I’m not sure if you’ve heard or not, but it’s been anything but calm or quiet around One Bills Drive this week.
Quick recap of this past week’s events. Last Sunday, the Bills were trounced by the Titans, 41-17, giving up 24 points in the fourth quarter. Two days later, Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. pulled the plug on Dick Jauron, firing the beleaguered coach after 3 ½ seasons. Wilson tabbed defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to be the team’s interim head coach for the remainder of the season. On Wednesday, Fewell backed Jauron’s original plan for this week and announced the team will start backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick over maligned starter Trent Edwards.
Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Bills’ busy week, Buffalo will square off against an AFC South opponent for the second straight week, the surging Jacksonville Jaguars. The scenarios coming into this game aren’t much different than last game. The Bills will be on the road, facing a surging team with a dynamic, scary running back. Last week the Titans had won two straight and found their third win in a row over the Bills, while running back Chris Johnson racked up 232 total yards and two touchdowns. On Sunday, the Jaguars aim for their third straight win and hope to do so on the shoulders of running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
Needless to say, if nothing else this should be fun to see if or how the Bills can function in disarray. Jauron had zero effect on the offense, despite having players at wide receiver (Terrell Owens, Lee Evans) and running back (Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch). Now Fewell inherits an offense ranked 29th in the NFL.
Buffalo turns, or I should say re-turns, back to Fitzpatrick in an attempt to right the ship. The backup out of Harvard guided the Bills to wins over the Jets and the Panthers in consecutive road games, but lost to the Texans in his last start. Fitzpatrick must find a way, any way, to generate some resemblance of offense. The Bills are averaging fewer than 16 points per game this season, while failing to reach 300 yards of total offense in eight of their past nine games.
Defensively, Fewell has done a lot with very little, thanks to a constant march of players to the infirmary or the injured reserve. Buffalo ranks 9th in the pass defense, but run defense continues to be a problem and through nine games, there’s no evidence to point to the contrary for the rest of this season. The Bills rank dead last in rushing in the NFL. They couldn’t stop the Saints’ Pierre Thomas or the Browns’ Jamal Lewis. They had problems with Miami’s tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. They were shredded by the Jets’ Thomas Jones and torched by the Titans’ Chris Johnson. Now MJD get his turn to wet his whistle.
Jacksonville (5-4) enters Sunday’s contest with the league’s 6th ranked rushing attack led by Jones-Drew, who ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing with 860 yards. Jones-Drew leads the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns, seven of which have come in Jacksonville’s last four games. It’s been over a month (Oct.11th at Seattle) since Jones-Drew has been kept out of the end zone. MJD has been a workhorse for the Jags the past few weeks, carrying the rock 33, 29, and 24 times in three of the past four games. His lone single digit carry came against the Titans when he had only eight carries, but rushed for 177 yards.
The Jaguars have won three of their last four games since starting 2-3 this season. Jacksonville is 4-2 versus the AFC and 3-1 at home with wins over Tennessee, St. Louis and Kansas City. It’s been an all-or-nothing season for the Jaguars; either they’ve won close or lost big. Aside from their 14-12 opening season loss at Indianapolis, their other three losses were by 14, 41 and 17 points. In their five wins, Jacksonville dished out a beat down just once, beating the Titans by 20. Their other four wins have come by seven points or less: Jacksonville beat Houston by seven, St. Louis by three, Kansas City by three and the New York Jets by two.
Missing from the lineup on Sunday for Jacksonville could be two of their best defensive players, safety Rashean Mathis and linebacker Justin Durant. Both were injured in last week’s win over the Jets; Mathis suffered a groin injury and Durant suffered a mild concussion.
On the Bills’ injury front, the offensive line continues to be a game of musical chairs. Left tackle Demetrius Bell suffered a knee injury in last week’s loss to Tennessee, possibly sidelining him for a couple of weeks. That means rookie Andy Levitre will make his NFL debut at left tackle on Sunday. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams (knee) and linebacker Keith Ellison (quad) will be out Sunday, as both players continue to battle injuries. Cornerback Ashton Youbouty is out Sunday as well after suffering a high ankle sprain last week and fellow cornerback Terrence McGee is working his way back from minor knee surgery he had during the bye week. His status remains questionable. It looks like safety Donte Whitner is ready to return from a high ankle sprain.
What the Bills should do: That seems to be the million dollar question these days. Fewell inherits an offensive mess from Jauron and as Fitzpatrick goes, so will the offense. Look for the Bills to attempt to generate a balance of pass and run, but don’t be surprised if they lean on the running game to relieve the pressure on Fitzpatrick starting on the road.
What the Jaguars should do: I said it last week and it stands this week: Duh! Run the ball. Jacksonville has one of the best backs in football, so it’ll come as a surprise to no one if Jones-Drew is featured in the both the rushing and passing attack. With the Bills battling injuries in the secondary, that means rookie corner Ellis Lankster could be matched up against Jags leading receiver Mike Sims-Walker. Look for the Jaguars to mix in play action to take some deep shots down the field.
Prediction: Jaguars 24, Bills 17. I don’t believe the Bills will roll over and play dead for the Jaguars, despite the distracting week it’s been for the Bills. I think they’ll play hard for interim coach Perry Fewell and keep this thing close. However, the Bills have been horrible against the run this year and they’re facing another difficult challenge in Maurice Jones-Drew. Look for MJD to avenge last year’s 6 carry, 17 yard outing in the loss to the Bills and guide the Jaguars to their third straight win for the first time in two years.