Simon’s Look at the 2015 Buffalo Bills
In our bid to cover all 32 teams ahead of the new season it’s time to take a look at the AFC East, starting with the Buffalo Bills. After recording their first winning season since 2004, are the Bills ready to take the next step and in to the Play Offs?
Previously in Buffalo…
It’s fair to say last season was a tale of differing fortunes either side of the ball for Buffalo. The Bills defense, and in particular the defensive line, were outstanding for the majority of the year under new Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz following his move from Detroit, finishing 4th ranked overall and leading the League in sacks.
The latter of those is hardly surprising when you consider three of the Bills’ defensive linemen ended the season with double figure sacks, led by the ever-impressive Mario Williams with 14.5, and Marcel Dareus and Jerry Hughes also creating havoc in opposing backfields with 10.5 and 10 sacks respectively on the year.
The run defense was equally effective too, with Nigel Bradham having a career year and Rookie Preston Brown stepping up to fill in for Kiko Alonso who was lost to a torn ACL in the offseason.
Unfortunately for the Bills, on the other side of the ball their offense once again stuttered and stumbled with an ineffective run game and a realization that their Quarterback of the future may still be more of a work in progress than first thought.
The Buffalo run game was hampered by injuries, losing CJ Spiller to a broken collarbone and Fred Jackson to a groin injury during the season, but all the backs toiled behind an offensive line that struggled all year to create any sort of lanes for them to exploit. As such, the onus was on the passing game to put points on the board for most of the season, but that wasn’t without its own issues.
With the Bills at 2-2 and on a 2 game losing streak heading in to Week 5, many questioned Doug Marrone’s decision to hand the starting role to veteran Kyle Orton as E.J. Manuel continued to struggle with accuracy and pocket presence in the now simplified offense. E.J.’s season was done, and the first round pick was starting to look like a costly error for the Bills.
In fairness to Kyle Orton, he had a reasonable season by the numbers, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns, but his 10 interceptions and often wayward passing meant the Bills struggled to produce any sort of consistency, never winning more than two games in a row all year. The most painful loss came in Week 16 to the Oakland Raiders and in all likelihood cost the Bills their first Playoff appearance in nearly 20 years.
It was an agonizing end to a promising season, and one Bills fans won’t want to repeat in 2015 I’m sure.
The Rex Effect
So what’s changed?
The biggest change comes off the field by way of the arrival of Rex Ryan as Head Coach following Doug Marrone’s decision to exercise an option in his contract and leave Buffalo.
One of the League’s more eccentric figures, I think Rex brings with him an energy and interest that has long since been missing in Buffalo, and record season ticket sales would suggest the Buffalo fan base agree. Love him or hate him, Rex Ryan knows how to get people excited!
Ryan’s defensive mindset should sit well with the talent available to him on that side of the ball and the Bills will switch back to a 3-4 defensive scheme for 2015 with new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman at the reigns. Offensively there is also a new coordinator, with Greg Roman moving from the same capacity in San Francisco.
His preference for ‘run first’ football required change on the field for the Bills and they went big, trading talented LB Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia in exchange for outspoken running back LeSean McCoy as replacement for CJ Spiller (who left for New Orleans as a free agent).
Under center, veteran Kyle Orton announced his retirement at the end of the year, leaving E.J. Manuel as the only option at Quarterback. The Bills addressed this with the trade of two future draft picks to Minnesota for another veteran – Matt Cassel, and signed Tyrod Taylor from Baltimore to a two-year deal.
Whoever gets the nod at Quarterback (more on that later) will have some extra weapons for next season in the shape of Percy Harvin who followed Rex from the Jets, and former Dolphin Charles Clay at Tight End. Given the problems up front for the Bills, I think he’ll likely be used as much for his blocking as his pass catching.
Defensively, there will be some changes in the secondary following Da’Norris Searcy’s move to the Titans meaning Corey Graham will move inside to Safety from cornerback, leaving the door open for 2nd Round draft pick Ronald Darby to earn a starting spot.
Areas of concern
I think there can only be one real area of concern for Rex Ryan and the Bills ahead of the 2015 season, and that’s under center.
1st Round draft pick E.J. Manuel is struggling to establish himself as even a competent Quarterback in the NFL and his early demise last year offers little hope of things improving this. With the departure of Kyle Orton to retirement the Bills found themselves needing a fix but the lack of available talent at the position meant they were forced to look at another veteran in Matt Cassel.
Whilst he may be a decent enough back up, I think he’s unlikely to be a viable option as starter. He struggled in Minnesota last year before breaking his foot and ultimately losing his starting role to Teddy Bridgewater. With the less than watertight line in front of him, it would only be a matter of time before he went down to injury again in my opinion.
Which leaves something of an unknown knocking on the door for the starters role in Tyrod Taylor.
Rex Ryan is known to be keen on Tyrod, having tried to bring him to the Jets during his tenure there, but the 26 year old has seen very limited playing time in his 4 years with the Ravens, yet still managed to get sacked 5 times and throw 2 interceptions. He does have more experience in the League than E.J. and offers a little more athleticism to use his feet to make a play, but it’s not a convincing step up.
I don’t think anyone (even Rex) knows who the starter will be in Week 1, so preseason may at least hold some significance for Bills fans this year as I definitely think it is a job to be won.
What to look out for
The defensive scheme changing to 3-4 for this year will see Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes change to playing at OLB rather than defensive end, which should play to their strengths and make them just as formidable this year. With a combined 24.5 sacks in 2014, I think we can expect to see them in the opposing backfield on a regular basis. Inside, Nigel Bradham and second year man Preston Brown will return behind Kyle Williams at nose tackle, meaning the Bills defense should be just as good as, if not better than, they were in 2014.
The arrival of LeSean McCoy gives the Bills running game a credible threat but I’m not sure the offensive line will be good enough to get the best out of it. McCoy isn’t renowned for making his own holes and with the changes on the offensive line including the signing of 32 year old Richie Incognito who sat out the entire 2014 season, and a Rookie potentially starting at left guard in the shape of John Miller, it will be interesting to see how Greg Roman gets the run game going. I expect we’ll see Clay and the likes of Jerome Felton called in to blocking duty to try and spring McCoy.
Step forward, or back?
With an at least half decent Quarterback lining up under center, I think many would have the Bills nailed on as making the Playoffs but, as it is, it is difficult to see how they can improve dramatically on offense with the options they have to make that next step.
Rex Ryan will undoubtedly bring an enthusiasm to the players and fans alike but I think they will need to rely on that stellar defense yet again for most of the season. McCoy will have his work cut out behind a porous offensive line and Greg Roman will need to find a way get something out of either Manuel or Taylor to give them a spark on offense.
If he can’t, I fear it may be yet another year added to the longest active Playoff drought in the NFL.