Jim Thomas @jthom1
Current temperature 31 degrees _ wind chill of 24 _ in Buffalo. Overcast skies, but no sign of rain. Or snow.
It's win-or-else time for Rams, Bills
For the most part, Rams RT Barry Richardson has done an admirable job run-blocking this season, but has experienced some hiccups in pass protection. With that in mind, he has a huge challenge in front of him in the form of DE Mario Williams. The No. 1 overall draft pick by Houston in 2006, Williams signed a six-year, $96 million mega-deal with the Bills last offseason in free agency. Slowed by an early-season wrist injury, Williams has been playing up to that contract lately with five sacks in his last three games.
Only eight quarterbacks have thrown more touchdown passes than former Ram Ryan Fitzpatrick this season (20); but only nine have thrown more interceptions (12). The Bills are 26th in passing yards and Fitzpatrick, who lacks great arm strength, doesn’t complete a lot of downfield throws. It’s a quick-passing scheme, often out of spread formations. That scheme, plus Fitzpatrick’s maneuverability in the pocket, helps explain why the Bills have allowed only 20 sacks, the sixth-lowest total in the league.
The Bills lack playmakers and explosiveness in their receiver corps. But fifth-year pro Stevie Johnson, who has been slowed by a hamstring injury, is one of the league’s better possession receivers and route runners. “He’s as good a route runner as we’ve seen,” Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. That makes him the kind of pass-catcher who can give a young inexperienced corner trouble. (Janoris Jenkins beware.) TE Scott Chandler has a nose for the end zone with a team-high six receiving TDs.
The offensive line has been one of the Bills’ strengths, but not this week. C Eric Wood, the team’s best o-lineman, is out (knee injury). Starting RG Kraig Urbik moves over to Wood’s center spot and David Snow comes off the bench to play right guard in his first NFL start. At right tackle, the Bills are down to their third option. Erik Pears went on injured reserve at midseason; his replacement, Chris Hairston went on IR Thursday, so Sam Young makes his first NFL start. Can the Rams take advantage?
One of three former Mizzou QBs in the NFL, Brad Smith is a jack-of-all-trades in his second season with Buffalo and seventh in the NFL. Listed as a wide receiver, Smith has six catches for 83 yards and a TD. He’s also returned nine kickoffs for a 30.1-yard average, including an 89-yard TD. He’ll line up at QB in the wildcat a couple times a game, and has 11 carries for 95 yards. “He’s such a valuable player for us,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “He wears a lot of hats, and he wears them extremely well.”
This marks only the fifth Rams-Bills meeting since the move to St. Louis in 1995. The Rams haven’t played in Ralph Wilson Stadium since 2004, their last playoff season and RB Steven Jackson’s rookie year. That ’04 contest was a case of Bobby’s Revenge. Under special teams coach Bobby April, fired after three seasons in St. Louis after the ’03 campaign, Buffalo busted open a close game in the third quarter with punt returns of 53 yards (to set up a TD) and 86 yards (for a TD) to defeat the Rams 37-17.
When it comes to punt returns, Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin is the league’s most dangerous man with a jaw-dropping 20.4 average and two touchdowns. If he maintains that pace over the final four games, he will have logged the NFL’s best punt return average in 51 years and the sixth-highest all-time. McKelvin, who has been slowed by a back injury, has a league-high seven punt returns of 20 yards-plus. So look for more directional punts by Johnny Hekker, who shanked one for 14 yards last week vs. the *****.
ST are going to need to step up!