I had to dust off the old time football handbook for this week's preview. Its time to talk about run and stop the run for Sunday's matchup between the 3-3 Buffalo Bills and 2-4 Tennessee Titans at a sold out Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bills have actually run the ball more often than I anticipated this season(48% of the time) but its time to dole out a heavy helping of C.J. Spiller. We've spent so much time talking about the deficiencies in the Bills passing game(more on that later) but despite the loss of two starting offensive linemen to injuries, the ground game remains strong and potent.
Forget about the rotation with Fred Jackson, who rushed back early from a knee injury to help the team because Spiller went down. Jackson sure doesn't look 100% while Spiller seemed to be back in top form during last week's win at Arizona. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry but was only handed the ball 12 times. Jackson had 16 carries and averaged 3.3 yards. For goodness sake, just give Spiller the ball, 20 or 25 or even 30 times if he's gashing the Titans run defense(ranked only 24th in the NFL).
As to the stop the run portion of the game plan, I have to tell you I'm worried. The Bills run defense looked much improved over the first three games of the season but has reverted to 2011 form over the last three games. Buffalo gave up an average of only 100 yards a game against the Jets, Chiefs and Browns. But Dave Wannstedt's group has been gored to the tune of 246 yards a game on the average by the Patriots, 49ers and Cardinals.
New England's rushing yards total against the Bills was 95 yards above their season average while San Francisco's was 135 above their average and Arizona was 99 more than their average through the first five games.
Perhaps this isn't the best time to face a running back like Chris Johnson but the Titans back doesn't appear to be anywhere near the player he was back in 2009 when he put together a 2,000 yard season. In four of the Titans six games, Johnson has been held to under 25 yards. He did look much better in Tennessee's upset win over Pittsburgh on October 11th, gaining 91 yards. Still, the Titans will come to Western New York ranked dead last in the NFL, averaging just 70 rushing yards a game.
Johnson has fared well against the Bills, rushing for 132 yards and two touchdowns during a Tennessee win in his magical 2009 season. Johnson bettered that individual effort by totaling 153 yards and two TD's when the Titans knocked off the Bills at RWS last season.
The Bills will need a strong run defense to help out their offense and they'll need a big game from Spiller to help out their struggling quarterback. In a season where the Bills brought in a quarterbacks coach to correct Ryan Fitzpatrick's mechanics, his game continues to go backwards. He's gone from a quarterback who was inconsistent on the deep ball but could get by with the short to intermediate passes to a quarterback who has no vertical passing game and is now spotty when it comes to those short and intermediate routes.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Harvard grad is 4-17(23%) on passes of 20 yards or more this season. That places him 30th in the NFL in that category. He has almost as many interceptions(3) from those distances as he does completions(4).
His confidence has taken a major hit and Fitzpatrick is beginning to show some Trent Edwards tendencies. According to Pro FootballFocus.com, of the 153 passing yards Fitzpatrick recorded in the win at Arizona, 114 of them came after the catch. That means in "real completion yards" if you will, the distance from the line of scrimmage to the spot where the catch was actually made, his 18 completions traveled a total of 39 yards.
In addition, the chemistry between number one qb and number one wide receiver seems to be suffering. The frustration is clearly building for Stevie Johnson who is getting open but can't do much when the pass is off target. It could be worse, the Bills might not even be attempting to throw the ball to their best receiving option but Johnson has to be wondering about Fitzpatrick's abilities at this point. According to the official NFL Game Books, Johnson has been the target on 31% of Fitzpatrick's passes this season, more than any other Bill. Scott Chandler is second at 17% and Donald Jones is third at 14%. But Fitzpatrick is completing just 47% of those passes to Johnson.
The last few weeks got me thinking about a new quarterback handling the offense next season despite the large financial commitment the team made to Fitzpatrick. If the Bills decide to cut ties, they should do it this off season. Fitzpatrick is due a $3 million roster bonus in March of 2013 and another $3 million in March of 2014. His base salary for next season(which is guaranteed if he is on the opening day roster) is $4.25 million so the Bills are on the hook for over 7$ million next year. This after paying him about $21 million for 2011 and 2012.
If you go by the stats, Fitzpatrick would seem to have the chance for a good day against Tennessee. The Titans have the 3rd worst pass defense in the league(292 yards a game) and have recorded the 3rd fewest sacks(8). Opposing quarterbacks have completed an amazing 71% of their passes with 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions. A young group of linebackers who struggle in coverage combined with a scheme that has the safeties play extremely deep to prevent getting burned by big plays, has allowed teams to exploit the middle of the field and roll up the yards. It'll be interesting to see if the Titans have their safeties come up more since Fitzpatrick hasn't shown the ability to hit on the deep ball.
In defense of the pass defense, Tennessee has faced quite the gauntlet of quarterbacks as my colleague Jeremy White astutely pointed out this week. The Titans have gone up against Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, Mathew Stafford(and Sean Hill since Stafford was injured in that game), Matt Schaub, Christian Ponder and Ben Roethlisberger. I'm guessing no other team has faced that kind of quality qb in every game.
Here are some other nuggets which might give you reason for optimism on Sunday. The Titans are 0-3 on the road this season, losing by 28 points to SanDiego, 24 to Houston and 23 to Minnesota. They've given up more points than any other team in the league(204) and their "best" game of the season was holding Pittsburgh to 23.
Apparently Coach Mike Munchak isn't the most inspirational guy in the locker room. Tennessee has been outscored 58-19 in the first quarter and 48-14 in the third quarter.
Join WGR on game day as our coverage begins at 7:00 with "Breakfast with the Bills". Jeremy White will broadcast from the field house starting at 8:00 as he brings you Bills Game Day. I'm on the air at 10:00 with Countdown to Kickoff. Turn down the TV sound and listen to John Murphy, Mark Kelso and Joe Buscaglia for the call of the game. Talk about it on the post game show with Schopp and The Bulldog and wrap the day up from 6-8pm on the Overtime show with Sal Capaccio.