Tale of the Tape: Are the Bills Giant-killers?

When the Buffalo Bills sought to remake their franchise this offseason, they didn’t make a splash like the free-spending Philadelphia Eagles.

A defense that couldn’t stop the run paired the draft’s best defensive tackle with their only Pro Bowler and proceeded to surround them with an army of journeymen linebackers. An offense that couldn’t score committed to a quarterback from Harvard and a collection of undrafted free agents at wide receiver, pegging their lone remaining draft pick, a seventh-rounder from Kentucky, as their go-to-guy.

And can anyone name a soul on their offensive line, outside of when they are called for a penalty? Well, it’s tough to remember them, because they’ve only been called for eight penalties in five games -– and have only allowed four sacks.

Just a week ago, the Bills beat the media’s favorite “Dream Team,” the Eagles, and now sit atop the AFC East.

At 4-1, do the Bills have what it takes to be a contender this year? A lot of questions can be answered after Sunday’s game with the New York Giants.

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: Can he throw the deep ball?

On tape, we have seen Fitzpatrick be every bit the game manager the Bills expect out of him. He is poised in the pocket, quick in his reads and gets the ball out fast.

Against the Eagles last week, he completed just less than 78 percent of his passes, but his longest pass play was a 49-yard screen throw to Fred Jackson. This week, we are wondering if Fitzpatrick has the ability to stretch the Giants’ defense with the vertical passing game.

The Giants are tied for 26th in 20-plus pass plays allowed during their last eight games. If their pass rush doesn’t get home, this Terrell Thomas-less secondary has its holes. Fitzpatrick isn’t going to throw a deep ball like Jim Kelly, but he can be on-time and accurate if kept clean by his offensive line …

Offensive line: Can they continue to keep their QB clean?

The Bills’ offensive line has been a revelation this year, allowing a league-low in sacks (four) after allowing 16 in the same time span last year. This week, they face a Giants team that has a league-leading 18 sacks, including 6.5 for second year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.

At center, we enjoy watching former first-round pick Eric Wood, who has become a force on double-teams with fellow ’09 draftee Andy Levitre and Kraig Urbik. But the outside will be tested vs. New York and their pass rushers, especially left tackle Chris Hairston.

Hairston, a fourth-round pick out of Clemson in April, replaces an injured starter in Demetrius Bell. While he did not embarrass himself against Philly’s Darryl Tapp last week, Hairston stops his feet when punching with his hands, which could get him beat around the corner by Pierre-Paul or Osi Umenyiora.

But Chan Gailey’s system is offensive-line friendly, using screens, shovel passes and quick passes to neutralize an opposing team’s pass rush.  Getting the ball out quickly is a part of their protection.

Only if the Bills try to go deep will their offensive line will really be stressed.

Fred Jackson: Can he handle the workload?

In his first season as a bonafide starter, Jackson, once an undrafted free agent out of Coe College in Iowa, has turned into an elite running back in the NFL. He is 3rd in the league in touches (109) and scrimmage yards (712) and accounts for 38 percent of the Bills’ offensive production.

A tall but physical runner at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, it is yet to be seen if Jackson can sustain this kind of workload over a full season. And the Giants are one those teams that will definitely hit Jackson from the first snap to the last.

The rap on Jackson has always been that he is good at everything -– a good center of gravity, good agility and good power -– but he is not thought to be great at anything. He can dispel that notion with a great season and a great game vs. the Giants (who rank 21st versus the run).

Stevie Johnson, David Nelson and Naaman Roosevelt: Can they get deep?

While the Bills pass offense is based on short, quick passes, Donald Jones was the one Buffalo receiver who could threaten a defense vertically. Despite being asked to work off of a foundation of slants, comebacks and shallow crossing routes, Jones possessed the speed to get behind defensive backs on double moves.

But Jones is out this week with an injury. So that leaves the Bills with a collection of underneath wide receivers heading into this game. Nelson, an oversized wideout out of Florida, runs predominantly shorter routes; he’s a big target (6-5, 215 pounds) who catches almost everything, coming down with 72 percent of his targets.

With their efficient underneath passing, New York’s secondary will either have to play tighter coverage or play off and squat on routes. Out of Johnson, Roosevelt, or even Brad Smith, someone will have to threaten the Giants’ defense over the top.

Shawne Merriman and Arthur Moats: Can you get home?

Buffalo has been able disrupt quarterbacks this year by applying pressure and tipping balls, but the Bills are still last in the league in sacks (four).

Last week, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus applied instant heat up the gut on Michael Vick, but he escaped and other Bills defenders had to finish him off. This week, Buffalo faces a pure pocket passer in Eli Manning, and if they can sack him, they can set back the Giants’ offense and cut short any shootout.

Stunts by their defensive tackles, including Alex Carrington, have generated most of Buffalo’s pressure, but the strength of the Giants line lies with guards Chris Snee and David Diehl and center David Baas. Luckily for the Bills, Snee is out with a concussion, but if the Bills want to add to Manning’s 14 sacks, they still have to generate more from the edge, with Merriman and Moats.

Moats, a second-year player from James Madison, has added a bit of a spark to the Bills outside rush, but Merriman and Chris Kelsay (out this Sunday) are two energy players who are aging and don’t show much burst at this point. Their legs are churning, but they don’t get much push.

Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard: Can you make plays in space?

Thrown alongside an instinctive veteran in Barnett, Sheppard has really started to contribute at linebacker for the Bills. He is more athletic than the rest of the Bills’ corps yet sometimes fails to pull the trigger downhill consistently.

Sheppard will have to make his share of plays this weekend vs. a shifty ’back in Ahmad Bradshaw, especially in the screen game.  While Bradshaw only has one run over 16 yards this year, he is a vital piece of the Giants passing game and can explode at any given moment.

Leodis McKelvin: Can you make a play on the ball?

Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham are three capable weapons for Manning and are all capable of creating plays down the field with acrobatic catches.

On the other hand, Manningham has struggled lately, with zero receptions of 15-plus yards in his last two games (on six targets). That bodes well for the Bills’ secondary, which actually leads the league in interceptions (12) and rank fifth in passes defensed (29).

Although McKelvin has been burned once or twice, he has greatly improved since being selected in the first round in 2008, and Drayton Florence has shown on tape to be a very physical corner in press, man-to-man coverage. In this game, McKelvin and Florence could both throw off the timing of the Giants’ passing game with press coverage and help their pass rush get home.

Buffalo: Can they win this game?

Absolutely. We see the Bills establishing their running game, protecting Fitzpatrick and getting just enough pressure on Manning to slow down the Giants’ offense.

And if the Bills get to 5-1 -– they might just be a playoff contender.

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