Welcome to Week One of the 2023 NFL season. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The Bills’ first game of 2023 will take place at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey as they face the New York Jets. Here’s what you should know:
GANG GREEN’S DEFENSE BECOMING SEATTLE-LITE
Jets head coach Robert Saleh arrived in the Big Apple from San Francisco where he oversaw a defense that was among the NFL’s better outfits between 2017-20. Saleh was one of the original architects, along with Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn, of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three scheme (featuring deep zone coverage on the outside with one safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield) which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14. Saleh himself used those same tactics to help the 49ers make an appearance in Super Bowl LIV in 2019.
In addition to his favored pass coverages, Saleh will – like his predecessors – use one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates the potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. He also has his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants out of overloaded fronts to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations. Fortunately for Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets are accumulating the talent needed to make this system go.
New York once had shaky depth among their defensive backs, but not anymore. Versatile and rangy safeties Jordan Whitehead, Adrian Amos and Tony Adams patrol the Jets’ back end while former 49er and Seahawk D.J. Reed holds down one cornerback spot.
The opposite side is occupied by Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. Last year’s fourth overall draft pick out of the University of Cincinnati, Gardner – who boasts intelligence, length, strength to jam wideouts in press coverage and adeptness in both man and zone coverage, may be the best Cover Three corner to enter the NFL since Richard Sherman. Given the amount of zone the Jets use, they rarely ask Gardner or Reed to shadow top wideouts in man coverage.
Up front New York has a pair of talented defensive linemen in ex-Bill and Seahawk Quintin Jefferson and All-Pro Quinnen Williams. Former Bengal Carl Lawson, Jermaine Johnson, rookie Will McDonald IV and John Franklin-Myers are the team’s main edge rushers and they’re good enough to the point where Salah and Ulbrich hardly blitz.
Veteran C.J. Mosley continues to display a high football IQ, athleticism and good technique. He, Quincy Williams and Jamien Sherwood are New York’s starters at linebacker.
After ranking dead last in the NFL in points allowed and total yards surrendered in 2021, the Jets’ defense has taken some big leaps in improvement. In 2022 they were fourth in points and yards allowed. They were also seventh in sacks with 47 and were the fourth-best red zone defense in the league.
RODGERS AND HACKETT TOGETHER AGAIN IN THE BIG APPLE
Over the last two years, Saleh’s offensive coordinator was Mike LaFleur, the brother of Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. Mike’s system was identical to that of his brother’s and his former 49ers boss Kyle Shanahan’s – it emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast philosophy 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 runs and to have more room to run routes on the field.
Due to ineffectiveness, however, LaFleur was canned at the end of 2022 in favor of former Denver Broncos head coach (and ex-Bills and Packers offensive coordinator) Nathaniel Hackett. Hackett employs the same system that LaFleur has used, so there won’t be much of a change in offensive philosophy for Gang Green.
Yet there were major changes in terms of the personnel that Hackett will have at his disposal compared to what the Jets displayed a year ago. To make this unit go, two years ago Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas traded former third-overall draft pick Sam Darnold and replaced him with Zach Wilson. The signal caller from Brigham Young University boasts a strong arm and good mobility, but it was evident that adjusting to life in the NFL would be a process and it has been. Wilson has shown to need work on reducing turnovers, improving his touch and decision-making – he uses too much velocity on short throws – keeping his eyes down the field and not on the pass rush, quickening his dropbacks and not retreating backwards when an opponent gets in his face.
Because of his struggles and immaturity, Wilson is no longer the starter in New York. Rather, the Jets’ offense will now run through ex-Packer and future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers, who was acquired in the spring in exchange for draft pick compensation.
Still one of the league’s best at 39 years old, Rodgers is as strong-armed and accurate as he was earlier in his career, and his intelligence and athleticism continue to remain sharp. What’s interesting about Rodgers is that at times he won’t play “on schedule”, as coaches like to put it. Sometimes he will try to pull off sandlot football – meaning not looking at his first receiver and holding onto the ball too long to try and make a greater play than what the original call designed.
According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit: “Though he is capable of beating defenses with presnap reads and quick throws, Rodgers frequently passes up open receivers and leaves clean pockets, which would warrant a reprimand for most QBs. But he’s so exceptional that he often goes on to make a better play.
“The tricky part is that Rodgers’s approach is more conducive to spread formations and isolation routes which, when relied upon too heavily, can lead to dry spells in the passing game. The challenge is to find the proper mix.”
In addition to his reunion with Hackett, Rodgers has also brought some familiar faces with him from Green Bay. Wide receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb have joined Garrett Wilson (who is coming off an excellent rookie season) and burner Mecole Hardman (signed from the Kansas City Chiefs) and all can carry out Rodgers’ favorite routes. Slants, posts and back-shoulder fades are staples of the LaFleur/Hackett offense, and not only do they excel at such pass-patterns but they also have a great feel for how to get open when plays break down. Tyler Conklin, who is particularly good on seam routes, is New York’s tight end.
Breece Hall was expected to be the Jets’ top running back going into last season but he suffered a knee injury. He is now healthy and will be paired up with one of the NFL’s best backs in Dalvin Cook, a strong and speedy ball carrier. The two will operate behind an offensive line that boasts tackles Mekhi Becton – a mountain of a man at 6’7” and 364 pounds – and Duane Brown, guards Laken Tomlinson and Alijah Vera-Tucker and starting center Connor McGovern (no relation to Buffalo’s guard with the same name).
A year ago, the Jets’ offense was underwhelming. They were 29th in scoring, 25th in total yards, 15th in passing, 25th in rushing and second-last in red zone efficiency. Additionally, they haven’t scored more than 20 points in each of their last eight outings against the Bills.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE, BUT UNDERGOING CHANGES IN 2023
For the majority of head coach Sean McDermott’s time in Buffalo, the Bills’ defense – led by longtime stalwarts such as Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Matt Milano and Ed Oliver – has been one of the league’s best in the regular season. Points allowed (second in the NFL in that category in 2022), total yards per game allowed (sixth), rushing yards surrendered (fifth), takeaways (tied for fourth), interceptions (tied for fourth) and red zone defense (second) have generally been the categories that the Bills have excelled at (last year’s 15th ranking against the pass not withstanding).
Buffalo, however, has been inconsistent in two areas – creating a consistent pass rush and, from time to time, stopping the run. These issues are mainly caused by poor tackling (a year ago their missed and broken tackle percentage were among the highest in the NFL), a lack of gap integrity (this showed up when they allowed 188 yards to Miami in Week 15) and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line.
To address this over the years, McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier (who will take this season off, leaving McDermott to call the defensive plays) have brought in more talent. Out went names like Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Star Lotulelei, Carlos “Boogie” Basham and Harrison Phillips, and in came talented defenders like Gregory Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa, Da’Quan Jones and Tim Settle, and the return of former Bills like Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson were also welcomed additions. This season Buffalo has also brought in veterans such as Leonard Floyd and Kaylon “Poona” Ford to help out.
Beyond improving against the run, the Bills had also lacked an elite pass rusher off the edge who could command double teams on a consistent basis since Mario Williams was employed nearly 10 years ago. With this in mind, a year ago general manager Brandon Beane signed future Hall of Famer Von Miller – who is still one of the NFL’s best sack artists at age 34. But Miller suffered a torn ACL after putting up eight sacks in 12 games and will miss the first four games of this season while recovering from that ailment on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
Schematically the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap (they’re usually among the top units in the NFL in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six) but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their intentions keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges are the team’s calling cards.
Those blitz looks usually happen in the A-gaps with Milano and Terrell Bernard (replacing the departed Tremaine Edmunds) to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, yet the Bills didn’t blitz once against the Los Angeles Rams in Week One while racking up seven sacks (the fourth-most by a team without blitzing once since 2016). It was the third time a McDermott-coached team didn’t send more than four rushers at an opposing quarterback in a game – 2020 and ’21 against Kansas City were the other two times – and they’re the only team to have used this approach over the last seven years. They blitzed just three times against Tennessee in Week Two and rarely since, although they may need to more with Miller out, especially with four-man zone exchanges – with Miller the Bills were fourth in the NFL in pressure rate with four or less pass rushers, without him they were 27th in that category.
The Bills mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs between 90 and 100 percent of their snaps since 2020. They did use nine snaps of dime against Kansas City in Week Seven last year – a matchup that saw Frazier’s unit rely on three-man rushes and Milano utilizing a spy technique on Patrick Mahomes, and may use more “big” nickel looks with three safeties after the signing of ex-Ram Taylor Rapp.
White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, should be back to full form after tearing his ACL against the New Orleans Saints two years ago. Opposite him at the other boundary corner spot is second-year man Christian Benford, who flashed some ability a year ago, and they are backed up by Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam. Slot corner Taron Johnson remains elite, and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer will reunite to form perhaps the league’s best duo on the backend after being in and out of the lineup with various injuries throughout 2022. The rangy and physical but inconsistent Damar Hamlin has also returned to full health after suffering a cardiac arrest episode against Cincinnati in Week 16.
One of the secondary’s best performances a year ago was when they held the Miami Dolphins to a completion percentage mark of 40 in the wild card round, the lowest in a playoff game in the last 25 years (along with just 3.3 yards per play, 231 yards of offense and a 25 percent conversion rate on third down.) Granted, it came against a third-string quarterback in Skylar Thompson, but impressive nevertheless.
