Welcome to Week 15 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’ 14th game of 2022 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Miami Dolphins. Here’s what you should know:
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 ex-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 – using 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’ running 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 (both dealing with injuries and replaced by Robert Jones and Brandon Shell), veterans Robert Hunt and Connor Williams and versatile fullback Alec Ingold.
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, Jeff Wilson Jr. 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. The “Cheetah”, as he’s sometimes known, has already broken Mark Clayton’s single-season franchise record for receiving yards (set in 1984) through just 13 games.
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 – particularly an arm that isn’t one of the league’s strongest.
Miami is ninth in points per game (24.3), second in passing (278 yards a game) and is seventh in red zone efficiency (62.5 percent) but is struggling in the running game with just 90 yards a game on the ground (29th). That last stat is in part because McDaniel has called for a running play on just 37.2 percent of their snaps.
Additionally, the Dolphins have hit a wall offensively as of late. They’ve scored just two touchdowns in their last four games and have had only 19 offensive plays on the opposition’s side of the field since Week 13. Their woes have been especially notable in the last two weeks against an elite 49ers defense that relied on a four-man rush and mainly zone coverages (Cover Four in particular) and a struggling Chargers defense missing several starters that beat Miami last week with man-press coverage on early downs to disrupt Tagovailoa’s timing and Cover Two zone on third downs.
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 third-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. In addition to getting burned when blitzing (giving up a league-high 65.7 completion percentage, the most yards in the league and 14 touchdowns compared to six when they don’t), the Dolphins are 22nd in points allowed, 25th on third down and 23rd against the pass. They are, however, seventh versus the run. In addition, Miami is third in points allowed at home but is dead-last in points surrendered on the road – in fact, Boyer’s charges have allowed 30 points or more five times in the last six weeks.
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 Nik Needham (also injured) mans the slot while Kelon Crossen has replaced Jones. The team’s safeties are Eric Rowe and Jevon Holland, and Rowe is also out this weekend with an injury – he’ll be replaced by rookie Verone McKinley III.
At linebacker the Dolphins employ former Patriot Elandon Roberts along with Andrew Van Ginkel, Jerome Baker, Melvin Ingram, Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips, and their defensive linemen are Emmanuel Ogbah, Raekown Davis and former first-round pick Christian Wilkins. Ogbah has been replaced by Zach Sieler while he recovers from a torn tricep muscle.
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 issue there was poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line.
To address this, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier decided that more youth and talent were needed along their defensive front. Out went Hughes, Addison, Lotulelei and Phillips, and in came talented run defenders like Da’Quan Jones and Tim Settle, and the return of former Bills like Jordan Phillips (out this week) 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 now out for the season with a torn ACL after pacing the team with 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 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 – although they may need to more with Miller out, especially with four-man zone exchanges).
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. They did use a third linebacker quite a bit against New England in their first matchup of 2021 and had 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 last season. 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, Xavier Rhodes, rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford and slot corner Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen with Hyde suffering a neck injury that will sideline him for the rest of 2022 and Poyer being in and out of the lineup at various times – although they may use more man-press against Miami this week, they utilized press coverage on 40 percent of their snaps back in Week Three according to Cover1.
Hyde and Poyer’s replacements, the rangy and physical Damar Hamlin and 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 ninth in yards per game allowed and sacks, fourth in takeaways, second in points surrendered per game and fifth in interceptions. They’re also 19th against the pass and fourth versus the run.
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 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 (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 with 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 (out this week with an injury) and Spencer Brown. This crew along with fullback Reggie Gilliam held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-read and run-pass options, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary (whose game is based on shiftiness and power), James Cook and Duke Johnson (speed and route running) and veteran newcomer Nyheim 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 a week ago wasn’t a highlight of their season.
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 used more pre-snap motion and 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 pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll – now the head coach of the New York Giants – also called for a passing play on 64 percent of their first downs, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more than Buffalo – and that rate continued in 2021 with “11” personnel used on 71 percent of their plays (usage of “10” personnel dropped to seven percent).
