Last week’s match with the New York Giants was a game to forget. On to Week 11. This week, the Bengals return home to face the Buffalo Bills in Paul Brown Stadium. It will be the Bengals’ first game at PBS in nearly a month, after a home game in London, a bye and a road game in New York, well technically, New Jersey. We spoke with Jeff Hunter of Buffalo Rumblings for an in-depth look at this year’s Bills team.
Connor Howe: Tyrod Taylor has been coming into his own as of late. Tell me about his season -- what he's done well, what he needs to improve on, just how good you think he currently is and how high you think his ceiling could be.
Jeff Hunter: There is really a lot to say when it comes to Taylor. I've been as harsh on him as anybody has over his Bills career, but he quieted me a bit with his awesome performance last Monday at Seattle. That said, there are still seven games to go before the Bills decide whether to pick up the rest of his contract extension.
Last season, if you asked me what his biggest strength was, I'd tell you it was the deep ball. You guys didn't get to see it up close, since he missed the Bengals game last year, but he showed a lot of touch throwing down the field, especially from outside the pocket. This season, I'll point to his running ability, especially when it comes to evading pressure in the pocket. Simply put, Taylor is the most athletic quarterback in the NFL, and it's not even close. He can make defenders miss the way you'd expect from a top-level running back, and then he can go ahead and either rip off a 20-yard laser down the field or tuck it and run for 20 himself. If you want a visual, find the third-and-21 conversion from the final drive of that Seahawks game. That is Taylor at his finest.
Of course, he's far from perfect. A lot of his supporters highlight the Bills' depleted receiving corps, which at times has been led by Justin Hunter and Brandon Tate and was so barren that the team had to bring Percy Harvin out of retirement. I agree, but at the same time there have been many plays where Taylor just doesn't give the receivers he does have chances to make plays. He can be wildly inaccurate on intermediate throws, and he doesn't use the middle of the field very well at all. His athletic ability is electrifying, but at times it causes him to hold on to the ball for far too long, and against a good front seven it could lead to sacks or forced incompletions.
CH: Buffalo's run game has taken off since Anthony Lynn's promotion to offensive coordinator. What makes LeSean McCoy so good as a runner, and do you think the loss of center Eric Wood, a guy Rex Ryan said he thinks "is the best center in football," will be a significant obstacle to overcome?
JH: Lynn has done a solid job as the Bills' OC, but there are a few other factors that have led to the team's run game resurgence. For one, Greg Roman really seemed to abandon the run in the first two games this year in favor of trying to make Tyrod look like a mobile Drew Brees. That's not happening. The team also brought back Jerome Felton, who they cut prior to the start of the season in favor of Glenn Gronkowski, and he's been a major help in opening holes for the backs to run through.
The loss of Wood is going to sting, especially in the running game. Early signs point to Ryan Groy taking over the position; he's been with the Bills all year and has seen some action at guard and as a seventh lineman at times. He's alright, but the loss of an underrated talent (maybe not by Rex, but by many) such as Wood is going to take some time to adjust to.
Shady is a top-five talent at the running back position, and easily the most talented player on the Bills. He does a lot of things well, but the thing that stands out to me is his agility. For most running backs, an east-west style is going to be unsuccessful at best and detrimental at worst. With McCoy, it's where he seems to be most comfortable, and the results speak for themselves. There are at least a few times a game where he'll take a handoff and run parallel to the offensive line for a bit before making a 90 degree turn when he find the hole he wants to hit and gaining 5-7 yards. That, along with his speed and receiving ability, makes him the most important piece of the team's offense.
CH: The Bills' defense seems inconsistent, though guys like Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander have been breakout stars. With Aaron Williams on injured reserve after Jarvis Landry's blindside block (the cheapest play I've seen this year, for what it’s worth) and Ronald Darby's play taking a step back from where it was last year, how do you think the Bills will be able to stop A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert?
JH: Short answer: I don't.
Longer answer: After the last two games, Rex has started making major shakeups in the secondary. The Bills have signed two safeties since last week, Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo. They will both cut into the playing time of Robert Blanton, who was just annihilated by Jimmy Graham in Seattle, and one of them (probably Ihedigbo, who has experience playing under Rex and DC Dennis Thurman) could even start against the Bengals.
Starting cornerback Ronald Darby, who was a DROY candidate last year, is now in an "open competition" for his job with free-agent pickup Corey White, who played well when filling in for Darby earlier in the season. Darby has definitely regressed this year, and the hope is that the move is going to be more of a wake-up call than a confidence-breaker, but it's not at all out of the question for the staff to actually pull the trigger and start White.
Finally, the team seems to have benched slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in favor of rookie sixth-rounder Kevon Seymour. Robey-Coleman was playing well earlier in the year, and has very good instincts, but has always been held back by one key problem: he's 5'8". That's always been a problem, but it's become even more obvious in the last two weeks when he's been unable to effectively cover top-level tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, both of whom (in addition to being ridiculously talented) are almost a foot taller than NRC. Seymour hasn't shown the talent for the position that Robey-Coleman has, but he's four inches taller and could be less of a liability against the 6'6" Eifert.
Finally, there's the guy that's probably going to shadow Green, Stephon Gilmore. He's in a contract year, and has spent most of it wavering between a top-five talent and somebody who should be benched. The latter part has been on display lately, and at this point just about everybody seems to be assuming that the next seven games will be his last with the Bills. He was criticized in the offseason for asking for top-five cornerback money in his next deal, and criticized even more for not playing at a top-five cornerback level for most of this season. A good showing against Green could be worth a few million dollars in the offseason, and if that's a motivator he certainly has it in him to be able to shut down just about anybody, Green included.
CH: Give us a couple guys who have been performing well who most Bengals fans probably haven't heard of.
JH: Lorenzo Alexander's story has been pretty well explained by this point, so I'll go with someone else. Instead, I'll shout out backup running back Mike Gillislee, who earned a little bit of press when McCoy's hamstring injury forced him into a larger role. He earned his second career start against the Patriots in Week 8 (the first being in Week 8 of last season), and responded with 94 yards on 15 touches with a touchdown. The Bills seemed almost dead-set against using him early in the season, especially when Greg Roman was still around. He's been absolutely deadly when he has a chance with the ball, though; he has a six yards per attempt on 42 carries, with six rushes of 10+ yards and four touchdowns on the ground to go with one on a screen pass.
On the defensive side, I'll let our editor in chief, Chris Trapasso, tell you about defensive tackle Jerel Worthy:
"He was a highly touted prospect (picked No. 51 overall by the Packers in the 2012 draft) but failed to live up to expectations in Green Bay. After bouncing around a bit, he's found a home with the Bills as a one-gap backfield perpetrator who wins with impressive burst off the snap, power, and hand usage to slip past offensive linemen. Up to this point, he's been utilized sparingly by Buffalo -- he's played under 100 snaps thus far in 2016 -- but should seen an increased role on Sunday and down the stretch for the Bills."
CH: And finally, what's your final score prediction?
JH: I feel good about the Bills’ chances in this one, largely because they're playing on 13 days of rest to Cincy's six. That's given some guys who have been hurt a chance to heal up, notably Marcell Dareus, who has only played in 41 snaps this year but still has four tackles and a sack.
The game is going to be decided by two factors: how well the Bills secondary plays after two bad outings and a big shakeup, and how well the Bengals' edge rushers keep Tyrod contained in the pocket. Assuming neither team performs very well in those areas, I get the feeling that this is going to be a shootout. The Bills don't usually perform well in that case, but I have a feeling this week will be different (again, largely because of the rest differential).
Final score: Bills 34, Bengals 28