Week 3 Preview: Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings
The timing of Vontae Davis’ bizarre retirement at halftime of the Bills’ Week 2 loss to the Chargers has left the team in a potentially difficult predicament heading into Sunday’s game at Minnesota.
With Davis off the team, and two other cornerbacks – Phillip Gaines and Taron Johnson – injured and carrying uncertain status this week, the Bills may have to rely on journeyman backup Lafayette Pitts to start opposite Tre’Davious White against one of the best passing teams in the NFL.
Besides Johnson and Gaines, the only other cornerback on the active roster is Ryan Lewis who was just signed to the practice squad three weeks ago. He was promoted Tuesday to the 53-man roster Tuesday.
Gaines started Week 1 against Baltimore, then ceded to Davis in Week 2. In the second quarter, before Davis called it quits, Gaines suffered a dislocated elbow which knocked him out for the rest of the day. With Johnson already inactive due to a shoulder injury suffered at Baltimore, Pitts was the only other cornerback besides White.
If Gaines can’t play in Minnesota, Pitts would likely start. He has dressed for 26 NFL games with the Bills, Dolphins and Jaguars, but has never started and for most of those games, he played primarily on special teams.
“I thought he did a really good job,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of Pitts stepping in for Davis mid-game. “I think we were all really pleased with how he played considering the amount of snaps that he got during the course of the week. He’s not one of those guys that get a lot of reps. He’s giving the scout team a look and he’s kind of a down the line type of guy when it comes to getting reps in practice. For him to step in and play as much as he did and as well as he did, kudos to him. That means he was paying attention to the game plan, even though he wasn’t getting reps in practice, and taking care of business like a pro. So, he did a really good job.”
That’s all well and good, but Pitts lining up across from the likes of wide receivers Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen, and trying to prevent completions from Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, seems like a recipe for disaster for the undermanned Buffalo defense.
Compounding matters for the Bills is their continued inability to generate meaningful pass rush pressure. It was non-existent for the first game and a half, then started to come around in the second half of the 31-20 loss to the Chargers as Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes both had sacks.
“I think being able to put them in some predictable third-down situations, that helped a little bit,” Frazier said when asked why the pass rush was better. “Just the fact that we found a way to win some one-on-one’s. The rush that Lorenzo, had, Trent (Murphy) had a good rush as well, and Jerry winning his one-on-one. Jerry was consistently being in their backfield throughout, just a step late, maybe, in getting the sack, but he had some hurries throughout the game. For him to finally get the quarterback on the ground was good to see.”
The Bills will need a whole lot more of that in a game where they are the biggest underdog in a September NFL game (currently 16.5 points) since the Bears faced that same number against the Seahawks in 2015. The Vikings are going to score points, and given the way the Buffalo offense has played, it’s highly unlikely the Bills will be able to keep pace.
They currently rank 32nd in yards per play (3.7), 31st in yards per game (223.0) and passing yards per game (139.5), 31st in sacks allowed per pass attempt, 31st in points, and 30th in first downs.
“We made some improvement in some areas (over Week 1),” said offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. “We have a long way to go; have to continue to get better and grind at it and improve in all areas. That’s’ what we’re going to do.”
14th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead 8-5. This will be the Bills’ first visit to U.S. Bank Stadium. In their last game at Minnesota in 2010, the Bills were defeated 38-14. In the last meeting, held in Buffalo in 2014, the Bills prevailed 17-16 on a last-second touchdown reception by Sammy Watkins.
WR Kelvin Benjamin. Through two games, the Bills’ No. 1 receiver, a title in name only, has three catches for 29 yards on just 10 targets. Benjamin has been a non-factor almost from the moment he arrived in Buffalo last Halloween and his best game to date was a five-catch, 70-yard effort against the Patriots. There are far too many plays where Benjamin looks like he’s going through the motions, and too often it just doesn’t seem like he makes the proper effort to fight for 50-50 balls. The Bills offense is a disaster, and Benjamin’s lack of production is a key reason for that.
On offense, the Bills have to find a way to sustain drives because they have not been able to do it in the first two weeks. Buffalo has had 26 total possessions and they have resulted in 13 punts, a missed field goal, four turnovers, a turnover on downs, two ends of the half, two TDs and three field goals. The Bills have not been able to run, nor have they been able to pass, with any consistency. Seventeen of those possessions netted less than 10 yards. Not good. One key will be to get Josh Allen into a rhythm with some short passing, and hope that some success can back the Vikings defense off the line and perhaps help the running game.
