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Buffalo Bills Preview: 10 Things You Need to Know

The MMQB’s Andy Benoit ranks every NFL team based on roster talent and gives 10 thoughts on each club throughout training camp. The No. 29 Buffalo Bills must see a breakout season from Sammy Watkins. If the fourth-year wideout doesn't step up, the ground game—LeSean McCoy’s shiftiness behind an athletic offensive line and Tyrod Taylor’s mobility—will be wasted

1. Tyrod Taylor’s scouting report is very clear. He’s mobile and throws one of the best deep balls in the game. (He gets tremendous air under it.) But that’s the extent of his “strength” column. In the weakness column is Taylor’s accuracy at the intermediate levels, his inability to anticipate open receivers (he’s a “see it and then throw it” QB) and his discomfort in the pocket when his early reads aren’t open. More concerning: many times Taylor’s early reads are open, but the ball doesn’t come out. So add “vision” to the weaknesses. Some of the vision issues might be literal; Taylor is barely 6’1” and doesn’t move subtly in the pocket. There are times where he probably can’t see over the line. Taylor was underwhelming in former Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s system. New OC Rick Dennison runs a very different scheme, predicated on Gary Kubiak-type zone concepts. Can that save the soon-to-be-28-year-old quarterback?

2. The difficulty with a QB who can be inaccurate and doesn’t anticipate throws is you must design plays that have either/or reads, rather than full-field progression reads. Fortunately, an outside zone running game like Dennison’s naturally lends itself to this. Play-action is a huge factor here.

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3. How will LeSean McCoy look in Dennison’s outside zone running scheme? McCoy is gifted enough to thrive in any system. But he’s most natural dancing around to set up his blocks. That has worked great so far in Buffalo, where the previous regime featured a lot of pull-blockers (usually it was stud left guard Richie Incognito). In an outside zone game, however, there are no pullers. Instead, the O-line moves in unison. The running back must patiently wait for a hole to develop and then plant his foot and go. This is not McCoy’s natural style, but with his speed and agility on the perimeter, he’ll still produce.

4.McCoy’s productivity will hinge on his discipline. He ran outside zone concepts in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly. But like a councilman in Footloose’s Bomont, Ga., Kelly didn’t appreciate dancing. To him, McCoy’s running was the antithesis of disciplined. There’s a key difference between Kelly’s zone runs and Dennison’s: the formations. Under Kelly, McCoy ran zone out of a single-back set with three receivers on the field. Inherently, there was more space. Under Dennison, he’ll run more out of two-back sets; the Bills signed the NFC’s two best fullbacks, Patrick DiMarco from Atlanta and Mike Tolbert from Carolina. The two-back sets will leave less space. The guess here: McCoy, if he’s willing to be coached, will play even better in the two-back zone game.

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5. If Sammy Watkins doesn’t have a big year, the Bills have no chance. No matter how good your ground game is—and Buffalo’s can be great, with McCoy, Taylor’s mobility and an athletic O-line—you can’t mount drives and score points in the NFL without an aerial attack.

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6. The book on new head coach Sean McDermott: he is a 4-3 zone subscriber who, like his original mentor, longtime Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, likes to selectively employ unique, game-planned blitzes (either through the A gaps or from the slot). Also like Johnson, McDermott will wrinkle his zone coverages to create subtle disguises or more favorable matchups.

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7. The Bills’ run defense should be more disciplined under McDermott than it was under Rex Ryan. McDermott puts a great emphasis on gap integrity. He also has a good four-man front to rely on. Ends Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes can both set the edge or chase from the backside, and tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus can be destructive as interchangeable nose-shades and three-techniques. Williams thrives on physical strength and veteran sagacity; Dareus does it on athletic movement in confined areas. The question is whether Buffalo’s linebackers can take advantage? Preston Brown must be noisier than he was last year. And Reggie Ragland, because of an ACL injury as a rookie, has yet to play an NFL snap.

8. It was interesting that McDermott spent his first-round pick on LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White. Yes, a replacement was needed for free-agent departure Stephon Gilmore. But typically, corners are not prioritized in McDermott’s zone scheme. (Remember when McDermott’s Panthers let Josh Norman walk away in free agency?) The Bills had several glaring needs entering the draft. The fact that they went with a corner in the first round suggests McDermott might play more man coverage as a head coach than he did as a defensive coordinator. If that’s the case, he’ll accompany that man coverage with blitzes.

9. You can see it now: it’s nearly Halloween and Lorenzo Alexander has only 2.5 sacks. Bills fans are flummoxed. How can the guy who had 12.5 sacks for us last season not be getting more snaps off the edge!!??!? Because that guy also had a total of nine sacks over his first nine NFL seasons. Not to say Alexander’s 12.5 sacks in ’16 weren’t legitimate; they certainly were. Alexander, who also performed well in run defense, was tremendous in all facets. But that was in Rex Ryan’s amorphous scheme. McDermott employs a truer 4-3 rush, which Alexander isn’t built for. He’s not twitchy enough to play defensive end or strong enough to play defensive tackle. In this system, he’ll probably be a strong outside linebacker—if he can hold up in coverage. Really, in any scheme, Alexander is just a good football player without a position. That’s why, before last season, he’d always been superb on special teams but meagerly productive on defense.

10. Overall there are three significant concerns about this defense. 1) It lacks edge rushers. Jerry Hughes has the speed and bendability to turn the corner, but second-year man Shaq Lawson will have to rely heavily on technique (which he may or may not develop). We’ll find out. 2) There’s a lack of depth in the secondary, especially at safety. 3) It’s a hit-or-miss cornerbacking group. Ronald Darby, after a tremendous rookie campaign in 2015, struggled last season, particularly downfield. If he struggles again, the Bills will have real problems.

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