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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-JAGUARS

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Welcome to Week Five 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’ fifth game of 2023 will take place at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in Tottenham, London as they face the Jacksonville Jaguars. Here’s what you should know:

JAKSONVILLE, CA – SEPTEMBER 24: Jacksonville Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence (16) chats with head coach Doug Pederson during the game between the Houston Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars on September 24, 2023 at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


JAGS’ OFFENSE HAS BEEN REVIVED

Before the beginning of the 2021 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars made a bold coaching hire in Urban Meyer. Meyer, who possesses the third-highest winning percentage among coaches in NCAA history, rolled into Duval County owning three national championship rings from his days with the University of Florida and Ohio State, and had garnered respect within the coaching community for his spread-based, power-running offensive approach.

The problem with Meyer, however, was twofold. First, he had never coached in the NFL before so it was going to take time for him to get used to – he had been fond of saying that being in the pros was like “playing against Alabama every week”. Unlike college football where there are some pushovers, every team in the NFL possesses good players. Secondly, infamy seems to follow Meyer around, as he’s dealt with numerous off-the-field scandals everywhere he’s been (some he’s created himself), and they carried over to the pros – so much so to where he lost credibility within the Jaguars’ locker room and costing him his job.

To correct this error, owner Shad Khan and general manager Trent Baalke hired former Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson. Pederson, who led the City of Brotherly Love to their first Super Bowl title in 2017, has brought respectability back to the Jaguars and is looking to win another championship.

The Pederson offense – a chip off the old block from his mentor, Andy Reid – is a West Coast-style unit that is built off misdirection concepts, quick underneath throws, screens, bootlegs, run-pass options and occasional downfield route combinations. He has the perfect triggerman for this attack in Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback taken from Clemson with the first overall selection in 2021’s draft.

The mobile and accurate Lawrence was touted as the most pro-ready signal caller in years but went through growing pains as a rookie with a completion rate under 60 percent and a 12:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year was a complete turnaround as Pederson has tailored his system to Lawrence and fixed his mechanics – namely speeding up his footwork and delivery while also giving him defined primary reads – resulting in a 66.3 percentage and throwing for 25 scores with just eight picks (so far he’s completing 67 percent of his passes with four scores and two interceptions). The Jaguars also won the AFC South with a 9-8 record.

The Jags also have talent and speed at the skill positions supporting Lawrence. Former college teammate Travis Etienne was taken by Jacksonville in the same year to add some explosiveness to their backfield and he responded with an 1,100-yard rushing season a year ago.

Former All-Pro Calvin Ridley was acquired from the Atlanta Falcons a year ago and gives the Jags a legitimate threat at the wide receiver position after sitting out last season due to a suspension. Christian Kirk, an ex-Arizona Cardinal, provides speed and refined route running ability and Zay Jones also makes contributions out of the slot while the versatile Evan Engram mans the tight end position.

The Jags have an offensive line that isn’t very athletic or powerful – save for tackle Cam Robinson (who is returning from a suspension) and guard Brandon Scherff. The rest of this unit is composed of Tyler Shatley, Luke Fortner, Walker Little (who has filled in for Robinson and may switch to right tackle) and rookie Anton Harrison.

Jacksonville ended 2022 10th in total yards, passing and scoring, and 14th in rushing but they’ve scuffled along through four weeks this year. 20th in scoring, 15th in total yards and 19th in rushing aren’t necessarily numbers to be proud of – and neither is their third-down ranking (29th). They are, however, a respectable 11th in passing.

JACKSONVILLE, FL – SEPTEMBER 17: Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen (41) during the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars on September 17, 2023 at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


JACKSONVILLE DEFENSE UNSPECTACULAR

Defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, a longtime linebackers coach with the Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals, is the Jags’ defensive play-caller. Caldwell, like colleague and longtime NFL assistant Bob Sutton, wants his system to primarily operate out of a base 3-4 and feature man coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where (the system is similar to what Sutton learned from his former boss in New York, Rex Ryan).

Unfortunately for Caldwell, this roster doesn’t have the manpower yet to run his schemes the way he wants at this time. 2022 saw the Jags finish 26th in total yards given up, 28th against the pass, tied for 25th in sacks and 12th versus the run and in points. They were, however, tied for fourth in takeaways, and 2023 has been more of the same thus far – 17th in total yards surrendered and 22nd versus the pass haven’t been pretty, but 12th in points given up, eighth against the run and being top-five in takeaways is nothing to sneeze at.

The Jaguars boast a speedy pass-rushing linebacker corps with some potential that includes former first round picks Josh Allen (who currently leads the league in sacks), Travon Walker and K’Lavon Chiasson. Foyesade Olukun and Devin Lloyd are good run stoppers at inside linebacker as well. Their defensive line is manned by Adam Gotsis, Folorunso Fatukasi and Roy Robertson-Harris.

