5 keys to the Buffalo Bills 2014 season

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The Buffalo Bills will only go as far as 2nd year QB E.J. Manuel will take them

School is back in session, Labor Day Weekend has come and gone, and College Football has already kicked off; that can only mean one thing, the NFL IS COMING. I mean, it starts tomorrow already. Seems like just yesterday I was watching the opening snap of the Super Bowl fly out of the back of the end zone.

Anyways, this means that me and other members of the Bills Mafia have our hopes up that this is the season we break our 15 year playoff draught. 15 years. That’s ridiculous. If you were born the day that Frank Wycheck tossed an illegal forward lateral to Kevin Dyson, you would have started your sophomore year in high school yesterday. It’s been a while.

But, that is all in the past and we look forward to the 2014 season. Here’s 5 keys to our beloved Buffalo Bills having a successful season.

Before I get to those 5 keys, let me define “successful season”. This is still a very young team. Our “veteran” wide receiver, Mike Williams, is entering his 5th NFL season, none of which have been with the Bills. Our quarterback is coming off a truncated rookie year, hoping to have some sophomore success. Defensively, it looks as though Buffalo will start 3 players with 4 or less years in the league. So in my opinion, a successful season would be 8-8 or…dare I say it…9-7.

So, without further ado, here are my 5 keys to success.

Progression from E.J. Manuel:

This is a passing league. It has been for a few years now. Now that cornerbacks can no longer breathe on a receiver after 5 yards, it makes the passing game more valuable than ever. Our 2nd year quarterback E.J. Manuel needs to play better than he did in his 10 games last year. I dug more in depth into this topic in a column a couple weeks ago, but the short of it, I need to see Manuel show signs of him becoming “the guy”.

One thing Manuel needed was confidence coming into his 2nd year. Signing Kyle Orton to a 2 year, 11 million dollar contract wasn’t exactly the vote of confidence from the Bills’ brass that E.J. needed. I understand that Buffalo is just protecting their behinds in case Manuel struggles with injury again, but that is a lot of money for a backup. Orton already cleared waivers, meaning every team had a chance to sign him and they passed. Even Buffalo passed. So in the event that Manuel did get hurt, chances are Orton would still be there. I did not like this signing at all. Manuel doesn’t need to be looking over his shoulder.

Maintain a healthy backfield:

This is something Buffalo’s running back tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson have struggled with their entire careers. While Manuel is developing, we need our backs to be productive to open up some easy play-action for him and to keep a few opposing defenders in the box to stop the run. With Spiller and Jackson constantly hobbled and/or out of the line-up, the Buffalo running game is no longer as big of a weapon.

The backup plan to these 2 is 3rd year back Bryce Brown, who the Bills signed in the off season. Bryce Brown showed a lot of potential last year behind LeSean McCoy, but it was just that; potential. I’m not writing off Brown as a scrub, but I would much rather see Spiller and Jackson handling most of the running back duties.

Improved offensive line:

In 2013, Buffalo allowed the 4th most sack in the league. It’s safe to say that the O-line was less than stellar. Buffalo will be starting their rookie 7th rounder Seantrel Henderson out of Miami who probably would have gone sooner had he not admitted to being suspended for 3 games his senior season for failing a drug test. The Bills also signed 7 year vet Chris Williams this off season who had spent the previous 2 seasons in St. Louis. Other than that, the Bills O-line is returning 3 starters from the 2013 season, including 6 year starting center Eric Wood.

This group needs to do better than last year at picking up blitzes and keeping defensive linemen out of the backfield to give Manuel a clean pocket to work from.

Improved run defense:

This was a huge problem for the Bills last season. The Bills were the 5th worst team in stopping the run in 2013. It completely baffles me that a team with a stacked defensive line had so much trouble stopping the run. What’s even more confusing is the fact that this defensive line that gave up almost 130 rushing yards a game, led the league in sacks. To make matters worse, Buffalo will be without breakout star Kiko Alonso in 2014 after he tore his ACL working out in Oregon over the off season.

In response to the loss of Alonso, Buffalo signed ex-Patriot Brandon Spikes to help shore up the middle of the field. The Bills also had to replace defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who is now head coach of the Cleveland Manziel’s Browns with ex-Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. Schwartz should have no trouble instituting the defensive schemes he had with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley with Mario and Kyle Williams. Schwartz will also be changing the defensive scheme from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 base package. I think this will suit this roster better, putting more down linemen on the field to try and keep teams from running all over them.

The secondary to be equally as dominant:

The one shining point on defense last year, was the secondary. Buffalo had the 2nd best passing defense in the league. Could this stat be misleading because teams could run all over the Bills and didn’t have to throw? Probably. But, when teams were throwing, Buffalo’s secondary made plays; intercepting opposing quarterbacks 23 times, only trailing the Seahawks for most in the league.

Losing Pro-Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in the offseason was definitely a huge blow, but Buffalo will be returning Aaron Williams, who despite the occasional bone-headed flags, showed some flashes of being a viable starting safety. At the cornerback position, Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin have been big the past few years for Buffalo and I see no signs of them not having a good season. Also, 2nd year corner Nickell Robey played well at the beginning of his rookie season filling in for Gilmore who missed the first few games last year with a broken wrist. Robey played the remainder of the season as a nickel back and made a few plays. I look for him to further his development behind McKelvin and Gilmore.

Prediction:

My prediction, Buffalo will go 16-0. Just kidding. I see the Bills finishing 8-8, just missing the playoffs. Have I been a Bills fan too long if I would be happy with .500. The answer is yes. I mean, Buffalo hasn’t finished .500 or better since 2004. It’s been a while since my beloved Bills have been even within a Bubba Watson drive of playoff contention. This is the year. Go Bills!