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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-BENGALS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to Week 17 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’ 16th game of 2022 will take place at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio as they face the Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s what you should know:

CINCINNATI, OHIO – OCTOBER 23: Joe Mixon #28, Ja’Marr Chase #1, and Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals meet in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Paycor Stadium on October 23, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)


BENGALS’ OFFENSE CONTINUING SUCCESS IN 2022

The Cincinnati Bengals’ head honcho is former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Naturally, Taylor employs a version of his former colleague Sean McVay’s offensive playbook which emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of play-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 handoffs and to have more room to run routes on the field.

At the helm of this attack is former first overall draft choice Joe Burrow. Burrow not only possesses a strong arm and high football I.Q., but also has a strong sense of rhythm and timing for a young quarterback and is consistently accurate. He’s aggressive when attacking one on one matchups outside the numbers and moves well within the pocket – allowing him to become the first quarterback ever to be selected first overall in the NFL Draft and start in a Super Bowl within two years. He’s also thrown for a touchdown in 22 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Those movement skills came in handy in his first two pro seasons as Burrow operated behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Despite the left side of their line being serviceable (and held down by Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain), Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Andeniji and Isaiah Prince were not – thus putting Burrow under duress, taking a lot of sacks and sometimes anticipating pressure when there isn’t – leading to hurried throws and interceptions.

Entering this past offseason the Bengals addressed those issues by replacing Spain, Hopkins, Andeniji and Prince in their starting lineup with rookie Cordell Volson and free agent signings Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. Those additions have bolstered the Bengals – while they got off to a rocky start by surrendering three sacks or more in five of Cincinnati’s first eight games, they’ve given up just 10 sacks in their last seven outings (perhaps not coincidentally, all were wins). With Collins now out with a torn ACL, that newfound success will be put to the test with either Andeniji or Prince returning to the starting lineup.

While pass protection isn’t the Bengals’ strong suit their run blocking isn’t all that bad, and Joe Mixon – one of pro football’s better running backs when healthy – took advantage by having the best season of his five-year career in 2021 with over 1,200 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. His solid vision and good cutback ability have meshed well with Taylor’s scheme, especially on first down where the Bengals like to give him the rock, and Mixon has played well again this year while also setting career highs in all receiving categories

Burrow has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Ja’Marr Chase, his former college teammate at LSU, finished his rookie season last year with the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns ever by a first-year player and has done most of his damage as the boundary ‘X’ receiver on three-by-one trips formations and slant patterns on slant-flat combinations. Tee Higgins is a red zone target and excels on vertical routes and shifty slot receiver Tyler Boyd is a nifty option on short patterns. Chase, Higgins and Boyd are so prolific, in fact, that they are one of just two trios in the NFL (along with Jacksonville’s Christian Kirk, Marvin Jones and Evan Engram) to each rank in the top-25 in receiving yards and are a major reason why the Bengals were fourth in the league in yards after the catch going into Week 17 with 2,060. Hayden Hurst is their tight end.

Cincinnati was sixth in points per game and seventh in total yards per game heading into the week.

CINCINNATI, OH – DECEMBER 11: Jessie Bates III #30 of the Cincinnati Bengals lines up before a play during an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns at Paycor Stadium on December 11, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)


CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE IS OVERLOOKED

Cincinnati’s defense is mainly zone-based (especially with coverages involving two high safeties, such as Cover Two, Four and Six) and coordinator Lou Anarumo is their play-caller. Although they may not be among the league leaders in many statistical categories, they are good situationally and adapt well to their opponents, are fundamentally sound and well-coached. Additionally, they also disguise their coverages well and have multiple front packages.

Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, lived up to his free agent contract with a career-high 14 sacks a year ago (he has just six so far while battling through a broken wrist) and his cohorts on the Bengals’ defensive line include Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill. These four execute a lot of creative pass rush concepts along the line of scrimmage, including stunts, twists and shifting from four to three man-rush looks before the snap. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are their starters at linebacker.

