East Rutherford, NJ (WGR 550) -- We're finally here!
The prolonged preseason activity has come to a close and the Buffalo Bills are now on the precipice of beginning one of their most heavily anticipated seasons in recent memory.
Will the new look defense live up to the hype? Will the offense recapture the glory of the first seven games of 2011? Can the Bills make the next step and contend for a playoff position?
We're about to find out over the next four months, and it all starts Sunday against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, NJ.
Let's take a look at five things to watch when the Bills and Jets kick things off on Sunday:
1) Stevie Johnson Watch
- Over the course of just two days, Stevie Johnson catapulted himself up to the top of the list for things to watch -- and it wasn't for any positive reasons. Tightness in his groin kept the wide receiver out of practice on Thursday, which raised a host of red flags. He was able to get back to work on Friday and is officially listed as questionable. The way Chan Gailey, Stevie Johnson and Ryan Fitzpatrick have been talking, however, the odds probably favor number-13 suiting up on Sunday. That may not be the most pressing question. Just how much will the groin prevent him from giving the Bills a viable threat against the likes of one of the best cornerbacks in the game, Darrelle Revis? Let's say Johnson can't play the whole way through the game. It may mean Revis' attention shifts to David Nelson, who is the second-most trusted wide receiver to Fitzpatrick. That means the Bills would then have to rely on Donald Jones, T.J. Graham, Scott Chandler or C.J. Spiller to be the player that helps the Bills' passing attack get out of the mud. Don't forget about Antonio Cromartie, either. He's in the shadow of Revis at the cornerback position for the Jets, but is one heck of a player in his own right. Cromartie had a two-interception performance against the Bills last season. Johnson's status might be the most important thing heading in to the contest for Buffalo, and one that will be closely watched as the game goes along.
2) Chance to Dominate for Mario
- The Bills really couldn't have asked for anything more to go their way for their first regular season contest when the Jets had a terrible time trying to figure out who would play right tackle. Long-time starter Wayne Hunter looked lost, and was subsequently benched and traded to pave way for a former undrafted free agent to the lineup. The young Austin Howard, who has one start to his credit through two seasons in the NFL. While he has size (6-foot-7, 333-pounds), Howard will be going up against not only the Bills' prized possession of the off-season, but one of the best defensive ends in all the NFL. Mario Williams can flat out dominate this matchup. Yes, you'll see the Jets try to chip him with a tight end or keep fullback John Conner on Mario's side to protect Mark Sanchez. This should not matter. Even if Mario doesn't get a sack credited to his name, his abilities should enhance the potential of both Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams to have monstrous days right next to him. Looking at the matchup, the Bills have to be licking their lips in that respect. Now it's all up to execution, just like anything else in football.
3) Smithcat vs. Tebowcat
- A lot has been made over the course of the past week about the Wildcat for this matchup. The co-creators of the offensive attack in Miami, Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and Bills quarterbacks coach David Lee, each have a player they believe can run it effectively. Brad Smith and Tim Tebow are entrusted with the duties to run the Wildcat, the set of plays that both Chan Gailey and Rex Ryan have talked very freely about leading up to Sunday. How much might we actually see, though? The fact that both head coaches have stated they'll run the Wildcat -- albeit in different ways (Ryan just came right out and said it, opposed to Gailey who said they were able to time up their Wildcat on Friday without even being asked about it) -- makes me a tad skeptical about how much each team will run it on Sunday. Both teams will be very well-versed on how to stop it. Whatever the case, it's one of the more intriguing aspects to the contest.
4) No Po'uha? Run, Fred, Run
- When Rex Ryan ruled out nose tackle Sione Po'uha for the game, it helped the Bills with another way to try and move the ball down the field. Po'uha is one of the players the Jets heavily depend on to help stop the run. Without him, we may see a bit of a different Bills offense than we've grown accustomed to over the past two seasons. Because the Bills have such an impressive blocking tight end in Lee Smith, there may be a chance the team uses a two-tight end set a lot more in 2012 than in Chan Gailey's first two years as head coach. Without Po'uha and the young Kenrick Ellis playing in his place, it gives the Bills that much more incentive to utilize that aspect of their offense.
(EDIT: After ruling Po'uha out on Friday, Rex Ryan said he misspoke and Po'uha is now listed questionable)
5) Open it up, Fitz
- Rewind the clock back to Week Nine of the 2011 regular season. The Bills were 5-2, coming off a trouncing of the Washington Redskins and had a big contest against the New York Jets on the horizon. The passing attack to that point was still in full stride and the Bills had a huge opportunity against a division rival. Coming out of that game, the Jets put out the 'blueprint' on how to stop the Bills' offense and things went downhill from there. The Jets took away the underneath routes and dared the Bills to beat them over the top, and Buffalo couldn't take advantage. While Ryan Fitzpatrick and the passing attack had more success in their second matchup with the Jets, there was still some room for improvement to try and beat this defensive philosophy. Fitzpatrick has to establish early on that they can capitalize on shots down the field to get the Jets to back off the line of scrimmage. Easier said than done, but it's on Fitzpatrick to provide the consistency to all areas of the field.
OUT: CB Ron Brooks (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Stevie Johnson (groin)
PROBABLE: WR Brad Smith (groin), G Kraig Urbik (low back)
OUT: S Eric Smith (hip), G Dennis Landolt (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Dustin Keller (hamstring), DE Mike DeVito (calf), NT Sione Po'uha (back)
PROBABLE: LB David Harris (ankle), WR Chaz Schilens (ankle), G Brandon Moore (hip), S Josh Bush (concussion), LB Bryan Thomas (ankle), WR Santonio Holmes (ribs), WR Stephen Hill (calf), CB Ellis Lankster (quadricep), HB Joe McKnight (hamstring), LB Nick Bellore (shoulder), S LaRon Landry (heel)
Prediction: Jets 19, Bills 13
- A tough matchup to open up the season for the Bills -- especially on the road -- but one that ultimately gets decided by the Bills' run defense and the Jets' pass defense, the two areas that will be tested the most on Sunday. The stronger of those two, from what we've seen during last year's contests, has been the Jets.