1. On the Run
THE KEY: The weather forecast in Buffalo is calling for, what else, cold, wind and rain this weekend. But that doesn’t bother the Rams, who are preparing for another physical, grind it out game. If that means the weather must complement the game’s style, so be it.
Rams running back Steven Jackson enters Sunday’s game on a roll. Even when he was limited last week in the run game by the Niners, he found a way to do damage in the pass game and again surpass 100 yards from scrimmage.
This week, the Rams will again need Jackson to provide the thunder against a Bills defense ranked 30th in the league, allowing 139.2 yards per game.
But Buffalo has been better stopping the run in recent weeks. In the past three games, Buffalo has allowed 60, 87 and 50 rushing yards against Miami, Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
Of course, the Dolphins, Colts and Jaguars don’t bring near the potent running attack the Rams have with Jackson and rookie Daryl Richardson.
To run successfully against the Bills, you have to take on a tough front four led by defensive tackle Kyle Williams. Williams has 44 tackles including nine for loss and five sacks on the year. He has been battling an injury this week, though, leaving his status in question.
Left guard Robert Turner, who matched up with Williams at various times when he was with the Jets, knows full well how destructive the big defensive tackle can be, especially now that he’s paired with another run stuffing tackle in Marcel Dareus.
“Kyle Williams may be the most underrated defensive lineman in the league,” Turner said. “I have had the opportunity to play him whether it’s been at center or jumbo tight end or anything like that but he’s a good player, hard worker, blue collar guy and he’s going to give you everything he’s got every single play so it’s something to prepare for.”
THE ANSWER: The Bills stout interior was as advertised as the Rams and Jackson were limited to 78 yards on 27 carries. Jackson had 64 of those yards on 19 carries with a 1-yard touchdown and had more success late when it was needed.
2. Dynamic Duo
THE KEY: While slowing the Rams rushing attack will be at the top of the list of Buffalo’s priorities this week, the same will be true for the Rams defense in facing the Bills’ two headed rushing attack of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
Spiller brings the juice as one of the most electric runners in the league. He’s averaging 6.6 yards per carry and ranks among the league leaders in scrimmage yards.
Jackson is more of a slashing type who brings a little more powerful style to the table. Although he’s missed three games with knee and concussion issues this year, he came back strong last week with 109 yards on 25 carries.
Spiller and Jackson don’t just get it done in the run game, either, as they pose a major problem in the screen game as well.
For their part, the Rams run defense is 13th in the league against the run and shut down San Francisco’s Frank Gore last week.
To contain the Bills offense, it all starts with slowing Jackson and Spiller.
“It’s pretty impressive when you watch this offense and you see, first of all, how productive both of those backs are and then how well (Bills Head Coach) Chan (Gailey) uses them in a variety of formations and personnel groups,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “When you rush for 232 yards in a National Football League game, that’s impressive and of course where they rank. It’s something they’ve been doing all year. It’s a very, very good run game. It’s a varied run game. They’ve got the two backs that can take it all the way. Spiller is really an explosive scat back. Jackson is equally as impressive, so the run game is something that we’ve got our hands completely full with.”
THE ANSWER: Likewise, the Rams shut down Buffalo’s vaunted run game as the Bills finished with 61 yards on 20 carries with a long of 14. Two weeks, two major challenges for the run defense and the Rams came up with a big performance.
3. Finding Fitz
THE KEY: The Rams are a much different team than they were when Ryan Fitzpatrick was here. It’s hard to believe but it’s been about half a decade since Fitzpatrick was with the Rams, who used a seventh-round choice on him in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Now, Fitzpatrick is an established starter for the Bills and the recipient of a fairly lucrative long-term contract. He’s come a long way from the developmental prospect known more for having Harvard as his alma mater than his football skills.
For Rams fans who remember, Fitzpatrick remains the heady, athletic, strong-armed quarterback they once knew but with a lot more experience under his belt.
