By Matt Citak
Thanks to a Week 17 win over the Miami Dolphins, paired with a last-minute, miracle touchdown pass by Andy Dalton, the Buffalo Bills snapped a 17-season playoff drought. But the Bills will have their hands full on Sunday, when they head down to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars in the AFC Wild Card Round.
Jacksonville enters this matchup with one of the strongest defenses in the NFL. However, the one area of the Jaguars defensive unit that opponents have been able to exploit is their rushing defense. Jacksonville finished the regular season ranked 21st in rushing yards allowed per game at 116.3 and 26th in rushing yards allowed per attempt at 4.3. With Buffalo’s leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, nursing an ankle injury, the Bills will have to rely more on the rushing abilities of quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Taylor carried the ball 84 times for 427 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and four rushing touchdowns in 15 games this season. But Buffalo’s offensive line will have to be much better at protecting Taylor and providing him with time to make plays to have a chance of winning on Sunday. The Bills surrendered the seventh-most sacks (47) this year, and against a Jaguars defense that racked up 55 sacks (2nd in the NFL), that level of protection won’t cut it.
Along with their strong defense, the Jaguars also had one of the most productive offenses this season. Led by rookie running back Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars ended the regular season with the top-ranked rushing offense, averaging a whopping 141.4 rushing yards per game. Jacksonville’s offense also ranked sixth in total yards per game (365.9) and fifth in points per game (26.1).
A big reason for their offensive success was the late-season play of quarterback Blake Bortles. Despite struggling for most of the first half of the season, Bortles looked significantly better during Jacksonville’s first four games in December. During that stretch, the fourth-year quarterback averaged over 320 passing yards per game to go along with nine touchdowns and three interceptions, while leading the Jaguars to an average of 34.5 points per game. However, all three of the interceptions came in Week 16, only to be followed by two more picks in Week 17 (both Jacksonville losses). The Jaguars will need their young quarterback to take better care of the ball against a Bills defense that ranks seventh in the league in turnover differential (+9).
This game will likely hold a little extra meaning for several members of the Bills. Jaguars head coach, Doug Marrone, served in the same position with Buffalo from 2013-2014. The Bills finished with a 9-7 record in 2014, which represented the franchise’s first winning season in 10 years. But after the season’s final game, it was revealed that Marrone had a three-day out clause in his contract in the event of a change in ownership. Former Bills owner Ralph Wilson passed away in March 2014, and the team was purchased by Terrence Pegula towards the beginning of the 2014 season. Marrone decided to exercise the out clause and quit on December 31, 2014, and still collected his 2015 salary in-full. His decision to leave the Bills did not sit well with the team or its fan base.
THE NFL TODAY analyst Nate Burleson weighed in on this weekend’s Bills-Jaguars AFC Wild Card matchup. THE NFL TODAY with Burleson, James Brown, Phil Simms, Bill Cowher and Boomer Esiason airs Sunday at 12:00 Noon ET on CBS.
Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars – 1:05 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: After a great late-season run, Blake Bortles has thrown five interceptions in the last two games. What does he need to do to succeed against Buffalo’s pass defense on Sunday?
Nate Burleson: It goes without saying, he needs to take care of the ball. But more importantly, he needs to find that rhythm that he found earlier in December. There are a lot of people jumping on TV saying “Blake Bortles needs to throw the ball less than 20 times.” I don’t agree. Blake Bortles needs to throw the ball 30-40 times per game. He’s proved that he can do that. What he needs to do is not force the ball downfield. That’s where he gets himself into trouble — trying to make that big play. You don’t have to search for the big play if you’re the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. Lean on the running backs, Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon, assuming they’re both healthy coming into this matchup. Nickel and dime your way down the field. And protect the ball. You live to fight another down.
If you have to punt the ball or throw the ball away, that’s fine. Give your defense an opportunity to win. This is one of those teams where, if you’re in it in the fourth quarter and you’re protecting the ball, your defense will most likely give you an opportunity to have it in your hands last. And that’s what is going to matter the most. Don’t get caught up in the hype. Don’t get caught up in the atmosphere of trying to be the hero. Blake Bortles needs to be more of a protector of the ball than the hero with the ball.
CBS Local Sports: Neither team needs extra motivation heading into a playoff game, but does the history between Doug Marrone and the Bills add a little more excitement to this game?
Nate Burleson: Yes, of course. You understand every storyline. Dating back to when I played, there were times when we had our pregame meetings — whether it was sitting in the locker room or the night before in the hotel — and our coaches would give us every single storyline. When a fan walks into a stadium, they’ll get a game-day program. You see all of the connections and six degrees of separation between all of these different players and coaches. We would get that, but it would be turned up 100x. Before the game, you knew who was where, how that relationship went, how it ended, and how it still stands. So yes, the history of one coach from an organization, and where he was and what he did there, it’s a big part of motivation for every game.
CBS Local Sports: The Bills finished the season with the 29th-ranked rushing defense. How can Buffalo slow down Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars’ top-ranked running game?
Nate Burleson: The Bills can’t sit back and allow him to catch a full head of steam. As big as he is, we’ve seen him get into the secondary and separate himself from linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. Buffalo will have to bring pressure. Put the onus on the quarterback and wide receivers to beat you. We were just talking about Blake Bortles and what he needs to do. The Bills have to force him to make those throws down the field. Force him to throw in tight windows with pressure around him. If you collapse the pocket and try to put pressure on Bortles, most likely by bringing blitzes, pressures and twists up front, you’re going to collapse the pocket on the running game. I would provide one extra man in the box, and dedicate that guy to Leonard Fournette. Listen, you’re not going to stop him. But you’ll slow him down tremendously.
CBS Local Sports: What should the number-one priority be for the Bills offense going up against one of the best defenses in the NFL in Jacksonville?
Nate Burleson: The number-one priority would be to protect Tyrod Taylor as much as they can. Give him a chance to sit back in a clean pocket and deliver the rock. But also, reiterate to your offensive line that they’re going to have to block a half a beat longer, or two seconds longer. The average play is four to six seconds. I need you to block for eight seconds. The reason I say this is because if you give Tyrod Taylor the ability to go through his progressions and none of those guys are open, he’s going to do what Russell Wilson has been doing all season in Seattle, and that’s take off running. Especially given the fact that LeSean McCoy is so banged up and may not play — and even if he does, who knows if he’s going to be 100 percent — you have to use Tyrod Taylor as an extra running back. That skill set shouldn’t be sitting behind the line for four quarters. I get when it’s the regular season and you’re trying to protect your quarterback by telling him to take care of his body and not leave the pocket so much. But now, this is that final stretch. We have only a month left of football.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.