Welcome to Week Three 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’ third game of 2022 will take place at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida as they face the Miami Dolphins. Here’s what you should know:

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins talks with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins in the second half against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

MIAMI’S OFFENSE PLAYING WELL

After winning 10 games in 2020 for just the third time since 2008, owner Stephen Ross gave general manager Chris Grier – the brother of former Buffalo Sabres winger Mike Grier – the authority to build the team as he and former head coach Brian Flores saw fit. However, after a nine-win campaign in 2021 Grier decided to make a coaching change and replaced Flores with San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel.

Under Flores new faces were a constant at one area for Miami – offensive coordinator. While the basis of Flores’ philosophy stayed the same – the Erhardt-Perkins concepts that his former employer, the New England Patriots, have based their passing game around for more than 20 years – the man calling the plays changed in all three of Flores’ seasons in South Beach. After trying out Chad O’Shea and Chan Gailey in 2019 and ’20, Flores decided to promote then-tight ends coach George Godsey (a former offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans) and running backs coach Eric Studesville to passing game and running game coordinator, respectively. Neither panned out.

In contrast, McDaniel – a longtime protégé of Mike and Kyle Shanahan – has brought their version of the West Coast offense to South Beach. The system is very creative in its ability to attack matchups and utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs.

The Dolphins’ philosophy relies on a mobile offensive line that pushes defenders from sideline to sideline on “stretch” runs that encourages its tailbacks to find holes on the opposite side of the play’s direction and cut back against the grain. Executing these blocks are former All-Pro Terron Armstead, youngsters Liam Eichenberg and Austin Jackson, veterans Robert Hunt and Connor Williams and versatile fullback Alec Ingold (Jackson is currently on injured reserve and replaced by Greg Little).

While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, McDaniel will also use power plays, traps, sweeps and counters as a changeup tactic and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well. These are usually carried out by speed threats Raheem Mostert, Chase Edmonds and Myles Gaskin. This system has made many a star out of running backs for decades and most of Miami’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end).

The reason why the Shanahan coaching tree likes to have two running backs on the field most of the time is to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time while also taking advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass and forcing the opposition to use more basic coverages. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”

Wideouts Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are similar receivers – each are polished route runners, have good hands and speed to burn, and are adept at picking up yards after the catch. They can also return punts in a pinch and are liberally used by McDaniel in jet and orbit motion to influence defenders’ responsibilities. Hill and Waddle are also dangerous ballcarriers and will sometimes line up at running back, and 6’6” tight end Mike Gesicki is a red zone threat.

Hill 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.

Like his colleagues, McDaniel will have his wide receivers, running backs and tight ends line up in unusual places in the formation to determine if defenses are playing man or zone coverage and will have his wide receivers stay inside the numbers to give them extra room to run routes and to serve as additional blockers. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions, especially to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game, and the receivers’ pass patterns work well off one another with many intersecting routes at all three levels.

At the helm of this attack is third-year signal caller Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa, a rhythmic, precision passer and 2020’s fifth-overall draft pick out of Alabama, has most of his passing concepts come in the form of short and intermediate plays to play to his strengths as an intelligent passer who can get the ball out on time and to hide his limitations – in particular an arm that isn’t one of the league’s strongest.

Miami has started 2-0 and last week scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to come back and beat the Baltimore Ravens. Those 28 points were the most by any team in the fourth quarter of a game since the Philadelphia Eagles did so in 2013, and Tagovailoa threw for six touchdowns – tied for the most in one game in franchise history with Dan Marino and Bob Griese. Yet the Dolphins’ quarterback has struggled against Buffalo, accumulating a 56.4 completion percentage, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1:4 and a 59.8 passer rating in his last three games against the Bills.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL – September 11: Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (94) waits of the snap during the game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins, on Sunday, September 11, 2022 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DOLPHINS’ DEFENSE UNDERACHIEVING

Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who worked with Flores in New England, traditionally favors playing lots of Cover One – man coverage with a single-high safety over the top – and will occasionally mix in some Cover Three concepts (deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield). He also loves to blitz, sending extra rushers at quarterbacks at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL out of multiple defensive fronts and will sometimes zone-blitz on third-down with a lot of disguise and late movement by their defensive backs at the snap.

