Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the AFC’s divisional round games will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as the Buffalo Bills will face the Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s what you should know:
BENGALS’ OFFENSE CONTINUING SUCCESS IN 2022
The Cincinnati Bengals’ head honcho is former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Naturally, Taylor employs a version of his former colleague Sean McVay’s offensive playbook which emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of play-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 handoffs and to have more room to run routes on the field.
At the helm of this attack is former first overall draft choice Joe Burrow. Burrow not only possesses a strong arm and high football I.Q., but also has a strong sense of rhythm and timing for a young quarterback, is consistently accurate and moves well within the pocket. He’s aggressive when attacking one on one matchups outside the numbers and executes well out of empty sets – allowing him to become the first quarterback ever to be selected first overall in the NFL Draft and start in a Super Bowl within two years.
Those movement skills came in handy in his first two pro seasons as Burrow operated behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Despite the left side of Cincinnati’s line being serviceable (and held down by Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain), Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Andeniji and Isaiah Prince were not – thus putting Burrow under duress, taking a lot of sacks and sometimes anticipating pressure when there wasn’t – leading to hurried throws and interceptions.
Entering this past offseason the Bengals addressed those issues by replacing Spain, Hopkins, Andeniji and Prince in their starting lineup with rookie Cordell Volson and free agent signings Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. Those additions bolstered the Bengals – while they got off to a rocky start by surrendering three sacks or more in five of Cincinnati’s first eight games, they’ve given up just 16 sacks in their last nine outings including playoffs (perhaps not coincidentally, all were wins). With Collins now out with a torn ACL plus Williams with a knee injury and Cappa with an ankle ailment, that newfound success will be put to the test with Andeniji, Jackson Carman and Max Scharping now in the starting lineup.
While pass protection isn’t the Bengals’ strong suit their run blocking isn’t all that bad, and Joe Mixon – one of pro football’s better running backs when healthy – took advantage by having the best season of his five-year career a year ago with over 1,200 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. His solid vision and good cutback ability have meshed well with Taylor’s scheme, especially on first down where the Bengals like to give him the rock, and Mixon has played well again this year while also setting career highs in all receiving categories.
Burrow has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Ja’Marr Chase, his former college teammate at LSU, finished his rookie season last year with the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns ever by a first-year player and has done most of his damage as the boundary ‘X’ receiver on three-by-one trips formations and slant patterns on slant-flat combinations. Tee Higgins is a red zone target and excels on vertical routes and shifty slot receiver Tyler Boyd is a nifty option on short patterns.
Chase, Higgins and Boyd are so prolific, in fact, that they are one of just two trios in the NFL (along with Jacksonville’s Christian Kirk, Marvin Jones and Evan Engram) to each rank in the top-25 in receiving yards and are a major reason why the Bengals were one of the league leaders in yards after the catch. Hayden Hurst is their tight end.
Cincinnati was seventh in points per game, fifth in passing and eighth in total yards per game heading into the playoffs and have won nine in a row including last week. However, they put up just 234 offensive yards against Baltimore a week ago, the fewest ever in a win during a start by Burrow.
CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE IS OVERLOOKED
Cincinnati’s defense is mainly zone-based (such as Cover Two, Three, Four and Six) and coordinator Lou Anarumo is their play-caller. Although they may not be among the league leaders in many statistical categories, they are good situationally, adapt well to their opponents, are fundamentally sound and well-coached. Additionally, they also disguise their coverages well and have multiple front packages.
Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, lived up to his free agent contract with a career-high 14 sacks a year ago (he had eight this year while battling through a broken wrist) and his cohorts on the Bengals’ defensive line include Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill. These four execute a lot of creative pass rush concepts along the line of scrimmage, including stunts, twists and shifting from four to three man-rush looks before the snap (Hubbard’s go-ahead 98-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown last week was the first such defensive score to win a playoff game in the fourth quarter since 1996). Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are their starters at linebacker.
The Bengals have plenty of cornerbacks with experience in zone defenses like Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie (out for the season with a knee injury), Cam Taylor-Britt and Tre Flowers (who they love to match up against tight ends in man coverage on third down but is doubtful with a hamstring problem). Slot corner Mike Hilton isn’t just one of the game’s best nickelbacks – he’s also an elite blitzer off the edge, and their safeties are the undersized and underrated Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell.
Anarumo’s charges were sixth in points allowed, seventh against the run, 16th in total yards given up and 18th in interceptions but just 23rd against the pass and 29th in sacks in the regular season. They rarely blitz, ending the 2022 season 22nd in that category but get pressure on opposing quarterbacks on over 23 percent of their snaps – the 12th best mark in pro football. They also allowed just one quarterback to throw for 300 yards against them all season – Tom Brady in Week 15.
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 issues there were poor tackling (which is still an issue this year with their missed and broken tackle percentage among the highest in the NFL), a lack of gap integrity (this still creeps up from time to time – like when they allowed 188 yards to Miami in Week 15) 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 out for the season with a torn ACL after putting up 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 with Edmunds and Milano 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 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 are 27th in that category.
