In the lead up to the New England Patriots' season opening match-up against the Buffalo Bills, I asked Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings five questions about the Bills and this weekend's game.
Knopping: From all appearances, E.J. Manuel had a very strong preseason for the Bills before going down with a knee injury. That being said, what has been your opinion on him thus far? Where do you see his ceiling, and what are your expectations for him in 2013?
Galliford: It's tough to find holes in your rookie quarterback when he completes 26-of-33 passes in the preseason; his efficiency running Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett's offense was somewhat surprising. It's evidence of his comfort level in the system, and Buffalo's offense was at its best this summer when Manuel was under center running the no-huddle attack. That said, there were moments of skittishness for Manuel, particularly when he moved to his third and fourth reads, and he also wasn't asked to make many throws into tight windows 15-20 yards down the field. Right now, he looks like a dink-and-dunk passer whose precision and running ability could be enough to offset the running game for a little while, but we won't really know if he's the long-term answer at quarterback until he proves he can hurt a defense at all levels of the field with his arm.
Knopping: In 2012, it seemed that fomer Bills coach Chan Gailey was hesitant to make running back C.J. Spiller the workhorse for the offense. Do you expect that to change this year under Doug Marrone - can he be that 20-25 touch per game player? Along those lines, where does Fred Jackson now fit into this offense?
Galliford: Spiller is definitely the workhorse now, and he looked great this preseason (102 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in three games). Your inquiry about his ability to handle 20-25 touches per game is the million dollar question, but it's looking very much like we'll find out this year. Jackson will still be used quite a bit in the offense, but he's clearly the complementary back now - which may do wonders to sustain his career, as he's been beat up since halfway through the 2011 season.
Knopping: The Bills have two key injuries in the secondary - Jarius Byrd and Stephone Gilmore. Who are their replacements and what will the team have to do defensively to slow down Tom Brady and co.?
Galliford: Gilmore will likely be replaced by third-year corner Justin Rogers on the outside; Rogers has spent a good deal of his first two seasons as the team's nickel corner. He was routinely abused inside, but may be better suited athletically to play outside anyway. (Ron Brooks, a better foot athlete with more physicality, is now the nickel corner.) Da'Norris Searcy, another third-year player, will probably start in Byrd's place, but he is a severe liability in coverage. Look for the Bills to move Searcy down into the box as a blocker and dime linebacker in obvious passing downs, with Jim Leonhard lining up deep next to Aaron Williams in those situations. As for slowing down Brady, it's well-established and much easier said than done - contain the run to make the offense one-dimensional, mix your coverages and pressures to limit Brady's efficiency, and pray for a few turnovers.
Knopping: The Bills' vaunted and hyped defensive line underperformed in 2012. What are your expectations from this unit this year? Can they bounce back?
Galliford: I don't know that they'll ever reach the level of expectation that the 2012 offseason put on them, but they're certainly looking better this preseason, and they're capable of being much better than they were even at their best last year. Mario Williams will be more of an edge rusher and stand-up outside linebacker in Mike Pettine's defense, and the three starting defensive linemen are now Kyle Williams (who gave the Pats fits last year), Marcell Dareus and Alex Carrington.
Knopping: What are your initial thoughts on Doug Marrone as he enters the regular season? Do you believe, at this early juncture, that he's the one to turn this program around?
Galliford: I'm a firm believer that a head coach is only as good as the talent on hand and the assistants on his staff. Pettine should prove to be a vast improvement over previous defensive coordinators, and the offense that Marrone has built with the 33-year-old Hackett is a highly intriguing blend of new-school and old-school concepts. He's got a good head on his shoulders and proved at Syracuse that he could develop talent and turn around the fortunes of a program. He'll only do that in Buffalo if Manuel proves to be an adequate answer at quarterback, and if the talent on hand takes to the new schemes. I'll say this: I think he has a much better shot than any of his recent-history predecessors. But really, it all comes down to Manuel.