TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-RAIDERS
Updated: Sep 26
Welcome to Week Two 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’ second game of 2023 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Las Vegas Raiders. Here’s what you should know:
Football: Las Vegas Raiders Davante Adams (17) and Josh Jacobs (8) in action, stand for the National Anthem vs. Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium. Denver, CO 9/10/2023 CREDIT: Jamie Schwaberow (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X164422 TK1)
RAIDERS’ OFFENSE IS PATRIOTS-WEST
In 2022, the Las Vegas Raiders hired a new tandem at head coach and general manager in former New England Patriots employees Josh McDaniels and Dave Zeigler, respectively. McDaniels, a six-time Super Bowl champion as an assistant to Bill Belichick, is taking a second crack at being the head honcho of an NFL team – his stint as the Denver Broncos’ sideline boss from 2009-10 didn’t go very well.
Over the years the Patriots changed their identity on offense numerous times. Having featured a power-running team centered around Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in the early 2000s, a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and an attack revolving around Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, McDaniels, Belichick (and an offense mostly quarterbacked by Tom Brady) did it all with fantastic results and showed that they could win with whatever suited their roster best.
What suits the Silver and Black’s offense best at the moment is a power-running scheme. Since last year the Raiders have been one of the league leaders in rushing attempts (and mostly from formations under center and not out of the shotgun). In fact, no play-caller has used more “21” personnel (two running backs, one tight end) over the last several years than McDaniels – forcing defenses to play more predictable coverages, and they will also liberally use an extra offensive tackle for added blocking prowess.
Running back Josh Jacobs, who led the NFL in rushing a year ago, brings physicality and downhill ability with speed and operates well behind power-blocking schemes like power, toss-crack sweep, counters, traps and iso leads. He’s also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and operates behind fullback Jakob Johnson and an offensive line comprised of Kolton Miller (who has a good combination of strength and athleticism), Dylan Parham, Andre James, Greg Van Roten and Jermaine Eluemunor.
Taking over at quarterback from the departed Derek Carr is Jimmy Garoppolo, who is a former backup to Brady and an ex-San Francisco 49er who started in Super Bowl LIV for the team. When he’s been on the field Garoppolo has shown to be intelligent, decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him) and possesses a quick release, and adequate arm strength. Yet Garoppolo’s rarely healthy or consistent, and when he cannot rely on a passing play that doesn’t require timing and rhythm, he’s not comfortable or poised when he’s called upon to extend a play beyond what it’s originally designed to do.
The Raiders’ passing game is built around concepts, formations and motioning to dictate favorable matchups for their wideouts (check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here: http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/). Luckily for Garoppolo, McDaniels’ offense has lots of defined reads and play-action – which combined with their power running game makes their attack reminiscent of the Pats’ offense utilized between 2001-06, and plays to “Jimmy G’s” strengths.
Las Vegas’ wide receivers include an extraordinary route runner in Davante Adams (who is especially adept on double moves and is a favorite target on third down), former Pro Bowler Hunter Renfrow and ex- Pat Jakobi Meyers, who is a shifty slot receiver but is out for Sunday’s game with a concussion. The well-traveled Austin Hooper has replaced current New York Giant Darren Waller at tight end along with rookie Michael Mayer.
The Raiders finished in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories a year ago, but were tied for second in penalties.
Football: Las Vegas Raiders Maxx Crosby (98) in action, makes a tackle vs. Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium. Denver, CO 9/10/2023 CREDIT: Jamie Schwaberow (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X164422 TK1)
LAS VEGAS’ DEFENSE A WORK IN PROGRESS
Another former Patriots assistant coach, Patrick Graham, is the Raiders’ defensive coordinator, and while he has some nice chess pieces to work with on that side of the ball, it hasn’t been nearly enough to turn the team’s defense into an upper-echelon unit. Quite the contrary, as Las Vegas had one of the NFL’s worst defenses a year ago.
Former All-Pro Maxx Crosby is the team’s best pass rusher and he occupies one of this unit’s starting defensive end spots. The other is normally taken by another one of the league’s better sack artists in the aging Chandler Jones, but he won’t play on Sunday due to a personal matter – allowing rookie first-round draft pick Tyree Wilson to get the nod. Veterans John Jenkins, Jerry Tillery and Bilal Nichols take most of the snaps at defensive tackle.
The secondary is one of the team’s biggest weaknesses. Nate Hobbs and Tre’von Moehrig aren’t exactly world-beaters, leading the team to sign ex-Philadelphia Eagles safety Marcus Epps and four-time All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters. Peters loves to take risks and go for interceptions – as evidenced by intercepting nearly five passes a year since 2015 – but he also gives up a lot of long plays. Sometimes taking chances can pay off and sometimes it doesn’t, as being consistently aggressive can come back to hurt you.
The Raiders’ linebackers are Robert Spillane, Divine Deablo and Luke Masterton.
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 11: Matt Milano #58 of the Buffalo Bills runs with the ball after an interception during a game between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Owens/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, has been 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 (this showed up when they allowed 188 yards to Miami in Week 15) and a lack of versatility along the defensive line. Once again this problem came up last Monday night against the Jets, where the Bills allowed 172 yards on the ground.
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, A.J. Epenesa, 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.
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 will miss at least the first four games of this season while recovering from that ailment on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
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 Milano and Terrell Bernard (replacing the departed Tremaine Edmunds) to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, yet the Bills didn’t blitz once against the Los Angeles Rams in Week One of 2022 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 didn’t send 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 – with Miller the Bills were fourth in the NFL in pressure rate with four or less pass rushers, without him they were 27th in that category.
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 Frazier’s unit rely on three-man rushes and Milano utilizing a spy technique on Patrick Mahomes, and 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, should be back to full form after tearing his ACL against the New Orleans Saints two years ago. Opposite him at the other boundary corner spot is second-year man Christian Benford, who flashed some ability a year ago, and they are backed up by Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam. Slot corner Taron Johnson remains elite, and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer will reunite 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.
One of the secondary’s best performances a year ago was when they held the Miami Dolphins to a completion percentage mark of 40 in the wild card round, the lowest in a playoff game in the last 25 years (along with just 3.3 yards per play, 231 yards of offense and a 25 percent conversion rate on third down.) Granted, it came against a third-string quarterback in Skylar Thompson, but impressive nevertheless.
Special teams were also solid for the Bills, 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 are 18th and third in covering punts and kicks, respectively. Hines, however, was lost for the season after a knee injury was sustained during the offseason and the team allowed a punt return for a touchdown in overtime a week ago – the first time an NFL game ended on a punt return score since 2011).
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 11: Quarterback Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a pass during the first quarter of the NFL game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT, BUT ALSO GETTING A FACELIFT
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 have 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, and was second in passing and total touchdowns and seventh in yards in 2022.
In the postseason against the Patriots two years ago, 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 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 in 2021) 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.
In 2021, tight end Dawson Knox enjoyed a breakout season with nine touchdowns, which tied him for first among all tight ends and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six. He 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 and split inside zone sprinkled in for running back James Cook. Cook will now take on more of a featured role, as former teammate Devin Singletary has left for Houston and is now backed up by ex-Patriot Damien Harris (who brings power to the table) and veteran Latavius Murray.
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 has come 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 may increase this year. Allowing three sacks and drawing six penalties against the New York Jets in Week 14 wasn’t a highlight of their season and neither was allowing seven sacks to the Dolphins in the playoffs but they did rush for 254 yards against Chicago, the most in a game by a Buffalo team since 272 in 2016 against Miami (last week against New York Buffalo surrendered five sacks, tied for the fifth-most in Allen’s career).
