Welcome to Week One 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’ first game of 2022 will take place at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California as they face the Los Angeles Rams. Here’s what you should know:
RAMS’ DEFENSE IS GIFTED
Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit between 2017-19 was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley. Staley’s success led to him getting the Los Angeles Chargers’ coaching job and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers skipper Raheem Morris now runs this side of the ball.
Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, run-stuffer A’Shawn Robinson, former Bear Leonard Floyd and eight-time All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner, the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven beyond their starters. Nevertheless the team finished the 2021 regular season third in interceptions and sacks and sixth against the run, however they were just 15th in points surrendered and 22nd against the pass.
Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last few years out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions. In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage (especially out of the slot) and Troy Hill has returned after a one-year hiatus. Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller and Nick Scott are the team’s primary safeties.
This scheme – characterized by a four-man rush, Cover Four zone coverage and twists and stunts on the defensive line to help get Donald into opposing team’s backfields – can be excellent. Those games along the defensive line usually come from loaded fronts, with three linemen on one side of the formation and another on the opposite side. This helps create a lot of one-on-one opportunities when pass rushing – and for someone like Donald, this can be lethal.
GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO
After Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago the team didn’t field a good offense again for a long time. That changed when McVay took over in 2017 and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.
Prior to being hired by the Rams McVay spent 2010-13 working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.
The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders towards the sideline on outside-zone running plays while leaving backside lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches and countless tailbacks have had success in it – from Todd Gurley years ago to a combination currently made up of Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers. In front of them are offensive linemen Joe Noteboom, David Edwards, Brian Allen, Coleman Shelton and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).
One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.
Passing-wise the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages and will align wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays.
Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. These are mostly executed out of “empty” shotgun formations with “bunch” and “stack” alignments by their receivers, with many of their run-action plays performed under center.
Due to inconsistencies in his game former first overall draft pick Jared Goff was shipped to the Detroit Lions a year ago in exchange for ex-Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford, who remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous passers. Possessing one of pro football’s strongest arms, he has also developed a mind and accuracy to match. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Stafford continues to make the big-time, tight-window passes that he has always made – he’s especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover Two…. His bold throws are now also good decisions.”
The weapons that Stafford has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, Allen Robinson II and tight end Tyler Higbee. Robinson has long been one of pro football’s most physical wideouts but lacked consistent quarterback play with the Chicago Bears – which should change in Los Angeles, where his talents in route running, gaining yards after the catch and high-pointing the ball in the red zone can shine. Jefferson, who is out for Thursday night’s game, brings speed to the table and Higbee has been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts).
Kupp, who accomplished the rare feat of leading the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2021, is particularly great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet and elite separation skills at the top of his pass patterns help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and company in what are known as “high/low” concepts – with one receiver being the low man on short routes to influence defensive backs to cheat down low and take him away while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.
McVay will occasionally use a no-huddle approach to both wear down opponents and to create confusion and communication problems for defenses. Will he go towards this approach on Thursday?
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, being one of the league’s best.
In 2021 the Bills decided to invest in upgrading their pass rush. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, along with defensive end 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, 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).
The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the National Football League 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 and ending his 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 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.
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 set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020 (and broke his own completion record this year along with the attempts mark).
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, and 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, Ryan Bates, Mitch Morse, Rodger Saffold 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 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). It remains to be seen if new play caller Ken Dorsey will expand upon that or incorporate other personnel groupings.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 25 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in eight of his last 15 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 23-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals.
- With two rushing scores against Atlanta, Allen is now tied for third in franchise history in rushing touchdowns with Cookie Gilchrist (31) and surpassed both Fred Jackson and Wray Carlton. He’s behind only Thurman Thomas (65) and O.J. Simpson (57).
- 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).
- More accolades for Allen – he became just the fifth signal caller ever to have 35 or more passing scores and 4,000 passing yards in consecutive seasons (along with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes) and he became the first player ever with 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns and 750 rushing yards in a season, according to Stathead.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 40-4 when leading at halftime.
- Including playoffs, all of Buffalo’s 12 wins in 2021 were by 12 points or more, the most in franchise history and the first team to accomplish that feat since the 1999 Rams and 2007 Patriots. It’s also the first time they had three straight winning seasons since 1991-93.
- Each of the Bills’ last 19 victories (postseason included) dating back to 2020 have been by 10 points or more – an NFL record.
- Buffalo was first in the NFL in point differential at +194. They were also the only team in the NFL to rank in the top four in both points scored and allowed.
- The Bills had some bad luck in one-score games. 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).
- Buffalo clinched the AFC East for the second straight year and secured a playoff berth for the fourth time in five years. It’s the first time since 1990-91 that they won the AFC East in consecutive years.
- Diggs and Knox became just the second pair of teammates in team annals (Eric Moulds and Peerless Price being the others in 2002) to each have nine or more touchdowns in a season.
- Additionally, Diggs became the first Bills receiver with 100 or more catches in consecutive years and surpassed Wes Welker (2007-08) for the most receptions in a player’s first two years with a team. He also scored his 10th touchdown, the second-most in a season in Bills annals (Bill Brooks had 11 in 1995).
- Buffalo was second in the NFL in sacks allowed but Allen was pressured 246 times in 2021, the most in the league.
- 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).
- Buffalo is 13-3 all time at home in the playoffs (and have lost just once at Highmark Stadium – in 1996) while they are only 3-14 on the road. They also haven’t won a road playoff contest since the 1992 AFC Championship Game in Miami, since then they’ve lost their last seven outings.
- McVay is 5-0 in season openers while McDermott is 3-2. The Rams have compiled a 14-3 record in September since 2017 and their winning percentage (.824) and 32.2 points-per-game average is second-best in the NFL in that month.
- This will be Buffalo’s first-ever game in SoFi Stadium and the first time they’ve played in the league’s season-opening Thursday night game. Winning there will be a tough task – defending Super Bowl champions have gone 8-3 in Week One since 2010.
- It’s also the second time the Bills will face the defending Super Bowl champion in their season opener (they lost 33-19 to the New York Jets in 1969).
- Singletary has rushed for a touchdown in four straight games and is vying to become the first Bill to do so in five straight since Jackson in 2011.
- 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) and has eight sacks in nine career Week One games.
- Buffalo’s schedule last year was the easiest in the NFL and faces the second-largest increase in difficulty this year, according to Warren Sharp. They played against just six playoff teams and won only two of those matchups.