RB Warrick Dunn is likely to get a lot of action on Sunday despite an extremely tough Buffalo run defense
The Buffalo Bills may not have the NFL's best record, but they do own the longest current winning streak. Since matching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 3-4 a month ago, they've picked off four opponents in a row and launched themselves back into the thick of the AFC playoff race.
"I kind of admire them," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "They were in the same position we were, 3-4. The only difference is they went to Kansas City and won this past week, and we lost. But they have decided that they've got to get on a roll, and they've done it. They play a lot of close games, but they feel like they're going to make the play in the fourth quarter to win it, and quite often this year, they have."
Dungy, in fact, finds many specific reasons to admire the Bills, who count two mobile quarterbacks, a tough run defense and a premium wide receiver among their strengths. Let's take a look at a few of those Bill assets through Dungy's perspective.
A tough front seven
Last year, the Buccaneers ranked fifth in the NFL in rush defense, allowing just 87.9 yards per game. That's offered as a point of perspective for Buc fans, as Buffalo is surrendering a meager 79.6 rushing yards per game this season to rank third in the league.
"Buffalo's tough to run against," confirmed Dungy. "They're big guys. They're very solid. They're well-coached. But we're going to have to be able to run the ball some, and we can't just not run because they're so tough. We've got to get it done, but I definitely think you're going to have to be able to throw the ball to beat these guys."
The Bucs rushed for a season-best 165 yards last weekend in Chicago, though 72 of that was off the scrambling feet of QB Shaun King. It also came against the '4-3' defensive alignment (four defensive linemen, three linebackers) that Tampa Bay is most familiar with. Buffalo plays a '3-4'.
"They're really different, defensively, than anybody we've faced," said Dungy. "Offensively, they're similar to a lot of teams, but defensively, it's a 3-4 like New England but they've got big guys and it's more two-gap. It's more, 'Hey, we line up and show you where we're at and you've got to beat us.' It's not like anybody we've played on defense."
The NFL's leading receiver
With not much fanfare, Buffalo WR Eric Moulds has taken over the NFL lead in receptions. He has 76 through 11 games, a pace that would take him to approximately 111 catches by season's end. Only one NFL receiver cracked the 110-catch mark over the past four seasons, Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith (116) in 1999.
"Eric is a big, strong physical guy and he can run after the catch," said Dungy of the 6-2, 204-pound Moulds. "He overpowers a lot of DBs. He's probably not as fast as (Randy) Moss, but he has the same size factor and he makes a lot of tough catches in traffic. They have a lot of confidence throwing to him…I think he's probably averaging almost eight balls a game. He's doing a good job for them."
Dungy also believes that Moulds is more of a factor when Rob Johnson is playing quarterback, as he is now, than when Doug Flutie's under center.
"I think they take the ball up the field a lot more with Rob Johnson," said Dungy. I think they become more of a throwing team with Johnson in there. They obviously like him, because Doug Flutie's won for them and won a lot of games. But Johnson comes in and I think they stretch the field a little bit more and he probably gets the ball to Moulds a little bit more up the field."
Extra running threats
And that bring us to the two-headed QB monster of Johnson and Flutie.
The generally accepted scouting report on these two is that Johnson is more of a pure passer while Flutie is always a dangerous threat on the scramble. Unfortunately for Bills opponents, Johnson is actually quite mobile as well.
In fact, Johnson has run 34 times for 257 yards and one touchdown, averaging a 7.6-yard gain every time he tucks it away. Flutie has seen less playing time than Johnson but has run for just 52 yards on 16 carries.
"He's run the ball about twice as much as Flutie has," said Dungy, without the help of a cheat sheet. "He's averaging about seven yards a run. He scrambles around and makes things happen. You might forget the fact that he is a good athlete, but I think more than that, they do try to take the ball up the field more and spread the field and throw it more when he's in there."
An opportunistic team
As if those threats on both sides of the ball weren't enough, here's the kicker. Buffalo is tied for fourth in the NFL in turnover differential, with a mark of plus-12. They have forced 24 turnovers while giving the ball away a league-low 12 times.
"You just know that there's a premium on not making mistakes," said Dungy of the attitude a team must take into a game with Buffalo. "They do thrive on the turnovers. They're very physical. It's going to be a tough game. We've got to be ready to play 60 minutes and play pretty much error-free to get the job done."
There's no need for Dungy to make a special effort to drive that point home. His players are surely aware of the fact that Tampa Bay is 6-0 this season in games with a positive or neutral turnover ratio and 0-5 in games with a negative ratio.
Perhaps it's good that Buffalo poses problems for their opponents in so many areas. The Bucs have a lot to concentrate on this week, which should keep their minds off what lies ahead. Dungy wants his squad to exhibit tunnel vision until Sunday.
"Basically, all we've talked about is trying to beat Buffalo," said Dungy. "That's number one on the agenda right now. After that, we'll have two more home games, which is good, and we'll have two more games on the road. But you can't start looking at long-range plans at this point. I think teams that really focus in on the job at hand coming down the stretch will be successful."