Thursday Night Football Preview: Return of the Rex
For Rex Ryan, the old saying "you can't go home again" will ring true for him this Thursday night.
The head coach of the New York Jets for the last six seasons, Ryan will find himself in unfamiliar territory as he emerges from the visitor's locker room at MetLife Stadium for the first time since being fired at the end of last season.
Across the field from he and his Buffalo Bills will be a squad that looks quite different than the one he led to a 4-12 record last season with a number of new faces, including star wideout Brandon Marshall and former Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick, taking the field.
Beyond Ryan's "homecoming," this game will have more at stake than just pride. With the Patriots running away with the division and the Bills (4-4) just one game behind the Jets (5-3) for the wildcard spot out of the AFC East, there will be major playoff implications on the line as well.
So what can we expect out of these two teams for this week's Thursday Night Football game?
The Pre-Game Rundown
Finally healthy, for one week at least, the Bills looked like they were starting right where they left off in convincing fashion. With Tyrod Taylor back under center and Karlos Williams in the backfield, the Bills thumped the Miami Dolphins by a score of 33-17.
And while the team had to place Percy Harvin on season-ending IR earlier last week when his knee injury "flared up," Sammy Watkins did his best to make everyone forget about that with his impressive 8-catch, 168-yard, 1-touchdown line line against Miami's secondary.
However, with Pro Bowl tailback LeSean McCoy sustaining a shoulder strain in this game, Watkins walking around with a noticeable limp, Rex Ryan's feelings won't be the only thing that's hurt when the Bills travel to MetLife Stadium this Thursday.
When the season started, it looked as if the Jets would have a heated battle at the quarterback position, with Ryan Fitzpatrick challenging Geno Smith for the starting job. But if there was even a hint of doubt as to who the starting quarterback should be in New York, the last two weeks for the Jets have all but closed the book on any argument for Smith as the team's starter.
Despite Smith throwing for 265 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception in relief of an injured Fitzpatrick in a Week 8 loss to the Raiders, Fitzpatrick was quickly named the starter for Week 9 even with torn ligaments in his thumb that will likely require surgery.
Luckily for Fitzpatrick, he'll have capable playmakers around him to help pick up the slack if necessary. Traded for a fifth-round draft pick this offseason, Brandon Marshall has proven to be a steal this year, operating as the team's number one wideout and racking up 54 receptions for 730 yards and 5 touchdowns through just eight games this season.
With all the attention Marshall has commanded on the other side of the field, Eric Decker has flourished as the team's number two option in the passing game. Not only has Decker hauled in a touchdown in all but one game he's played in this season, but his 0.90 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target ranks him third among all wideouts with at least 50 targets this year.
In the running game, the man many called " Mini Beast Mode" is finally living up to his reputation. Chris Ivory is having a career year running over opposing defenders on his way to 544 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns on the ground this year. And with the coaching staff fully trusting him as a three-down back, he also has nearly as many receptions (14), yards (120), and touchdowns (1) through the air in seven games this year then he did all of last season (18, 123, and 1).
The Jets' Game Script
Fitzmagic will be asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat and throw on a Bills defense that ranks as the eight-best unit in the league according to our schedule-adjusted metrics. With Marshall tangling with rookie shutdown corner Ronald Darby, Fitzpatrick may have better luck trying to get the ball into the hands of Decker who presumably take advantage of the Bills weakness defending the slot. With Decker likely lining up against Nickell Robey, he gets a favorable matchup, as he has surrendered lines of 11 catches and 69 yards to Jarvis Landry, 9 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown to Marvin Jones, and 5 for 51 yards and a touchdown to Dwayne Harris over the last four weeks.
While the Bills have done a good job shutting down the pass this year, the same can't be said about their rushing defense.
Ivory gets to tee off on a Bills run defense that ranks 28th against the rush according to our metrics and just gave up two rushing touchdowns to Lamar Miller in their last contest. And although Ivory has slowed down a bit lately -- racking up just 84 yards on the ground over the last three games -- this week's matchup for the Jets' bruising back may be just what the doctor ordered to get him going again.
The Bills' Game Script
Taylor will have his hands full when he takes on the Jets' sixth-ranked passing defense this Thursday. And with Watkins likely less than 100% due to lingering effects of an ankle injury sustained in last Thursday's practice and the second year wideout taking his spot on Revis Island for the week, Taylor will need to lean on his big tight end Charles Clay once again in this contest; in four games with Watkins in the lineup, Taylor has targeted Clay the second-most times on this team with 17.
Even if McCoy is at full strength in this game as members of the team have suggested, he and Williams will need to do everything they can to help take pressure off of Taylor with the running game. Despite Williams averaging a league-leading 0.40 Rushing NEP per attempt to lead all backs with at least 50 carries -- nearly doubling the next back on this list, DeAngelo Williams -- and McCoy averaging an above-average 0.01 per attempt, they'll be lucky to get much from this stingy Jets run defense that ranks third in the league in defensive efficiency according to our NEP metrics.
It's obvious that if the Bills are going to put points on the board against this defense, they're going to have to grind it out.
Fantasy Football Implications
With both teams fielding top-10 pass defenses, this may be a good time to fade members of the passing offense for both these squads.
Fitzpatrick and Marshall face a defense surrendering the 18th and 14th most points to quarterbacks and wide receivers, respectively, in standard-scoring leagues while on the other side of the field Taylor and tight end Clay take on a Jets defense surrendering the 11th and eighth least points to quarterbacks and tight ends, respectively.
Surprisingly, on paper at least, the matchup does look good for both Decker. As mentioned previously, Decker could have a favorable matchup in this game if he draws Robey in coverage. While the Jets are giving up the seventh most points to wide receivers on the year, Watkins will likely have to beat Darrelle Revis for his production.
On the ground, with McCoy and Williams in a timeshare and going up against a stout run defense that has given up the second least points to opposing running backs, both tailback are merely flex options in this contest. Ivory on the other hand could make for a nice start as he gets an inefficient Bills run defense that has given up the 15th most points to the position this year.
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