Welcome to Week Six 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’ sixth game of 2022 will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri as they face the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s what you should know:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS DANGEROUS
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. In Philadelphia his passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick was vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Alex Smith it became conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
For years Kansas City employed wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. Following a trade to the Miami Dolphins, Reid and general manager Brett Veach decided to replace him by committee. The similarly speedy Marquez Valdes-Scantling, burner Mecole Hardman and rookie Skyy Moore give the Chiefs a trio who can beat anyone vertically and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid along with John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster, who excels on short and intermediate routes.
Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most defensive backs and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers. Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020 and continues to remain his usual elite self.
In 2020 the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, significantly upgrading a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy. Edwards-Helaire and backup Jerick McKinnon are adept at hurting teams not just on the ground (mostly via run-pass options) but through the air as well, especially on screen passes.
Edwards-Helaire and Mahomes operate behind an offensive line that has undergone many changes since 2020. Injuries and underperformance, especially in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saw the Chiefs say goodbye to names like Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, Austin Reiter and Kelechi Osemele and hello to new faces like three-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr., former All-Pro Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith and Andrew Wylie.
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. Early in the 2021 season Mahomes was still feeling the effects of a deteriorated front-five as he showed too much unnecessary movement both in and outside the pocket (due to anticipating pressure that wasn’t there), sloppy footwork and not playing within the timing and structure of Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy’s attack. He also wasn’t taking what defenses were giving him coverage-wise and was forcing plays down the field that didn’t need to be.
As the year went on, Mahomes has settled down. His mechanics have improved – especially by holding the ball higher so he can throw quicker and fixing his lower body base – and his coaches have incorporated more short and intermediate concepts like “smash” and “flood” – resulting in him being more decisive and his offense becoming more rhythm-based and less vertical.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE ON THE REBOUND
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit, but between 2016-18 it took a nosedive – bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his old assistants from Philadelphia in Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man overload blitzes and coverages involving mainly Cover One, Two, Zero and two-deep man with press technique by the cornerbacks and the safeties rotating before the snap (although “Spags” has greatly increased their snaps of Cover Four, aka “quarters” as of late).
The biggest key to Kansas City’s defense was former Arizona Cardinal and Houston Texan Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his many snaps at slot cornerback, box safety, nickel/dime linebacker, free safety and outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence were valuable to the Chiefs – so valuable to the point where he was mainly used as the team’s middle hole defender in Cover Two zone and not a linebacker. But Mathieu left in free agency for the New Orleans Saints along with fellow safety Daniel Sorenson, and in their place now are ex-Texan Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill.
The Chiefs also underwent a makeover at cornerback. Veterans Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward and DeAndre Baker are gone and L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton are now joined by youngsters Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson, Bryan Cook and Tershawn “Turk” Wharton (Fenton, McDuffie, Cook and Wharton are out this Sunday with various ailments) and this group is used by Spagnuolo in dime packages with Sneed and Watson on the outside and Cook blitzing from the slot.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive lineman in the league and is the linchpin of this unit thanks to his combination of burst and hand usage off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boasts elite quickness as well and Derrick Nnadi, Carlos Dunlap, Mike Danna and rookie George Karlaftis are the team’s other contributors in their front four. At linebacker Kansas City employs Nick Bolton – who is usually their best second-level defender in subpackages – Willie Gay (who is serving a suspension), Darrius Harris and Leo Chenal.
Unlike their elite offensive counterparts, the results from this unit over the last few years have been uneven. After a two-year stretch which saw Kansas City finish the 2019 regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass and racking up 45 sacks (11th-best among all defenses) and a 2020 campaign that ended with the Chiefs ranked 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions, Spagnuolo’s defense saw a downturn in 2021 – ending the year 27th against the pass, 21st against the run and fourth-last in sacks.
So far this year, those numbers remain low for Kansas City. They’re in the bottom half of the NFL in every category except against the run (third), sacks (seventh) and total yards allowed (14th).
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE AGAIN
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 line. 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 at the snap 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.
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 second in total yards allowed, tied for first in takeaways, fifth in sacks and first in points surrendered. They’re also fourth against the pass and second versus the run.
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. This unit 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 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. 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 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 – and Pittsburgh.
Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense, one flaw remains – they’re 21st in the league in the red zone. Perhaps they can get this area fixed against Kansas City.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 28 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 11 of his last 20 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 26-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals, and Allen also set a new club record for completion percentage (83.9) against the Rams.
- 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).
- 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.
- Allen also moved past Peyton Manning (151) for the fourth-most touchdowns all-time in a player’s first five seasons. Conversely, Mahomes is third with 159.
- 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).
- Allen threw for 434 yards against the Steelers – the second-most in one game in franchise history (Drew Bledsoe holds the mark with 463 in an overtime game against Minnesota in 2002). His 348 yards in the first half were tied for the second-most in a first half by any NFL quarterback since 1991, and his stat line (along with four passing scores) happened just once in a full game in franchise history – Jim Kelly had 363 yards and five scores against Houston in 1989.
- The 98-yard scoring pass from Allen to Davis tied the Bills’ record for longest pass in team history (Ryan Fitzpatrick to Terrell Owens against Jacksonville in 2009) and their 38-3 win was the worst loss by Pittsburgh since a 51-0 shutout defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns in 1989.
- Davis had 171 yards receiving, the second-most of his career (his 201 yard, four-touchdown performance in last year’s postseason stands as the most) and he became the first Bill with two 50-yard scores in one half since Lee Evans had two 83-yarders against Houston in 2006.
- One more Allen number – a 300-yard, three-touchdown game has happened just eight times in a full game for Buffalo since Kelly retired following the 1996 season.
- The Bills and Steelers combined for just 35 rushing attempts last week – the least ever in a game in Bills history. The old record was 36 between Buffalo and Seattle in 2020.
- Buffalo’s 10.2 yards per offensive play was the third-highest in a game in league annals (the team’s prior record was 9.3 against the Seahawks in 2000). Their 552 total yards of offense were the fifth-highest in team history.
- Buffalo didn’t allow a point in the third quarter for the fifth straight game – the first team to do so since the 2016 Vikings – and allowed less than 60 rushing yards for the third time this year.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 43-4 when leading at halftime.
- 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).
- Under McDermott Buffalo’s record against rookie quarterbacks, including playoffs, is now 9-3 while accumulating 18 interceptions and 33 sacks.
- McDermott has a 2-3 career record (including playoffs) against Reid, his former boss in Philadelphia from 1999-2010. Sunday will also be the fifth time in the last three years the two have squared off and the Bills have played five of their last six games against Kansas City in Arrowhead Stadium (the only time the Bills have played against them in Orchard Park in the last eight years was in 2020 when fans weren’t allowed due to COVID-19.
- One of Spagnuolo’s favorite types of blitzes is a “Mike-Star” blitz where the middle linebacker and slot cornerback both rush the passer. This can be defeated via three-by-one trips formations, which the Bills use a decent amount – will “Spags” move away from this type of scheme on Sunday?