These 5 particular head-to-head battles will be especially crucial in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s divisional clash between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.
Jets RB Le’Veon Bell vs. Bills LB Matt Milano
With an alarming lack of depth at wide receiver – there are only four healthy wideouts on the active roster as of Saturday morning – the Jets could be distributing their targets in the mold of a late-2010s Patriots team, running the offense through a slot receiver, the tight ends, and the lead back.
New England did this with Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski (plus Martellus Bennett in 2016), and James White. Here in 2020, the Jets could take a similar approach with Jamison Crowder, Chris Herndon, Ryan Griffin, and Le’Veon Bell.
Bell saw plenty of targets last season, ranking seventh among running backs with 78 throws in his direction (5.2 per game), but he will likely have even more on his plate tomorrow afternoon. Sam Darnold tossed nine passes to Bell in last year’s season opener against Buffalo. Look for a similar total this week, perhaps even a bit higher. Bell’s career-high in targets is 14, and he has had 12 games in his career with double-digit targets.
In the last season-opening battle between the Jets and Bills, Bell broke the game open with a nine-yard touchdown grab against Bills linebacker Matt Milano. Bell, lined up in a stack behind Robby Anderson, does a nice job of stemming his route to keep Milano inside and then cuts outside sharply to create separation. He bails out Darnold will a phenomenal grab inches above the ground.
The Bills may have blown that coverage. It appears the outside corner should have passed off Anderson’s corner route to the safety and stayed in the flat to cover the first out-breaking route (which Bell ran), while Milano was to cover the first in-breaking route.
Nevertheless, Bell ran a solid route and then made an even better catch for the six. He will likely be lining out wide plenty on Sunday (putting pressure on Frank Gore to handle pass protection in the backfield), so the Jets will need a bunch of strong reps against the Buffalo linebackers like that one.
Milano is actually a very solid cover linebacker. In 2019, he was tagged with allowing only 5.1 yards per target, second-best among qualified linebackers behind only former Jets draft pick Demario Davis. In addition, that touchdown by Bell was the only one that Milano was credited with giving up all season.
On this play against the Jets in Week 10 of 2018 (I forgive you if you forget this game ever happened), Buffalo trusts Milano to line up out wide and play the deep-third zone opposite running back Trenton Cannon. Josh McCown throws up a hot air balloon and Milano picks it off. It’s not the most groundbreaking play, as McCown’s throw is awful and Cannon doesn’t even play the ball, but the fact Buffalo even put Milano in that position shows what they think of his coverage ability.
The Bell-vs.-Milano clash features an all-time great receiving back against one of the league’s most productive cover linebackers, with Bell likely to be featured even more than usual due to a dearth of reliability at wide receiver. This matchup is going to be massively important.
Jets LT Mekhi Becton vs. Bills EDGE Jerry Hughes
The Big Ticket’s debut should feature plenty of battles against veteran Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes. The 32-year-old was Buffalo’s primary rusher from the defense’s right side in 2019, leading the team with 382 rushes from that side (23.9 per game). In each of the last three seasons, Hughes lined up on the right side for over 94% of his pass-rush snaps.
Hughes is not the beast he once was, but he had a respectable season in 2019. Picture a hunter green Reebok Mark Sanchez jersey you bought in the summer of 2009. It doesn’t have nearly the same flair that it once did, but it’s still passable enough to wear around the town. That’s Hughes. He picked up 43 pressures on 405 rushes for a pressure rate of 11.9%, good enough for the 54th percentile among qualifiers and slightly above the positional average of 11.3%.
Fantastic analogy, I know.
Make no mistake about it, though. Hughes will give Becton a tough challenge to kick off his career. While the veteran may not have a ton of athletic juice left, he still has a wide array of moves in his arsenal. Becton’s film study and situational awareness will be tested – over the course of a game, can he feel out the situation and read his opponent’s tendencies well enough to anticipate what move is most likely to be coming on each play?
Even with his gifted blend of athleticism and power, it is going to take strong pre-game preparation, proper technique, sound fundamentals, and savvy in-game adjustments for Becton to consistently win reps like the one seen below.