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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-BUCCANEERS

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Welcome to Week Eight of the 2023 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’ eighth game of 2023 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s what you should know:

TAMPA, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 22: Chris Godwin #14 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates after Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scores a touchdown in the first quarter of the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium on October 22, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)


BUCS’ OFFENSE IS TRANSITIONING

2023 (and last year) have been seasons of change for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – especially on offense. Names who have headed out the door over the last two years include Bruce Arians, Byron Leftwich, Tom Brady, Donovan Smith, Alex Cappa, Ted Larsen, Ali Marpet, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Scotty Miller, Cameron Brate and Leonard Fournette. That’s a lot of talent – some will be headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few years – and the Bucs, naturally, have had to start over on this side of the ball.

The two most important figures on offense that have arrived in Florida’s West Coast this season are coordinator Dave Canales – a former quarterbacks coach in Seattle – and quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield, the first overall draft pick in 2018, had a solid start in the pros with the Cleveland Browns but eventually flamed out there. After short stints with the Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams a year ago, Mayfield is now attempting to resurrect his career by the Gulf of Mexico.

Mayfield is known for being an aggressive downfield passer. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “(Mayfield) extends plays with his feet, but only when necessary, relying first on his outstanding timing and accuracy, especially on seam balls and underneath throws from spread formations. More impressive are the passes Mayfield does not make; he has a veteran’s sense for getting off of bad reads. And when he does get fooled into the occasional turnover, he continues to be aggressive.”

Helping Mayfield out is a pair of dangerous options in the passing game. Wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – two fast and big-bodied red zone targets – are among the NFL’s best one-two punches.

In the past Evans and Godwin were used in multiple ways, but especially in three-by-one trips formations (with Evans the backside receiver) and in bunch with Godwin as the point man. Tampa liked to use these to defeat split-safety zone coverage along with high-low pass concepts and will also attack the void in between those split safeties with Godwin on a vertical route down the seam and a combination of shorter routes to attract the middle defenders and deep pass patterns on the outside to widen the other safety. They also like play-action out of the shotgun in the red zone to influence linebackers’ run-pass keys – it remains to be seen if these still ring true. Tight end Cade Otton is also a threat.

The improving Rachaad White runs behind an offensive line composed of Tristan Wirfs, Robert Hainsey, Matt Feller, Cody Mauch and Luke Goedeke. Hainsey has attempted to fill the shoes of Ryan Jensen at center but has struggled to do so (Jensen has missed most of the last two years with a major knee injury) and the rest of the line beyond Wirfs has been up and down – leading to the Bucs using their tight ends and backs to help in pass protection more this year. It’s helped to allow just eight sacks this year, the second-lowest mark in pro football.

Tampa Bay’s offense is near the bottom of the NFL in points scored, total yards, rushing yards and in red zone offense and is in the middle of the pack in passing. Yet they’ve turned the ball over just six times, the fourth-fewest in the NFL and are 10th-best on third down.

TAMPA, FL – OCTOBER 22: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Linebacker Lavonte David (54) and Linebacker Devin White (45) talk during the regular season game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 22, 2023 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


TAMPA’S DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE AND COMPLEX

Head coach Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers disguised coverages defined by Cover Four and Three and man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.

Like their offense, the Bucs have had a bit of a changing of the guard on defense. Gone are the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Steve McClendon and Jordan Whitehead, but it seems as if Bowles and company have survived these losses better than on the other side of the ball.

Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven up front. Vita Vea is the team’s top lineman and may very well be the best 3-4 nose tackle in all of football (he’s questionable for tonight’s game with a groin ailment). Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka are a solid one-two punch at outside linebacker and have had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers.

Inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football (David is the better of the two in pass coverage though) and are excellent blitzers. In the secondary, beyond blossoming safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Ryan Neal, cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean leave a bit to be desired – making it imperative that teams have success in getting the ball out to their playmakers on hot routes to take advantage of their aggressiveness.

The Bucs ended 2022 ninth in total defense and against the pass (an improvement over the last two years where they were 21st in passing yards given up in each of them) but fell to 15th in rushing yards surrendered after ranking in the top five in 2020 and ‘21. Middle of the pack in points allowed (13th), Tampa was tied for seventh in sacks and tied for 24th in interceptions.

