The Buffalo Bills‘ first road trip of the 2017 regular season takes place in week two against the Carolina Panthers. With a win, Buffalo can move to 2-0 for the first time since 2014. But it won’t come easy against a Panthers team two years removed from an NFC championship and looking to erase the sting of last season’s 6-10 campaign.
Sunday’s matchup is a homecoming of sorts for quite a few members of the Bills roster and coaching staff. Head coach Sean McDermott served as Panthers defensive coordinator for the previous six seasons. General manager Brandon Beane had been with the Carolina organization since 2008 as director of football operations (2008-14) and assistant general manager (2015-16). Fullback Mike Tolbert, wide receiver Kaelin Clay and cornerback Leonard Johnson all played for the Panthers last year.
This is just the seventh all-time meeting between these two intra-conference foes. It’s also only the third to take place in Charlotte. Buffalo owns a 5-1 record in the six previous matchups. Their .833 winning percentage against the Panthers is the best mark for the Bills against any team in the league. But what needs to happen for that track record of success to remain intact after Sunday’s game?
Win the Battle of Tight Ends
In his first two seasons with the team, tight end Charles Clay‘s contribution to the Bills passing game was pedestrian at best. He finished no better than 16th in the league among tight ends in receiving yards during that time. His 552 yard, four touchdown output last year serves as his best effort to date. But a game into Buffalo’s 2017 campaign, there are indications he may be in line for a more prominent role.
Tyrod Taylor involved Clay in the offense quite a bit in the Bills’ 21-12 win over the New York Jets last week. The seventh-year man out of Tulsa received nine targets, catching four balls for 53 yards and a touchdown. Though he certainly won’t register a score every game, his yardage projects to a career high 848 yards over a 16-game season. If he stays healthy and remains a prominent role in the Bills pass game on Sunday, he may well be on his way to achieving that milestone.
Clay isn’t the only tight end to keep an eye on at Bank of America Stadium. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton possesses a potent weapon at the position in Greg Olsen. The 32-year-old veteran is coming off three consecutive seasons of 1,000+ receiving yards. But he disappointed fantasy owners with a two-catch, 18-yard performance last week. If that’s an aberration, the Bills need to be wary of Olsen turning in a breakout performance.
This is especially true considering that one of the few bright spots for the Jets last week was Jermaine Kearse. Acquired from the Seattle Seahawks ahead of the regular season, Kearse finished with a team-leading seven catches and 59 receiving yards. Though the Bills kept him out of the end zone, they’ll be hard-pressed to do the same with Olsen. Expect Newton to consistently look for him on seam routes down the middle of the field.
Trust the Tampa 2
Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier incorporated a variety of schemes that worked well against the Jets. In particular, he utilized a disguised Tampa 2 defense that initially had the look of a double A gap blitz before the snap. So what exactly distinguishes the Tampa 2 from a traditional cover 2 shell?
The Tampa 2 gets its name from Tony Dungy, who developed the coverage scheme during his tenure as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach. It differs from the cover 2 in that it adds an additional body to the middle of the field who’s tasked with zone coverage. In addition to the two safeties, the MIKE linebacker drops back and provides a security blanket down the middle.
Both Bills interceptions in the fourth quarter showed the Tampa 2 in action. On Jordan Poyer‘s pick of Josh McCown, Buffalo showed blitz pre-snap. But middle linebacker Preston Brown quickly flared into coverage, and a confused offensive line forced McCown out of the pocket and into a rushed pass toward the right sideline.
Video credit: Cover 1 Bills
Micah Hyde‘s turnover that sealed the win came with the Bills showing Tampa 2 and the defensive front perfectly executing a double stunt to force another wayward throw from McCown.
Video credit: Cover 1 Bills
Against the Panthers, expect Frazier to continue implementing this look as the Bills hope to create conditions ripe for turnovers from Newton.
Last week, the Bills completely shut down the Jets running game, limiting them to 38 yards on the ground. Only the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys registered a more impressive effort at limiting their opponents ability to run the ball. It’s a total contrast from 2016 when the Bills gave up an average of 133.13 rushing yards per game. That ranked as the fourth worst total in the league.
On paper, the Panthers are going to be a completely different animal. They boast a mobile quarterback in Newton and the second running back taken in the 2017 NFL Draft in Christian McCaffrey. But in a week where rookie running backs such as Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette enjoyed hugely successful debuts, McCaffrey kind of disappointed.
The Stanford product managed just 85 total yards, including a paltry 47 on the ground. Him and Jonathan Stewart comprised the overwhelming majority of Carolina’s 116 rushing yards against the Niners. Despite an underwhelming opener, McCaffery is not to be taken lightly on Sunday. Ron Rivera will hope to leverage his versatility as a runner and pass-catcher in the home opener.
The Panthers head coach clarified comments from earlier in the week regarding McCaffrey’s role in the offense on Friday. He emphasized that Carolina doesn’t have plays designed specifically for him. Rather, those packages on offense include him as a primary target, but not necessarily the go-to guy. Either way, expect the rookie speedster to line up all over the field and figure prominently into an offense looking to pop in front of the home fans.
View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: Week Two Buffalo Bills Keys to Victory