Welcome to Week Four of the 2022 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’ fourth game of 2022 will take place at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland as they face the Baltimore Ravens. Here’s what you should know:
RAVENS WILL RUN, RUN AND RUN SOME MORE
Before the 2019 season began, longtime Ravens head coach John Harbaugh promoted former Bills and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman to replace the outgoing Marty Mornhinweg. Roman was charged with maximizing the talent at his disposal and he has more than done so by helping quarterback Lamar Jackson win the league’s Most Valuable Player award that same season.
Jackson had a lot of questions going into his draft year but most of those concerns have been answered. According to Bucky Brooks of nfl.com, “As a passer, Jackson has shown tremendous progress. He has significantly improved his completion rate and passer rating while displaying a better overall feel for the game from the pocket. He’s at his best throwing the ball down the seams or on in-breaking routes between the numbers on traditional dropbacks and play-action passes. Although he remains a work in progress on throws to the outside, the Ravens have built their offense around the strengths of his game and by allowing him to be himself.”
Although Baltimore’s passing offense is West Coast-based, Jackson isn’t quite at the level needed to execute some of the scheme’s more complicated pass designs just yet. Thus the Ravens have created defined reads for him through clever usage of offensive sets, play-action and simple route concepts in order to give him confidence right off the bat. Those passes are typically thrown to wide receivers like speedsters Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay and Demarcus Robinson.
Used even more so than their receivers are tight ends Mark Andrews (who can attack both the intermediate and vertical levels of defenses), Isaiah Likely and Nick Boyle. Any combination of those three will be on the field at any given time, as the Ravens are one of the league leaders in usage of 12 (one back, two tight ends), 22 (two backs, two tight ends), 21 (two backs, one tight end) and 13 (one back, three tight ends) personnel. But they aren’t just weapons in the passing game – they’re also utilized heavily on the ground as blockers for Jackson and running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Mike Davis, Kenyan Drake and Patrick Ricard.
Roman had experience working with mobile quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick and had previously installed successful concepts for both of his former signal-callers like jet sweeps, zone-read options, triple options, quarterback counters and RPOs. Jackson used those same ideas and took them to another level in 2019, as he shattered Michael Vick’s league record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback and became the first passer in NFL history to run for more than 1,000 yards and throw for 35 or more touchdowns.
The Ravens were also the first team to average 200 rushing and passing yards per game in one campaign and set a new standard for rushing yardage in a season with 3,296. 2020 saw many of the same results, as Jackson became the first signal caller to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive years and Baltimore also put up 3,071 yards – the first team ever to accumulate 3,000 yards in back-to-back years. 2021’s output wasn’t quite as good as in past years due to multiple injuries, but the Ravens remain dangerous – last week against the New England Patriots Jackson became the third player ever with four passing scores and 100 yards on the ground in a game and is among the league leaders in many statistical categories through three weeks. He’s also accounted for more touchdowns on his own than every NFL team save for the Detroit Lions.
Baltimore’s offensive line is characterized by man-blocking, pulling guards and power runs, and stalwarts Ronnie Stanley, Morgan Moses, Kevin Zietler, Ben Powers and rookie Tyler Linderbaum are the team’s building blocks up front.
BALTIMORE’S DEFENSE STILL A GOOD UNIT
Traditionally the more-discussed unit on their team thanks to legendary coaches and players on that side of the ball, Baltimore’s defense is being overshadowed for once. Not to be outdone by their counterparts on offense, the Ravens’ defense continues to be one of the better ones in football – although they’ve been a bit slow out of the gate. Despite being tied for first in turnovers with Jacksonville, they are last in passing yards allowed and are 27th in red zone defense.
Coordinated by Mike MacDonald, the Ravens have never been lacking in talent among their front seven and this year has been no exception. Defensive linemen Michael Pierce (out for the year with a biceps injury), Travis Jones, Calais Campbell, Justin Madubuike and Brent Urban are solid run-stuffers and veterans Odafe Oweh, Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul are the team’s best pass rushers. Patrick Queen and Josh Bynes are their inside linebackers and can cover and stop the run with ease out of multiple front looks. They blitz at one of the highest rates in the league and mostly do so on overload and fire zone rushes out of single-high coverage looks.