It’s been more of the same this year, meaning good in certain areas and struggling in others. Sixth in points allowed and 10th against the run, Tampa is just 20th in total yards given up and 27th versus the pass. Additionally, while fourth in takeaways and first in the red zone, the Bucs are last in third down percentage.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 22: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots is sacked by Jordan Poyer #21 of the Buffalo Bills in the third quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)


BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE, BUT UNDERGOING CHANGES IN 2023

For the majority of head coach Sean McDermott’s time in Buffalo, the Bills’ defense – led by longtime stalwarts such as Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Matt Milano and Ed Oliver – has been one of the league’s best in the regular season. Points allowed (second in the NFL in that category in 2022), total yards per game allowed (sixth), rushing yards surrendered (fifth), takeaways (tied for fourth), interceptions (tied for fourth) and red zone defense (second) have generally been the categories that the Bills have excelled at (last year’s 15th ranking against the pass not withstanding).

Buffalo, however, was inconsistent in two areas – creating a consistent pass rush and, from time to time, stopping the run. These issues are mainly caused by poor tackling (a year ago their missed and broken tackle percentage were among the highest in the NFL), a lack of gap integrity and a lack of versatility along the defensive line. This problem came up again this year against the Jets in Week One, where the Bills allowed 172 yards on the ground but a week later they held Josh Jacobs – last year’s rushing champion – to -2 yards on nine carries, the first time a reigning rushing champion was held to negative yards in a game according to ESPN.

To address this over the years, McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier (who has taken this season off, leaving McDermott to call the defensive plays) have brought in more talent. Out went names like Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Star Lotulelei, Carlos “Boogie” Basham and Harrison Phillips, and in came talented and versatile linemen like Gregory Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa (who earlier this season became the first Bills defensive lineman to return an interception for a touchdown since Aaron Schobel in 2009), Da’Quan Jones and Tim Settle, and the return of former Bills like Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson were also welcomed additions. This season Buffalo has signed veterans such as Leonard Floyd and Kaylon “Poona” Ford to help out, and they’ve fit like a glove – especially Floyd, whose length and athleticism were needed on the edge. They’ll be needed even more after Jones, perhaps their best run-stuffing lineman, tore a pectoral muscle against Jacksonville and Oliver has dealt with a toe problem.

Beyond improving against the run, the Bills had also lacked an elite pass rusher off the edge who could command double teams on a consistent basis since Mario Williams was employed nearly 10 years ago. With this in mind, in 2022 general manager Brandon Beane signed future Hall of Famer Von Miller – who is still one of the NFL’s best sack artists at age 34. But Miller suffered a torn ACL after putting up eight sacks in 12 games and missed the first four games of this season while recovering on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. He’s back now and on a snap count as he shakes off the rust, but his return is good news regardless. With Miller the Bills were fourth in the NFL in pressure rate with four or less pass rushers in 2022, without him they were 27th in that category.

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 usually happen in the A-gaps with the smaller, but smart, speedy and athletic Milano and Terrell Bernard (replacing the departed Tremaine Edmunds) to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, but they rarely send extra people – their favorite blitz tactic besides A-gappers are four-man zone exchanges. Bernard has stepped up to the challenge so far, leading Buffalo in tackles and recording two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery against Washington – becoming the first NFL player to do so in one game since Brian Urlacher in 2007. Milano, however, is out for the foreseeable future after suffering a broken leg and a knee injury against the Jaguars, so backups A.J. Klein, Tyrel Dodson and rookie Dorian Williams will need to pick up the slack. So far they’ve struggled to defend the run well because of a lack of experience and not diagnosing those plays at the line of scrimmage.

The Bills mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs between 90 and 100 percent of their snaps since 2020. They did use nine snaps of dime against Kansas City in Week Seven last year – a matchup that saw them rely on three-man rushes and Milano utilizing a spy technique on Patrick Mahomes, and they may use more “big” nickel looks with three safeties to match up with teams with athletic tights ends after the signing of ex-Ram Taylor Rapp.

White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, was back to full form after tearing his ACL against the New Orleans Saints two years ago but is injured again – this time after rupturing his Achilles tendon against Miami in Week Four. Opposite him at the other boundary corner spot were second-year man Christian Benford, Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam (who has underwhelmed so far as a pro). Slot corner Taron Johnson remains elite, but with White’s upper-echelon ability to play both man and zone coverage gone, will McDermott lean on more zone from Jackson, Elam, Benford, Johnson and newly re-signed Josh Norman than they ever have? That remains to be seen.

Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have reunited to form perhaps the league’s best duo on the back end after being in and out of the lineup with various injuries throughout 2022, and the rangy and physical but inconsistent Damar Hamlin has also returned to full health after suffering a cardiac arrest episode against Cincinnati in Week 16.

