Three things occupying my thoughts as the Bills get ready to go back to work against the Chargers…
The Merry Go Round Spins… Again
The Bills were supposed to have a huge advantage this year after a truncated offseason. They had all five starting offensive linemen back and ready to be the number one group again in 2020. No one would have to be cramming a playbook to catch up.
And then… it never happened.
Injury was the primary cause. Jon Feliciano missed the first seven games. He played exactly three snaps at his normal guard spot before Mitch Morse suffered a concussion. All the while, Cody Ford was dealing with knee and ankle injuries. Now, a reported torn meniscus suffered in practice Wednesday has ended Ford’s season.
The Bills also did this to themselves a bit, by jettisoning 2019 starter Quinton Spain months after signing him to a new, long term contract. It’s hard to argue that move based on Spain’s play this season. The big argument comes with the decision not to play Morse in Arizona.
Theories on why Sean McDermott kept Morse on the bench are like Thanksgiving leftovers: they’re everywhere and they all can look good. Let me throw one at you that isn’t my favorite, but could provide a glimpse into NFL thinking the next six weeks.
The Bills are almost already locked out of the AFC 1-seed and a bye, but also have tons of wiggle room to make the playoffs. In the Covid NFL, home field advantage is practically non-existent. Heck, playoff teams may all spend January in the same bubble. If the 2-seed isn’t worth much more than the 7-seed, it could give McDermott flexibility to play with any number of lineup combinations the next few weeks. That includes sitting out Morse for a game (Remember… Morse could save the Bills $5 million on the cap next season if they can find an OL combination that works without him).
I don’t think McDermott or most NFL head coaches would play that fast and loose a few weeks out from an actually playoff clinching. Like I said, it’s just a theory.
It is a better theory than the one McDermott has made public. Morse is, in no world, a lesser option than the Brian Winters-Jon Feliciano-Ike Boettger interior combination. We can argue about who Morse should replace, but we all agree he should be in there.
McDermott confirmed Friday that Morse will be back in this week. My preferred combo is Winters-Morse-Feliciano going right to left. Boettger has been a very good run blocker, but is a liability against the pass. The left side of the line has been atrocious against stunts with Boettger in the lineup. On a team that chooses passing almost two to one over rushing, that’s a problem.
The Bills could keep running Boettger out there hoping he improves. He’s certainly much younger than Winters and still could have potential. As pointed out above, the Bills aren’t anywhere near a “must win” situation.
Herbie Fully Loaded
Imagine Josh Allen had this year’s weapons for his rookie season. That might be a pretty good description for Chargers QB Justin Herbert. Allen has worked hard, improved by leaps and bounds year after year and played himself into the fringes of the MVP discussion. Yet, Herbert is on pace to have a rookie season that is, statistically, slightly better.
One of Herbert’s more impressive traits is that he is rarely flustered under pressure. He’s plenty athletic to avoid a rush and has the same rocket hanging from his right shoulder as Allen.
I think the Bills should continue attacking Herbert with blitzes the same way they got after Russell Wilson or, to a lesser extent, Kyler Murray. Even if Buffalo can’t get home with a rush, they can speed up Herbert’s decision making and limit what he’s seeing.
Herbert may not get rattled, but he can get confused. This will only be his tenth NFL start. The Bills will counter with a secondary that has 56 (Tre’Davious White), 89 (Micah Hyde) and 67 (Jordan Poyer) starts. If Josh Norman goes as the second corner, that’s 94 starts. They should have plenty of tricks up their sleeve to disguise coverages.
The McDermott zone scheme has proven to be a mystery for Tom Brady. I can’t imagine what it’ll look like to Herbert. He probably can’t either.
Next Man Better Step Up
The Bills will be without John Brown against the Chargers and that’s proven to be quite the hindrance for the offense. It’s not hard to understand why.
The Buffalo receiving trio has been nothing short of great, but there’s not much after that. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are receiving afterthoughts. The tight end position has disappointed this year. Gabriel Davis has only one game with more than one catch in his last five. No shame for a rookie still learning without a full offseason.
The Bills have not run the ball much all year. The defense has put together some really good halves, but it’s hard to imagine a lengthy run of top level play in the postseason. The passing game needs to be the tugboat and Josh Allen-Stefon Diggs-Cole Beasley likely won’t be enough in January by themselves.
A healthy Brown is the easy solution, but it would be nice if another reliable option poked its head up against the Chargers.
The Chargers have plenty of talent. Keenan Allen is flat out great. Mike Williams is as imposing a receiver as they come. Joey Bosa is a premier pass rusher. The Chargers are expecting to have four time Pro Bowler Chris Harris back in the secondary. Yet, they’ve blown three 17-plus point leads and darn near made it four against the 0-everything Jets last week.
One reason is that Anthony Lynn’s team doesn’t do enough of the small things well. The offense, for all its options, is only 21st in the red zone. The kicker is not reliable. They are atrocious on any punt. Check out this Mt. Rushmore of punt futility: 27th on punt returns. 29th on punt average, 30th on punt returns against and they’ve had three blocked in the last five weeks.
No matter the score or the time remaining, the Bills are in good shape simply by letting the Chargers be the Chargers.
I don’t think it comes to that. The Bills have been stewing about Hail Murray for two weeks. Outside of Brown and Ford (and Matt Milano still on IR), the bye week did its job getting Buffalo healthy. I think this team ready for bear and hungry to take out two weeks of frustration out on an L.A. team playing at 10am body clock time without a ton on the line. Give me the Bills in a get right 41-24 win.