If you remember nothing that numerous commentators on the Kansas City Chiefs say today, remember this: take the 2011 Buffalo Bills lightly at your own risk.
This is a group that, for all its well-known troubles, is a very young team with some disgustingly talented players who are capable of making amazing plays. We are Chiefs fans, and we know the power of youth as much as we know its foibles. And when it comes to youth, it can only take one play to ignite the entire squad like they’re on heroin. This team features a half-dozen players that can turn a game on their ability to wreak havoc, something that about half the teams in the NFL cannot say. To say the Bills aren’t pushovers compared to previous years is only half true: they aren’t pushovers compared to about half the teams in the NFL. They are, objectively, among the top half of the league in terms of dangerous playmakers.
Bills HC Chan Gailey has made sure of that. Gailey has long been known for his ability to turn chicken sh*t into chicken salad offensively. He helped QB Tyler Thigpen throw for 20+ touchdowns as a Chief back in 2008. (Think about the magnitude of that.) And there Thiggy sits, now on the opposite sideline, waiting for a chance for a repeat performance for the Bills.
The guy he backs up is even better. Take Thigpen’s athleticism down just a notch, then throw in whip-smart decision-making, decent accuracy, and elite composure, and you’ve got Ryan Fitzpatrick. People like to bag on Fitz because he doesn’t have elite measurables, but this is a guy that inspired confidence in Buffalo working with a worse receiver corps than Kansas City’s with absolutely zero protection.
And while the protection in Buffalo is still a mess, its skill positions feature guys who can blow up the game with a big play every time they touch the ball. Stevie Johnson is a charismatic, route-running extraordinaire. Brad Smith’s amazing athleticism can create plays as a wildcat, running back, slot receiver, and kick returner. Roscoe Parrish is Dante Hall on steroids, and CJ Spiller is the fastest running back in the NFL, east of Oakland. I campaigned for the Chiefs to draft CJ Spiller in 2010 #5 overall.
The Bills’ defense doesn’t quite compliment the hyper-promise of its offense, but it does feature a ferocious pair of defensive tackles in All Pro Kyle Williams and impending DROY in Marcell Dareus. Jairus Byrd is the best young safety in the NFL not named Eric Berry, and they’ve bolstered their linebacking corps with backfield-attacker Shawne Merriman and downfield-patroller Nick Barnett.
Take the 2011 Buffalo Bills lightly at your own risk.
But even with all their improvements, they remain beatable for a team like Kansas City. After the jump, I highlight specific tactics the Chiefs can exercise to get the upper hand in the season opener.
Everybody has harped on the idea that the Chiefs must keep the Bills’ explosive playmakers off the field by controlling the play clock and running the hell out of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. This is absolutely true, and the Chiefs can have success doing it again. If they can run the ball and control the clock, Matt Cassel’s job is infinitely easier, and the game’s as good as won. But they’re playing a pretty solid defensive line with Buffalo, and it’s entirely likely the Bills, aware that the Chiefs are hurting for receivers with Johnny Baldwin and Tony Moeaki out, will pack the box, throw the farm at Dwayne Bowe, and dare Matt Cassel to beat them with Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban.
It’s true, with two of their most talented receivers out, the Chiefs could be stumped if a team finds a way to fence in Charles and brackets Bowe. And Breaston, who has yet to develop much chemistry with Cassel, and Urban, who’s just a guy, aren’t exactly examples of world-beating talent. And we are talking about a Matt Cassel that’s going to be fairly limited in his physical abilities for a week or two. So how are the Chiefs going to keep the defense honest?
Two words: Dexter McCluster. He is a threat Buffalo has no answer for. After struggling in 2010 to (a.) find a place in the offense, and (b.) stay healthy, McCluster has clearly improved his game for 2011. His hands are a thousand times better, he’s still making his impossibly quick cuts in the run game, but is absorbing punishment from defenses much better. He is running really good routes, and Cassel is clearly comfortable going to him more and more. Oddly enough, even though the Chiefs are starting the year out with McCluster at running back, he seems to have evolved into the cunning slot receiver the Chiefs thought they drafted last year.
