3TFO: Panthers @ Bills, Week 2
This should be a competitive matchup with both the Panthers and Bills trying to get in the win column after close Week 1 losses. The Panthers held their own in a low-scoring affair against Seattle at home, one of the early consensus Super Bowl favorites, while the Bills surprisingly kept up with Tom Brady and the Patriots and took them down to the wire before losing on a last-second field goal.
The Panthers probably have less margin for error here as they face a potential 0-2 start in a tough division and conference — and it will be tough going on the road — while the Bills get the benefit of a second straight home game. It should be a good game, so here’s the matchups we’ll be watching.
Get Spiller Going
Though his 23 touches were more than he’s used to seeing — and certainly a trend in the right direction — CJ Spiller was unable to get going against New England, as he averaged just 2.4 yards per carry with a long run of 9 yards. He likewise had little impact as a receiver with 15 yards and a dropped pass. Add to that a costly fumble early in the first quarter and it’s safe to say he earned his -3.5 grade for the game. He didn’t get much help from his line though, particularly LG Colin Brown (-7.8), who’s not doing much to make the Bills forget Andy Levitre.
Buffalo’s interior line challenges don’t ease any this week with the arrival of rookie Star Lotulelei, who had an outstanding debut (and preseason). He lined up at DRT on 24 of his 40 snaps, with his second-most utilized position being nose tackle. Therefore he should see a lot of Brown and Eric Wood, who also struggled in Week 1. Given that matchup, the Bills may want to reduce their efforts to the left A- and B-gaps, where Spiller took a third of his carries a week ago. No matter where the Bills run though, they’ll have to contend with Luke Kuechly and his ridiculous ability to find the ball. Kuechly did, however, miss two tackles a week ago, and that’s something Spiller may be able to take advantage of given that he led the league in our Elusive Rating last season.
Carolina did quite a bit of shuffling on the offensive line against the Seahawks, with four players ending with at least 15 snaps at both guard spots, though it was necessitated by a season-ending knee injury to RG Garry Williams. Fortunately, they may have found an able replacement with Jeff Byars ending with a +1.5 grade on the back of a clean sheet in 10 pass blocks and some strong work at the point of attack in the run game. At left guard, they didn’t fare as well with both Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott struggling. Scott was particularly awful in both facets — and as we pointed out in our ReFocused article, he often failed to execute the simple task of staying upright. Last year’s starter Amini Silatolu looks to be getting healthy and ready to retake his job, though that’s not necessarily a good thing as he was the Panthers’ worst-graded offensive lineman last year and graded at -6.2 in 89 preseason snaps.
That interior group, along with center Ryan Kalil, should have its hands full blocking Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus of the Bills, though both struggled against New England. Williams’ four QB disruptions (albeit in 44 rushing attempts) weren’t enough to overcome a penalty and a couple of negative plays in the run game, as he graded at -1.3. Likewise, Dareus rushed the passer pretty well, but was pushed around at the line of scrimmage in the run game — and put on his back a couple of times — as the Patriots rushed for an average of 6.5 YPC through the A- and B-gaps.
Williams should get back to form soon, as he’s been among the two or three best DTs in football over the past few seasons. Dareus, on the other hand, is a different story — he’s graded well as a rusher over his first two seasons, but hasn’t played well in run defense, a trend that continued into Week 1. He should get some pressure against the Panthers, but conversely the Panthers might try to take advantage of him in the run game, particularly when he’s aligned to the right side of the offense. Carolina had just one rushing attempt through the A-gap against Seattle, but look for them to attack that area, and particularly Dareus, more often this week.
EJ Manuel played reasonably well in his first NFL start, as he completed 18 of 27 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns while keeping the Bills surprisingly competitive with New England. However, if Carolina’s performance last week is any indication, Buffalo might struggle running the ball against a talented front-seven that allowed just 2.7 yards per carry to Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks — and that will undoubtedly put more pressure on the rookie QB. The Bills are featuring a much faster-paced offense under Doug Marrone and keeping Mauel’s reads relatively simple with throws over the short middle (15 attempts there in Week 1). Surprisingly, the Bills didn’t use much play action in Week 1, as Manuel executed a PA fake on just 10% of his drop-backs — only the Chargers had a lower usage.
It will be interesting to see how often the Panthers blitz, though they won’t necessarily need to with Lotulelei, Greg Hardy, and Charles Johnson on the defensive line. Manuel faced a blitz on just 10 of 67 combined preseason and Week 1 drop-backs, so he hasn’t seen the threat of extra rushers very often. His performance there has been mixed, as his YPA is under 5 yards, but on five blitz snaps last week he graded at +1.3. Don’t be surprised to see the Panthers bring heat more often as they throw different looks at the rookie — they blitzed Seattle on 27% of passing plays.
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