The Sean McDermott era begins in earnest on Sunday when the Buffalo Bills welcome the New York Jets to New Era Field (1 PM ET, CBS). Buffalo comes into this game as fairly hefty nine-point favorites against a Jets team expected to be the NFL’s worst team this year. If the Bills prevail, it will make McDermott just the third head coach in Bills history (Marv Levy and Rex Ryan being the others) to win on his debut.
What needs to happen for that to become a reality? Which Bills players need to step up in order for Buffalo to go top of the AFC East for the time being? Three major themes stand out heading into Sunday’s clash between long-time division rivals.
Week 1 Buffalo Bills Keys to Victory
Get Shady the Damn Ball
Late Thursday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Bills sweetened running back LeSean McCoy‘s contract a bit. Specifically, they added $2.5 million in incentives to his deal which expires in 2019. Schefter emphasized that it’s rare for teams to do this and it’s essentially a win-win for both player and team.
McCoy certainly comes into the regular season as the man in the Bills backfield. Buffalo unexpectedly released Jonathan Williams after it was all but assumed he’d undertake the number two role behind McCoy. What it means is that the nine-year veteran out of Pittsburgh will be shouldering an immense workload this year.
It’s certainly a concern given his age. McCoy is just barely on the right side of 30 and the mileage on his legs at this point in his career is fairly sizable. With just 102 more carries, he’ll eclipse 2,000 career rushing attempts. Only five active players have reached that milestone. And all of them (Matt Forte, Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson) have question marks as to how many more years they have left.
But for now, Shady doesn’t appear to be in line for a pullback. One year removed from finishing no worse than sixth in rushing yards, touchdown runs and yards per carry, there’s every reason to believe he can replicate that in 2017. McDermott even told the media that he thinks McCoy could see action on every snap, even if it was tongue in cheek. So with respect to his reps: let ‘er rip.
Tyrod Taylor: Manage the Game in the Air
Perhaps the biggest storyline ahead of Sunday’s opener is the status of Tyrod Taylor. The Bills quarterback suffered a concussion in the third preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Buffalo placed him in the concussion protocol afterwards and he stayed there for the remainder of the preseason.
But Taylor practiced early in the week and later received clearance to play on Sunday from an independent neurologist, per NFL concussion guidelines. This opens the door for the seven-year veteran out of Virginia Tech to unleash his dual threat capabilities on the Jets. But for the Bills to emerge victorious in week 1, Taylor just needs to be good, not great. This is particularly the case in the passing game.
The term “game manager” often begets a negative connotation. But that’s probably the best course of action for Taylor. The Jets’ situation with respect to skill position players on offense is hugely problematic this year. So don’t allow them to establish any semblance of a rhythm on that side of the ball by giving them a short field via a turnover.
In rookie Zay Jones, Taylor has a legitimate weapon in a potential dink-and-dunk passing game. Jones currently owns the NCAA record for most career receptions. What that indicates is that while at East Carolina, Jones caught a plethora of short and intermediate-range throws. That’s a useful skill set to have in a game where your quarterback’s returning from a head injury.
Make Josh McCown‘s Day Miserable
Jets head coach Todd Bowles made a no-nonsense decision in naming journeyman quarterback Josh McCown the regular season starter. Neither of the two younger quarterbacks on the roster, Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg, distinguished themselves with their play during the preseason. The latter made a rather embarrassing flub in training camp when he got kicked out of practice for improperly breaking the huddle on August 7th.
When these two inter-divisional foes meet on Sunday, the Bills defensive front needs to pressure McCown early and often. This is a unit that certainly re-established its ability to get at opposing quarterbacks last year. Buffalo tallied 39 sacks in 2016 which ranked eighth in the league, one season after finishing as the league’s second worst team in that category. It marked a slight return to the dominant pass rush Buffalo exuded in 2013 and 2014 when they averaged an NFL-leading 55.5 sacks during that stretch.
But in last year’s matchups against Gang Green, that reinvigorated pass rush disappeared. Only Lorenzo Alexander registered a sack in each game, both of which resulted in Bills losses. That’s in comparison to Buffalo’s 2.43 sack per game average over the course of the entire season. And it’s not like they played against a standout offensive line. Pro Football Focus gave the Jets the 13th worst average grade across all positions on that unit.
That can’t happen on Sunday. The Bills are facing a 38-year-old quarterback who went a combined 1-10 when starting for the Cleveland Browns the last two years. Making McCown’s life a living hell on a day when the crowd noise will make it extremely difficult for the Jets offense is as important a key to victory as any.