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 (so far in 2022 that number is around 95 percent). They did use a third linebacker quite a bit against New England in their first matchup of 2021 and used 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 a year ago. 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, rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford and slot corner Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen with Hyde having a neck injury that has sidelined him for most of 2022 and his backup, the rangy and physical Damar Hamlin, suffering a cardiac arrest episode against Cincinnati in Week 16. Poyer has also missed time this year with an elbow ailment.
Hyde and Hamlin’s replacements, 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 among the league leaders in total yards per game allowed (sixth), rushing yards surrendered (fifth), takeaways (tied for fourth), points (second), interceptions (tied for fourth) and red zone defense (second). They were also tied for 14th in sacks and 15th against the pass – which makes sense given their injuries in the secondary – and 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.
Special teams have also been 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.
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 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 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 a year ago) has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Jamison Crowder (out with a foot injury), crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley, speedsters 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 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, while not elite, held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-reads, 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 Hines, who brings many of the same qualities to the table as Cook and Johnson along with special teams ability.
In 2021 that offensive line was 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. So far they’ve been adequate but haven’t been world-beaters – 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 a week ago but they did rush for 254 yards against Chicago, the most in a game by a Buffalo team since 272 in 2016 against Miami.
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 use plenty of pre-snap motion and shifts and have expanded upon their play-action 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 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 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) 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 have done right on offense (first in third down conversion percentage, second in points scored and in total yards per game, seventh in passing and rushing and ninth in red zone percentage), two flaws remain – they’re also one the league’s sloppiest teams with 27 turnovers.
Allen had 14 interceptions and 13 fumbles in the regular season and had three turnovers last week versus the Dolphins (mainly due to perceiving pressure that isn’t there, playing too fast and a lack of explosiveness, leading to reunions with Brown and Beasley late in the year). 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’ve lost the turnover battle – they were 0-13 before. With that in mind, Allen is vying to become just the third signal caller in the last 45 years to lead the NFL in turnovers and reach a conference championship game (Eli Manning in 2007, Jim Kelly in ’92).
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 has won eight in a row (including playoffs, their longest streak since eight in 1990) including six straight non-Sunday games – the first team to have done so since the 1962 Boston Patriots and could be the first to have seven straight in their next such outing, and that winning streak would be the longest since the 1929 Frankfort Yellow Jackets. Conversely Buffalo has lost just three games by a total of eight points, haven’t lost by three points or more all year and have tied the franchise mark for wins in a season with 13 (along with the 1990, ’91 and 2020 teams).
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 31 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.
- After throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns against Miami in Week 15, Allen has 13 games with 300 yards and three scores. That breaks 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) and has joined Matt Ryan as the only quarterbacks with 300 passing yards and three touchdowns in three straight postseason games (he’s got 12 in his last three playoff games, joining Warner and Daryle Lamonica for the most ever in such a span).
- Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 29 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) and is tied with Jerry Butler for sixth in franchise history, and he and Stevie Johnson are also 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 has tied Riemersma for second in team annals with 20 receiving scores by a tight end. He’s behind only Metzelaars (25) and has become 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 49-6 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 the regular season – 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, 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).
- The Bills have compiled a road winning percentage of .718 (23-9) 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 this 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 is 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 23-13 – a winning percentage of .638. 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).
- Hines became the first player ever with a game with two kick returns for touchdowns and a game with two punt returns for touchdowns in his career, and Edmunds has recorded 100-plus tackles in five straight seasons – the first Bill to do so since London Fletcher from 2002-06.
- Including playoffs, Buffalo has won nine of their last 10 against the Dolphins and Allen is now 9-2 in his career against Miami having thrown 30 touchdowns and just seven picks. He became the first quarterback with multiple touchdown passes against one opponent in each of his first 11 games against them (breaking a record held by, ironically, Dan Marino) and has become the only player in league history with 700-plus passing yards and 100-plus rushing yards against a team in one season.
- McDermott’s record against the Dolphins is now 11-2 (7-0 at home – both marks including playoffs) and Allen is 6-0 with 17 scores and four picks at home against the Dolphins.
- Buffalo has lost in Highmark Stadium just once in postseason play – to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1996 (13-1 all-time there). The Bills and Dolphins have met five times in the playoffs, with Buffalo winning four of those matchups (1990, ’92, ’95 and 2022). The lone loss came in 1998, yet they haven’t won a road playoff game since the 1992 AFC title game in Miami – they’re 0-7 since.
- Jim Nantz and Tony Romo will call Sunday’s action for CBS and Buffalo is 6-0 with them on the mic this season.
- This will be the third playoff meeting between the Bills and Bengals, with Buffalo having lost both prior matchups (both in Cincinnati’s old Riverfront Stadium – in the 1981 divisional round and the 1988 AFC Championship Game). The Bills are also trying to advance to the AFC/AFL title game for the 10th time in team annals.