These schemes allowed the Dolphins to be among the NFL’s leaders in takeaways and turnover margin in 2020. Miami went from dead-last in points allowed per game to among the best and were also among the league leaders in third-down and red zone defense. However, underperformance by their defense – especially in their pass rush – and injuries at cornerback set the Dolphins back severely, forcing Flores and Boyer to rely on zone coverage more and not blitz as much. Consequently, the team dropped to the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category.

That has continued so far in 2022. Boyer’s unit is allowing a league-worst 9.0 yards-per-pass attempt, the third-worst passer rating (114.4) and the fifth-worst completion percentage (71.2). They also have the fourth-least amount of sacks through two weeks (two) despite such high blitz numbers.

Miami is led in their secondary by cornerbacks Xavien Howard and the injured Byron Jones – who are one of the better outside corner pairs in the league – and third-year pro Noah Igbinoghene mans the slot. The team’s safeties are Brandon Jones and Jevon Holland (Nik Needham has replaced Jones so far at cornerback).

At linebacker the Dolphins employ former Patriot Elandon Roberts along with Andrew Van Ginkel, Jerome Baker, Melvin Ingram and Jaelan Phillips, and their defensive linemen are Emmanuel Ogbah, Raekown Davis and former first-round pick Christian Wilkins.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 19: Matt Milano #58 of the Buffalo Bills intercepts a pass and runs it back for a touchdown thrown by Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans during the third quarter of the game at Highmark Stadium on September 19, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

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 in 2021, 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 coverages 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 never had to blitz once against the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago 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 last week).

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.

Forcing four turnovers, allowing just 25 yards on 13 carries to Derrick Henry and only seven points overall, the Bills did so while enduring injuries to Oliver, Settle, Phillips, Milano, Jackson, Hyde and Poyer. If any of those players can’t suit up against Miami, the team’s depth will be tested.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 19: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with teammate Josh Allen #17 after scoring a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans during the third quarter of the game at Highmark Stadium on September 19, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Joshua Bessex/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. This unit 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, 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.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 19: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills scores his third touchdown of the night against the Tennessee Titans during the third quarter of the game at Highmark Stadium on September 19, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Allen has compiled 27 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 10 of his last 17 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 25-2. 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 now has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Brees (nine) and 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.
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 42-4 when leading at halftime.
  • Each of the Bills’ last 20 victories have been by 10 points or more – tying the NFL record held by the 1941-42 Chicago Bears.
  • The Bills had some bad luck in one-score games a year ago. They went 5-0 in one-score outings two years ago and were 0-6 in 2021 (only the 1985 San Francisco 49ers have also made the postseason with such a record, according to ESPN Stats & Info).
  • With a career-high 12 catches against the Titans, Diggs has the most receptions in a player’s first 35 games with a team – surpassing Wes Welker’s former league mark.
  • Diggs became the second Bill with two 100-yard receiving games to start a season along with Andre Reed in 1991. He’s also one of two players to catch three touchdowns or more in multiple appearances on Monday Night Football (Jerry Rice being the other).
  • Buffalo set multiple team records in 2021 including highest point differential (+194), most first downs (398), most total yards (6,493) and average margin of victory (22.1 – the fourth highest since the merger).
  • 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).
  • The Bills won on Monday Night Football at home for the first time since 1994 against the Denver Broncos. It’s also the fifth year in a row the Bills and Titans have met and the third straight in primetime.
  • Buffalo has won seven in a row against the Dolphins, breaking a team record that took place between 1987-89.
  • Allen is 7-1 in his career against Miami having thrown 21 touchdowns and just five picks. He became the first quarterback with multiple touchdown passes against one opponent in each of his first eight games against them.
  • Not only has Allen had success against the Miami, but Sean McDermott has too. His record against the Dolphins is 9-1.
  • The Bills have scored touchdowns on their opening drives in their last five regular season games – their longest streak since 1990.
  • Buffalo so far has outscored their opponents 72-17, scored more points last week than the entire AFC South division combined (41) and tied their 1991 outing against Miami for the most points they’ve scored on Monday Night Football.
  • Last week Allen tied a career-high with four scoring passes. All four of them came off play-action – since 2021 Allen leads the NFL in play-action touchdowns and has tossed for three or more scores four times in his last six regular season games.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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