DENVER --Buffalo's closing quarter of the 2014 season would be the league's most difficult by opponents' winning percentage if it did not include a Week 16 trip to 1-11 Oakland.
As it stands, the three games against Denver, Green Bay and New England in Weeks 14, 15 and 17 are difficult for a team that likely needs three wins in order to grab its first playoff spot of the 21st century.
But the Bills' defense gives them a fighting chance, because week after week, it generates enough pressure from up front to neutralize an opponent, forcing an opponent into throws it doesn't want to make while also remaining stout against the run.
Buffalo represents yet another stern challenge for the Broncos and their blocking scheme, which has found a measure of stability after a Week 10 offensive-line shuffle and the absence of tight end Virgil Green for the Broncos' entire three-game road trip.
Their improved form, Green's presence, a re-emphasis on the run and the use of Paul Cornick as an extra tackle helped the Broncos power their way to a pair of 200-yard rushing games in the past two weeks.
"I'd probably say 80 percent is 'want to,'" said Green. "As long as you go out there with the willingness to hit somebody, you can move somebody off the line of scrimmage.
"This week we've got big Mario Williams out there, so we're going to have to get our technique down pat because you just can't win with him just coming off the ball hard. You've got to use technique."
Williams is the Bills' defensive ringleader, but solid contributors are peppered throughout the unit. Their numbers reveal the unit's effectiveness. Through 12 games this season, the Bills have held opponents to …
- 19.2 percent below their scoring average;
- 15.6 percent below their season-long first down rate;
- 8.1 percent below their average gain per play;
- 7.6 percent below their average yardage per game;
- 10.0 percent below their average per pass play;
- 4.2 percent below their average pass yardage per game;
- 8.6 percent below their average per rush;
- 16.6 percent below their average rushing yardage per game.
Only the Patriots and Jets managed to exceed their scoring averages against Buffalo's defense this year. If the Broncos' point total is 19.2 percent below their average, they will score 24 points, a figure that only the Patriots managed to reach against the Bills, who are 1-4 when an opponent scores at least 21 points.
Buffalo's powerful defensive line is where we begin this week's Three Keys:
1. CONTAIN THE BILLS' FRONT FOUR.
Three of the Bills' four starting defensive linemen have at least 9.5 sacks, and the one with the lowest sack total, tackle Kyle Williams, is credited by ProFootballFocus.com with 23 hurries and 11 hits of opposing quarterbacks in addition to his 5 sacks.
But because Buffalo's defense matches its league-best sack rate and No. 3 pass defense (in yards per play allowed) with a run defense that ranks seventh in yards-per-carry against, it will not only be crucial for the Broncos to execute screen passes and quick timing routes that neutralize the pass rush, but to continue to run, even if the results aren't what they want.
The formations used by the Broncos will bear watching. If Julius Thomas returns from an ankle injury, will they continue to run packages that have Green as one tight end and Paul Cornick as an eligible tackle? Or will they use two tight-end packages with Thomas moving all over, and Green anchored next to a tackle, given the success the Broncos had running out of three-wide receiver formations in the last two weeks?
The mere threat of the run might force hesitation from the Bills' edge rushers, and could set up a play-action that draws the safeties and linebackers forward, setting up a one-on-one duel downfield that the Broncos can exploit. Denver will have to be patient, know that the Bills' defensive linemen will disrupt and make plays, and not lose faith in its revived run game.
- PROTECT THE FOOTBALL.**
Buffalo's pressure from its defensive line allows its linebackers and defensive backs to drop into coverage and capitalize off hurried throws. The Bills' 15 interceptions rank fourth in the league, and their 25 overall takeaways are second behind Houston.
The Bills average 2.7 takeaways in their wins -- and just 1.2 in their losses -- and are 7-1 when they intercept at least one pass. In their six losses, they forced just six turnovers, and their only two interceptions in defeats came off Houston's Ryan Fitzpatrick. A throwaway under pressure against Buffalo isn't necessarily a lousy outcome -- at least, not when compared with the potential outcome of a turnover, which has fueled the Bills' playoff push to date.
3. LIMIT BUFFALO'S EXPLOSIVE PASSES.
With potent running back C.J. Spiller still sidelined because of a fractured collarbone, the Bills' explosive plays must come through the air. More often, they've come on passes to veteran Robert Woods, who has been steady as spectacular rookie Sammy Watkins has struggled with inconsistency. But tight end Marqueis Gray has become more effective; he had receptions of 30 and 41 yards last week.
In the Bills' seven wins, they racked up 23 plays of 25 or more yards, an average of 3.3 per game, and had at least three gains of 25-plus yards six times. In their five losses, they had just eight plays covering 25 or more yards, and averaged just 1.6 per game. The Bills are 6-1 when they get at least three plays of 25 or more yards.
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