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Scouting Report: Buffalo Bills

Posted Dec 5, 2013

Taking a closer look at the Bucs' opponent in Week 14, as Buffalo brings a dangerous pair of running backs and the league's best pass-rushing defensive front to Raymond James Stadium

On Sunday, the 3-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 4-8 Buffalo Bills at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.  It will be the 10th meeting between the two teams in the regular season, nine of which have been played in Tampa (more on the Bucs-Bills series history here).  The Buccaneers will be looking for their fourth win in the last five weeks as well as their second against an AFC East opponent this year.

To get back on the winning track after their three-game run was ended last Sunday in Charlotte, the Buccaneers will need to contain the lethally fast C.J. Spiller and his running back mate, Fred Jackson, while also slowing down a pass rush that has produced an NFL-best 43 sacks.

-- First-year Bills Head Coach Doug Marrone was the architect of the Saints' high-powered offense from 2006-08
HEAD COACH: Doug Marrone may have made the jump from the college ranks to take over the Bills in 2013, but Buccaneer fans may be familiar with him as the offensive coordinator for the first three years of the Drew Brees era in New Orleans.  Marrone arrived in New Orleans after four seasons as the New York Jets' offensive line coach, and took over an offense that immediately emerged as one of the most explosive in the NFL.  That stint with the Saints helped Marrone earn his first head coaching job, at his alma mater, Syracuse.  The Orange quickly found success, too, going 21-17 over the last three seasons and twice winning the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.  Marrone inherited a Buffalo team that finished 6-10 in 2012, ranking 19th on offense and 22nd on defense.  The Bills are off to a similar start in 2013, at 4-8 through 12 weeks, but have seen slight improvements in their offensive (t-16th) and defensive (17th) rankings.  Most notably, the Bills have already eclipsed their sack total of 36 from all of last year, with 43 so far, and are on pace for 57, which would be the highest single-season total by an NFL team since 2008.  Marrone and his staff have also presided over the rapid development of rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, who has a passer rating of 82.7 and a strong 9-4 TD-INT ratio.  On offense, Marrone has installed an  up-tempo attack that seeks to put the pressure on the opposing defense.  He brought in the Jets' Mike Pettine to run the defense, and Pettine installed what is referred to as a "hybrid" defense, described by the Bills as "fast, aggressive, ruthless and relentless."

OFFENSE: Just like last year, when it ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards, Buffalo's best efforts on offense in 2013 have come when they've kept it on the ground.  This year, the Bills rank fourth in the NFL with 139.2 rushing yards per game, and they split the load almost right down the middle between C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.  Spiller, last year's breakout star, has elite speed and it shows in his average of 4.8 yards per carry.  Jackson is the type of veteran back who simply does everything well, year after year.  Spiller currently has a few more rushing yards (656 to 633) but Jackson has more carries (152-138 and touchdowns (seven to two).  Spiller and Jackson are the only running back duo in the NFL to have both exceeded 600 rushing yards so far this season. The two have also combined to catch 60 passes.

-- RB C.J. Spiller averages 4.8 yards per carry and is also a pass-catching threat
Mobile QB E.J. Manuel has also added to the Bills' strong rushing totals with 120 yards of his own, but he's done most of his damage through the air.  Despite missing four midseason games due to injury, Manuel has thrown for 1,595 yards and, as mentioned above, has kept the mistakes to a minimum with just four interceptions.  Manuel may be elusive, but like Carolina's Cam Newton, it's not because he's small.  Listed at 6-4 and 237 pounds, Manuel can evade defenders but he can also pull away from tacklers to avoid sacks, having been dropped just 17 times this year.  He is adept at throwing on the run, which has helped him spread the ball around quite a bit in 2013.  The Bills' leading receiver, Stevie Johnson, has just 46 catches, but there are seven different Buffalo players with at least 16 catches this year and seven different pass-catchers with at least one touchdown.  TE Scott Chandler is a serious threat, with 41 catches for 491 yards and two touchdowns, and as mentioned Manuel throws to his two running backs quite often.

When he left Syracuse, Marrone brought with him to Buffalo Nathaniel Hackett (who was briefly a quality control coach with the Buccaneers in 2006-07), making Hackett the second-youngest coordinator in the NFL at age 33.  Hackett has helped Marrone implement the fast-paced offense the team used to set a slew of school records at Syracuse.  Buffalo is tied for fifth in the NFL in "quick-strike" possessions, or scoring plays that take fewer than three plays.  Like the Buccaneers, the Bills also have a positive turnover ratio (+2) despite a sub-.500 record.