The Bengals have plenty of cornerbacks with experience in zone defenses like Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie (out for the season with a knee injury), Cam Taylor-Britt and Tre Flowers (who they love to match up against tight ends in man coverage on third down). Slot corner Mike Hilton isn’t just one of the game’s best nickelbacks – he’s also an elite blitzer off the edge, and their safeties are the undersized and underrated Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell.

Anarumo’s charges were ninth in points allowed, 13th in yards given up and ninth in red zone efficiency going into Week 17.

CHICAGO, IL – DECEMBER 24: Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery (32) battles with Buffalo Bills defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (92) and linebacker Matt Milano (58) in action during a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Chicago Bears on December 24, 2022, at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via 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 (which is still an issue this year with their missed and broken tackle percentage at 16.1 percent), a lack of gap integrity (this still creeps up from time to time – like when they allowed 188 yards to Miami in Week 15 but shut down Justin Fields and the Bears last week) 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 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.

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 among the league leaders in total yards per game allowed (seventh), rushing yards surrendered, sacks, takeaways, points (second), red zone efficiency and interceptions. They have been in the middle of the pack against the pass – which makes sense given their injuries in the secondary.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – DECEMBER 24: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the third quarter at Soldier Field on December 24, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/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, Ryan Bates and Spencer Brown. This crew along with fullback Reggie Gilliam, while not elite, held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-reads, 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 three weeks ago wasn’t a highlight of their season but they did rush for 254 yards against Chicago, the most in a game by a Buffalo team since 272 in 2016 against Miami.

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 use plenty of pre-snap motion and shifts and have 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 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, Miami and Chicago. Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (fourth in points scored, second in total yards per game, and among the league leaders in passing, rushing and red zone percentage), two flaws remain – they’re also one the league’s sloppiest teams with 24 turnovers (Allen has 13 interceptions and 13 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 three weeks ago were noticeable – eight punts (a season-high), converting just two of 13 third downs, 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 have all been causes for concern (the second outing against New York was just 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 later but coming out on the winning side. Buffalo has won six in a row, including six straight non-Sunday games – the first team to have done so since the 1962 Boston Patriots and could be the first to have seven straight (that winning streak would be their longest since 19900 on non-Sunday games since the 1929 Frankfort Yellow Jackets. Conversely Buffalo has lost just three games by a total of eight points and haven’t lost by three points or more all year.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – DECEMBER 24: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills looks on against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 24, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/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 30 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 Randall Cunningham, Steve Grogan and Jack Kemp for fourth all-time in games with a passing and rushing score (32), behind Aaron Rodgers (33), Young (36) and Cam Newton (64).

  3. Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees and Tom Brady (nine) 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 passed Steve McNair and Tobin Rote for fourth all-time in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (behind Newton, Young and Kemp). He needs two more to tie Kemp for third.

  6. Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except three – Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia. He’s also four yards away from being the only signal caller with 4,000 passing yards and 750 rushing yards in a season twice (he’s the only one to do so period.)

  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 Diggs 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 became 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’s also the first to do so in each of his first three years with one team.

  9. Knox has moved past Chandler for third in team annals with 19 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-157 – the 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 .718 (23-9) 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 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 won a third straight AFC East title, which is their longest streak since 1988-91 and are vying for home field advantage for the first time since 1993 with wins over Cincinnati and New England.

  17. Buffalo has now won twice in Soldier Field (2-5 – emerging victorious in 2014) and that outing was their seventh all-time game on Christmas Eve – their last such outing happening in 2017.

  18. 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).

  19. Allen and Burrow have combined for 78 total touchdowns entering tonight’s game, which ties for the most combined scores for two quarterbacks entering a game all-time. The Bills and Bengals have also combined for 23 wins, tied for the most ever with Denver and San Francisco in 1997 heading into a Monday Night Football matchup.

  20. Buffalo is undefeated against the AFC North. It’s also the first meeting between the Bills and Bengals on Monday Night Football since 1991 and Buffalo leads the all-time series 17-15 against Cincinnati.

  21. This will be the sixth primetime game this season for the Bills, their most in one year. Buffalo is 5-0 in primetime this year (it’s the 89th such game in franchise history and 16th under McDermott, where he’s 10-5).

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