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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-LIONS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to Week 12 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’ 11th game of 2022 will take place at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan as they face the Detroit Lions. Here’s what you should know:

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 20: Amon-Ra St. Brown #14 of the Detroit Lions carries the ball against the New York Giants during the first half at MetLife Stadium on November 20, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)


LIONS’ OFFENSE PRODUCTIVE

Before the 2021 NFL season, new general manager Brad Holmes (hired from the Los Angeles Rams) sought to instill toughness in his team by hiring Dan Campbell as Detroit’s head coach. Campbell, an 11-year NFL veteran and former tight end (not to mention an ex-Lion), has helped the Motor City’s pro franchise make progress in that area and in results on the field, but there is still plenty of work to do to make his squad a playoff contender.

Offensively, Detroit has been better than some would think. Ranking a respectable 11th in rushing and 17th in passing, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s unit is also eighth in points per game entering Week 12 and has allowed the second-least number of sacks in the league (15). They’ve also won three in a row after a 1-6 start – their first winning streak of three games since 2017.

Quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is very good when it comes to the timing and rhythm portion of the passing game. He gets the ball out on time, has good synchronicity with his receivers, is accurate, intelligent and throws a better deep ball than people realize. However, when under pressure Goff’s footwork can get a bit sloppy and isn’t always at ease when bodies are flying around him.

Goff is also sometimes a tad late when it comes to exploiting coverages. According to USA Today’s Doug Farrar, “(Goff) throws with anticipation to a degree, but he’s often throwing guys open when they’re already open, meaning that he’s throwing them closed and allowing defensive backs to jump and pick routes. The problem gets worse when his receivers are challenged.”

Fortunately for Goff he has a talented cadre of wideouts. Second-year receiver Amon -Ra St. Brown has followed up a stellar rookie reason with another strong campaign while sharing targets with former Jacksonville Jaguar D.J. Chark and Josh Reynolds (rookie first round selection Jameson Williams hasn’t played yet while recovering from a torn ACL in his knee). Brock Wright has taken over as the starting tight end following the trade of T.J. Hockenson – one of the league’s most physically gifted players at his position – to the Minnesota Vikings for a pair of draft picks.

Jamall Williams and De’Andre Swift have emerged as one of pro football’s better running back tandems. Williams notably has 12 rushing touchdowns, the most in the NFL, and is the fourth player since 2000 with a rushing score or more in five of his team’s first 10 games. He’s also had 50 yards or more in nine straight outings, the longest active streak in the NFL.

The two run behind an offensive line that has relied on mostly gap rushing schemes and is anchored by three former first round picks in Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow and Penei Sewell. Guards Jonah Jackson – a Pro Bowl alternate last year – and Evan Brown are out for Thursday’s game with various injuries.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 20: Aidan Hutchinson #97 of the Detroit Lions is blocked by Matt Peart #74 of the New York Giants during the second quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on November 20, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)


DETROIT’S DEFENSE NOT AS STELLAR

Allowing the most yards per game (nearly 416), defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn – a former NFL cornerback for 15 years – has his hands full in trying to turn around this unit. Additionally, the Lions’ defense is 26th in red zone percentage, fifth-worst in passing yards per game surrendered, second-worst in rushing yards per game given up and last in points per game allowed. Detroit is also among the bottom-five in the league in sacks (however their turnover differential in their three-game winning streak has been plus-six along with six picks and a fumble recovery).

It’s not as if Glenn’s charges are completely bereft of talent though. Rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, a product of the nearby University of Michigan, has been a revelation in his first year with 5.5 sacks. Additionally, he has become the second player ever with five or more sacks and two interceptions in his first 10 games along with Leslie O’Neal according to ESPN’s Field Yates.

