Previewing Week 1: Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens
The 2016 season is finally upon us! The Ravens will open their schedule at home against the Buffalo Bills, a team that finished 2015 with an 8-8 record and is returning a roster that is largely the same as the previous season. Of note, the Bills starting QB Tyrod Taylor will be returning to Baltimore for the first time after serving as Joe Flacco’s back-up for 4 seasons. Of course the Bills Head Coach Rex Ryan was also a long-time coach for the Ravens. In the NFL every week is critical, and a week 1 home game against a conference foe stands as a very important game for the Ravens who are looking to rebound from a rough 2015 season.
You can discuss the Ravens week 1 match-up on our message boards here, and follow along Sunday in our game thread.
What to expect when the Ravens have the ball:
Last season the Bills defense was a unit that did not play up to expectations. They finished the season 24th in DVOA, while managing to be the 15th best scoring defense and 19th in total yards allowed. I mentioned that the Bills are returning much of the same roster they fielded in 2015, but there will be a couple of notable absences on the defensive side of the ball. The Bills released veteran DE Mario Williams after a down season in 2015, but perhaps most importantly All-Pro DT Marcell Dareus will be serving a suspension leaving a large void in the middle of the defense. Buffalo will also be missing 1st round draft pick OLB Shaq Lawson and 2nd round pick ILB Reggie Ragland. While the Bills will be playing without several key players, the Ravens will be getting back several players lost to injury in 2015, with Flacco, Steve Smith Sr, Breshad Perriman, Justin Forsett and Dennis Pitta along with new acquisition Mike Wallace.
With Buffalo missing several key front 7 players, I would expect the Ravens to utilize a run-heavy attack and a quick hitting passing game with an emphasis at targeting the middle of the field to take advantage of the Bills lack of athleticism at LB. The RBs and TEs should be featured heavily in Marc Trestman’s game-plan. We all know that Joe Flacco has a big arm, but in his first real action coming off of a major injury, getting him in a rhythm early will be important. The strength of Buffalo’s defense is in their secondary with standout cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby patrolling the boundaries, so while the run will be used to set up some play action attempts downfield to speedy WRs Mike Wallace and rookie Chris Moore, I think these shots will be limited. Terrance West is in line to take the majority of carries to start the season with Forsett and Javorius Allen seeing some work as well. The Ravens may also decide to go with a hot hand approach depending on game-flow.
Overall, the Ravens offense should have a favorable match-up in this week 1 game, although it will be critical to establish the run game against the Bills’ depleted front 7. It should be a good litmus test to see how the Ravens OL can hold up in pass-protection against the exotic blitz packages of Rex Ryan.
What to expect when the Bills have the ball:
The biggest headline for this week 1 game may be the return of Tyrod Taylor to Baltimore. He earned the starting job in Buffalo and had an impressive first year as a starter for the Bills, as they ranked an impressive 10th in DVOA, 12th in scoring, and 13th in total offense in 2015. Buffalo is also returning almost their entire offense with the exception of slot receiver Chris Hogan and RB Karlos Williams who filled in admirably when LeSean McCoy was injured last season. The biggest threat in the Bills’ offense is 3rd year WR Sammy Watkins who is on the verge of becoming one of the top wide-outs in the NFL. Watkins is a supreme talent with elite deep speed, excellent size, and the ability to take any pass to the house. Opposite of Watkins is Robert Woods who is a solid possession WR, while TE Charles Clay can be a match-up problem working the middle of the field.
I expect the Ravens to play a somewhat conservative defense with a focus on taking away the deep pass to Watkins and containing Taylor who we all know is very capable of picking up large gains with his legs. With the health of Elvis Dumervil and Za’Darius Smith in question for week 1, the pass-rush may not be where it needs to be to get consistent pressure, making containment and solid coverage on the back-end even more important. Taylor’s biggest weakness from what I have observed is accuracy on intermediate throws, so I will expect to see a lot of zone looks from Dean Pees in an effort to make Taylor go through his progressions and force him to fit the ball into tight windows. Zone defenses can also help contain running QBs as more eyes are on the QB.
The Ravens run defense, led by standout NT Brandon Williams, figures to be a strength for the team, but week 1 will be a major challenge as Buffalo led the league in rushing in 2015. John Harbaugh has made stopping the run an emphasis for the defense and this Bills team should be a good test to see how the front 7 holds up. McCoy and Taylor are both capable of making big plays on the ground, and the Bills have quality depth at RB as well with Reggie Bush and rookie Jonathan Williams looking to get some run as well.
The Ravens need to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to win this game. It sounds like a cliché, but at least in this game it will be of critical importance to run the ball and stop the run. If Baltimore can do this, they should come out ahead, and fortunately the Ravens match-up well in these areas.
I expect the Ravens to win this week 1 home game, but I don’t expect a lot of points to be scored:
Ravens 23 – Bills 16.
Gabe is an avid fan of the NFL and Ravens football. He grew up in Westminster, MD, and attended college at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biology. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studies cartilage development and cancer. Gabe has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan.