We spoke with Jeff Hunter of BuffaloRumblings.com to get the inside look on the upcoming game between the Patriots and the Bills.
1. How has the Bills' identity changed since week 4?
I would say that the big identity change came after the week 2 loss to the Jets. Since the first match-up with the Pats, the Bills have spent a lot of time reaffirming their run-first mentality. If anything, the devoted even more time to running the ball after that game, although LeSean McCoy's hamstring injury made that particular game plan much less effective against the Dolphins.
Defensively, the Bills have thrived when they're able to rush the passer and force turnovers (last week was the first time they failed to do so this season). They have been a little more reactionary since play-calling duties were turned over to DC Dennis Thurman, focusing more on negating the offense's strength than asserting their own identity, and for the most part it's worked (save for last week's debacle).
2. Tyrod Taylor has only completed 19+ passes once this year- against the Patriots. Was that a fluke, or what have other teams done to limit his impact in the passing game?
It does feel like a bit of a fluke. In the rest of the games, the offense has either relied on the run to great success or leaned on the long completions for high yardage at the expense of time of possession.
The lack of success in the passing game is really a combination of several factors, the greatest of which is the loss of Sammy Watkins. The remaining receivers resemble what you'd expect the low end of a normal depth chart to look like, especially against Miami when the likes of Marquise Goodwin and Justin Hunter were Taylor's top two receiving options. Taylor is also more than willing to use his legs at the expense of his arm to pick up yardage, which has been a double-edged sword so far this year.
The final factor, simply put, is that Taylor is just very limited as a passer. Even when he has time in the pocket, he misses a lot of plays that a better quarterback would make. Better receivers would help, but if your passing offense is dependent on having someone with Watkins' ability to be effective, there are going to be problems.
3. Do you think LeSean McCoy will play? If not, how does that affect the Bills rushing attack? Was his injury the reason the Bills run game disappeared against the Dolphins?
I didn't think McCoy would play last week, but he did, and he said his hamstring felt fine until near the end of the third quarter, when Mike Gillislee took over as the primary back. Even if he were at full strength, though, I doubt he would have been very effective against a Dolphins defensive line that manhandled the Bills OL for most of the game.
He has yet to practice this week, and at this point I think that even if he does play, he won't be much more effective than he was against Miami (eight carries for 11 yards). If he doesn't go, one would think that Gillislee would be in line to receive his carries (he's on the injury report with a foot problem, but he should be good to go), but the coaching staff has been strangely unwilling to use him in heavy doses so far this year. He's topped out at six carries this year (twice, including against the Patriots) and only saw five against Miami even with McCoy's injury, although by the time McCoy left the team was in catch-up mode and focusing on the pass.
Reggie Bush is still around, technically (his one carry against Miami resulted in a garbage time TD), and fifth-round rookie Jonathan Williams is there if Shady is deactivated, but all in all the coaching staff seems to think that a 70% McCoy is better than the rest of the stable at full-go.
4. Marcell Dareus should return to the Bills lineup this week. How does he change Buffalo's defensive line strategy?
The Bills defensive line had been solid during the winning streak, but against Miami they were beaten on the interior over and over again as Jay Ajayi kept gashing long runs up the middle.
It's hard to remember because it's been so long since he's played, but Dareus really is a special defender who can work his way into the backfield like few at his size can. Corbin Bryant, who has been starting in his place, plays much better as a backup than as a primary defender. Putting Dareus on the line with Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, and NFL sack leader Lorenzo Alexander should ensure than nothing like last week happens again moving forward.
5. The Bills are dealing with absences up the middle with LB Zach Brown and S Aaron Williams, which is important for the Patriots reliance on tight ends. Are they in jeopardy of missing Sunday's game and how is the depth behind those two?
Brown is dealing with an unspecified non-injury illness right now, so it's hard to say whether he'll play or not. After dominating most of the season (especially against the Patriots, as you may recall), the NFL's tackle leader had a downer last week. He had a lot of trouble bringing down Ajayi for short gains, and missed badly on what became a 53-yard run in the fourth quarter when the Bills had Miami in the shadow of their own goal post. Given that he's played about 90% of the Bills' defensive snaps this year, it's hard to say how they'd cope if he doesn't play. Former Patriot Brandon Spikes is the primary backup, but he's been a non-factor in limited playing time this year.
As for Williams, the situation is much more serious. He's out of the hospital, but Jarvis Landry's cheap shot will most certainly keep him out for a while. It's not out of the question that he'll miss the rest of the year, and after a serious neck injury last season (against the Patriots in week 2) it'd be entirely understandable if he decides not to risk a third and retires. The next man up at his position is either going to be Duke Williams or Robert Blanton; Blanton's been better so far this year, but neither are on Aaron's level when it comes to tackling and ball skills.