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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-PACKERS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to Week Eight 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’ seventh game of 2022 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Green Bay Packers. Here’s what you should know:

LANDOVER, MARYLAND – OCTOBER 23: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers attempts a pass during the third quarter of the game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on October 23, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)


PACKERS’ OFFENSE TALENTED, BUT INCONSISTENT

After 13 years, four trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl victory in 2010, longtime Packers coach Mike McCarthy was let go by Green Bay after 2018. A sense of staleness had grown around the franchise and general manager Brian Gutekunst sought to revive his team with new blood in the form of Matt LaFleur, who has taken “Titletown” to a pair of conference championship game appearances.

The fourth-year head coach was the Tennessee Titans’ play-caller that same year and prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and LaFleur also served on the staffs of his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.

Like his former colleagues, LaFleur has used a playbook that 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-style of offense 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. Additionally, unlike McCarthy’s matchup-based system, LaFleur’s playbook relies more on the design of his plays and the progressions of the quarterback – and it’s taken well to this roster.

The Packers’ offense continues to run through Aaron Rodgers. Still one of the league’s best at 39 years old, Rodgers is as strong-armed and accurate as he was earlier in his career, and his intelligence and athleticism continue to remain sharp.

What’s interesting about Rodgers is that at times he won’t play “on schedule”, as coaches like to put it. Sometimes he will try to pull off sandlot football – meaning not looking at his first receiver and holding onto the ball too long to try and make a greater play than what the original call designed.

According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit: “Though he is capable of beating defenses with presnap reads and quick throws, Rodgers frequently passes up open receivers and leaves clean pockets, which would warrant a reprimand for most QBs. But he’s so exceptional that he often goes on to make a better play.

“The tricky part is that Rodgers’s approach is more conducive to spread formations and isolation routes which, when relied upon too heavily, can lead to dry spells in the passing game. The challenge is to find the proper mix.”

For the last several years, Rodgers’ wide receivers included an extraordinary route runner in Davante Adams (who is especially adept on double moves and was a favorite target on third down), Marques Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, and all could carry out Rodgers’ favorite routes. Slants, posts and back-shoulder fades are staples of the Packers’ offense, and not only do they excel at such pass-patterns but they also have a great feel for how to get open when plays break down – especially Adams, who can also play in the slot.

However, following a trade of Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders and Valdes-Scantling bringing his speed to Kansas City via free agency, the Packers decided to rebuild this group. Rookies Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson have joined Cobb and Lazard along with injury-prone former Buffalo Bill Sammy Watkins, and the newcomers have gone through growing pains – most notably in the areas of communication with Rodgers and dropped passes (contributing to the team having converted just eight of their last 32 third down attempts and Rodgers not having thrown for 300 yards in 11 straight games). Green Bay’s tight ends also occasionally get in on the action – especially in the red zone – and they’re a mix of young and old, featuring 17-year veteran Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan.

The Packers also boast threats on the ground. Aaron Jones is Green Bay’s starter in the backfield and is adept both on the ground with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under his belt and through the air, as evidenced by his setting career-highs in receptions (52) and receiving touchdowns (six) in 2021. His backup, the powerful A.J. Dillon, can also get the job done.

Executing blocks for Jones and company are veterans David Bakhtiari – one of the best left tackles at the professional level when healthy – 2020 Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers and youngsters Jon Runyan and Yosh Nijman.

The Packers have outscored their opponents in the first half this year 82-60 but they’ve struggled in the second half. Their point differential in the third and fourth quarters is minus-43 – only Tennessee (minus-61) has been worse.

LaFleur has a tactic that he has used to defeat Cover Four, or “quarters” coverage and out of different personnel groupings and formations. He will ask two outside receivers to execute deep curl routes while an outlet receiver – either a tight end or running back – runs a flat route to the sideline and a slot receiver goes deep down the middle of the field on a post pattern. The slot wideout is the primary target and will split the two deep safeties while one overreacts to the curl patterns. Will this continue against one of Buffalo’s favored zones coverages?

LANDOVER, MD – OCTOBER 23: Jaire Alexander #23 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates after a play against the Washington Commanders during the first half of the game at FedExField on October 23, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)


GREEN BAY’S DEFENSE IS SOUND, BUT HAVING ISSUES

Coordinator Joe Barry – a former defensive play caller in Detroit and Washington – was hired by LaFleur last year in hopes of bringing a different approach than Mike Pettine once did. While Pettine was a fan of overload blitzes, exotic pressure schemes and man-press coverage, Barry mainly incorporates four-man rushes and zone coverages with two deep safeties – mainly Cover Two and Four.

The initial results from the hire were good. The Packers’ defense finished the 2021 regular season 10th against the pass, 11th versus the run and tied for 13th in points allowed and fourth in interceptions – numbers that are nothing to sneeze at – but so far, despite being the top-ranked pass defense Green Bay has struggled everywhere else.

The defensive backs that are integral to Barry’s secondary are All-Pro Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas at cornerback and a pair of versatile safeties in Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos. All five will be on the field most of the time on Sunday, as Green Bay loves to use subpackages (especially dime, 4-2 and 5-1 nickel).

Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith were one of the best pass rush duos in the NFL when healthy. However the former played in just one game a year ago while recovering from back surgery, allowing the latter and Rashan Gary to pace the team in sacks with nine and 9.5, respectively (Za’Darius Smith is now in Minnesota). Joining them at linebacker are the speedy De’Vondre Campbell and rookie Quay Walker. Kenny Clark, who is very athletic for his 315-pound frame, Jarran Reed (who uses good power and leverage), rookie Devonte Wyatt and Dean Lowry are Green Bay’s best defensive linemen.

