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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-JETS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to Week 14 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’ 13th game of 2022 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the New York Jets. Here’s what you should know:

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA – DECEMBER 04: Adam Thielen #19 of the Minnesota Vikings runs a route while Sauce Gardner #1 of the New York Jets defends during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)


GANG GREEN’S DEFENSE BECOMING SEATTLE-LITE

Jets head coach Robert Saleh arrived in the Big Apple from San Francisco where he oversaw a defense that was among the NFL’s better outfits between 2017-20. Saleh was one of the original architects, along with Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn, of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three scheme (featuring deep zone coverage on the outside with one safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield) which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14. Saleh himself used those same tactics to help the 49ers make an appearance in Super Bowl LIV in 2019.

In addition to his favored pass coverages, Saleh will – like his predecessors – use one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates the potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. He also has his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants out of overloaded fronts to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations. Fortunately for Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets are accumulating the talent needed to make this system go.

Before this season New York had shaky depth among their defensive backs. Not anymore. Versatile and rangy safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Jordan Whitehead patrol the Jets’ back end while former 49er and Seahawk D.J. Reed holds down one cornerback spot.

The opposite side is occupied by rookie Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. The fourth overall draft pick out of the University of Cincinnati, Gardner – who boasts intelligence, length, strength to jam wideouts in press coverage and adeptness in both man and zone coverage, may be the best Cover Three corner to enter the NFL since Richard Sherman. Given the amount of zone the Jets use, they rarely ask Gardner or Reed to shadow top wideouts in man coverage.

Up front New York has a pair of talented defensive linemen in ex-New Orleans Saint Sheldon Rankins and Quinnen Williams, the third-overall selection out of Alabama in 2019 who leads New York in sacks with nine. Former Bengal Carl Lawson, Vinny Curry, rookie Jermaine Johnson and John Franklin-Myers are the team’s main edge rushers and they’re good enough to the point where Salah and Ulbrich rarely blitz.

C.J. Mosley – after missing 2019 and ‘20 due to injury and COVID-19 – has been good in his return while displaying his high football IQ, athleticism and good technique. Showing why the Jets enticed him to leave Baltimore to go to New York, he along with former 49er Kwon Alexander and Quincy Williams are New York’s starters at linebacker.

After ranking dead last in the NFL in points allowed and total yards surrendered, the Jets’ defense has taken some big leaps in improvement. As of this writing, they are sixth in points surrendered per game, fourth in total yards allowed per outing, 12th in takeaways, sixth against the pass and 12th versus the run. Additionally, New York has recorded the second-most sacks in the league since Week Four and had five sacks and two interceptions against the Bills in Week Nine. They’ve also allowed just two touchdowns in the second half of a game in their last three contests.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 27: Mike White #5 of the New York Jets and Garrett Wilson #17 of the New York Jets celebrate after a touchdown in the second half of a game against the Chicago Bears at MetLife Stadium on November 27, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)


LAFLEUR’S OFFENSIVE SYSTEM JUST LIKE HIS BROTHER’S

Saleh’s offensive coordinator is Mike LaFleur, the brother of Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. Mike’s system is identical to that of his brother’s and his former 49ers boss Kyle Shanahan’s – it emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast philosophy that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field.

To make this unit go, last year Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas sent former third-overall draft pick Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers (his elongated release and penchant for throwing interceptions would have hindered the offense’s effectiveness) and drafted his replacement in Zach Wilson. The signal caller from Brigham Young University boasts a strong arm and good mobility, but it was evident that adjusting to life in the NFL would be a process and it has been. Wilson has shown to need work on reducing turnovers, improving his touch and decision-making – he uses too much velocity on short throws – keeping his eyes down the field and not on the pass rush, quickening his dropbacks and not retreating backwards when an opponent gets in his face.

Due to injury and ineffectiveness Wilson won’t suit up for New York, clearing the way for backup Mike White to get the starting nod. White has displayed more discipline within the pocket and has shown more of a willingness to take checkdowns and a feel for play action concepts but doesn’t have the same type of arm talent that Wilson has. He earned the Jets’ backup role last year after spending the prior three seasons on the Dallas Cowboys and New York’s practice squads.

Wilson and White have some decent weapons to throw to. Talented but enigmatic Corey Davis is their top threat and rookie Garrett Wilson is a solid route runner. Denzel Mims, Elijah Moore and Braxton Berrios all have talent, but none have proven to be a team’s top pass-catching threat as of yet. Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah, who are particularly good on seam routes, are New York’s tight ends.

Michael Carter, whose role in the passing game has expanded over the last two years, and speedy rookie Breece Hall were the Jets’ top two running backs going into this season – however Hall is done for the year with a knee injury, prompting a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars for physical runner James Robinson. They and the recently-emerging Zonovan “Bam” Knight (who is the second undrafted rookie ever with Phillip Lindsay with 100 yards from scrimmage in his first two career games) operate behind an offensive line missing left tackle Mekhi Becton – a mountain of a man at 6’7” and 364 pounds – because of injury, but when healthy he and right tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker (who is also injured) make up one of the NFL’s more gifted offensive tackle pairs.

