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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-BROWNS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to Week 11 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’ 10th game of 2022 will take place at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan as they face the Cleveland Browns. Here’s what you should know:

MIAMI GARDENS, FL – NOVEMBER 13: Nick Chubb #24 of the Cleveland Browns carries the ball during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)


BROWNS’ OFFENSE A RUN-HEAVY UNIT

The Cleveland Browns were surrounded by loads of hype heading into the 2019 season and rightfully so. The additions of many well-known players over that offseason, an improved record the year before and the development of former quarterback Baker Mayfield had some feeling as if the Browns could challenge for the AFC North’s crown. It didn’t happen, but the eventual hiring of Kevin Stefanski from the Minnesota Vikings as head coach helped Cleveland clear two major hurdles in 2020 – reaching the postseason for the first time since 2002 and winning their first playoff game since 1994.

Since then the Browns have been a bit uneven. Falling back to earth a bit last year with an 8-9 record, enduring various injuries and uneven play – especially from Mayfield – allowed Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry to pull the plug on Mayfield, shipping him to the Carolina Panthers and acquiring former Houston Texan Deshaun Watson after multiple sexual misconduct lawsuits and a feud with Texans management forced him to miss the entire 2021 season.

Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler, has a good, strong arm and his mobility, anticipation and accuracy are all among the NFL’s best. Yet he hasn’t been able to display those talents while serving an 11-game suspension related to the lawsuits – leading to journeyman backup Jacoby Brissett taking his place. Brissett is a capable quarterback with size and strength, mobility and can make most NFL throws – he’s especially excelling at “flood” concepts with three wideouts attacking all three levels of a defense (deep, intermediate and short) on one side of the field, creating defined reads for him.

Stefanski’s offensive system is derived from his former Vikings colleague Gary Kubiak – a former head coach with the Texans and Denver Broncos (and offensive coordinator for Mike Shanahan in Denver). Like Kubiak and Shanahan, Stefanski relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is very creative in its ability to attack matchups. It also utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs.

The Browns’ rushing philosophy relies on a mobile offensive line that pushes defenders from sideline to sideline while encouraging its tailbacks to find holes on the opposite side of the play’s direction and cut back against the grain. Executing these blocks are guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, center Ethan Pocic and tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin.

While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Stefanski will also use power plays, traps, sweeps, counters, inside zone, “duo” and pin and pulls as changeup tactics and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well. This system has made many a star out of running backs for decades and the veteran duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at running back is an impressive combination of speed and power.

Like his ex-coworker, Stefanski will have his skill players line up in unusual places in the formation to determine if defenses are playing man or zone coverage and will have his wide receivers stay inside the numbers to give them extra room to run routes and to serve as additional blockers. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game and the receivers’ pass patterns work well off one another with many intersecting routes at all three levels.

The Browns’ offense makes liberal use of multiple tight end sets, and David Njoku and Harrison Bryant have benefited from it. At wide receiver, four-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones give Cleveland’s quarterbacks weapons to work with.

Cleveland is 3-6 and hasn’t won back-to-back games yet this year. Similar to the Bills, they’ve come out flying in the first half of their games and sputtered in the second – they have a plus-22 point differential in the first quarter and a minus-23 differential in the fourth, where they’ve allowed an NFL-worst 92 points.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL – NOVEMBER 13: Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) tries to get around Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Brandon Shell (72) during the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, November 13, 2022 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


CLEVELAND’S DEFENSE IS SO-SO

The Browns’ defense does have some pieces to work around but they haven’t gotten a lot of positive results. Heading into Week 11 they are ranked 17th or worse in every major category – total yards, passing yards, rushing yards allowed and points surrendered, and have just three interceptions all year.

Two-time All-Pro Myles Garrett has had four straight double-digit sack campaigns and his 66 career sacks are fourth-best all-time by one player through his first 76 career games according to buffalobills.com. Just Reggie White (84), T.J. Watt (71) and J.J. Watt (70.5) have more, and Garrett is second all-time among former first overall draft picks in quarterback takedowns through his first 76 games – only Bruce Smith had more with 76.5.

The big, quick defensive end from Texas A&M doesn’t have much help in getting after quarterbacks however. Veteran bookend Jadeveon Clowney has been a better run defender than pass rusher throughout his career and is inconsistent, and defensive tackles Taven Bryan and Jordan Elliott have struggled.

The Browns’ pass defense is built around zone coverage and they have some chess pieces in their secondary to execute it. They employ one of pro football’s best cornerbacks in Denzel Ward – who specializes in matching up with smaller, quicker wideouts – and Andraez “Greedy” Williams, who typically gets assignments against bigger targets, but their third corner, Greg Newsome II, is out for Sunday’s game with a concussion.

Cleveland’s safeties are John Johnson III and Grant Dekpit, and at linebacker the declining but athletic Deion Jones is flanked by Sione Takitaki and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Owusu-Koramoah has dealt with injuries while nominal second-level starter Anthony Walker is out for the year with a torn quad.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 13: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings attempts a pass while pressured by Von Miller #40 of the Buffalo Bills during the third quarter at Highmark Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)


BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE, BUT DISTURBING PATTERNS RE-EMERGING

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).