Baltimore’s secondary is as talented as ever, especially at cornerback. Gambling ballhawk Marcus Peters’ presence has given MacDonald options on how to deploy Marlon Humphrey, Jalyn Armour-Davis and Brandon Stephens (Humphrey is adept at playing in the slot and on the boundary). All can execute man and zone coverages well. Safeties Chuck Clark, Marcus Williams and rookie Kyle Hamilton are moved around often in pre-snap disguises and are used often in dime and “big” nickel packages.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE AGAIN
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 Ed Oliver – has more closely resembled the team’s defenses from 2018-19. That is, in being one of the league’s best.
In 2021 the Bills decided to invest in upgrading their pass rush. Gregory Rousseau, Carlos “Boogie” Basham and A.J. Epenesa injected a shot of youth behind the aging Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei returned after opting out of 2020. Harrison Phillips also had a breakout season two years after tearing a knee ligament.
Buffalo ranked first in pro football in total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, points allowed and third-down defense and third in takeaways and interceptions. It was the first time they had ever led the NFL in points allowed and the first time since 1999 they paced the league in total and passing yards given up. Their sack numbers, while not elite over the full season, also picked up as they notched 24 in their last six games (including playoffs).
A disturbing pattern emerged on Buffalo’s defense last year, however, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills were gashed on the ground by power running teams. The biggest issue there was poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line.
To address this, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier decided that more youth and talent were needed along their defensive line. Out went Hughes, Addison, Lotulelei and Phillips, and in came talented run defenders like Da’Quan Jones and Tim Settle, and the return of former Bills like Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson were also welcomed additions.
But there was one more acquisition Buffalo needed. Beyond improving against the run, the Bills had lacked an elite pass rusher off the edge who could command double teams on a consistent basis since Mario Williams was employed. So to add the proverbial final piece to the team’s puzzle, general manager Brandon Beane signed future Hall of Famer Von Miller – who is still one of the NFL’s best sack artists at age 33. Miller will add to a group that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on nearly 31 percent of their defensive snaps – tops in the NFL.
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 intentions keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are the team’s calling cards. Those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, yet the Bills never had to blitz once against the Los Angeles Rams in Week One while racking up seven sacks (the fourth-most by a team without blitzing once since 2016). It was the third time a McDermott-coached team hasn’t sent more than four rushers at an opposing quarterback in a game – 2020 and ’21 against Kansas City were the other two times, and they’re the only team to have used this approach over the last seven years (they blitzed just three times against Tennessee in Week Two).
The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the NFL in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six. 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 last season.
A seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup occurred when White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, tore his ACL against the New Orleans Saints last season. His replacement is 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 continue to lean on more zone from Jackson, rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford and slot corner Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen, and bears watching even more with Hyde suffering a neck injury that will sideline him for the rest of 2022.
Beyond White and Hyde, many others have battled ailments including Oliver, Phillips, Jackson, Poyer and Benford. However, they’ve persevered – ranking first in total yards allowed, second in takeaways, third in sacks and fourth in points surrendered but giving up five touchdowns in six red zone possessions.
BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT
Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of gifted 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’s 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. Setting Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020 (and breaking his own completion record a year later along with the attempts mark), that success continued into 2021 as the Bills averaged 28.4 points a game, the third-best best mark in the NFL. Allen was also seventh and eighth in the league in passing touchdowns and yards, respectively.
In the postseason against the Patriots Allen took his game to new heights. He helped his offense become the first in league history to not punt, kick a field goal or commit a turnover in a single game while scoring touchdowns on every drive. Allen also set career-highs in passing touchdowns (five – the first quarterback to throw that many against Bill Belichick in the playoffs and the most ever by a Bill) and completion percentage (84) while helping the Bills score 47 points, the second-most they’ve ever had in a playoff game (51 in the 1990 AFC title game). He also had more passing touchdowns than incompletions – the first signal caller to do so since Kurt Warner in 2009.