Green Bay’s record so far is 3-4 – the first time in Rodgers’ career that his team’s winning percentage is under .500 through seven games.

KANSAS CITY, MO – OCTOBER 16: Buffalo Bills cornerback Taron Johnson (7) is swarmed by teammates after making the game clinching interception late in the fourth quarter of an NFL game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs on October 16, 2022 at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE

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).

A disturbing pattern emerged on Buffalo’s defense last year, however, particularly against 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 will add to a group that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on nearly 31 percent of their defensive snaps – tops in the NFL.

Schematically the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap 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’ defense is usually among the top units in the NFL in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six. They mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays in 2020, the most in the league and nearly 100 percent of their snaps since Week Six against Tennessee last season (although they played nine snaps of dime against Kansas City in Week Seven – a matchup that saw Frazier’s unit rely on three-man rushes and Milano utilizing a spy technique on Patrick Mahomes).

A seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup occurred when White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, tore his ACL against the New Orleans Saints last season. His replacement is Dane Jackson, who has flashed some ability when given the chance but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage gone, will McDermott and Frazier continue to lean on more zone from Jackson, 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.

Hyde’s replacements, the rangy and physical Damar Hamlin and savvy Jaquan Johnson, have held their own so far. Their ability to fill in has helped the Bills rank first in total yards allowed, third in takeaways, tied for seventh in sacks and first in points surrendered. They’re also fifth against the pass and first versus the run, and have held their opponents to 21 points or fewer in 10 straight regular season games (the franchise record is 11 set from 1999-2000).

KANSAS CITY, MO – OCTOBER 16: Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) leaps over a Kansas City Chiefs safety Justin Reid (20) during the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills on Sunday October 16, 2022 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT

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 (Brown is out this Sunday and will be replaced by David Quessenberry). 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 (who brings shiftiness to the table), Zack Moss (power) and James Cook (speed and route running).

But 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, 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 continued in victories against Tennessee, where he 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 and Kansas City.

Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense, two flaws remain – they’re tied for the third-most turnovers in the league with 10 and are just 18th in red zone touchdown efficiency. Perhaps they can get this area fixed against Green Bay.

KANSAS CITY, MO – OCTOBER 16: Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) hauls in a 17-yard touchdown catch over Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Joshua Williams (23) in the third quarter of an NFL game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs on October 16, 2022 at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 29 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 12 of his last 21 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 27-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals, and Allen also set a new club record for regular season completion percentage (83.9) against the Rams.

  2. Only Steve Young has had more career regular season games (eight) with 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards than Allen (five).

  3. Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees (nine) and Tom Brady (eight) have more all-time. He also became the first signal-caller to throw for 250 yards, run for 50, toss three touchdowns, run for one, complete 80 percent of his throws and win a game in league history against the Rams.

  4. After throwing for 329 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City, Allen has had 12 games with 300 yards and three scores. That ties Jim Kelly for the most in franchise history, and he also passed Jack Kemp for third in team annals with 43 regular season wins.

  5. Allen’s thrown for 300 or more yards and three touchdowns or more along with no interceptions in three straight games against the Chiefs – he’s just the second signal caller along with Brees to compile those numbers in three consecutive games against one opponent, according to Elias Sports.

  6. Another Allen stat – he currently ranks 11th all-time in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks with 33. He needs five more to move past Steve McNair and Tobin Rote into fourth place (behind Cam Newton, Young and Kemp).

  7. Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL except six – Chicago, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Philadelphia and Green Bay.

  8. Stefon Diggs set a franchise mark with his seventh game of at least 10 receptions. He’s also caught a touchdown in seven straight outings against the Packers – tying Randy Moss for the most consecutive games with a receiving score against Green Bay.

  9. Since 2017 the Bills are 43-4 when leading at halftime.

  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) and is half a sack away from tying Simeon Rice for 20th on the all-time sack list.

  11. McDermott now has a 3-3 career record (including playoffs) against Andy Reid, his former boss in Philadelphia from 1999-2010. He’s also 5-0 as Bills head coach following bye weeks and is looking to increase that number to 6-0 (Buffalo has won seven straight games following bye weeks dating back to 2015).

  12. This Sunday will be McDermott and Allen’s fourth appearance on Sunday Night Football, where they are 3-0 (it will be the Bills’ first Sunday Night game at Highmark Stadium with fans in the seats since 2007 against New England). Rodgers, meanwhile, has won 13 straight primetime games with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 36:2 – the longest streak of any quarterback since the merger in 1970.

  13. Allen and Rodgers have the highest career passer ratings in primetime games among all quarterbacks with at least 300 or more attempts in night games. Allen’s winning percentage in primetime games (.727) is bettered by just three others – Young (.793), Ken Stabler (.738) and Joe Montana (.733) and is tied with Jim McMahon for fourth-best all time.

  14. The Green Bay Packers have never won in Buffalo, having lost all six games they’ve played in Orchard Park since 1979. Coincidentally, Rodgers hasn’t thrown for a touchdown as a visiting player against just two franchises – Buffalo and Denver (he’s started one game in both venues) and the last time a home team lost when these two teams have played one another was a 34-24 win by the Bills in Milwaukee County Stadium in 1991.

  15. Buffalo’s point differential is plus-95 – best in the NFL and 39 points better than any other team.

  16. Allen was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for Week Six. It’s the ninth time he was bestowed the honor – only Kelly has more in franchise history with 10 and only he and Mahomes have won it nine times since 2018. He’s the first Bills player to be named an AFC Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks since Bruce Smith in 1990.

  17. After beating Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, according to Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports Allen is trying to be 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.

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