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 – 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), but the usage of “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) has increased with the employment of Knox and Kincaid (used on 63 percent of their snaps last week). They were last in the NFL in usage of that grouping a year ago (used on just three percent of their snaps), and the amount of play-action passes could increase after they dropped from being a top-four team in those concepts used in 2020 and ’21 to 25th a year ago.
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 (but used on just 25 percent of their plays last week).
In 2022, Dorsey put his own twist on his team’s offense and 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) and converting nine of 10 third downs (tied for the best conversion rate in a game over the last 10 years).
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, New England, New York, Miami and Chicago. Yet for everything the Bills did right on offense (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). He also became the first quarterback to take seven sacks and throw multiple picks in a playoff game since Neil O’Donnell in 1992, but the Bills won a playoff game for the first time ever when they lost the turnover battle – they were 0-13 before (and turned the ball over four times against New York last week).
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. Additionally, their struggles against the Jets in Week 14 were noticeable – eight punts (a season-high), converting just two of 13 third downs, a season-low 232 total net yards (317, their previous low, was also against the Jets) and the fourth straight week in which their point total declined were all causes for concern. The second outing against New York was just the third time since 2009 the Bills won a game with 232 yards of offense or less.
However, the Bills dominated Miami in Week Three in most statistical categories despite losing – which continued in their rematch in December but coming out on the winning side. Buffalo 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).
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 11: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills runs with the ball after completing a pass against Sauce Gardner #1 of the New York Jets during a game between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
STATS AND MUSINGS
Allen has compiled 33 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 16 of his last 32 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 31-2.
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 tied with Randall Cunningham, Steve Grogan and Jack Kemp for fourth all-time in games with a passing and rushing score (32), behind Aaron Rodgers (33), Young (36) and Cam Newton (64).
Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven 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.
After throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns against Miami in Week 15, Allen has 13 career games with 300 yards and three scores. That broke a tie with Jim Kelly for the most in franchise history and he has passed Steve McNair and Tobin Rote for fourth all-time in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (behind Newton, Young and Kemp). He needs two more to tie Kemp for third.
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).
Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 30 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, has moved past Jerry Butler for sixth in franchise history in scores and he and Stevie Johnson are the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.
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).
Secondary target notes – Knox is tied with Riemersma for second in team annals with 20 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.
Since 2017 the Bills are 49-7 when leading at halftime. They’ve also won 10 in a row at home against teams with a losing record.
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.
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.
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 and has won eight of his last 10 games against former MVP quarterbacks.
The Bills have compiled a road winning percentage of .696 (23-10) since 2019. Conversely, Buffalo is 20-5 at home since 2020 and is 12-1 at home in December and beyond in their last 13 games.
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.
McDermott’s record against the AFC East since 2017 is 23-14 – a winning percentage of .621. 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).
Buffalo hasn’t won a road playoff game since the 1992 AFC title game in Miami – they’re 0-7 since.
Buffalo’s regular season record over the last three years with Allen is 37-13.
The Bills and Raiders have played each other 42 times in the regular season and have a 21-21 record against one another. Buffalo’s first-ever home win, in fact, came against the Raiders on October 23, 1960 at War Memorial Stadium (38-9) and they are 15-7 at home against the Raiders including playoffs. Buffalo hasn’t played against the Raiders in their home opener since they emerged victorious over the visitor 38-35 in September 2011.
Since 2020 the Bills’ record coming off a loss is 9-3 – the second-highest winning percentage of any team in the NFL in that timespan.
Allen has had five games with three or more turnovers since 2019. In the game following those outings, the Bills are 5-0.
Adams and Diggs are first and second, respectively, among active receivers in catches since 2016. They are also first and fourth, respectively, in yards and touchdowns in the same span.
The Bills have scored 20 points or more in 11 straight home games and are 41-29 all-time in their blue jersey-white pants combination.
Meanwhile, the Raiders have had 14 games decided by one score since last season. That’s tied with the Denver Broncos for the most, but their record in those games is 5-9 – the sixth-worst in the NFL, according to ESPN.