Welcome to Week 15 of the 2021 NFL season. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The Bills’ 14th game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Carolina Panthers. Here’s what you should know:

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 12: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers drops back to pass during the fourth quarter of the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

PANTHERS BANGED UP ON OFFENSE

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, a former assistant to Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants, was hired by owner David Tepper in 2020 after solid stints while leading NCAA programs at Temple and Baylor. Rhule replaced longtime coach Ron Rivera, whose tenure had grown stale, and Rhule has attempted to put his own stamp on Carolina.

Hindering him, however, has been three major issues – inconsistent quarterback play, injuries and poor offensive play. After employing journeyman Teddy Bridgewater last season, Rhule and new general manager Scott Fitterer acquired Sam Darnold from the New York Jets in the spring. Darnold, a former third-overall draft pick out of USC, has decent mobility and solid arm strength, accuracy and intelligence but his elongated release and penchant for throwing interceptions has carried over from college (he’s thrown 50 picks in 47 career games) and has missed multiple contests in 2021 with a shoulder injury.

Without Darnold, Rhule and company decided to bring back the franchise’s greatest quarterback – Cam Newton. Newton, who suited up for the Panthers for nine years, returned to the Panthers after a one-year stint with the New England Patriots went awry but cracks had begun to show in the former league MVP’s game even before he left Carolina in the first place. Newton’s accuracy, while never great, has been declining and his body has taken a toll after being used on many designed runs throughout his career. However, he’s still dangerous on read-options, RPOs (run-pass options) and QB sweeps, counters and power plays. P.J. Walker is his backup and Rhule isn’t afraid to turn to him from time to time when his offense is sputtering.

Running back Christian McCaffrey, who two years ago became just the third back in NFL annals to have both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season (Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig are the others), had his season end prematurely for a second straight year with an ankle ailment. His backup, Chuba Hubbard, brings some size and speed to the table.

Carolina has one of the league’s more underrated wide receiver corps. DJ Moore is talented, former Jet Robby Anderson is still one of the game’s better deep threats and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. has some potential as well. Their tight ends are Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble, and the Panthers’ offensive line – made up of Cameron Erving, Michael Jordan, Pat Elflein (filling in at center for the injured Matt Paradis), former Bill John Miller and Taylor Moton – has struggled for much of 2021.

All of these factors have led to the Panthers being near the bottom of the NFL in multiple statistics and accordingly, they made a change at offensive coordinator. Joe Brady, who directed an explosive attack at LSU two years ago, was recently let go and running backs coach Jeff Nixon – Rhule’s play-caller at Temple and Baylor – is now calling plays on an interim basis.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 31: Stephon Gilmore #9 of the Carolina Panthers guards against Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

DON’T OVERLOOK CAROLINA’S DEFENSE

Carolina’s defensive coordinator is Phil Snow, who finally got his chance to run his own defense at the NFL level after many years calling plays for major college programs like Boise State, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington, Eastern Michigan, Temple and Baylor. While Snow’s unit has struggled against the run and in the red zone, the Panthers have been good everywhere else – they’re eighth in the NFL in points allowed per game, second in total yards allowed, first against the pass and 10th in sacks thanks to multiple coverages and blitzes.

Brian Burns and Haason Reddick make up one of pro football’s best pass-rushing combinations off the edge. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who is out for Sunday’s game after being placed on the COVID-19 list, is one of the NFL’s rising talents and linebacker Shaq Thompson is one of the game’s best cover men at that position.

While safeties Jeremy Chinn and Juston Burris aren’t exactly household names, their cornerbacks certainly are. They’re led by Stephon Gilmore, the former Buffalo Bill and 2019’s Defensive Player of the Year who was once a talented but inconsistent enigma while playing in Western New York. Prone to giving up big plays and constantly shuttling between defensive systems, Gilmore has had better coaching than he did during his time in Buffalo and his play took off because of it.

Gilmore, picked up in a trade from the Patriots earlier this year, is joined by veterans A.J. Bouye (who is out for Sunday’s game) and Rashaan Melvin, and former first round draft pick C.J. Henderson, who was also acquired via trade a few months ago from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

TAMPA, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 12: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers throws the ball with pressure from Matt Milano #58 of the Buffalo Bills during the second half at Raymond James Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN BUT STRUGGLING AGAINST RUN

After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Jerry Hughes – has closely resembled the defenses from 2018-19 that were considered elite.

In 2021 the Bills decided to heavily invest in upgrading their pass rush. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, along with second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa and free agent signing Efe Obada have injected a shot of youth behind the aging Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is back to clog gaps against the run after opting out of 2020. These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo currently ranked first in pro football in total yards allowed, second in passing yards allowed, third in points allowed, and are third in takeaways and interceptions (Poyer has five, most on the team and tied with Tennessee’s Kevin Byard for most among all safeties).

In fact, their 26 takeaways in 13 games are the most they’ve had since notching 29 through nine contests in 1993 and should that number plus their success in allowing passing touchdowns (first in the league) continue to improve, the Bills could become the first team since the 2003 New England Patriots and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both Super Bowl champions – to lead the league in both categories.

But a disturbing pattern has emerged on Buffalo’s defense, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills have gotten gashed by power running teams. That weakness was exposed yet again last Sunday when they allowed 137 yards on the ground to Leonard Fournette and company. The biggest issue there has been poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity (especially by Edmunds) and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line. That is an issue that will need to be addressed quickly.

Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s calling cards (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks). The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and in blitz rate. They mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays in 2020, the most in the league and nearly 100 percent of their snaps since Week Six against Tennessee.

A seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup occurred with White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, tearing his ACL against the New Orleans Saints and ending his season. His replacement is second-year man Dane Jackson, who has flashed some ability when given the chance but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage gone, will McDermott and Frazier lean on zone more from Jackson, Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen.

TAMPA, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 12: Dawson Knox #88 reacts after Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills score during the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE BUT NOT PERFECT

Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of talented wide receivers, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s elite offenses for the first time since the K-Gun was running roughshod over the league 30 years ago.

Allen – last season’s runner-up for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player – set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become one of the most feared attacks in pro football, and that success has continued into 2021 as the Bills have averaged nearly 30 points a game, the sixth-best best mark in the NFL and Allen is fifth and seventh in the league in passing touchdowns and yards going into Week 15, respectively.

His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards a year ago, is an exceptional route runner who excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Emmanuel Sanders and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley (Sanders is week-to-week with a knee issue). Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with eight touchdowns, which is second among all tight ends and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown (Dawkins is likely out this week after being placed on the COVID-19 list recently). This unit held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts, draw plays and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary (who brings shiftiness to the table), Zack Moss (power) and Matt Breida (speed and route running).

But the story has been different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they have been iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection (they’ve allowed sacks on nearly 14 percent of their dropbacks, third-worst in the NFL). Against Jacksonville in Week Nine the Jaguars sacked Allen four times, hit him eight times and pressured him 17 times, tying his season high from Week One against Pittsburgh. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set out to change that four weeks ago against the Jets and it worked – Allen lined up under center more with fullback Reggie Gilliam on the field for 15 offensive snaps and tight ends Knox and Tommy Sweeney saw more action too, which resulted in more play-action and running plays.

After having similar issues against the Colts, the approach against New York carried over into New Orleans. The Bills had 32 rushing attempts to 28 passes – the third time all year they’ve run more than passed, a stark contrast to their 61-39 pass to run ratio in 2021 – but the ground game once again sputtered against New England with their running backs averaging just 3.14 yards a carry. In fact, Allen has had just two running backs record 100 rushing yards or more in a game in his entire career (Singletary in 2019 against the Denver Broncos and Frank Gore the same year against the Pats) and their ground game was once again ignored against Tampa as Singletary and Breida had just seven combined carries.

Additionally Allen has thrown eight picks in his last six outings. Turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only once since then have they had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween).

Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).

In fact, the Bills used multi-receiver sets so often last year that they lined up in “11” personnel on 71 percent of their offensive snaps and “10” personnel on 14 percent of their plays in the regular season. In 2020 they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL at the time – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Daboll also called for a passing play on 64 percent of their first downs, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more than Buffalo.

The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced in their six losses – has been to rarely blitz, lean on zone coverage with a lot of stunts from defensive lines with mixed fronts and late movement in secondaries before the snap. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Panthers attempt a similar gameplan? And could Daboll continue to use less shotgun and more offensive snaps under center with play-action and bootlegs to help both Allen and his beleaguered line? This bears watching.

TAMPA, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 12: Gabriel Davis #13 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with teammates after a 4-yard touchdown reception from Josh Allen #17 (not pictured) during the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Allen has compiled 24 career games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in seven of his last 11 outings. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 22-2.
  • With over 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards last Sunday, Allen became just the fourth quarterback ever to record those numbers in a game (Lamar Jackson in 2020, Newton in ’15 and Russell Wilson in ’14).
  • Allen’s also tied for fifth in franchise history in rushing touchdowns with Wray Carlton (29) and will tie Fred Jackson for fourth with his next one.
  • Diggs is 28 yards away from becoming just the second Bill with 1,000 receiving yards in back-to-back years. The last one to do so was Stevie Johnson in three consecutive years from 2010-12.
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 36-4 when leading at halftime.
  • Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
  • Buffalo has won seven games by 15 points or more this year, breaking a four-way tie with the 1966, 1990 and 2004 teams for the most in franchise history.
  • Each of the Bills’ last 14 victories have been by 10 points or more – the longest streak in the NFL since the 1998-99 Rams.
  • With their loss to Tampa Bay, Buffalo’s record following a loss since 2019 is now 10-3.
  • McDermott and company have lost back-to-back games for the first time this year.
  • Buffalo’s second in the NFL in point differential at +134 behind New England at +140.
  • The Bills have won seven games this year and their margins of victory have been by 35, 22, 40, 18, 15, 28 and 25 points. According to Stats by STATS, only two other teams have had their first seven victories come by 15 points or more – the 1999 St. Louis Rams and the 2007 Patriots.
  • Carolina has lost three in a row and eight of their last 10 games. Conversely the Bills have dropped four of their last six and are the seventh seed in the AFC. They could still win the AFC East should they win their last four.
  • In those last six games Buffalo’s turnover margin has been minus-five, the seventh-worse mark in the NFL in that timeframe. In their first seven games they were a plus-13, which was the best figure in the NFL, but a matchup with Carolina could be just what the doctor ordered. The Panthers’ turnover margin is minus-eight (28th) and they’ve coughed up the ball 23 times this season, which is tied for the fourth-worst mark in football.
  • The Bills have also had some bad luck in one-score games. They went 5-1 in one-score outings last year and are 0-5 so far in 2021 (only the 1985 San Francisco 49ers have made the postseason with such a record, according to ESPN Stats & Info).

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics and From the 300 Level. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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