BILLS: OUT: WR Marcus Easley (illness), LB Arthur Moats (knee), DT Torrel Troup (lower back)
CHIEFS: OUT: WR Jonathan Baldwin (thumb); QUESTIONABLE: T Jared Gaither (knee); PROBABLE: QB Matt Cassel (ribs), WR Steve Breaston (hamstring)
DT Kyle Williams and DE Marcell Dareus vs. RBs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. Right out of the gate in 2011, we’re going to find out if the Bills’ retooled defense is up to the challenge. Last season, Buffalo’s run defense ranked dead last in the NFL (32nd overall) giving up nearly 170 yards on the ground per game while the Chiefs’ tandem backfield of Charles and Jones were the best twosome at running back in the NFL total more than 2,000 combined rushing yards. The Bills wisely added some muscle with the selection of Dareus with the third overall pick in the draft to pair with Williams, who is the Bills’ best interior lineman. Both Williams and Dareus won’t be solely responsible for trying to stop the Chiefs’ stud back in Charles and their complimentary back in Jones, but it will start with these two up front. We’ll start to see if Dareus is as good as he’s been advertised in the preseason.
LT Demetrius Bell and RT Erik Pears vs. LB Tamba Hali. If the prospects of Jamaal Charles against the Bills’ defense scares you, then Tamba Hali going against the Bills’ offensive line (particularly Bell) should frighten you. It was a rough go in the preseason for Bell. He struggled with speed rushers coming off the edge (go back to the Denver game against Elvis Dumervill and rookie Von Miller) and hung on to the starting job by the skin of teeth largely because the Bills simply don’t have a better option at left tackle on the roster. Pears has endured his struggles as well in the preseason and hasn’t exactly wowed leading up to this point, but he faced no competition in the shortened preseason and he’s been pegged as the starting right tackle since the lockout was lifted. Now, Bell and Pears face a huge task in Week 1 in Tamba Hali, who had 14.5 sacks a year ago. Don’t expect the Bills to leave either tackle on an island against Hali. They’ll get some help dealing with Hali from tight ends Scott Chandler and David Martin, along with Fred Jackson. But whoever Hali works against is a big advantage for the Chiefs and the $60 million man will likely cause problems for the Bills’ tackles.
CB Terrence McGee vs. WR Dwayne Bowe. It seems like the Bills are going to be tested all over the field on Sunday and the cornerback spot will be no different. Last season, Terrence McGee started just four games and appeared in only nine games, both careers lows. He dealt with a nerve problem that forced him to miss five games and he also suffered a back and a knee injury. Rejuvenated and healthy, McGee draws a stiff opening day task in Chiefs wideout Dwayne Bowe. Bowe led the Chiefs in receptions and yards, and led the NFl with 15 receiving touchdowns. He has 6 catches for 84 yards and two TDs in two career games against the Bills and hasn’t had that “big” outing yet. Last year the Bills held him to three catches for 16 yards and a TD. Now, with TE Tony Moeaki lost for the season to an ACL injury and free agent WR Steve Breaston dealing with a hamstring issue, Bowe’s workload is likely to increase and McGee must be ready and up to the challenge.
WR Steve Johnson vs. CB Brandon Flowers. Johnson will be making his debut as the team’s No.1 wide receiver. But when you’re a No.1 receiver that means you’re going to draw the opponent’s top cornerback. Johnson had a break out season a year ago with over 1,000 yards receiving and 10 TDs. He’s no longer an unknown quantity. Meanwhile, Flowers is developing into one of the NFL’s top corners. He may lack ideal size (5′ 9″) but he’s very physical and a terrific cover corner. He’s got nine interceptions in three seasons. Johnson’s ability to get open and get away from Flowers will be a storyline to follow. After all, he’s Ryan Fitzpatrick’s favorite target and no doubt Fitzpatrick will be looking to get Johnson the football. In order for that to happen, Johnson will need to get the better of the matchup against Flowers.
LB Shawne Merriman vs. LT Brandon Albert. Kansas City tangles with a familiar foe on Sunday: LB Shawne Merriman. In eight career games against the Chiefs, Merriman has 46 tackles and 6 sacks. But, the focus of Merriman on Sunday is whether or not he’ll be able to stay on the field. He says he’s healthy and he feels good. Everyone in a Bills uniform and the fans as well hope that’s true. The Bills have looked like a different animal in the preseason with Merriman on the field. Despite his injury riddled seasons the past few years, if No 56. in red and blue is on the field he becomes the Bills’ biggest defensive threat especially at linebacker. He’ll be working against the Chiefs’ top tackle, fourth-year starter Branden Albert, and if Merriman wants to make Matt Cassel’s afternoon a miserable experience he’ll have to go through Albert to make that happen.
WR Donald Jones vs. CB Brandon Carr. Jones becomes the direct beneficiary of Lee Evans’ departure (traded to the Baltimore Ravens) in the offseason. Steve Johnson became the team’s No.1 wide out and Jones won the starting job as the team’s No.2 receiver so now it’s his to up to him to run with it. Is he up to the task? Carr is a good compliment opposite Flowers. He’s got the size (6’0″) to match up against bigger receivers and his cover skills are equally as good as his cornerback mater Flowers. Jones started five games in 2010 and had 18 catches for 213 yards. This should be a good litmus test for Jones. The Bills are depending on Jones to help take the heat off of Johnson. If Jones is able to make some first downs and get off to a good start against Carr, it’ll open things up for the Bills’ other receivers (Roscoe Parrish, David Nelson and Brad Smith) and keep potential double teams away from Johnson.
BILLS. The Bills like the strength of their team on offense, particularly the wide receivers. The Chiefs’ strength on defense is their secondary. The Bills are going to want to air it out and try to spread the Chiefs out, so look for three, four and maybe even some 5 five wide receiver sets. How the starters Steve Johnson and Donald Jones fair against Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr will likely dictate how successful the Bills will be in attacking the Chiefs down the field. Protecting Ryan Fitzpatrick goes without saying. The Bill’s offensive line is in for a tall order going against Tamba Hali and linebacker Derrick Johnson. Ditto for the new-look defense. Their problems stopping the run have been well documented and they’ll face off against one of the top rushers in Jamaal Charles. He’s combined for 320 yards in two games the past two years against the Bills. He’s the lifeblood of the offense and if he goes off again, it’ll be a long day for Buffalo. Matt Cassel will be without three receiving targets, so the Bills shouldn’t be surprised if there’s an increased effort from Cassel to find top target Dwayne Bowe.
CHIEFS. Matt Cassel is dealing with rib issues and though the severity of his injury is unknown, the Chies are going to be on heightened alert to be extra careful protecting their quarterback. The Chiefs are a running team and they’re going against the reigning dead last defense against the run. Expect a lot of Jamaal Charles on the ground. Kansas City will be without TE Tony Moeaki and rookie WR Jonathan Baldwin. Though WR Steve Breaston is probable, his hamstring issue may limit his effectiveness. That means Cassel will have to rely heavily on Dwayne Bowe and it also means they’ll look to get Charles invovled in the receiving game as well. Second-year scat back Dexter McCluster could play a bigger role in the offense. The Chiefs have to feel good about their secondary with corners Brandon Flower and Brandon Carr and second year safety Eric Berry, so while they respect Fitzpatrick it’s likely they won’t fear him. Expect the Chiefs to line up Tamba Hali on both the left and right side and try to exploit the Bills’ weakness at both tackle spots.
PREDICTION: CHIEFS 20, BILLS 17. The Chiefs didn’t put on a very good showing in the preseason and perhaps it may carry over into Week 1 against the Bills. How well the Chiefs protect Matt Cassel and how well Cassel plays with questions about his ribs will be a key storyline to track throughout the game. But the Chiefs were the NFL’s top rushing unit in 2010 and the Bills were the worst at the stopping the run. The Bills made improvements on defense but until they start stopping the run on a consistent basis, they’re going to be looked upon skeptically. Jamaal Charles has dominated the Bills. He’s got 320 combined rushing yards in the past two games against the Bills. Without a couple of receiving elements, the Bills will put a greater focus on Dwayne Bowe which is why I think the Chiefs rely heavy on the running game. Look for Charles to go over 100 yards and a score. I think the Bills keep it close, but Kansas City gets a late field goal and that’s the difference.