BENGALS OLB THOMAS HOWARD VS. BILLS RB FRED JACKSON
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been lighting it up through the air, but the Bengals feel the key to the game is containing Jackson, Fitzpatrick's all-time favorite teammate, and his gargantuan 6.4 yards per carry. Buffalo uses its three- and four-receiver sets to not only unleash its passing game, but to spread out the defense so Jackson can smash it against the lighter, littler nickel package.
A former NFL scout familiar with the AFC North breaks it down, underscoring the linebackers' importance against spread sets. We choose Howard, a versatile sort trailing only the free safety (Reggie Nelson) and middle backer (Rey Maualuga) in tackles:
"The thing about the Bills is they get you thinking pass first with the spread and then all of a sudden they're running it on you and Jackson is a heck of a player. He's not real fast, but he hits the hole hard and is a good cutback runner that can get vertical pretty smoothly.
"It comes down to how do your nickel backers and safeties play the run and how many of each do you use? Jackson had a big day against the Bengals last season (116 yards on 21 carries), but they also had a lot of their DBs hurt.
"You could say they are better suited at linebacker this year to play this type of game with Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson on the outside. Both are big, fast guys that can run. Howard has been excellent covering people in space on third down and rarely comes off the field for them.
"The backers also have to be very aware of Fitzpatrick's ability to run. You get the defense with their heads turned, and he takes off and there's 10 to 15 yards quickly gone.
"The way the Bills play, it puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers."