The injury to quarterback EJ Manuel could not have come at a worse time for the Buffalo Bills. Conversely, the return to action of safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Stephon Gilmore this week is as well-timed as Superman swooping in to save the day.
During a press conference on Wednesday, via BuffaloBills.com, Bills head coach Doug Marrone said that he expects both Gilmore and Byrd to return against the Cincinnati Bengals this week. The only thing they're both missing is a red cape.
There could be a drop off in production on the offensive side of the ball in Manuel's absence, so it may be up to the defense to raise its level of play if the Bills are going to win games without their starting quarterback.
Gilmore and Byrd return at a perfect time, as they will be needed to cover Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green this week. The third-year receiver has 31 receptions this season, which is tied for the 10th-most in the NFL, and his 56 targets are the third-most.
Teams have bracketed Green quite often with safety help over the top in order to prevent explosive plays. That was the Patriots' strategy against the Bengals last week, as they had constant safety help over the top on Green, as seen on this play (Green is the receiver at the top of the screen).
Whether or not Gilmore should be asked to cover Green in his first game back is a debatable strategy, but giving Green constant attention is a must. Even when double-covered, Green still finds a way to do his damage.
The Bills have given up some yards in the passing game this season, but they've managed to keep it together admirably without their two best defensive backs.
The team's interception total is slightly misleading due to a five-pick fiesta against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, which I wrote was as much about the Bills defense getting fired up as it was about a meltdown by Flacco.
Still, on the season, their yards per pass attempt allowed and their defensive passer rating are both admirable numbers. The Bills defense is certainly feeling the effects of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme.
The Bills have also been quite an aggressive defense this year, blitzing on 37.1 percent of the defensive snaps. That should help keep Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in check; he has performed well with a clean pocket, but things get rougher for him when he's pressured.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Dalton puts up just a 40.3 passer rating when he's pressured. At the same time, he doesn't drop off too far when blitzed. The key is that those blitzes have to get home.
The Bills' biggest bugaboo has been their run defense, but they are beginning to turn things around. In Weeks 1-3, the Bills were allowing 155 rushing yards per game. In the two games since, they've yielded just 115 rushing yards combined.
Before last week against the New England Patriots, the Bengals hadn't been as balanced as they should have been with a two-headed rush attack that features Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, an issue that was pointed out by Bleacher Report's very own Andrea Hangst. They finally opened it up for their backs against the Pats, though, with 39 total rush attempts on the game.
The Bengals may try to keep that momentum in the running game against the Bills this week, in an effort to keep the Bills honest and also to keep the crowd out of it.
"We'll have a great challenge against them, but the great part is we have them at home," said Marrone. "That's been a big difference for us right now. Our crowd has been outstanding, our players are ready to go, which leads us down the road, to I have to get this team playing better on the road."
Not only are the Bills much better at home, but the Bengals are much worse on the road. They average 22.3 points per game at home, but just 13.5 on the road, per TeamRankings.com.
If the Bills can find a way to hold the Bengals to 13 or 14 points, they will give themselves a great chance to win, even without Manuel at quarterback.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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