GROUND AND POUND
There's a well-worn adage in football: When you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterback. The Bills, in fact, have three quarterbacks—Tyrod Taylor, Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel, all of whom could start at some point—but they really have no quarterback. General manager Doug Whaley freely admits the lack of an established signal-caller is his team's biggest hindrance. For more than a decade Buffalo has been just talented enough to miss out on the top quarterbacks in the draft, but not good enough to break through to the playoffs. The Bills haven't made the postseason since 1999, cycling through 13 leading men in the last 15 years. They'll enter Week 1 with Taylor (a career backup to Joe Flacco) under center, but don't be surprised if at some point this year you see Manuel (Buffalo's 2013 first-round pick) or Cassel (a 10-year journeyman) swapped in. "Obviously it's not an ideal situation," new coach Rex Ryan has said of his QB situation. "But we have enough talent to be fine."
Whaley has attempted to mitigate his quarterback woes by committing to a ground-and-pound offense. He hired offensive coordinator Greg Roman from San Francisco, where he guided the 49ers to 8,912 rushing yards over the past four seasons, the second-best mark in the NFL. Roman's offense is built on deception through various presnap motions and formation changes. Two-time All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy, acquired in a surprising off-season trade with the Eagles, will be the centerpiece and shoulder the bulk of the carries. But the depth chart behind McCoy is thin—career backups Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown; fifth-round pick Karlos Williams (Florida State)—and the Bills could sink if, say, the hamstring McCoy injured in camp hampers him this season.
Roman's offense will also heavily feature tight ends—a shift for Buffalo—and the Bills targeted former Dolphin Charles Clay as their big off-season investment, signing him for five years at $38 million. Whaley's other free-agency signings were less costly but riskier (and that's not including waiver claim IK Enemkpali, the reserve linebacker who was released from the Jets after cold-cocking quarterback Geno Smith). Guard Richie Incognito, who was effectively blackballed from the league for his role in the Dolphins' 2013 bullying scandal, was brought in to shore up the line. Percy Harvin, the elusive receiver who has burned through four teams in four years and has not been a factor since the first half of '12, signed a one-year deal.
Harvin, the 2009 Rookie of the Year, has been used mostly in gadget-type roles. One reason he chose the Bills was their commitment to lining him up out wide. "We're not going to lose the fact that he can be a weapon in other areas," says receivers coach Sanjay Lal, alluding to Harvin's prowess on kick returns, among other things. "But Percy is a wideout with us. And he's going to be a good one."
He joins one of the league's most promising tandems in 22-year-old Sammy Watkins and 23-year-old Robert Woods. The Bills will need to figure out how to keep all of their targets happy—once they figure out who is throwing them the ball.
On defense the biggest addition may be Ryan, the brash coach known for creating a feared pass rush. (It was the only constant for the Jets during Ryan's turbulent six-year tenure.) After inheriting a Bills team that ranked fourth in total defense last season, with three Pro Bowlers in its front seven, Ryan, true to character, called being in the top four "a little disappointing." "Our expectation is to be No. 1," Ryan says.
The Bills' switch from a straight 4--3 in 2014 to Ryan's preferred 3--4 base won't be a huge issue; in '13, Buffalo used a similar scheme under defensive coordinator (and Ryan disciple) Mike Pettine. Defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will fortify the interior while Mario Williams shifts from defensive end back to linebacker, where he and Jerry Hughes will have more one-on-one chances off the edge. Hughes, who signed a five-year, $45 million contract this off-season, is already thriving. During a May minicamp Ryan benched the 27-year-old for "ruining practice" because he kept sacking the quarterback.
Ryan has promised the playoffs, and fans have bought in, with ticket sales running high. But the coach will need that quarterback—Taylor, or whoever supplants him—to get there.
SI'S PREDICTION: 9--7
ANDY BENOIT ON THE BILLS' SHUTDOWN SCENARIO
If Rex Ryan at some point says that Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore (above) is in the same class as Darrelle Revis, he won't just be blowing some of that charming—or annoying, depending on your perspective—Rex Ryan smoke. Gilmore, a first-round pick in 2012, has the long arms, raw strength and short-area quickness and control to be a shutdown corner. A shutdown corner shrinks the field, and Ryan's man-coverage-intensive scheme is predicated on having one. When his top corner can keep a receiver locked down, Ryan goes to his nickel and dime sub-packages and deploys aggressive pressures and inside coverage rotations designed for a more confined area. He blitzes, though not as much as you might think. You'll often see his Bills rush just four players, but one or two of them will come from the linebacker or safety positions. They'll be replaced in coverage by defensive linemen and outside linebackers who are dropping back. This tactic, known as a zone exchange, is a pillar in Ryan's system. It creates the illusion of complexity and makes a quarterback play fast. When a quarterback plays fast and sees his best receiver stifled by a press corner, that's when he's in trouble.
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RB LeSean McCoy
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