You've been waiting for this day since March right? Ever since the Bills stunned the NFL by signing Mario Williams to the largest contract for a defensive player, you probably began your own countdown clock.
That stunning pickup, coming on the heels of Stevie Johnson re-signing and followed by the addition of Mark Anderson to go along with the drafting of perhaps the Bills shutdown cornerback(Stephon Gilmore) and starting left tackle(Cordy Glenn) made for the most exciting off season in quite some time.
Come 1:00 on Sunday we begin to see exactly how much better the 2012 Bills might be and the journey begins on the road to what Bills fans hope will be the ending of a 12 year playoff drought. The opener against the Jets brings a number of intriguing story lines along with it.
If the Bills are going to earn one of the coveted six spots in the AFC playoffs, the Jets are one of the teams they will have to beat out and its a franchise that seems to be going backwards while the Bills are believed to be on the way up.
Buffalo has lost its last five meetings to Gang Green and in some of those have been kicked around pretty good. To make the playoffs you need to win games obviously but winning inside your division is very important as are victories on enemy turf. The Bills were awful in both of those areas last season, going 1-5 against AFC East foes and 1-7 on the road.
After hearing about a vanilla gameplan all through the pre-season, its time to see what strides the Bills defense has made after a 2011 season that was one of the worst by a defense in Bills history.
Will the Bills be able to generate a consistent pass rush? How about doing that when only using four guys?
Mario Williams should pay immediate dividends as he faces an undrafted free agent in Jets right tackle Austin Howard.
An improved pass rush should help the secondary as will the presence of rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore. I’m excited to see what the Bills first round pick can do and whether or not he can develop into an elite, shutdown corner.
Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt says Gilmore’s ball skills and his hand-eye coordination when the ball is in the air are as good as any cornerback he’s ever coached.
As much time as we spend focusing on the pass rush, the run defense was the most atrocious part of the 2011 Bills. Defensive co-captain George Wilson says the first goal of the defense this season is to stop the run. The opener will provide a good test since Rex Ryan wants the Jets to return to their old “ground and pound” ways. New York did exactly that against the Bills in 2009 and 2010, averaging more than 200 yards rushing over four games.
As far as the offense is concerned, we begin to see whether or not the hiring of quarterbacks coach David Lee and his work with Ryan Fitzpatrick on technique and mechanics will mean a more accurate signal caller. Fitzpatrick has completed just 49% of his passes against Ryan’s Jets teams.
Hopefully Fitzpatrick will be upright most of the day against what should turn out to be one of the top 5 defenses in the NFL. The Jets utilize an aggressive, blitzing gameplan(including former Bill Aaron Maybin) and the last time we saw the Bills offensive line in extensive action, Fitzpatrick was taking a pounding from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Which is one reason why Chan Gailey should lean more on the running game this season. I think that is clearly the strength of the offense with Fred Jackson, who makes this offense go, and C.J. Spiller who finally showed signs of why the Bills thought he was worth a high first round pick. Using the spread formations has helped open up the field for the running game to be more effective.
Who knows how healthy Stevie Johnson is but his matchup with Darrelle Revis is certainly one of the keys in this game. Perhaps for the first time in his NFL career, Revis spent the days leading up to a game answering questions about whether an opposing receiver had actually gotten into his head, based on Johnson’s relative success last season against the best corner in the NFL.
Chan Gailey has said he wants Fitzpatrick to throw a deep ball once every quarter this season. Enter rookie T.J. Graham with his blazing speed. One of the most memorable plays of the pre-season was Graham running under a bomb from Vince Young. Graham seems to have come along quicker than expected in terms of his knowledge of the offense. I’m interested to see how many times he will be out on the field and whether or not the third round pick has earned the trust of Fitzpatrick yet.
Don’t forget about Scott Chandler who was a revelation at tight end last season. The question is what can he do for an encore?
A quick note on special teams. The Bills kept John Potter as their kickoff specialist and this game had to be one of the reasons. The Jets Joe McKnight averaged a franchise record 31 yards a return last season so Potter can make an impact in his NFL debut by keeping McKnight from getting his hands on the ball and leaving the Jets with drive starts at the 20 yard line.