1. Hit a big one. It’s time for offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to let rookie quarterback EJ Manuel out of the nest so he can fly on his own. The Bills were the only team in the NFL without a play of at least 20 yards in the opening week. The Panthers’ secondary is the weak link of their defense. It should be tested with the speed of T.J. Graham on the outside. The Bills can try some more play action this week in an effort to get the Panthers’ safeties to creep up, thus opening up the deep ball. The Bills used play action on less than 10 percent of their pass plays in Week One, according to the website Pro Football Focus.
2. Stop Carolina from hitting a big one. Similar to Buffalo, Carolina’s passing game was rather pedestrian last week. The Panthers had just one completion of more than 20 yards, and quarterback Cam Newton’s 125 passing yards were a career low. The Panthers have made opening up the vertical passing game a priority today, according to offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Even at 34, Steve Smith, right, remains Carolina’s best deep threat.
3. Pressure Cam without the blitz. Bills coach Doug Marrone said trying to put a “spy” on Newton is fighting a losing battle because so few players in the NFL can match up with him athletically. Spy or no spy, the Bills have to account for Newton’s superior running ability. Last week against Seattle, only one of Newton’s five rushes came on an option play. The other four were out of the shotgun. The Bills can’t rush around him – a potential problem because Mario Williams’ only pass rush seems to be to the outside – and if they do, middle linebacker Kiko Alonso has to be there to make sure Newton can’t get into the open field.
4. Toughen up inside. C.J. Spiller’s struggles in Week One were in part self-inflicted. There were cutback lanes that Spiller admittedly missed, and his first-quarter fumble was a poor play. But his offensive line could have given him some more help. Center Eric Wood and guards Kraig Urbik and Colin Brown struggled with Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The Panthers have a tough matchup today with rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. He was a big part of a Carolina run defense that limited Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch to just 43 yards rushing in Week One.
5. Which team will learn to win? The Bills’ record under Marrone now sits at 0-1 in games decided by eight or fewer points. Of course, that’s also his career record. Carolina’s Ron Rivera, on the other hand, has had more time to figure out how to win close games, but hasn’t been able to do it. Carolina is 6-14 under Rivera in games decided by one possession. Given that the Panthers are further along in their rebuilding, they’re under more pressure to avoid an 0-2 start.
Outlook: The Panthers’ front seven is one of the best the Bills will face this season. The Carolina running game, meanwhile, is imposing given Newton’s sublime skills. Those will be too much for the Bills to overcome in another close game at The Ralph.
Prediction: Carolina 24, Buffalo 23