So far it appears that new play-caller Ken Dorsey has expanded upon that with more diverse formations and personnel packaging with multiple tight end 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), 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 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 and New York. Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (fourth in points scored, sixth in passing, second in total yards per game, eighth in rushing and second on third down), two flaws remain – they have the fourth-most turnovers in the league with 20 (Allen has 11 interceptions and 10 fumbles, mainly due to perceiving pressure that isn’t there and playing too fast) and a lack of explosiveness, leading to reunions with Brown and Beasley.
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 a week ago were noticeable – eight punts (a season-high), two-for-13 on third down, a season-low 232 total net yards (317, their previous low, was also against the Jets and one net yard on their last three possessions) and the fourth straight week in which their point total declined are all causes for concern (last week was 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 may bode well for the rematch.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 31 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 14 of his last 28 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 29-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals.
- 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 (six). He’s also tied with Fran Tarkenton for fourth all-time in games with a passing and rushing score (24), behind Aaron Rodgers (30), Young (31) and Cam Newton (45).
- Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees (nine) and Tom Brady 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 329 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City, Allen has had 12 games with 300 yards and three scores. That ties Jim Kelly for the most in franchise history.
- Another Allen stat – he has moved past Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham and Steve Grogan for fifth all-time in rushing scores among quarterbacks with 37. He needs two more to move past Steve McNair and Tobin Rote into fourth place (behind Newton, Young and Jack Kemp).
- Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except four– Chicago, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia.
- Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 28 times, second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65). Diggs and Stevie Johnson are also the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.
- Speaking of Diggs, he needs six catches to be 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 also surpassed Fred Jackson for fifth in franchise history with 324 receptions.
- Knox has tied Chandler for third in team annals with 17 receiving scores. He’s behind Metzelaars (25) and Riemersma (20).
- Since 2017 the Bills are 48-6 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 is plus-132 – second-best in the NFL – and have 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 .709 (22-9) since 2019. Conversely, Buffalo is 18-5 at home since 2020 and is 9-1 at home in December and beyond in their last 10.
- Five of the last 11 games between the Bills and Jets have come down to just single digits on the scoreboard. Allen’s career record against the Jets is now 6-3 while McDermott’s is 8-4. McDermott’s record against the AFC East since 2017, however, is 21-13 – a winning percentage of .617 – and Buffalo’s best winning percentage all-time against an AFC East team is .544 (68-57) – against the Jets.
- The Bills currently have the top seed in the AFC, have beaten every AFC divisional leader and are the only team to have rushed for 100 yards in every game this year. They can clinch a playoff berth for the fourth straight year with a win this week – which would tie the second-longest streak in franchise history (1963-66, (six years from 1988-93 is the longest) and would be the fifth time McDermott would clinch a playoff berth, trailing just Marv Levy (eight) for the most.
- Prior to Week Three Buffalo had won seven in a row against the Dolphins – a team record. After the loss, Allen is now 7-2 in his career against Miami having thrown 23 touchdowns and just five picks. He became the first quarterback with multiple touchdown passes against one opponent in each of his first nine against them. McDermott’s record against the Dolphins is now 9-2.
- Allen dropped back to pass 71 times against Miami that week – the most in one game since at least 2000. His 63 pass attempts are a Bills record, and Allen is 4-0 with 10 scores and two picks at home against the Dolphins.
- In Week Three the high temperature was 89 degrees while this week calls for a low of 26 and six inches of snow. Quite the polar opposite.
- Tagovailoa has never played in snow before and struggled in the three coldest games of his career – 36, 35 and 45-degree days against the Titans (2021), Bills (2020) and Denver (’20).
- All five of Tagovailoa’s interceptions this season have come against split-safety coverage, according to NextGenStats. His completion percentage and passer rating have also dropped precipitously, and the Bills have used split-safety looks on 54 percent of their defensive snaps.