Special teams were also solid for the Bills in 2022, having been 13th in punt return average and sixth in kick return average (which was boosted by Nyheim Hines’ two kick returns for scores in Week 18, the first player in Bills history to return two kicks for scores in one game and the first kick return for a touchdown by a Bill in three years) and were 18th and third in covering punts and kicks, respectively. Hines, however, was lost for the season after a knee injury was sustained during the summer and the team allowed a punt return for a touchdown in overtime in Week One – the first time an NFL game ended on a punt return score since 2011.

Through six weeks Buffalo is fifth in points allowed, 14th in total yards allowed, 10th against the pass, 23rd versus the run (third-worst in the NFL the last three weeks), second in sacks despite blitzing among the least of any NFL team and second in takeaways. Their nine sacks and four picks against Washington allowed them to be the first team to put up those numbers in a game since the 1985 Dallas Cowboys.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 22: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills stands under center in the first half of the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)


BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT, BUT ALSO GETTING A FACELIFT

Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of gifted pass-catchers, since 2020 the Bills have boasted 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 have allowed Buffalo to become one of the most feared attacks in pro football (he was second in passing and total touchdowns and seventh in yards in 2022.)

His core of targets is deep and talented. Stefon Diggs is an exceptional route runner who excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with the physical Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps. But one element – speed – was lacking a year ago, so the Bills addressed this by letting veterans Jamison Crowder, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie and John Brown walk and brought in burners like Trent Sherfield, Deonte Harty and Andy Isabella to go along with second-year man Khalil Shakir. Tight end Dawson Knox (out after wrist surgery) is now joined by rookie first-round pick Dalton Kincaid from Utah, and their diverse skillsets should allow coordinator Ken Dorsey to throw curveballs at opponents with multiple tight end sets.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, former Dallas Cowboy Connor McGovern, Mitch Morse, rookie O’Cyrus Torrence and Spencer Brown. This crew along with fullback Reggie Gilliam, while not elite, has mainly executed outside zone runs along with zone-reads, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters, split inside zone and sprint draw plays sprinkled in for running back James Cook. Cook has taken on more of a featured role as former teammate Devin Singletary left for Houston and is now backed up by physical ex-Patriot Damien Harris (out with a concussion and sprained neck) and veteran Latavius Murray, who has rushed for a touchdown with six NFL teams – tied with Adrian Peterson for the most all-time.

The starting front five, while not bad, has been iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection over the last couple of years. Most of the team’s rushing production came from Allen’s legs and few came from their backs – the Bills’ rushing attempts per game in 2022, 18.2, was last in the NFL but that number has increased this year. Also, in Week One against New York Buffalo surrendered five sacks, tied for the fifth-most in Allen’s career, but has been taken down just five times in the last six weeks.

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. They also use plenty of pre-snap motion and shifts – in the past it was 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 were 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 on 43 percent of their offensive snaps, 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 and ’22 with “11” personnel used on nearly three-quarters of their plays.

However, Buffalo’s usage of “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) has gone up with the employment of Knox and Kincaid. They were last in the NFL in usage of that grouping a year ago (three percent – it has gone down again after injuries to Knox and Kincaid throughout the year), and their amount of play-action passes has increased after they dropped from being a top-four team in those concepts used in 2020 and ’21 to 25th a year ago – especially while under center, which has helped the Bills be the most efficient play-action team in football. It’s also given Diggs time to set up double moves, masks any pass protection weaknesses and improved their timing, rhythm and efficiency.

Yet for everything the Bills did right on offense last year (first in third down conversion percentage, second in points scored and in total yards per game, fifth in passing, seventh in rushing and ninth in red zone percentage), two flaws remained – they were one the league’s sloppiest teams with 27 turnovers and the team’s ability to create sustained offense slipped during the stretch run of the season. Allen had 14 interceptions and 13 fumbles in the regular season and had three turnovers in the wild card playoff round versus the Dolphins (mainly due to perceiving pressure that wasn’t there, playing too fast and a lack of speed at wideout) and turned the ball over four times against New York in Week One, but has done so just six times in as many weeks.

In 2022 the Bills won eight in a row (including playoffs, their longest streak since eight in 1990) and included winning six straight non-Sunday games – the first team to have done so since the 1962 Boston Patriots. Additionally Buffalo lost just three games by a total of eight points and tied the franchise mark for wins in a season with 13 (along with the 1990, ’91 and 2020 teams).