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 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 adds to a group that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on nearly 31 percent of their defensive snaps last year – tops in the NFL.

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).

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 (although they used a third linebacker quite a bit against New England in their first matchup of 2021 and had nine snaps of dime against Kansas City in Week Seven – 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 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, Xavier Rhodes, 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 and Poyer being in and out of the lineup (Edmunds is also out this week with a groin problem along with Rousseau with an ankle ailment, leading to a reunion with linebacker A.J. Klein).

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 eighth in yards per game allowed, third in takeaways, tied for eighth in sacks, second in points surrendered per game and tied for first in interceptions. They’re also 14th against the pass and seventh versus the run. However, they’ve given up 176 rushing yards per game in their last three outings – the fifth-worst mark in the NFL over that time, and a sign that old issues are rearing their ugly heads once again.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – NOVEMBER 13: Mitch Morse #60 of the Buffalo Bills waits to snap the ball to Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Highmark Stadium on November 13, 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, 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 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 do along with special teams ability.

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 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 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. 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 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 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 and Green Bay, where he used backup lineman Bobby Hart as an extra body on run-blocking plays.

Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (second in points scored and passing, first in yards per game, 10th in rushing and first on third down), three flaws remain – they have the second-most turnovers in the league with 18 (Allen has 10 interceptions and eight fumbles) – Buffalo hasn’t scored a touchdown in the second half since their win over Kansas City and have fallen to 19th in red zone efficiency. Some of those issues have gone hand in hand – six of Allen’s last eight turnovers have come in the red zone, and he had thrown just two red zone picks in four years prior to 2022. Additionally seven of Allen’s interceptions have come against zone coverage, the highest figure in the league and he hasn’t had a turnover-free outing since Week Two against Tennessee.

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 last Sunday. The week before, Buffalo blew a 14-3 lead in a 20-17 loss in New York to the Jets and those two losses have contributed to the Bills falling to 6-3, third place in the AFC East and sixth in the conference’s playoff standings.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – NOVEMBER 13: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball after a catch against the Minnesota Vikings at Highmark Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 29 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 12 of his last 24 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 27-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals, and Allen also set a new club record for regular season completion percentage (83.9) against the Rams.

  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 (six).

  3. Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees (nine) and Tom Brady 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.

  4. After throwing for 329 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City, Allen has had 12 games with 300 yards and three scores. That ties Jim Kelly for the most in franchise history, and with 2,733 passing yards and 476 rushing this season has become the first quarterback in NFL history to average 300-plus passing yards and 50-plus rushing yards per game through nine contests.

  5. Another Allen stat – he’s currently tied for sixth all-time in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks with 35 with Randall Cunningham and Steve Grogan. He needs three more to move past Michael Vick, Steve McNair and Tobin Rote into fourth place (behind Cam Newton, Young and Jack Kemp).

  6. Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except five– Chicago, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia. He’s also on pace for 6,061 total yards – which would break Brees’ mark of 5,562 yards set back in 2011.

  7. Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 25 times, tying Joe Ferguson and Jerry Butler for second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65). Diggs is also 15 yards away from being the fastest Bill to get 1,000 receiving yards in a season and Allen could become the second Bill to have 3,000 passing yards in 10 games with 266 through the air on Sunday (Drew Bledsoe accomplished the same feat in 2002).

  8. Since 2017 the Bills are 44-6 when leading at halftime. They’ve also won 10 in a row at home against teams with a losing record.

  9. 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.

  10. Buffalo’s point differential is plus-99 – best in the NFL.

  11. After beating Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, 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).

  12. Before their game against Minnesota the Bills held their opponents to 21 points or fewer in 12 straight regular season games (breaking the franchise mark set from 1999-2000).

  13. Echoing a prior instance in 2014 when a Bills home game against the Jets was moved to Detroit due to a massive snowstorm, Buffalo will do the same this weekend when they play against Cleveland at Ford Field following a historic snowfall in Western New York. The Bills won that game 38-3.

  14. Bills kicker Tyler Bass has made 100 straight extra points in the regular season – the longest active streak in the league (second is the Rams’ Matt Gay with 51).

  15. Thus far the Bills’ strength of schedule has been the toughest in the AFC and second-toughest league wide. Their three losses have come to teams with a combined 21-7 record and have been by a total of eight points.

  16. The Vikings became the first team to win at Highmark Stadium when down by 14 points at the half – the Bills had won their last 52 games there when up by that many. The last time they had lost in such fashion was at War Memorial Stadium on November 10, 1968 to the Miami Dolphins, and Minnesota’s fumble recovery for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter was the first go-ahead defensive touchdown with less than 60 seconds remaining in the NFL since the “Miracle at the Meadowlands” between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants in 1978.

  17. Through nine games Buffalo’s offense has run 118 offensive plays with a man in motion – the ninth-highest mark in pro football.

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