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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-BEARS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to Week 16 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’ 15th game of 2022 will take place at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois as they face the Chicago Bears. Here’s what you should know:

CHICAGO, IL – DECEMBER 18: Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus looks on in action during a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears on December 18, 2022, at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


MONSTERS OF THE MIDWAY AREN’T AS SCARY LATELY

Throughout their history, the Chicago Bears have traditionally been strong on this side of the ball. From the days of Bill George and Dick Butkus making plays for George Halas, to Mike Singletary and William “The Refrigerator” Perry executing Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan’s 46 scheme and Vic Fangio’s recent unit headed by Khalil Mack, you could rarely say the Bears were lacking for defense.

Nowadays it’s a different story. Chicago’s new head coach is Matt Eberflus and his defensive coordinator is Alan Williams – they come from Indianapolis and believe in a straightforward Cover Two zone defensive scheme that allows their guys to play fast and rely on execution rather than outsmarting the opposition. They each have ties to the Tony Dungy coaching tree, like ex-Bears coach (and current Houston Texans skipper) Lovie Smith did while guiding perennial All-Pros Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs to two NFC title game appearances and a berth in Super Bowl XLI.

Eberflus and Williams, however, have inherited a roster that has a ton of holes and especially on defense. Gone from prior seasons are Mack, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller, Danny Trevathan, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks, and their absence has been felt. The Bears, in turn, are 27th against the run, 15th in passing yards allowed, 27th in red zone defense, 30th in points surrendered and dead last in sacks.

Tied for 12th in interceptions, however, shows that there is a bit of talent on this unit – particularly in their secondary. Safety Eddie Jackson, who is out for the rest of the season with a Lisfranc injury, is one of the NFL’s best at his position. His teammates include a pair of green but gifted rookies in Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker, who are both savvy beyond their years. They’re joined in the defensive backfield by DeAndre Houston-Carson and Jaylon Jones.

To compensate for their lack of talent in their front seven (and preference to not blitz), Chicago likes to use different defensive fronts, especially overloaded ones to set up stunts and twists to confuse offensive lines. Executing these schemes on the defensive line are Trevis Gipson, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Mike Pennel Jr., Justin Jones, Dominique Robinson and Taco Charlton, and Matthew Adams, Joe Thomas (filling in for injured Jack Sanborn) and Nicholas Morrow are the Bears’ linebackers.

Chicago has lost seven in a row and would tie the franchise record for longest losing streak (eight, set in 2002) should they falter this weekend.

CHICAGO, IL – DECEMBER 18: Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) runs with the football in action during a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears on December 18, 2022, at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


DO THE BEARS FINALLY HAVE AN ANSWER AT QUARTERBACK?

The Chicago Bears have been searching for an answer under center since Sid Luckman retired in 1951.

That is not a misprint. Since then the Bears’ signal callers have been anywhere between downright average to awful, with names like Jim McMahon, Jim Harbaugh, Cade McNown, Jim Miller, Rex Grossman, Jay Cutler and Mitchell Trubisky all taking turns trying to be the savior in the Windy City. Now with second-year man Justin Fields pulling the trigger, Eberflus along with offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and general manager Ryan Poles hope to have their guy.

So far Fields has shown some flashes. While possessing physical gifts like a strong arm, toughness, mobility and speed (Fields has become just the third quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season joining Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick and has eight rushing touchdowns along with a league record 178 yards against Miami in Week Nine), Fields also struggles in the passing game.

Fields will leave the pocket too quickly if his first read isn’t there, has a late release, needs to work on his anticipatory skills and is learning to process coverages post-snap – evidenced by Chicago being first in the league in rushing yet last in passing. These are common areas for young quarterbacks to improve upon and the hope is that he will make progress in these respects.

In the meantime, Chicago has built around his limits with zone-read option running plays added into an offensive system that Getsy has brought with him from division rival Green Bay. Like his former boss, Matt LaFleur (and LaFleur’s former colleagues in Mike and Kyle Shanahan, Gary Kubiak and Sean McVay), Getsy has used a playbook that emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field.

Fields has a trio of capable wide receivers in Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool and Equanimeous St. Brown, but they’re all out with injury – leaving Fields to throw to red zone threat Byron Pringle, N’Keal Harry and Dante Pettis. Cole Kmet is the Bears’ tight end.