Expecting a performance out of McCluster like what we saw from the Saints’ Darren Sproles last night is totally realistic. The Bills are vulnerable on special teams, and they are very thin at cornerback, so expect Dex to be lining up against a 3rd or 4th corner as the Bills throw everybody else at Bowe. McCluster operates primarily in the short game, which will help Cassel, but has the knack to hit a crease so quickly that he can gain serious chunks of yardage. Going to Dexter McCluster early and often will force the Bills to either (a.) lay off of smothering Bowe, or (b.) un-stack the box against the run game. Depending on what they do, Charles or Bowe could blow up.
Not that I’m sure the Bills even have a person that’s capable of covering Bowe. Their starting corners are 5’9″ and 5’10″, and neither is considered a lock down guy, or has shown much in terms of being a true ballhawk. My guess is that the Bills will have to roll their blue chip, Jairus Byrd, over to Bowe to even have a chance at slowing him down, but it’s open season on the other side of the field if that’s the case.
I’ve never been a terribly big fan of “spying” by a defender on a team’s most dangerous threat, but I think the Chiefs have to go small in their back seven all game in order to keep an extra defensive back on the field in order to account for CJ Spiller.
Last year, the Chiefs and Bills dueled deep into overtime, which was almost won when Spiller blasted by ILB Derrick Johnson for a near-touchdown that was somehow overthrown by Fitz. DJ is one of the NFL’s most athletic linebackers, but there is simply no account for the speed of someone like Spiller. I would recommend keeping Donald Washington trained on him all game, since he’s the fastest player on our defense (other than Berry or Flowers, who will already have their hands full elsewhere). Now Washington’s coverage is hilariously bad, but the Bills don’t have him run routes very often, and when he does, he’s not that big of a threat. We basically just need Washington on field to simply stick to him and keep up with him.
But the Bills’ main attack won’t be through Spiller, it will be through Fitz and RB Fred Jackson, who is this offense’s workhorse. Considering how horrendous the offensive line has been for Buffalo these past few years, it might be even worse in 2011. They are among the worst in pass protection and can’t open lanes. This will be a great chance for rookies like NT Jerrell Powe and DE Allen Bailey to cut their teeth. If the Chiefs can establish anything like a two-score lead, Powe and Bailey should be in at all times getting some value play time building confidence against this unit.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs shouldn’t need to bring much extra heat. Standard packages with OLBs Andy Studebaker and Tamba Hali with standard play from the defensive line should be enough to fence in Jackson and get dirt on Fitz’s jersey more than a few times. ILB Jovan Belcher’s game has elevated to the point where he can function like a fourth defensive lineman when he commits to hitting the trenches.
Trying to keep a handle on the downfield talent will be a lot simpler if the defensive backs feel no need to stack the box or blitz. I really like Stevie Johnson for the Bills, and I think he is the next great WR for that franchise, but containing him shouldn’t be terribly tricky. CB Brandon Flowers is emerging as a shutdown corner — put him on whomever Buffalo has in as the #2 receiver and remove that guy from Fitz even entertaining the idea of throwing there. Leave the task of now-beasting CB Brandon Carr and roll coverage towards Johnson. Bracket him if you have to. Force Fitz to beat you with guys like Scott Chandler or David Nelson.
Prediction: Chiefs 14, Bills 13
The Chiefs are, at present moment, a better team than the Bills. They have few answers to weapons like Charles, McCluster, or Bowe. But an injured Matt Cassel has the possibility of making us one-dimensional — we simply have no idea how badly hurt he is. Offensively, the Bills have so much explosive talent that you have to account for the fact that somebody’s going to get loose and break off a 70-yard touchdown. The Bills are almost going to have to rely on that playmaking this year, because I don’t think their bread-and-butter offensive is going to generate more than 200 yards/game outside of plays like that.