Jacksonville’s men on the back end include Tyson Campbell, Tre Herndon and Darious Williams and rangy safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Andre Cisco.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 01: Micah Hyde #23 of the Buffalo Bills runs with the ball after an interception against the Miami Dolphins during the third quarter at Highmark Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/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 against the Jets, 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 will take 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 linemen like Gregory Rousseau (out on Sunday with a foot injury), A.J. Epenesa (who two weeks ago 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 also brought in 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.

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 could return this Sunday after participating in practice throughout the week, and his return would be good news. With Miller the Bills were fourth in the NFL in pressure rate with four or less pass rushers in 2021, 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.

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 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. Opposite him at the other boundary corner spot were second-year man Christian Benford, who flashed some ability a year ago, and Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam are also on the depth chart. Slot corner Taron Johnson remains elite, and 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.

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. With White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage gone, will McDermott lean on more zone from Jackson, Elam, Benford and Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen.

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 four weeks Buffalo is second in points allowed, sixth in total yards allowed, fourth against the pass, 20th versus the run, ninth in the red zone, tied for first in sacks despite blitzing the second-least out of any NFL team and first in interceptions and takeaways. Their nine sacks and four picks two weeks ago against Washington allowed them to be the first team to put up those numbers in a game since the 1985 Dallas Cowboys, and they’re aiming to be just the fourth team since 1990 to have 20 sacks and 10 picks through five games (New England in 2019, Jacksonville in 2017 and Philadelphia in 1991).

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 01: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills passes during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Highmark Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/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, 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 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 and Deonte Harty to go along with second-year man Khalil Shakir. Tight end Dawson Knox is now joined by rookie first-round pick Dalton Kincaid from Utah, and their diverse skillsets should allow offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey to throw more curveballs at opponents with multiple tight end sets.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, ex-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 ex-Patriot Damien Harris (who brings power to the table) 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 (so far they’re seventh in rushing attempts). 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 four times in the last three 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 have also used 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 increased with the employment of Knox and Kincaid (they lead the league in two-tight end snaps through four weeks). They were last in the NFL in usage of that grouping a year ago (three percent), 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 (Allen’s quarterback rating is perfect on that type of play). 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 once in the last three weeks.

However, 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 four weeks the Bills are second in scoring, sixth in total yards, eighth in rushing and seventh in passing. They’re also second in third down rate and top-five in time of possession.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 01: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates his third quarter touchdown against the Miami Dolphins with teammates at Highmark Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 35 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 18 of his last 35 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 33-2, and he had a perfect quarterback rating a week ago – 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 also moved past Aaron Rodgers into third all-time in games with a passing and rushing score (33) – 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 (83.9 – a new club record in the regular season) and win a game in league history against the Rams in Week One last year. His completion percentage last week was 83, 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 tied with Kemp for 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 33 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 (11), is one score away from tying Bob Chandler for fifth in franchise history in scores, nine catches from fourth in team history (Lee Evans) and 51 yards away from fifth in team annals (Frank Lewis). 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 Riemersma for second in team annals with 21 receiving scores by a tight end. He’s behind only 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. They’ve also won 10 in a row at home against teams with a losing record.

  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. Their point differential since 2020 is far away and away the best in the NFL – plus-573 (next closest is Kansas City at plus-395).

  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 .705 (24-10) since 2019. Conversely, Buffalo is 22-5 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 24-14 – a winning percentage of .631. 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 40-13.

  18. Since 2020 the Bills’ record coming off a loss is 10-3.

  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. The Bills have scored 20 points or more in 13 straight home games and are 43-29 all-time in their blue jersey-white pants combination.

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

  22. Buffalo has won 10 of their last 11 against the Dolphins including playoffs. Allen is now 10-2 in his career against Miami and became the first quarterback with multiple touchdown passes against one opponent in each of his first 12 games against them.

  23. McDermott’s record against the Dolphins is now 12-2 including playoffs and Allen is 7-0 at home against the Dolphins.

  24. Since 2020 Buffalo has the best home record in the NFL – 26-6 including playoffs.

  25. This will be the Bills’ second regular season game in London (they lost to Jacksonville 34-31 at Wembley Stadium in 2015) and the two teams have played the most international regular season games in NFL history (Jags 10, Bills eight). A victory would give the Bills just the second win outside the United States, and it’s the first time two teams who have previously played one another in England will have a rematch.

  26. This will be the second time that the two Josh Allens have faced one another and the fifth time a starting quarterback and starting defender have gone against one another in league annals.

  27. The Bills have won each of their last three games by 28 points or more – tied for the longest streak in the Super Bowl era according to NFL Research.

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