Buffalo's work in the red zone has been good and bad.  On one hand, the Bills lead the entire NFL with a scoring rate of 93.8% on possessions that penetrate the opposition's 20-yard line.  On the other hand, they also rank 28th on what the NFL considers the key red zone stat: Touchdown percentage.  Buffalo has scored on 30 of its 32 red zone drives, but only 15 of those have been touchdowns.  The Bills' success rate of 35.4% on third downs ranks 21st in the NFL.

DEFENSE: As alluded to above, the strength of the Bills' defense is in the pressure it can apply from the front seven.  High-priced 2012 free agency acquisition Mario Williams, the former #1 overall pick in 2006 by Houston, has produced big numbers, leading the team with 12 sacks to rank third in the NFL.  He does much of his damage on third down; in fact, his 12.5 sacks on third down over the past two seasons is tied with Miami's Cameron Wake for the most in the NFL in that span.  Williams has a lot of help getting to the quarterback, especially from pass-rushing OLB/DE Jerry Hughes, who is second on the team with eight sacks.  The Indianapolis Colts took Hughes in the first round in 2010 but traded him to Buffalo after he recorded just five sacks in three seasons, and that has proven to be an astute move for the Bills.  Between those two edge rushers, Buffalo's defense also has one of the top DT duos in the NFL in Kyle Williams (seven sacks) and Marcell Dareus (six sacks), another former first-round pick.

-- Rookie LB Kiko Alonso is second in the NFL with 125 tackles and also has four INTs
The biggest individual story for Buffalo's defense in 2013, however, is rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, the former Oregon standout who was the 46th player taken in April's draft.  Alonso is probably the leading candidate for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2013, as he ranks second in the league among all players with 125 tackles and also has four interceptions.  All of Alonso's interceptions came in the month of September, however.  Alonso is flanked on the strong side by former 49er Manny Lawson, who has 57 tackles and three sacks on the season.

As if Mario and Kyle were not enough, the Bills have a third Williams putting up big numbers on defense. That would be starting strong safety Aaron Williams, who ranks second on the team with 76 tackles and also has three interceptions.  In fact, Buffalo has four of the top eight interceptors in the AFC, as veteran safeties Jairus Byrd and Jim Leonhard have also picked off three passes.  A second-round pick in 2009, Byrd continues to play at a high level after the team used its franchise tag to keep him in Buffalo this year.  Buffalo's defense ranks sixth in the NFL in interceptions produced per pass play, and it's fair to say that is in large part a product of the intense pressure the team puts up front.  Buffalo's defense is very aggressive in bringing extra pass-rushers and often asks cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore (two more former first-round draft picks) to operate in man-to-man coverage.

Buffalo's aggressive approach on defense produces the sort of risk-reward statistical returns you would expect.  The Bills rank first in the NFL with negative plays forced by its defense, with 92, but also has allowed 53 plays of 20 or more yards, tied for the ninth-most in the league.  That includes 13 runs allowed of 20 or more yards, tied for second-most in the NFL.  Buffalo's run defense has allowed 121.5 yards per game in 2013, the 24th-worst mark in the league.

-- CB Leodis McKelvin has a career average of 13.0 yards per punt return, though his numbers are down in 2013
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bills have changed punters in the middle of the season for the second straight year, with the same two players involved.  In 2012, the team released Brian Moorman, who had been handling their punting duties since 2001, and signed undrafted rookie Shawn Powell to take his place.  Powell began 2013 as the team's punter but was released in October after a particularly rough game against Cleveland on Thursday Night Football.  Back came Moorman, but neither punter has produced outstanding results, as the team ranks 24th in gross punting average and 31st in net punting average.  Moorman has a 41.0-yard gross and a 35.5-yard net this year.  Dan Carpenter has given the team significantly better outcomes in the placekicking game, making 23 of his 25 field goal tries and all 26 of his extra point attempts.  If maintained Carpenter's 92.0% field goal percentage would tie the team record set by current Buccaneer Rian Lindell in 2006.  Carpenter has made three of his four attempts from 50 yards and beyond, with a long of 55 in a Week Two win over Carolina.

Long one of the NFL's best punt returners, McKelvin is averaging just 6.7 yards per runback this year, less than half his career mark of 13.0.  The Bills have also used Leonhard in that role some, and he has a 9.0-yard average on seven tries.  The kickoff return job belongs mostly to rookie wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who is averaging 24.2 yards per runback but has not broken one longer than 28.  The Bills have been better at stopping opposing return men, ranking eighth on punts and 14th on kickoffs.