Through seven weeks the Bills are third in scoring, fifth in total yards, 14th in rushing and sixth in passing. They’re also third in third down rate and second in red zone efficiency and point differential. They’ve also started off slowly in each of their last three games, scoring just 13 total points in the first half (third-worst in the NFL in that time frame and Allen has been blitzed at a high rate in each game.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 22: James Cook #4 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with teammate Stefon Diggs #14 after scores a touchdown against the New England Patriots during the third quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 36 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 19 of his last 38 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 33-3, and he had a perfect quarterback rating against Miami in Week Four – Doug Flutie was the only other Bills passer to accomplish that feat in one game.

  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 third all-time in games with a passing and rushing score (34) – behind Young (36) and Cam Newton (64).

  3. Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has eight 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 and win a game in league history against the Rams in Week One last year. His completion percentage against Miami in Week Four was 84, the highest in team history.

  4. Allen has 14 career games with 300 yards and three scores – the most in franchise history and he is third all-time in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (behind Newton and Young).

  5. Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except three – Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia. Allen’s also become 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 once).

  6. Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 35 times, second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65). Diggs also tied Bill Brooks’ team record for touchdowns in a season in 2022 (11), is tied with Elbert Dubenion for fourth in franchise history in scores, has moved into fourth in team history in receptions and has surpassed Frank Lewis for fifth in team annals in yards. He and Stevie Johnson are the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.

  7. 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 and has three 100-yard receiving games with the Bills in the playoffs, joining Reed (five).

  8. Secondary target notes – Knox has moved past Jay Riemersma for second in team annals with 21 receiving scores by a tight end. He’s behind only Pete Metzelaars (25) and became the fifth Bill with five or more receiving scores in the playoffs all-time while also catching a touchdown in five straight games (only Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski have had longer streaks among tight ends). Meanwhile, Davis has the second-most receiving touchdowns in team playoff history (six), tying James Lofton. Reed had nine.

  9. Since 2017 the Bills are 52-7 when leading at halftime and Week Six versus the Giants was the first game in which they were held scoreless through three quarters and won since December 1993 against Philadelphia (it was first time it had happened at home since 1987 – also against the Giants).

  10. 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.

  11. Buffalo’s point differential was plus-169 in 2022 – the second-best in the NFL and second-best in franchise history (2021) – and recorded 5,000 yards of offense for the third time in team history, joining the 1991 and 1975 teams.

  12. After beating Rodgers, Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in 2022, 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.

  13. The Bills have compiled a road winning percentage of .685 (24-11) since 2019. Conversely, Buffalo is 23-6 at home since 2020 and is 12-1 at home in December and beyond in their last 13 games.

  14. The Bills rushed for 100 yards in every game but one last year. They 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 was the fifth time McDermott clinched a playoff berth, trailing just Marv Levy (eight) for the most. Buffalo also won a third straight AFC East title, which is their longest streak since 1988-91.

  15. McDermott’s record against the AFC East since 2017 is 24-15 – a winning percentage of .615. He also 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).

  16. Buffalo hasn’t won a road playoff game since the 1992 AFC title game in Miami – they’re 0-7 since.

  17. Buffalo’s regular season record over the last three years with Allen is 41-15, and he’s 56-28 all-time as a Bill.

  18. Since 2020 the Bills’ record coming off a loss is 11-3.

  19. Allen has had five games with three or more turnovers since 2019. In the game following those outings, the Bills are 5-0.

  20. McDermott is the third coach in Bills history to appear in 100 games with the franchise along with Levy and Lou Saban.

  21. Since 2020 Buffalo has the best home record in the NFL – 27-7 including playoffs.

  22. Allen’s career record in primetime is 13-4 and he is 5-0 on Thursday Night Football.

  23. The Bills and Buccaneers haven’t faced each other often (just 12 times), and tonight will be just the third time the Bucs have traveled to Buffalo. Buffalo won each of the first two matchups (2009, ’17) and has a 4-8 record against Tampa all-time (Buffalo lost their last game against the Bucs in Tampa in 2021).

  24. In 1976 – Tampa Bay’s first year in the NFL – they were shut out in their first two games. The first points they scored were against Buffalo in Week Three, yet the Bills won.

  25. This will be the Bills’ first home game on a Thursday night since 2016 against the Jets.

  26. Speaking of Thursday nights, last year Buffalo became the first team to ever win three Thursday night games in one season.

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