The red-hot Bills offense faces a Titans squad fresh out of quarantine
The Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans are two of a handful of teams that remain undefeated after the first quarter of the NFL season. Under normal circumstances, this game would be a true barometer for both squads to measure themselves going forward. And under normal circumstances, this game would have been played on a Sunday afternoon, not a Tuesday night. But as we all know too well, we aren't living in normal times, not even on the football field.
Let's keep our collective fingers crossed that the Bills (4-0) actually make the trip to Nashville to take on the Titans (3-0). The Titans became the first team in the NFL to have a COVID-19 outbreak this season, resulting in last week's matchup with the Steelers to be rescheduled for Oct. 25 (Week 7). Over the course of the last week-and-a-half, more than 20 Titans players and staffers tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which led to the team's facilities being shut down and ultimately their game with Pittsburgh being postponed. The NFL is currently investigating to ensure all of the league's health and safety guidelines were dutifully followed. News reports and video showed a large group of Titans players practicing at a private Nashville high school last week after being told to cease all football activity. If found negligent or in violation of league protocol, the penalties the NFL impose on the Titans could be severe.
On Thursday morning, ESPN reported that another Titans player tested positive from Wednesday's round of testing, the second consecutive day of positive test results. The good news is that all tests performed on Thursday and Friday reportedly came back negative and Tennessee reopened its facilities on Saturday. So barring any more positive tests, this game will happen Tuesday night. And since the Titans have already been on bye because of the schedule adjustments that had to be made, another postponement would be a logistical nightmare for the NFL.
Buffalo at Tennessee
Kickoff: Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Bills -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How sharp will the Titans be?
Having a game canceled due to an outbreak of a deadly, global virus inside a team's facility isn't your typical bye week in the NFL, but it's the new world we live in.
We've seen the effect that COVID-19 has had on football as whole so far this year. Teams weren't as tuned-in to start the season due to no preseason and an abbreviated training camp. Players have opted out. Tackling has been horrendous. Should-be potent offenses have been stale. And a rash of injuries has ravaged entire teams. But how will a team handle a mid-season outbreak? How will a team handle missing practice for the last 11 days? The Titans are about to become the NFL's guinea pig on how to respond to a new type of adversity.
The Titans were allowed to re-open their facility on Saturday to resume football activity. That came after reporting no positives from testing on Thursday and Friday.
During the unexpected break, head coach Mike Vrabel stressed to his team and staff to put Buffalo on the back burner. He emphasized getting his players healthy, and for everyone to mentally reset from what was surely an emotionally exhausting week. Instead, players met at a private Nashville high school to hold players-only workouts — a direct violation of the NFL's COVID-related protocols.
Depending on when they tested positive — whether they're asymptomatic, showing symptoms, or have consecutive negative tests over the span of 24 hours — the Titans could be without some key players this week. Corey Davis (WR), Adam Humphries (WR), Jeffery Simmons (DE), DaQuan Jones (DL), Kristian Fulton (CB), Kamalei Correa (LB), Khari Blasingame (FB), and MyCole Pruitt (TE), and Beau Brinkley (LS) are all currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The potential losses of Davis, Humphries, Simmons and Jones would be the most notable for Tennessee should they be unavailable.
This whole situation is one big mess. Given the circumstances — a much shorter-than-usual week of practice, if any practice at all — it certainly would be understandable if Tennessee isn't hyper-locked-in on Tuesday night.
2. The development of Josh Allen
I can promise that you'll never hear me advocate for a player to win the MVP award only four weeks into a season. However, if there were such a thing as a quarterly MVP, Allen's name would certainly be at the top of the list alongside Russell Wilson's. Allen's progression from year one to two, and from two to three has been nothing short of fantastic. Last year, we saw a second-year quarterback slowly but surely figuring it out, but still relying too heavily on his raw athleticism instead of properly reading defenses. This season, Allen is putting together the complete arsenal.
His 2020 numbers are brilliant: 12 touchdown passes, one interception, 70 percent completion rate, 332 passing yards per game, passer rating of 122.7, two game-winning drives, and two comeback wins. Allen is second in the league in passing yards (1,326), yards per attempt (9.0), touchdown passes, and 20-yard completions (21).
So, how has Allen improved so much from the quarterback that only completed 58 percent of his throws and posted an 85.3 rating from a season ago? First, his offensive line is giving him 3.04 seconds to throw, third best in the league. Second, he is learning to handle the blitz. Last year he completed only 52 percent of throws with an 81.3 rating against pressure, compared to 61 percent and a 117.1 rating this season.
Third, he's been absurdly good on third down, completing 77 percent of throws, with five touchdowns, and a 146.6 rating. Twenty of the Bills' 24 third-down conversions have come from Allen's arm. Last year, he had just a 56 percent completion clip and 18 sacks.
Fourth, the weapons around him have improved and he's finding more targets. Trading for receiver Stefon Diggs moved John Brown to a more compatible secondary option and Cole Beasley to the slot. Diggs now leads the NFL in receiving yards (403) while Brown and Beasley are perfect complementary targets, each with at least 14 catches and averaging a collective 14 yards per reception. When those options are taken away, Allen is checking down to find running back Devin Singletary out of the backfield (16 rec., 114 yds.). Through the first four games of 2020, Allen has thrown touchdowns to eight different players, the same total in 16 games last season.
On Sunday, Allen faces a Titans defense that was ranked 29th in the league going into last week and could be shorthanded with starting defensive linemen Simmons and Jones on the COVID list.
3. Is the Bills' defense back?
For the last few years, Buffalo's defense has been elite, oftentimes carrying the team's anemic offense. In 2018, the Bills were second in the league in total defense, giving up only 294 yards per game. Last year, they were the best in the game in scoring defense (14.1 ppg). But this season it's been the offense that has led the way as the once-mighty defense has experienced some hiccups.
Entering Week 4, Buffalo is 30th in yards and 31st in points allowed per game. The defense gave up nearly 900 yards to the Dolphins and Rams in Weeks 2 and 3. Los Angeles scored 29 second-half points before Allen orchestrated a game-winning drive. Last week, the Raiders scored on their first four drives of the game. Luckily for the Bills, three of those drives ended in field goals and not touchdowns.
But in the second half of that game, something clicked for Buffalo on defense. The Bills finally forced a punt on the Raiders' second drive of the half after giving up just six yards on five plays. On the ensuing Vegas drive, cornerback Josh Norman, fresh off injured reserve, forced and recovered a fumble that eventually led to a Buffalo touchdown and put the game out of reach. The Bills' defense followed that up with a turnover on downs and another fumble. On those four second-half drives, the defense forced three turnovers and a punt, surrendering just 84 yards of offense.
This week, the Bills face a balanced Titans offense that should be well-rested but may not be completely in sync with minimal practice and coming off of an unexpected, mentally-taxing layoff.
Again, keep your fingers crossed that this game is played and the Titans are past their COVID-19 issues with those who haven't tested positive. But the fact of the matter is, Tennessee is coming off of a week-and-a-half unlike any player or staff member has ever experienced. While immeasurable, it still can't be discounted, especially since it appears that the Titans will be down several starters, most notably a few along the defensive line. It sure seems like a bad time for Tennessee to face one of the NFL's top offenses with a quarterback who is playing like an MVP.
Prediction: Bills 28, Titans 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.