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Five Storylines for Bills-Bengals

At the quarter point of the regular season, the Buffalo Bills are one of the NFL’s biggest surprises with a 3-1 record. The team travels to Cincy this week to take on a Bengals squad that has faced its fair share of adversity in 2017. If the Bills can get a third straight win before the bye week, then it sets them up nicely to at the very least compete for a playoff spot over the last 11 games of the season. Here are five storylines heading into a crucial Week 5:

The Bengals are still loaded: Despite what their record says, Cincinnati still has a wealth of talent on its roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Bengals are third in the NFL in points allowed (16.8 per game) and have the third most sacks with 12. Geno Atkins and Carl Lawson have led the pass rush, accumulating six sacks combined through the first four games.

The Bills have faced some stingy defenses over the first month of the season, but Sunday’s battle may be the toughest. In addition to their front seven, the back end of Cincy’s defense has also started the season strong. In a 31-7 win over the Browns last week the Bengals only allowed 170 passing yards, despite playing with the lead for nearly the entire contest. The battles for some inexperienced Bills receivers to get open against the likes of Darqueze Denard and Adam Jones will be interesting to watch.

Time for rookies to step up: The Bills were finally bit by the injury bug last week against the Falcons, and it has resulted in two rookies playing a substantially bigger role this week. Matt Milano will start at linebacker for Ramon Humber, and Zay Jones will officially be wide receiver number one on Buffalo’s roster. As for Milano, he’ll have a tough act to follow after a solid start to the season from Humber.

After getting the starting nod in the offseason, Humber has beaten just about everyone’s expectations to lead the team in tackles. He’s proven his worth in pass coverage and getting into the backfield against the run, two things Milano will have to do in his spot on Sunday. The Bengals toss many different looks at opposing defenses with three different and unique running backs, so it’ll be a challenge for the rookie in his first career NFL start. With Zay Jones, the drops and the miscommunications with Tyrod Taylor have been well-documented and criticized. The stats are even uglier, with only four catches on 17 targets for 57 yards. However, he can throw all of that talk out the window with a solid performance against the Bengals this week. As mentioned, it won’t be easy for him to have his breakout game against this defense, but with Jordan Matthews sidelined, Taylor needs another target besides Charles Clay.

What to expect out of Cincy’s backfield: I never quite understood the three-man running back models that Cincy and New Orleans are both employing this year. On the surface there’s just not enough pigskin to go around, and behind the scenes it creates some interesting dynamics between the players (read: Adrian Peterson). For the Bengals, their running backs have had more success in the passing game than on the ground this season. Rookie Joe Mixon is the Bengals’ leading rusher on the season with an ugly stat line of 136 yards on 52 carries. However, the Bengals are still feeding veterans Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, who’ve had much better rushing averages on the season. Bernard has proven his worth to the offense based on what he can do through the air. He is the team’s second-leading receiver with 134 yards, and is averaging just under 17 yards per catch. The Bills’ rushing defense showed a few cracks against the Falcons last week, as they allowed Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to get into space, something they’re hoping to avoid against the Bengals. The challenge of preparing for three different running backs adds another wrinkle to the game plan, but the Bills are hoping to become another of Cincinnati’s opponents to force the team to be a one-dimensional offense through the air.

DBs vs. A.J. GreenLast week it was Julio Jones, and this week it’s A.J. Green. The task is slowing down one of the game’s best and doing so against a quarterback who isn’t afraid to just toss it up to his big receiver. With most of the attention in the secondary going to the tremendous play of rookie Tre’Davious White, many have overlooked how well his teammate E.J. Gaines has played. After leaving Sunday’s game early and being nagged all week with a groin injury, it will be a huge loss if Gaines isn’t at 100 percent against the Bengals. That would put quite the burden on the reigning AFC Rookie Defensive Player of the Month to have another sensational game. Green hasn’t lost a step this season, still hauling in 315 yards despite the struggles of the Bengals’ offense. Buffalo’s safeties will play a role in Sean McDermott‘s game plan of stopping Green, but most of it will come down to some individual battles against the cornerbacks. The Bills, who already have a plus-six turnover differential, should see that number rise even higher against an opposing quarterback who is notorious for throwing the ball into dangerous situations. Andy Dalton already has four interceptions on the season.

Can the Bills play like a winning team?: The difference between sitting at 4-1 and 3-2 at the bye week may seem minuscule, but with New England winning on Thursday night and Buffalo still facing a gauntlet of tough games down the stretch, Sunday’s macthup in Ohio will be a critical game for the big picture. For the Bills to pull it off, they’ll have to do the little things right. After a disastrous preseason of penalties, Buffalo has only committed 28 through four games this season. The Bengals love to play physically, especially on the defensive side of the ball, so Buffalo’s linemen will have to keep their cool against guys like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. Buffalo has converted on 40 percent of its third downs this season, which has been a key factor in why the team has controlled the clock and secured victories the past two weeks. Tyrod Taylor will need to avoid taking sacks, and the offense will need to avoid negative plays as a whole to stay on the field. Finally, the Bills need to continue a season-long trend of capitzalizing on their opportunities in the red zone. Currently, the offense is tied for third in the NFL in red zone TD percentage with 66.7 %. Long drives finished off with touchdowns are a hallmark of a winning team. If the Bills can do that, in addition to playing with discipline and not making mental errors, then I think they have the upper hand over the Bengals on Sunday.

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Anthony has covered the Buffalo Bills since 2016, first as a contributor for and now for Cover 1. Anthony is a Western New York native and a recent graduate of St. Bonaventure University. In addition to time spent on the Bills beat, he was the lead play-by-play announcer for St. Bonaventure’s Division I sports teams and was a disc jockey for four years at 88.3, The Buzz.

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