With those two plus backup Cedric Ogbuehi all out, starting center Connor McGovern is surrounded by veterans Duane Brown, Laken Tomlinson, Nate Herbig and Max Mitchell.

While New York is in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories (they did gain 174 yards on the ground against the Bills in their last outing), they’ve struggled mightily in two areas – third down and in the red zone. The Jets are 26th in the league in red zone percentage and haven’t converted at least 40 percent of their third down opportunities in six of their last seven games.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 01: Defensive ends AJ Epenesa #57 and Boogie Basham #55 of the Buffalo Bills celebrate after the New England Patriots missed a second quarter field goal at Gillette Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)


BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE, BUT NOT WITHOUT WARTS

After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Ed Oliver – has more closely resembled the team’s defenses from 2018-19 over the last two years. That is, in being one of the league’s best.

In 2021 the Bills decided to invest in upgrading their pass rush. Gregory Rousseau, Carlos “Boogie” Basham and A.J. Epenesa injected a shot of youth behind the aging Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei returned after opting out of 2020. Harrison Phillips also had a breakout season two years after tearing a knee ligament.

Buffalo ranked first in pro football in total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, points allowed and third-down defense and third in takeaways and interceptions. It was the first time they had ever led the NFL in points allowed and the first time since 1999 they paced the league in total and passing yards given up. Their sack numbers, while not elite over the full season, also picked up as they notched 24 in their last six games (including playoffs).

An issue crept up throughout the 2021 season when it came to stopping the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills were gashed on the ground by power running teams. The biggest issue there was poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity 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 now 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. They did use 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 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, 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.

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 10th in yards per game allowed, fourth in takeaways and points surrendered per game, 14th in sacks and third down rate and third in interceptions. They’re also 17th against the pass, fifth versus the run and third in red zone defense.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 01: Quarterback Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a second quarter touchdown pass in front of linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. #30 of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/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 receivers 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 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 (who is out for Sunday’s game) held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-read and run-pass options, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary (whose game is based on shiftiness and power), James Cook and Duke Johnson (speed and route running) and veteran newcomer Nyheim Hines, who brings many of the same qualities to the table as Cook and Johnson along with special teams ability.

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 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 and New England. Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (third in points scored and passing, second in total yards per game and eighth in rushing), two flaws remain – they are tied for the third-most turnovers in the league with 20 (Allen has 11 interceptions and 10 fumbles, mainly due to perceiving pressure that isn’t there and playing too fast) and a lack of explosiveness downfield, leading to a reunion with Brown.

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. However, against the Browns, Lions and Patriots the Bills total 467 yards on the ground – an average of nearly 156 a game.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 01: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates after catching a first half touchdown pass from quarterback Josh Allen against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 31 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 14 of his last 27 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 29-2. 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 (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 (83.9 – a new club record in the regular season) 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.

  5. Another Allen stat – he has moved past Randall Cunningham and Steve Grogan for fifth all-time in rushing scores among quarterbacks with 36. He needs two 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 four– Chicago, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia.

  7. Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 28 times, second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65). Diggs and Stevie Johnson are also the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.

  8. Speaking of Diggs, he needs nine catches to be the sixth player ever with 100 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards in three straight seasons – joining Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Herman Moore, Antonio Brown and Michael Thomas.

  9. Since 2017 the Bills are 47-6 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 is plus-132 – third-best in the NFL. Conversely, the Jets have outscored their opponents 94 to 40 in the fourth quarter this year, the best mark in that stanza of play in the league.

  12. 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).

  13. The Bills have won in New England three years in a row and Bill Belichick’s career record without Brady – and with whom he won six Super Bowls – is 77-85.

  14. After last week the Bills have compiled a road winning percentage of .709 (22-9) since 2019.

  15. Buffalo’s 9-3 and have won five of their last six meetings against New England including playoffs. The road team has won the last four matchups and the Bills became the first team to beat a Belichick-coached Patriots squad by double digits in three straight games.

  16. Five of the last 10 games between the Bills and Jets have come down to just single digits on the scoreboard. Allen’s career record against the Jets is now 5-3 while McDermott’s is 7-4.

  17. McDermott’s record against the AFC East since 2017, however, is 20-13 – a winning percentage of .606 – and Buffalo’s best winning percentage all-time against an AFC East team is .540 (67-57) – against the Jets.

  18. With a 15-play, 94-yard drive that took nearly nine minutes off the clock last week, Buffalo notched their fifth 90-yard touchdown drive of the year – their most in one season since also having five in 1991. It also helped contributed to the Bills having 38:08 in time of possession compared to the Patriots’ 21:52.

  19. The Bills currently have the top seed in the AFC and have beaten every AFC divisional leader.

  20. Buffalo is the only team to have rushed for 100 yards in every game this year, and Singletary and Cook are first and third, respectively, in the NFL in rushing yards over the last four weeks.

  21. This will be the first time since December of 1998 that the Bills and New York will play one another with both teams sporting a winning record in Week 13 or later.

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