre threw six touchdowns.
Things didn’t go well for the Bills that Sunday afternoon: Trent Edwards was knocked senseless on a hit from Adrian Wilson early in the game and went out with a concussion. He was replaced by J.P. Losman, who threw an 87 yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans but in the end, it wasn’t enough. Warner threw for 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Cardinals rolled to a 41-17 win. The two teams went different ways after that: Buffalo would win just three of their 11 games following that loss to finish 7-9 for the third straight year under Dick Jauron, while Arizona went on to the Super Bowl, falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final minute, 27-23.
With that history lesson out of the way, let’s take a look at what Buffalo has to plan for and expect in the desert on Sunday.
Exposing the Cardinals Offensive Line: While Buffalo hasn’t been able to generate a major pass rush so far, with ten sacks in five games, the Cardinals are having a rough time protecting the quarterback. Kevin Kolb was abused last week by the Rams, who dumped him nine times and hit him on numerous other occasions. For the year, Kolb has gone down 22 times, or once every eight dropbacks. Add in John Skelton being sacked once before he was injured, and that’s 23 sacks in five games. That leads to a skittish quarterback and forces quick releases to avoid hits.
Arizona has had difficulty running the ball so far this season too: they rank 31st in the league in yards per game on the ground with 63.4 and they lack their top two running backs on the depth chart. Both Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are on injured reserve, leaving a slew of question marks as to who may carry the ball on Sunday. If the Bills can exploit the weaknesses on Arizona’s offensive line, they have a good chance of winning the ball game: Arizona averages a mere 2.7 yards per carry on the ground.
Moving the Ball: The Bills have to be able to exert their will on the Cardinals and that begins with sustaining drives. Buffalo can’t afford to go three and out and put their defense on the field repeatedly and they can’t afford to turn the ball over. That sort of poor performances in the second half against New England led to the Patriots running roughshod over Buffalo in the second half.
That means Buffalo will have to find a way to successfully run the ball with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, both of whom struggled the past two weeks against the Patriots and 49ers. It’s expected that Steve Johnson will be neutralized pretty heavily by Patrick Peterson, so someone will need to step up to make an impact in the passing game for the Bills. Whether that is Donald Jones, T.J. Graham or Scott Chandler down the seam, Fitzpatrick is going to have to spread the ball around.
Keeping Fitzgerald in Check: This is obviously far easier said than done; after all, Fitzgerald caught 80 passes for 1,411 yards last year with spotty quarterback play. He’s caught 30 passes for 337 yards and a pair of scores this season so far, putting him on pace for his traditional 90-plus catch numbers. The difference for the Cardinals this season is that they actually have viable threats on the other side to help take double teams off of the talented receiver.
Michael Floyd, the rookie receiver from Notre Dame, has the tools to be an impact player in the league. He’s still learning his way so far, having caught six passes for 60 yards and a touchdown. Andre Roberts has been a tremendous addition as a slot receiver and is second on the team with 20 grabs for 268 yards and a team high four touchdown receptions. Buffalo needs to roll coverage toward Fitzgerald to keep him under control and force Kolb to look for other options, making the passing game more difficult for Arizona.
Avoiding Turnovers: Again, this should be a no brainer but the fact of the matter is that the Cardinals are an opportunistic, hard hitting defense that is capable of creating mistakes and capitalizing on them. Buffalo has been notorious for turning the ball over, especially recently. The Bills have committed 13 turnovers on the season, while Arizona has forced 11 takeaways and totaled 17 sacks.
Ball security and Fitzpatrick not forcing throws into coverage will be key for Buffalo in this game. Fumbles by Spiller and Jackson doomed Buffalo against New England, while Chandler’s fumble right before the half against San Francisco led to a backbreaking touchdown in what inevitably became a rout.
Holding Down the Fort: The Bills have their hands full with problems on their own offensive line. Center Eric Wood and guard Chad Rhinehart are both questionable, while starting left tackle Cordy Glenn and starting right guard Kraig Urbik are both out with ankle injuries. Backup center Colin Brown was placed on injured reserve with a torn hamstring, leaving the Bills thin on the offensive line. They signed Reggie Wells, who played seven years in Arizona, as a free agent this week.
Buffalo may need to utilize some two tight end sets in order to buy time for Fitzpatrick and open up holes for the run game. Arizona has several question marks for their lineup on defense for Sunday, which may help the Bills, especially if not everyone suits up.
The Kicking Game: Buffalo lost a big chance at momentum against San Francisco when Leodis McKelvin had a punt return for a touchdown nullified by a holding call. He later had a long kick return that set Buffalo up with good field position and led to a field goal by Rian Lindell. If Buffalo can win the field position battle via the return game and the punting of Shawn Powell, they have a chance to dictate how the game will be played out.
On the flip side of the same coin, the Bills have to neutralize Peterson, who ran four punts back for touchdowns last year to lead the league. Peterson has returned 19 punts so far this season, tops in the league and is averaging 9.8 yards per return. Fortunately for Buffalo, he isn’t on the kick return team. The Cardinals are averaging 24.9 yards per return on seven runbacks so far this season, with Larod Stephens-Howling, William Powell and Early Doucet getting the work on those.
Both field goal kickers are reliable: Jay Feely has banged through eight of his nine attempts so far this season, while Rian Lindell has converted both of his attempts. The low number of attempts for Lindell is surprising but a clear indicator that the Bills are a feast or famine offense: it’s either a touchdown or nothing. Dave Zastudil is a solid punter that averages 47.2 yards per punt on 33 kicks, with 12 of them placed inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.
OUTLOOK: This game is not going to be an entertaining one and there is no real place for either team to exploit the other’s weakness: the Cardinals are terrible on offense while Buffalo is horrible on defense. If Buffalo can generate enough pressure to rattle Kolb, something that has happened to him throughout the course of his career and the Bills prevent turnovers, they have more than a puncher’s chance in this one.
The Cardinals are 4.5 point favorites in this one and it’s hard to see them covering that number. This has the makings of a low scoring affair with the winning margin being a field goal or so. Easily expect something in the 21-17 range. I’d like to say Buffalo wins but right now they need to prove they can contend.