“He’s really smart, we know that, and he’s healthy,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “The run game is helping them considerably, helps their passing game. In obvious passing situations, he’s very dangerous because he’s very athletic. He’s mobile. He’ll pull the ball down and run, extend drives, pick up first downs.”
For the season, Fitzpatrick has thrown for 2,471 yards with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a rating of 85.1. He’s also chipped in 166 yards on 38 carries with a rushing touchdown.
Fitzpatrick has always been an intelligent player but he also has had a knack for turning the ball over at inopportune times. The Rams have had takeaways for scores in each of the past two weeks and another would go a long way toward a win.
THE ANSWER: The Bills made it a point to get the ball out quick with screens and slants and Fitzpatrick was able to come up with 247 yards on 25-of-33 passing with one score and one interception. Still, the Rams got to him when it mattered most with a sack then an interception to spoil any hopes the Bills had of a miracle comeback.
4. Byrd the Ballhawk
THE KEY: Another name that might ring some bells to Rams fans from the mid-2000s is Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd. No, Byrd never played for the Rams but his father Gil was a defensive staff member at one time and Byrd actually played his high school ball for Clayton High.
Since, Byrd’s name has become a pretty well known one all over the NFL because of his ability to make huge plays in the secondary for the Bills.
This season, Byrd has five interceptions, which ties him for second in that category in the NFL. Since entering the league in 2009, Byrd has wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks with 18 interceptions, tied for third most in the league in that time.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has done a good job protecting the ball for the offense this year but will need to be keenly aware of Byrd’s whereabouts at all times Sunday to ensure he doesn’t make the type of game changing plays the Rams defense has been making of late.
“He (made plays) since he walked in the door up there,” Fisher said. “He was a corner at Oregon and he went in there and they put him at free safety because they needed him. He might have gone to the Pro Bowl his first year, I’m not sure. He had many, many interceptions and so he’s got great ball skills and he’s a smart player.”
THE ANSWER: Byrd struggled with an injury early in the game and never really made his presence felt. In unofficial pressbox statistics, Byrd had five tackles with no real impact plays.
5. Unhappy Returns
THE KEY: The Rams last played in Buffalo on Nov. 21, 2004, a game that turned into a 37-17 loss as the Bills battered the Rams on special teams.
In that game, then Buffalo corner Nate Clements returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and had another punt return for 53 yards from Jonathan Smith to setup a touchdown.
Eight years later, the Rams face another difficult task in trying to slow yet another dynamic return game.
Buffalo special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven has both of his return units among the best in the league with four games to play.
Through 12 games, the Bills are first in the league in punt returns with an average of 18.4 per attempt, more than 4 yards better than the second-ranked team. They are also tied with Cleveland for most returns of more than 20 yards with seven as cornerback Leodis McKelvin has brought back two punts for touchdowns.
McKelvin has teamed with former Missouri quarterback Brad Smith to form a formidable kick return tandem as well as the Bills sit fourth in the league with an average of 27.8 yards per return. That has helped Buffalo to an average starting field position of the 24.8 yard line, third best in the league. In a game that figures to be close, a big play on special teams can turn the tide. It’s up to the Rams to ensure McKelvin, who is battling an injury, and/or Smith don’t get loose for any big ones to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
“That’s a huge challenge for us,” Fisher said. We have to place the ball well. We have to cover well. We don’t know whether McKelvin’s going to play or not. I’m assuming he’s probably going to play and he’s really, really talented. Then if he doesn’t go you’ve got Brad Smith that can do it as well. So, they’re well-coached. Coach DeHaven, he’s been a long-time special teams coach. They know what they’re doing.”
THE ANSWER: Maybe no area of the game was more important considering the number of chances the Rams gave the Bills in the return game. Hekker punted eight times and McKelvin returned four for 44 yards with one downed, one out of bounds and two fair catches. The kick return unit didn’t fare much better as McKelvin and Smith combined for an average of 26.3 yards on three total tries.