ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Here are my five thoughts on the Buffalo Bills’ game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at Highmark Stadium:
1. We’re about to get the first bit of evidence on whether the Bills are truly as good a team as we think they are.
Of course, they are (or should be) at their very best with a healthy Josh Allen at quarterback. He’s listed as questionable with the right elbow injury he suffered late in last Sunday’s loss against the Jets after missing two days of practice and practicing on a limited basis Friday. If Allen doesn’t play against the Vikings, we’re going to see just how well the supporting cast is able to rise to the occasion with Case Keenum behind center.
If he does play Sunday, we’ll get perhaps one of our best indications yet of Allen’s ability to overcome adversity. Not only would he be looking to rebound after a terrible performance against the Jets, but he’d also be entering the game with minimal on-field preparation. Oh, and there’s that elbow injury, which Sean McDermott could very well be using for some gamesmanship with his saying the team is “literally in an hour-to-hour situation” regarding Allen’s playing status.
Either way, the trickiest part for the Bills would seem to be determining when Allen could throw a football in anger without doing greater damage to what has been reported as a sprain to his ulnar collateral ligament and related ligaments. If the medical staff believes that’s Sunday, great.
But if, as other NFL medical people (not treating Allen) and decision-makers with whom I’ve spoken have mentioned, Allen’s injury is best treated with more than a week of rest, it’s reasonable to at least wonder if he should be held out for at least one game, if not longer. The Bills’ primary focus should be on having Allen for the long haul, which extends through the postseason and beyond. The goal isn’t just to win a Super Bowl in February, but to be contending for multiple championships.
The 7-1 Vikings, who are on a six-game winning streak, figured to be a tough challenge, regardless of whether Allen plays. Still, they’re extremely vulnerable in defending the pass and have been living on the edge all season with all the last six victories decided by eight or fewer points.
History, including the Bills’, shows us a genuine Super Bowl contender needs to be able to find a way to survive without its franchise QB. Does anyone remember when Frank Reich kept the Bills on their Super Bowl path while Hall of Fame-bound Jim Kelly was injured? That doesn’t only apply to Sunday. If Allen were to also miss the two following games, against Cleveland and Detroit, the Bills should be given more than a puncher’s chance to win at least two if not all their next three contests.
That means playing solid defense. That means finding a running game beyond Allen. That means the receiving corps doing all it can to uplift Keenum or Matt Barkley.
Stefon Diggs said it best for the entire team when he told reporters this week: “I told my guys regardless of whoever is out there, we've got to still do our job. Get open and catch the ball. And try to get as many reps as we can during the week so we can build confidence. We’ve got a small window.”
2. It’s time for the Bills’ run defense to, once and for all, show up.
That hasn’t been the case for the past two games, making it a disturbing trend. The Vikings have one of the NFL’s best running backs in Dalvin Cook, whose younger brother, James, is a rookie running back for the Bills.
With Matt Milano expected to return from the oblique injury that kept him out of last Sunday’s game, the Bills have one fewer excuse for being porous against the run. They especially need their interior defensive linemen, led by Jordan Phillips, to return to the form that had made Buffalo’s defense stout in all phases through most of the first six games of the season.
If, as the coaches have said, gap integrity has contributed to the run-stopping issues, then it needs to be resolved immediately. There’s no reason to have such flaws surface this far into the season.
3. It’s time for the Bills to, once and for all, find a way to effectively run the ball with someone other than Allen as the primary ball-carrier.
I would be saying this if Allen were fully healthy. When your best thrower is also your best runner, that’s a problem, even when he’s barreling his way through, around and over would-be tacklers.
One, there’s the risk for injury. Though Allen’s elbow issue resulted from a hit he took to it while throwing, exposure to the contact that comes with his naturally reckless, highly physical style of running would logically enhance his chances of causing additional problems to the elbow and/or result in damaging other parts of his body.
Secondly, opponents have no reason to respect the threat of the Bills using their running backs to move the ball on the ground. That greatly minimizes the impact of their play-action game, which in turn limits the use of certain plays particularly in red-zone/goal-line situations.
4. With Greg Rousseau out of the lineup, the Bills might have to revert to finding ways to manufacture a pass rush.
Rousseau’s presence will be missed, thanks to an upper ankle sprain he suffered last Sunday. That should allow the Vikings to devote more blocking attention to Von Miller. Even if Miller can find success putting heat on Kurt Cousins, that might not be enough to help stifle a passing attack that features one of the game’s top game-breaking receivers in Justin Jefferson.
Though generating pressure is always better if it can be done with only four pass rushers backed by a full complement of defensive backs, Leslie Frazier could also be tasked with utilizing more blitzes than usual. He has shown a willingness to do so in other games, most notably the victory at Baltimore on Oct. 2, and the Bills have players at every level of their defense capable of blitzing effectively.
There’s always risk involved with the potential of giving up big plays against one-on-one coverage, but that shouldn’t deter Frazier if he believes blitzing is the right way to go.
5. Jordan Poyer’s absence should create a growing concern.
The Bills’ secondary has displayed amazingly good depth for most of the season, but how much longer that can hold up is a question.
Playing another game without their two best safeties (Micah Hyde is out for the season after neck surgery) increases the stress on the backups taking their place. By now, opponents have a stronger handle on the weaknesses of Damar Hamlin and Jaquon Johnson, both of whom are still young and developing, and can take advantage of them.
If Tre’Davious White, who has been cleared to join the active roster as he looks to return from major knee surgery, is held out again, that would only enhance the load for the secondary to carry for another week. When will there be a breaking point? We might find out soon.