Sean McDermott has sounded like a broken record all week as he continually downplayed his return to Carolina in an effort to keep the Bills focused on “the process.” Ideally, that means a win for the Bills and a 2-0 start for the first time since 2014. That’s easier said than done though, against a Panthers team just two years removed from a trip to the Super Bowl, with former league MVP Cam Newton at quarterback. Take everything Buffalo did against the Jets with a grain of salt. This is their first real test of the season and as McDermott stated, it’s going to be a challenge.
Here are three keys to victory for the Bills…
1) Make Cam Newton beat you with his arm
Containing Cam Newton isn’t easy but it’s essential for the Bills this weekend in pulling off an upset against Carolina. On Wednesday, DE Jerry Hughes spoke on just how tough of a task it is given Newton’s dual-threat ability, and emphasized the importance of he and his defensive linemates generating pressure. That can come at a cost though if Newton is able to escape the pocket. He’s rushed for 995 yards combined over each of the last two seasons. Much to the chagrin of Newton, it appears the Panthers are trying to make him more of a pocket passer, with the 29-year-old’s long-term durability in mind. That combined with some hints from Newton’s own head coach Ron Rivera that the quarterback may still be recovering from offseason shoulder surgery makes keeping him in the pocket – uncomfortable and vulnerable to pass rushers – pivotal. It requires slowing down the two-headed rushing attack of Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffery as well.
2) Producing through the air
Maybe Sean McDermott isn’t worried about LeSean McCoy’s “groin soreness,” which kept him out of practice on Friday, but it’s far from comforting for Buffalo, especially this late in the week. Even if McCoy is healthy the Bills may have trouble moving the ball against a Carolina defense that yielded just 51 rushing yards to the 49ers last week (although this Bills O-line is a different beast). Regardless, with or without McCoy, running the ball may not come as easily as it did against a miserable Jets defense in Week 1. Additionally, the Panthers secondary ranked 29th in passing yards allowed per game in 2016 (268) and remain vulnerable at cornerback where Daryl Worley and James Bradberry still lack experience. Ultimately, the key to a productive day offensively may rest on Tyrod Taylor’s effectiveness throwing the football.
3) Finding and defending Greg Olsen
The Panthers have their fair share of weapons on offense, starting with Newton. Next in line though is TE Greg Olsen. He’s the most dangerous weapon in Carolina’s passing attack and knowing where he is at all times is critical. How Buffalo defends him will be interesting to see. Will they trust a speedy linebacker like Ramon Humber to shadow him in man coverage? Or maybe hybrid defensive back Micah Hyde will shoulder that responsibility. Bracketing Olsen with a linebacker underneath and a safety over the top is always an option as well. Whatever strategy McDermott chooses to deploy, locking up Olsen is a challenge the Bills defense must be ready for.
When the schedule was first released back in the spring this matchup seemed a lot more daunting than it does the weekend of. The fact that Carolina handled an abysmal 49ers team but didn’t necessarily dominate them as many thought they would plays into that. Cam Newton is a problem, however, concerns over his throwing shoulder could mean he’s a one trick pony and his lone trick – running the football – is something the Panthers are trying to limit anyway. He only threw for 171 yards last week while rushing for three. If Newton only wants to throw the football, fine. That makes him vulnerable to pressure and mistakes, especially if the shoulder still isn’t 100 percent. Now where the Panthers remain daunting is on defense. Their unit’s front-seven is scary good, starting along the defensive line with Julius Peppers and ending with linebacker Luke Kuechly. Much like the Bills defense, they are built to stop the run, which they proved in Week 1 by yielding just 51 yards rushing. That’s where concern sets in for Buffalo. Running the football is their staple, and with a LeSean McCoy now mysteriously dealing with some groin soreness the run game is going to be hard to come by. How effective Taylor is as a passer could ultimately determine how productive the Bills are offensively. Buffalo is a seven-point underdog entering Sunday which seems pretty fair. The Bills defense will keep them close for a while, but ultimately I see Carolina pulling away late. Panthers win 24-14.
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