Special teams were also solid for the Bills, having been 13th in punt return average and sixth in kick return average (which was boosted by Nyheim Hines’ two kick returns for scores in Week 18, the first player in Bills history to return two kicks for scores in one game and the first kick return for a touchdown by a Bill in three years) and are 18th and third in covering punts and kicks, respectively. Hines, however, was lost for the season after a knee injury was sustained during the offseason.
BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT, BUT ALSO GETTING A FACELIFT
Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of gifted wide receivers, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s elite offenses for the first time since the K-Gun was running roughshod over the league 30 years ago.
Allen’s improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes have allowed Buffalo to become one of the most feared attacks in pro football. Setting Bills team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020 (and breaking his own completion record a year later along with the attempts mark), that success continued into 2021 as the Bills averaged 28.4 points a game, the third-best best mark in the NFL. Allen was also seventh and eighth in the league in passing touchdowns and yards, respectively, and was second in passing and total touchdowns and seventh in yards in 2022.
In the postseason against the Patriots two years ago, Allen took his game to new heights. He helped his offense become the first in league history to not punt, kick a field goal or commit a turnover in a single game while scoring touchdowns on every drive. Allen also set career-highs in passing touchdowns (five – the first quarterback to throw that many against Bill Belichick in the playoffs and the most ever by a Bill) and completion percentage (84) while helping the Bills score 47 points, the second-most they’ve ever had in a playoff game (51 in the 1990 AFC title game). He also had more passing touchdowns than incompletions – the first signal caller to do so since Kurt Warner in 2009.
His core of targets is deep and talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards in 2020, is an exceptional route runner who excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis (who set a postseason record with four touchdowns against Kansas City in 2021) has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps. But one element – speed – was lacking a year ago, so the Bills addressed this by letting veterans Jamison Crowder, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie and John Brown walk and brought in burners like Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty to go along with second-year man Khalil Shakir.
In 2021, tight end Dawson Knox enjoyed a breakout season with nine touchdowns, which tied him for first among all tight ends and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six. He is now joined by rookie first-round pick Dalton Kincaid from Utah, and their diverse skillsets should allow offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey to throw more curveballs at opponents with multiple tight end sets.
The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, ex-Dallas Cowboy Connor McGovern, Mitch Morse, rookie O’Cyrus Torrence and Spencer Brown. This crew along with fullback Reggie Gilliam, while not elite, has mainly executed outside zone runs along with zone-reads, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters and split inside zone sprinkled in for running back James Cook. Cook will now take on more of a featured role, as former teammate Devin Singletary has left for Houston and is now backed up by ex-Patriot Damien Harris (who brings power to the table) and veteran Latavius Murray.
The starting front five, while not bad, has been iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection over the last couple of years. Most of the team’s rushing production has come from Allen’s legs and few came from their backs – the Bills’ rushing attempts per game in 2022, 18.2, was last in the NFL but that number may increase this year. Allowing three sacks and drawing six penalties against the New York Jets in Week 14 wasn’t a highlight of their season and neither was allowing seven sacks to the Dolphins in the playoffs but they did rush for 254 yards against Chicago, the most in a game by a Buffalo team since 272 in 2016 against Miami.
Buffalo’s passing offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, run-pass options (especially in the red zone), designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups and some trick plays with jet/orbit motion and sweeps. They have also used plenty of pre-snap motion and shifts – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers), but the usage of “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) will likely increase with the employment of Knox and Kincaid. They were last in the NFL in usage of that grouping a year ago, and the amount of play-action passes could increase after they dropped from being a top-four team in those concepts used in 2020 and ’21 to 25th a year ago.
The Bills’ multi-receiver sets were traditionally their offensive calling card. In 2020 they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL at the time – and they utilized someone in motion on 43 percent of their offensive snaps, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll – now the head coach of the New York Giants – also called for a passing play on 64 percent of their first downs, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more than Buffalo – and that rate continued in 2021 and ’22 with “11” personnel used on nearly three-quarters of their plays.
In 2022, Dorsey put his own twist on his team’s offense and helped the Bills to a 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week One – the second-largest victory over a defending Super Bowl champion in Week One all-time (behind Denver downing Baltimore in 2013) and converting nine of 10 third downs (tied for the best conversion rate in a game over the last 10 years).