Defensively, the Bills have a humongous task in front of them trying to slow down Kirk Cousins and his arsenal of passing targets led by WRs Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and TE Kyle Rudolph, plus the dangerous Dalvin Cook out of the backfield. The Bills are hamstrung at CB and they will be piecing it together with duct tape, and this is not the week to be doing it. Cousins just threw for 425 yards against the Packers. The Bills’ pass rush woke up in the second half last week against the Chargers, and DEs Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy have to make their presence felt because if Cousins gets time against the Bills’ beleaguered secondary, they could score at will.
QUOTES ON GAME
FS Jordan Poyer on the Vikings pass offense: “Offensively they’ve got some weapons in Thielen, Diggs and Rudolph. It’s going to be a task. With the second half going the way it did last week, it’s something we want to build off.”
WR Zay Jones on going against an excellent Vikings defense: “They’re an experienced group, so falling behind early can’t help us. Staying ahead of the chains, doing the things we need to do to get first downs and ultimately touchdowns would be very important. We have a huge task, but we’re excited about the opportunity to go up there and play.”
QB Josh Allen on limiting the sacks he has absorbed: “Just try to continue to understand protection, making sure we’re set the right way. Ultimately, in the pocket when we feel things stepping up instead of stepping behind and running out and rolling out. Just being smarter in that area. Things are going to get cleaned up; I’m in the film room with coach Daboll and our offensive linemen. That’s something that’s fixable, and it’s something we’re working on.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Bills CBs vs. Vikings WRs. This isn’t so much a matchup as a potential mismatch. Tre’Davious White is a solid player, perhaps a future Pro Bowler, but he can’t cover everyone the Vikings will send into the pattern. The Bills have a crisis at cornerback thanks to the now-infamous retirement of Vontae Davis and injuries to Phillip Gaines and Taron Johnson. Last week, the Bills were down to White and Lafayette Pitts and had to use a safety, Rafael Bush, to play slot corner. The Vikings wideouts, led by Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen combined to catch 21 passes for 259 yards last week in the tie at Green Bay. Kirk Cousins can’t wait to face this secondary.
Bills interior OL vs. Vikings DTs Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson. The Bills have been unable to get their running game going as LeSean McCoy has gained only 61 yards in the first two games, and now there’s a good chance he won’t be able to play due to a rib injury. That will leave things to Marcus Murphy and Chris Ivory, running behind an offensive line that can’t get push. Even more of a concern for the Bills is Joseph and Richardson pushing the pocket against Josh Allen, and that could create sack opportunities for Minnesota DEs Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. This might be the best defense the rookie Allen sees all year.
BY THE NUMBERS
9 – Touchdowns scored by the Ravens and Chargers in a combined 10 trips inside the Bills red zone in the first two games.
QB Josh Allen’s 245 passing yards last week were the second-most ever for a Bills’ QB making his first initial start, behind only the 292 yards Jim Kelly threw for in 1986.
RB LeSean McCoy practiced Wednesday in a non-contact jersey and his status for Sunday’s game is uncertain after he suffered a rib cartilage injury last week. If he plays, he’s eight points shy of becoming the sixth active non-kicker to reach 500 career points scored.
DT Kyle Williams will be playing in his 170th career game for Buffalo, tying him for 10th on the team’s all-time list with Kent Hull.
TE Charles Clay enjoyed his best game, in terms of receiving yardage, against the Vikings in 2014 when he had 114 while playing for the Dolphins.
RB Marcus Murphy is averaging 30.4 yards per kickoff return which is fourth-best in the NFL.
CB Phillip Gaines practiced on a limited basis Wednesday due to a dislocated elbow.
CB Taron Johnson practiced on a limited basis due to a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the Chargers game.
RB/KR Taiwan Jones could not wear a helmet due to a nasty gash on his head suffered last week when he lost his helmet during a play and was smashed in the head. It may not be able to play this week because of it.
DE Shaq Lawson did not practice Wednesday due to the hamstring injury that forced him to miss last week’s game.