Coming into the season, I did the normal schedule inspection, picking games that were "easy wins", "sure losses", and "tough games." I’ve been pretty accurate thus far, and if that continues, the Bengals could have a tough game this week. The Bills intrigued me before the season. I like Rex Ryan as a coach, especially in his first few years with a team. He has a knack for getting players to play hard for him. He’s never had much at the quarterback position, but I actually like Tyrod Taylor. I thought he showed a lot of potential behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore, and I’m legitimately happy for him to be getting a shot now and having success.
The Bills also feature running back in LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Watkins who bring a lot of talent to their respective skill positions. Add in a great defensive line, and you have the ingredients for what could be a very solid football team.
But, as Benjen Stark said, nothing said before the word "but" really counts.
But, Tyrod Taylor, Shady McCoy, and Sammy Watkins may not be playing. Watkins is the most likely "go" of the group, but he alone doesn’t instill a lot of fear in me. This means we will likely see E.J. Manuel at QB and some combination of Anthony Dixon and Daniel Herron at running back. These don’t leave me trembling either. This is the NFL though, and the Bengals will be on the road so anything is possible. To keep those "anythings" from happening, these players could be paramount.
1.) Dre Kirkpatrick
Coming into this season, I was ready to see Kirkpatrick make the jump. We had seen bright flashes punctuated by big mistakes. I hoped that a full offseason more or less knowing that he was the starter would prepare him mentally to avoid some of the big mistakes he made in 2014. Instead, some of those big mistakes still bubble up, and we’ve yet to see the ball-hawking abilities that were flashed at the end of last year. All is not lost though. There is still plenty of football to be played, meaning there is a lot of time for Kirkpatrick to get on track. Watkins is the biggest threat the Bills have and he's likely to be suiting up after an injury kept him out the past two weeks. The chances are that he will be covered by Kirkpatrick at least a few times on Sunday. If he can play well against Watkins, that will go a long way towards a Bengals victory.
At this point in the season, we know what Eifert brings in the receiving game. He is a top-5 tight end as far as receiving production. His problem lies in the blocking game. I know that this is not his primary responsibility, but as an NFL tight end, sometimes you’re going to have to block defensive ends and outside linebackers. This week, those players are Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, and they happen to be pretty damn good. While I think we’d all prefer Eifert to be running routes on every play, sometimes the defensive play calls mandate that he stay in and block. Eifert has to do a better job than he has up to this point. Andy Dalton took quite a few hits last week, a drastic shift from his relative cleanliness the first four weeks. I’d like to see the protection revert to how it was, and Eifert can play a key role in that.
3.) A.J. Hawk
With Tyrod Taylor likely sitting, I would expect the Bills to emphasize the run game, no matter who they have toting it. More emphasis on the run equals more base 4-3 defense, which means more A.J. Hawk. This game could have all of the factors that lead to Hawk finally having some kind of impact. I’m not saying he is going to lead the team in tackles or blow our minds, but a cold weather game on the road against a run heavy team with potentially a backup QB and a starting RB who likely won't be playing the full game, is about all you could ask for to give Hawk a chance to make some plays.
4) Brandon Tate
Buffalo’s strength is obviously their defense, especially with an offense suffering through a litany of injuries. The most likely way they make this a game is to keep it close thanks to their defense. If the Bengals lose a shootout to E.J. Manuel, I will be more than a little surprised. One thing that helps a good defense with a great defensive line is pinning a team deep in their own territory. That can lead to good field position for their offense, and a frustrating afternoon for Bengals fans. What I’m trying to say here is that I don’t want to see Tate leave the endzone on a kick return one time. None. Don’t even contemplate it man.
5) Reggie Nelson
It seems like Nelson may be the most forgotten Bengal there is. The problem is, he is starting to be noticeable because he isn’t playing up to the level to which we’ve become accustomed. Whether he is dealing with injuries or father time is simply starting to creep up, something isn’t right. Nelson is key to a lot of things the Bengals do on defense. Not only is he solid in coverage, but he is good against the run, and he’s the best blitzing defensive back on the roster. If he has a good game, the Bills will likely be having a long day.