Running backs David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert are the classic “thunder and lightning” duo – Montgomery a downhill runner and Herbert the speed threat. Both can catch out of the backfield too, but they have operated behind an offensive line that, due to injury and ineffectiveness, is projected to start their eighth different starting combination this season. With Cody Whitehair and Teven Jenkins not expected to play this weekend, that leaves a mix of Braxton Jones, Alex Leatherwood, Michael Schofield III, Sam Mustipher, Ja’Tyre Carter, Larry Borom and Riley Reiff for Chicago to play with.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 17: Shaq Lawson #90 of the Buffalo Bills sacks Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter of an NFL football game at Highmark Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)


BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE, BUT NOT WITHOUT WARTS

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 over the last two years. 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).

An issue crept up throughout the 2021 season when it came to stopping 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 (the two issues creep up from time to time – like when they allowed 188 yards last week to Miami) 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 front. 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 added to a group that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on nearly 31 percent of their defensive snaps last year – tops in the NFL – but he is out for the season with a torn ACL after pacing the team with eight sacks in 12 games.

Schematically the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap (they’re usually among the top units in the NFL in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six) 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 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 didn’t 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 and rarely since – although they may need to more with Miller out, especially with four-man zone exchanges).

The Bills 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 (so far in 2022 that number is around 95 percent). They did use a third linebacker quite a bit against New England in their first matchup of 2021 and used nine snaps of dime against Kansas City in Week Seven this year – a matchup that saw Frazier’s unit rely on three-man rushes and Milano utilizing a spy technique on Patrick Mahomes, a tactic McDermott and Frazier could use again versus Fields.

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 was Dane Jackson, who has flashed some ability when given the chance (and has gotten picked on by the opposition in recent weeks) but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage now back in the lineup, will McDermott and Frazier continue to lean on more zone from White, Jackson, Xavier Rhodes, rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford and slot corner Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen with Hyde suffering a neck injury that will sideline him for the rest of 2022 and Poyer being in and out of the lineup at various times – although they may use more zone against Chicago this week.

Hyde and Poyer’s replacements, the rangy and physical Damar Hamlin and a combination of the savvy Jaquan Johnson, veteran Dean Marlowe and converted cornerback Cam Lewis have held their own for the most part. Their ability to fill in has helped the Bills rank ninth in yards per game allowed, 11th in sacks, tied for fifth in takeaways, second in points surrendered per game and tied for seventh in interceptions. They’re also 18th against the pass and sixth versus the run.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 17: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills dives into the end zone for a two point conversion against the Miami Dolphins at Highmark Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)


BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT, BUT FLAWED

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 (out with a foot injury), crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley, speedsters Isaiah McKenzie and John Brown 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 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 (out with a concussion), Ryan Bates and Spencer Brown. This crew along with fullback Reggie Gilliam 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 (whose game is based on shiftiness and power), James Cook and Duke Johnson (speed and route running) and veteran newcomer Nyheim Hines, who brings many of the same qualities to the table as Cook and Johnson along with special teams ability.

In 2021 that offensive line was 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. So far they’ve been adequate but haven’t been world-beaters – allowing three sacks and drawing six penalties against the New York Jets two weeks ago wasn’t a highlight of their season.

Buffalo’s passing 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 (especially in the red zone), 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 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. Former 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 and running back looks. They 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 approach continued in victories against Tennessee, where Dorsey decided to utilize seven different personnel groupings to score 41 points, Baltimore – a game in which they trailed by 17 points at halftime but rallied to win 23-20, their largest comeback since a 34-31 win over New England in 2011 – Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Green Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, New England, New York and Miami. Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (fourth in points scored, fifth in passing, second in total yards per game, eighth in rushing and 12th in red zone percentage), two flaws remain – they have the fourth-most turnovers in the league with 21 (Allen has 11 interceptions and 12 fumbles, mainly due to perceiving pressure that isn’t there and playing too fast) and a lack of explosiveness, leading to reunions with Brown and Beasley.

Those problems and a stubborn refusal to run the ball and bleed the clock – Dorsey called for just one handoff to a running back in the last 23:04 of the game – allowed the Minnesota Vikings to score 20 unanswered points in a 33-30 comeback win in Week 10. Additionally, their struggles against the Jets two weeks ago were noticeable – eight punts (a season-high), two-for-13 on third down, a season-low 232 total net yards (317, their previous low, was also against the Jets and one net yard on their last three possessions) and the fourth straight week in which their point total declined are all causes for concern (last week was the third time since 2009 the Bills won a game with 232 yards of offense or less).

However, the Bills dominated Miami in Week Three in most statistical categories despite losing – which continued in their rematch a week ago but coming out on the winning side. Buffalo has won five in a row, including five straight non-Sunday games (the most since the 2005 Denver Broncos) and could be the first team to have six straight non-Sunday wins since the 1962 Boston Patriots. Conversely Buffalo has lost just three games by a total of eight points and haven’t lost by three points or more.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 17: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with Dawson Knox #88 after a successful two-point conversion during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Highmark Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 32 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 15 of his last 29 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 30-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals.

