Oct 7, 2011, 1:56 PM EDT
The Buffalo Bills are one of the NFL’s surprise teams through the first month of the season, sitting at 3-1 largely due to their offensive prowess. They are fourth in the league averaging 33.2 points per game, anchored surprisingly by their rushing offense, which has been good for 137 yards per game (5th) and 5.3 yards per carry (4th). That could spell bad news for the Birds’ 30th ranked run defense.
RB Fred Jackson
Quite possibly the most underrated back in the NFL, even his own team has never seemed convinced of Jackson’s ability. Despite gaining nearly 2,000 yards on the ground between 2009-10, the Bills continually attempted to place other runners ahead of him on the depth chart, but those road blocks wouldn’t slow him down.
The job was finally all Jackson’s entering this season, and he’s turning it into a career year. He’s currently on pace to rush for almost 1,500 yards, while averaging an astounding 5.8 ypc. Jackson also has four touchdowns, more than halfway to a personal best. Plus, he’s dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield too, with 13 receptions for 147 yards.
Already 30 years old, Jackson probably doesn’t have many years left as a feature back, but he’s clearly playing his best football right now. At 6-1, 215, he presents a challenge for any defense, let alone one that isn’t tackling or covering very well at the moment.
RB C.J. Spiller
Since being selected ninth overall in last year’s draft, Spiller has fallen out of favor with the Bills coaching staff. His athleticism makes him extremely dangerous every time he steps on the field, but the offense hasn’t been able to harness that ability. Spiller also has ball protection issues. The defense has to keep their eyes on him whenever the Clemson product is in the game, but he’s primarily a kick returner now — with two career special teams touchdowns so far.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick’s is an interesting case. The Harvard grad made his NFL debut with the Rams in ’05, and wasn’t that bad considering he was a seventh round rookie on one of the worst teams in the league. He eventually wound up the starter in Cincinnati after another Carson Palmer injury, and again, they could have done worse. By the time the Bills finally got a hold of him in ’09, nobody imagined he could turn into a franchise quarterback — and now it may be happening before our very eyes.
Fitzy has been one of the most efficient QB’s in the league through four games. The first reason for his success is his refusal to make mistakes, throwing three interceptions and taking just two sacks this season. He’s also made major strides as a passer, with career highs in completion percentage (63.4), yards per pass (7.2), and is on pace to surpass 4,000 yards. His improvements have caused a slight dip in his rushing yards, but don’t let those numbers fool you, because he will take off.
Interestingly enough, Fitzpatrick is playing himself into a huge contract extension in Buffalo — and more importantly, a playoff berth. Oh, and he also shrieks like a girl:
WR Stevie Johnson
You can’t talk about Fitzpatrick’s success without mentioning Johnson, who has been the greatest benefactor of his quarterback’s newfound comfort zone. Johnson had a breakout season in 2010, going over the 1,000 yard mark with 10 touchdowns, and he’s proving that was no fluke. With 24 catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns, he’s on track to surpass all of his totals from last season, while averaging the exact same 13.1 yards per reception. The seventh round pick out of Kentucky in ’07 fell in the draft due to 4.6 speed, but his 6-2, 210 lbs. frame makes him a tough cover for even a physical corner like Nnamdi Asomugha.
WR David Nelson
The most important player on the Bills’ offense you may not have heard of, when Nelson reaches paydirt, his team usually wins. Undrafted out of Florida last year, the 6-5 wideout had an almost immediate impact in Buffalo’s offense last season — but when Fitzpatrick started targeting him in red zone, they went on a little streak. In 15 career games, Nelson has touchdown catches in four games. They’ve won three of those, and in all the rest, they are a lousy 2-9. Nelson will often work out of the slot, so anticipate Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie drawing the big man in coverage.
TE Scott Chandler
It took five years, but the Iowa product has finally found a home in the NFL. Despite starting his career with the Chargers in ’07, Chandler never had a catch until joining the Bills late last season — and entering 2011, just one for eight yards. However, he’s broken out as a red zone threat, scoring four touchdowns thus far, which accounts for over a third of his total receptions. The Eagles have struggled to cover tight ends in the red zone, or anywhere else, as is typical, so if Buffalo finds themselves in scoring position at any point, you can be they’ll be looking for number 84.
LT Chris Hairston
The Eagles will catch a bit of a break on Sunday, as starting left tackle Demetrius Bell will not play due to injury. He’ll be replaced by Hairston, a 6-6, 332 lbs. fourth-round rookie out of Clemson. We don’t know much about the kid, other than it’s his first career start at one of the most difficult positions in football, going against a defense tied for first in the NFL with 15 sacks. Likewise, Hairston will catch a break too, with Trent Cole and probably Juqua Parker both out on Sunday, but if the Eagles are going to shut down this potent offense, the key to the game might be bringing pressure to Fitzpatrick’s blind side.
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