Hutchinson is joined on the team’s defensive line with Josh Paschal, Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs, and the team’s top linebackers are agile former first round selection Jarrad Davis, ex-New Orleans Saint Alex Anzalone and Malcom Rodriguez. On the back end, Detroit is held down by talented third-year man Jeff Okudah (who is out for Thursday’s game due to injury), veteran Mike Hughes and Will Harris at cornerback and DeShon Elliott and Kerby Joseph at safety.

Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt (27) is tackled by Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano (58) during an NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cleveland Browns in Detroit, Michigan USA, on Sunday, November 20, 2022. (Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE, BUT NOT WITHOUT WARTS

After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Ed Oliver – has more closely resembled the team’s defenses from 2018-19. 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 (who has played 58.6 percent of snaps going into Week 12 – no other Buffalo defensive tackle is higher than 39.4 percent) 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. 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 but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage now back in the lineup for the first time this year, 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 (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 13th in yards per game allowed, tied for third in takeaways, tied for 12th in sacks, fifth in points surrendered per game and tied for first in interceptions. They’re also 20th against the pass and eighth versus the run. However, they gave up 176 rushing yards per game over a three game stretch –a sign that old issues were rearing their ugly heads once again – but they held Cleveland to just 80 yards on the ground in Week 11 along with just 19 yards to running back Nick Chubbs.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN – NOVEMBER 20: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills runs in action against the Cleveland Browns at Ford Field on November 20, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/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, Green Bay and Cleveland. Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (second in points scored and third in passing, second in yards per game and ninth in rushing), two flaws remain – they have the second-most turnovers in the league with 18 (Allen has 10 interceptions and eight fumbles) and have fallen to 23rd 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, but against Cleveland last week the Bills had their first turnover-free game 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 in Week 10. However, against the Browns both Singletary and Cook compiled 86 yards apiece and helped the Bills total 171 yards on the ground – the most they’ve had in a regulation game this season.

It was the first time the Bills had two backs with 85 or more yards in one game since LeSean McCoy and Mike Gilislee had 128 and 91, respectively, against Miami in 2016. It was also the third time in 2022 where a running back was Buffalo’s leading rusher and they also had 33 attempts to 27 passing attempts – joining the Green Bay game as the second time they’ve had more rushing tries than passing tries.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN – NOVEMBER 20: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills and Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills celebrate after a touchdown during the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Ford Field on November 20, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 30 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 13 of his last 25 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 28-2. 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.

  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 four– Chicago, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia.

  7. Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 26 times, moving past Joe Ferguson and Jerry Butler for second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65). Diggs also became the fastest Bill to get 1,000 receiving yards in a season last week and joined Stevie Johnson as the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.

  8. Since 2017 the Bills are 45-6 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-107 – 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. Echoing a prior instance in 2014 when a Bills home game against the Jets was moved to Detroit due to a massive snowstorm, Buffalo did the same last weekend when they played against Cleveland at Ford Field following a historic snowfall in Western New York. Thursday will be the second straight week they’ve gone to Detroit to play a game – the last time they played back-to-back games in the same stadium was when they visited the Jets and Giants in the first two weeks of 2019.

  13. Bills kicker Tyler Bass converted six field goals and an extra point last week – his 19 points tied Steve Christie in 1996 for the most in a game by a kicker in franchise annals.

  14. This will be the third time in four years that Buffalo will play on Thanksgiving (they’re 2-0 since 2019) and the first time since 1994 (a 35-21 loss) they’ve faced Detroit on that holiday. The Lions are 2-0 against the Bills on Thanksgiving.

  15. Yet Detroit has lost five in a row on Thanksgiving and have dropped 10 straight games against AFC teams. This is their 83rd game on the holiday while it is the Bills’ 11th – eighth most all-time (they’re 5-4-1 in Thanksgiving games).

  16. Buffalo has won three straight matchups against Detroit.

  17. The Bills lead the NFL in light boxes (six or less defenders at the line of scrimmage) against the run on 73.5 percent of their plays. Yet they’re still eighth in rushing yards allowed, but Detroit has averaged seven yards a carry against light boxes.

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