His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards in 2020, 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 (who set a postseason record with four touchdowns against Kansas City) has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Jamison Crowder, speedy slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie and rookie Khalil Shakir. Fourth-year tight end Dawson Knox also enjoyed a breakout season with nine touchdowns, which tied him for first among all tight ends with Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews and Hunter Henry and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.
The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, Ryan Bates and Spencer Brown. This unit held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-read and run-pass options, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary (who brings shiftiness to the table), Zack Moss (power) and James Cook (speed and route running).
But the story was different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they were iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection. Despite the Bills having the second-best running game in football over the last month of the season, most of that production came from Allen’s legs and few came from their backs – leading to the ouster of offensive line coach Bobby Johnson and guards Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano and the importation of Saffold and veteran position coach Aaron Kromer.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, run-pass options, 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 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).
The Bills’ multi-receiver sets are traditionally their offensive calling card. 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. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll – now the head coach of the New York Giants – 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 – and that rate continued in 2021 with “11” personnel used on 71 percent of their plays (usage of “10” personnel dropped to seven percent).
So far it appears that new play-caller Ken Dorsey has expanded upon that with more diverse formations and personnel packaging with multiple tight end looks as well. It helped the Bills to a 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week One – the second-largest victory over a defending Super Bowl champion in Week One all-time (behind Denver downing Baltimore in 2013), converting nine of 10 third downs (tied for the best conversion rate in a game over the last 10 years) and not punting for the third time in four games. That continued against Tennessee, where he decided to utilize seven different personnel groupings to score 41 points.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 27 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 10 of his last 18 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 25-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals, and Allen also set a new club record for completion percentage (83.9) against the Rams.
- Only Steve Young has had more career regular season games (eight) with 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards than Allen (five).
- Buffalo’s franchise quarterback now has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Brees (nine) and Brady (eight) have more all-time. He also became the first signal-caller to throw for 250 yards, run for 50, toss three touchdowns, run for one, complete 80 percent of his throws and win a game in league history against the Rams.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 42-4 when leading at halftime.
- Each of the Bills’ last 20 victories have been by 10 points or more – tying the NFL record held by the 1941-42 Chicago Bears.
- The Bills have had some bad luck in one-score games. They went 5-0 in one-score outings two years ago and were 0-6 in 2021 (only the 1985 San Francisco 49ers have also made the postseason with such a record, according to ESPN Stats & Info). Including last week’s two-point defeat to the Dolphins, they haven’t won a one-score game since their wild-card victory over Indianapolis in 2020. Their last regular season victory in such a game was in Week Eight vs. the Patriots that same season.
- Buffalo set multiple team records in 2021 including highest point differential (+194), most first downs (398), most total yards (6,493) and average margin of victory (22.1 – the fourth highest since the merger).
- Miller is the first defensive player in league history to sign two contracts worth at least $100 million. He is also vying to be the second player to win a Super Bowl with three different teams (Matt Millen was the first).
- Buffalo had won seven in a row against the Dolphins – a team record.
- After the loss, Allen is now 7-2 in his career against Miami having thrown 23 touchdowns and just five picks. He became the first quarterback with multiple touchdown passes against one opponent in each of his first nine against them. McDermott’s record against the Dolphins is now 9-2.
- The Bills have scored touchdowns on their opening drives in their last eight games (including playoffs) – the longest streak in the NFL since 1983.
- This will be the first game since 1966 between quarterbacks who lead their teams in both rushing yards and touchdowns.
- Buffalo’s trying to compile 400 yards of offense for a fifth straight regular season game – which would be a new franchise mark.
- Diggs needs seven catches to set a team record for most catches in the first four games of a season.
- Allen and Jackson are two of four quarterbacks all-time to have 20 rushing scores and 90 passing touchdowns through their first 61 games – Dak Prescott and Daunte Culpepper are the others.
- The Bills have lost five of six games all-time in M&T Bank Stadium – their only victory came on Halloween 1999, a 13-10 win.
- Allen dropped back to pass 71 times against Miami last week – the most in one game since at least 2000. His 63 pass attempts are a Bills record.