  2. 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 (seven). He’s also tied with Fran Tarkenton for fourth all-time in games with a passing and rushing score (24), behind Aaron Rodgers (30), Young (31) and Cam Newton (45).

  3. Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees (nine) and Tom 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 (83.9 – a new club record in the regular season) and win a game in league history against the Rams.

  4. After throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns against Miami, Allen has 13 games with 300 yards and three scores. That breaks a tie with Jim Kelly for the most in franchise history.

  5. Another Allen stat – he has moved past Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham and Steve Grogan for fifth all-time in rushing scores among quarterbacks with 37. He needs two more to move past Steve McNair and Tobin Rote into fourth place (behind Newton, Young and Jack Kemp).

  6. Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except four– Chicago, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia.

  7. Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 28 times, second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65) and could break Bill Brooks’ team record for touchdowns in a season (11) with two scores. Diggs and Stevie Johnson are also the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.

  8. Speaking of Diggs, he needs one catch to be the sixth player ever with 100 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards in three straight seasons – joining Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Herman Moore, Antonio Brown and Michael Thomas. He has also surpassed Fred Jackson for fifth in franchise history with 324 receptions.

  9. Knox has moved past Chandler for third in team annals with 18 receiving scores. He’s behind Metzelaars (25) and Riemersma (20).

  10. Since 2017 the Bills are 49-6 when leading at halftime. They’ve also won 10 in a row at home against teams with a losing record.

  11. 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), has moved past Robert Mathis for 19th on the all-time sack list and is two quarterback takedowns away from tying Dwight Freeney for 18th.

  12. Buffalo’s point differential is plus-135 – second-best in the NFL – and have recorded 5,000 yards of offense for the third time in team history, joining the 1991 and 1975 teams.

  13. After beating Rodgers, Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, according to Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports Allen became the first quarterback to defeat three former MVPs in a four-game span since Troy Aikman downed Dan Marino, Young and Brett Favre in 1996. He’s also the first signal caller to beat three former MVPs in one month since David Woodley in September 1981 and has won eight of his last nine games against former MVP quarterbacks (Brady in 2021 is the lone loss).

  14. The Bills have compiled a road winning percentage of .709 (22-9) since 2019. Conversely, Buffalo is 19-5 at home since 2020 and is 10-1 at home in December and beyond in their last 11.

  15. McDermott’s record against the AFC East since 2017 is 22-13 – a winning percentage of .628.

  16. The Bills currently have the top seed in the AFC, have beaten every AFC divisional leader and are the only team to have rushed for 100 yards in every game this year. They have clinched a playoff berth for the fourth straight year, which tied the second-longest streak in franchise history (1963-66, (six years from 1988-93 is the longest) and is the fifth time McDermott clinched a playoff berth, trailing just Marv Levy (eight) for the most. Buffalo’s also looking for a third straight AFC East title, which would be their longest streak since 1988-91.

  17. Buffalo has won eight of their last nine against the Dolphins. Allen is now 8-2 in his career against Miami having thrown 27 touchdowns and just five picks. He became the first quarterback with multiple touchdown passes against one opponent in each of his first 10 games against them, and has become the only player in league history with 700-plus passing yards (704) and 100-plus rushing yards (124) against a team in one season.

  18. McDermott’s record against the Dolphins is now 10-2 and Allen is 5-0 with 14 scores and two picks at home against the Dolphins. Allen was also named AFC Offensive Player of the Week after last week, tying him with Kelly for the most such honors in team history.

  19. One week after a snowy game with temperatures in the 20s in Buffalo, the Bills will go to Soldier Field where temperatures call for a high of 10 degrees and winds of 25-35 miles per hour. Buffalo has won just once in Soldier Field (1-5 – emerging victorious in 2014) and it will be their seventh all-time game on Christmas Eve – their last such outing happening in 2017.

  20. In their five-game winning streak, the Bills haven’t recorded an interception – their longest such streak under McDermott and tied for the second-longest in team annals. Only the 2016 Dallas Cowboys have won more games in a row (six) without a pick.

  21. McDermott became the 11th coach all-time to make the playoffs five times in his first six years – joining Andy Reid (PHI), John Harbaugh (BAL), John Madden (OAK), Mike Holmgren (GB), John Robinson (LAR), Paul Brown (CLE), Dennis Green (MIN), Chuck Knox (LAR), George Seifert (49ers) and Bill Cowher (PIT).

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