That approach continued in victories against Tennessee, where Dorsey decided to utilize seven different personnel groupings to score 41 points, Baltimore – a game in which they trailed by 17 points at halftime but rallied to win 23-20, their largest comeback since a 34-31 win over New England in 2011 – Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Green Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, New England, New York, Miami and Chicago. Yet for everything the Bills did right on offense (first in third down conversion percentage, second in points scored and in total yards per game, fifth in passing, seventh in rushing and ninth in red zone percentage), two flaws remained – they were one the league’s sloppiest teams with 27 turnovers and the team’s ability to create sustained offense slipped during the stretch run of the season.
Allen had 14 interceptions and 13 fumbles in the regular season and had three turnovers in the wild card playoff round versus the Dolphins (mainly due to perceiving pressure that wasn’t there, playing too fast and a lack of speed at wideout). He also became the first quarterback to take seven sacks and throw multiple picks in a playoff game since Neil O’Donnell in 1992, but the Bills won a playoff game for the first time ever when they lost the turnover battle – they were 0-13 before.
Those problems and a stubborn refusal to run the ball and bleed the clock – Dorsey called for just one handoff to a running back in the last 23:04 of the game – allowed the Minnesota Vikings to score 20 unanswered points in a 33-30 comeback win in Week 10. Additionally, their struggles against the Jets in Week 14 were noticeable – eight punts (a season-high), converting just two of 13 third downs, a season-low 232 total net yards (317, their previous low, was also against the Jets) and the fourth straight week in which their point total declined were all causes for concern. The second outing against New York was just the third time since 2009 the Bills won a game with 232 yards of offense or less.
However, the Bills dominated Miami in Week Three in most statistical categories despite losing – which continued in their rematch in December but coming out on the winning side. Buffalo won eight in a row (including playoffs, their longest streak since eight in 1990) and included winning six straight non-Sunday games – the first team to have done so since the 1962 Boston Patriots and could be the first to have seven straight in their next such outing. That winning streak would be the longest since the 1929 Frankfort Yellow Jackets. Conversely Buffalo lost just three games by a total of eight points and tied the franchise mark for wins in a season with 13 (along with the 1990, ’91 and 2020 teams).
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 in Week One last year.
- After throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns against Miami in Week 15, Allen has 13 career games with 300 yards and three scores. That broke a tie with Jim Kelly for the most in franchise history and he has passed Steve McNair and Tobin Rote for fourth all-time in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (behind Newton, Young and Kemp). He needs two more to tie Kemp for third.
- Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except three – Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia. Allen’s also become the only signal caller with 4,000 passing yards and 750 rushing yards in a season twice (he’s the only one to do so once).
- Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 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) is tied with Jerry Butler for sixth in franchise history, and he and Stevie Johnson are the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.
- Speaking of Diggs, he became the sixth player ever with 100 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards in three straight seasons – joining Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Herman Moore, Antonio Brown and Michael Thomas. He’s also the first to do so in each of his first three years with one team and has three 100-yard receiving games with the Bills in the playoffs, joining Reed (five).
- Secondary target notes – Knox is tied with Riemersma for second in team annals with 20 receiving scores by a tight end. He’s behind only Metzelaars (25) and became the fifth Bill with five or more receiving scores in the playoffs all-time while also catching a touchdown in five straight games (only Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski have had longer streaks among tight ends). Meanwhile, Davis has the second-most receiving touchdowns in team playoff history (six), tying James Lofton. Reed had nine.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 49-6 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 in 2022, according to Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports Allen became the first quarterback to defeat three former MVPs in a four-game span since Troy Aikman downed Dan Marino, Young and Brett Favre in 1996. He’s also the first signal caller to beat three former MVPs in one month since David Woodley in September 1981 and has won eight of his last 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 last year. They clinched a playoff berth for the fourth straight year, which tied the second-longest streak in franchise history (1963-66, six years from 1988-93 is the longest) and 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).
- Buffalo hasn’t won a road playoff game since the 1992 AFC title game in Miami – they’re 0-7 since.
- Allen’s winning percentage in primetime games (.785) is bettered by only one other quarterback – Young (.793). He’s thrown for 39 touchdowns and 11 picks in 14 primetimes games and has won 11 of them.
- 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, and Buffalo’s best winning percentage all-time against an AFC East team is .544 (68-57) – against the Jets (Buffalo has won five of their last six meetings against New York).
- This will be the first time the Bills will open a season on Monday Night Football since 2009 against the New England Patriots.
- Diggs is one of two players to catch three touchdowns or more in multiple appearances on Monday Night Football (Jerry Rice being the other).
- In six career games on Monday Night Football, Allen has thrown for 18 scores and just two interceptions.
- Rodgers’ career record against Buffalo is 2-2. He’s also won his last nine Monday night games since 2013.
- Allen will become the first Bills quarterback to start in five straight season openers since Kelly played in 11 straight from 1986-96. Buffalo’s regular season record over the last three years with Allen is 37-12.