Welcome to Week Two 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’ second game of 2022 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what you should know:
THERE IS A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
Titans coach Mike Vrabel has taken bits and pieces from his former coaches as a player (Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Dean Pees and Jim Haslett) and former colleagues (Haslett, Pees and Crennel) to build his own sound defensive scheme. Vrabel’s a bit more blitz-intensive than the rest of the Belichick coaching tree but he also likes to rely on a four-man rush with twists and stunts from time to time.
With stalwarts like Denico Autry, Bud Dupree, Harold Landry (who is out for the season with a torn ACL after a breakout 2021 campaign), Zach Cunningham and Jeffery Simmons at his disposal, Vrabel typically wants to turn his pass rushers loose and have defensive backs who can hold up in man and zone coverage long enough for his front-seven to get to quarterbacks.
Tennessee’s defensive backfield has undergone a youthful facelift in recent years. Third-year man Kristian Fulton – who is out for Monday night’s game – second-year corner Caleb Farley and rookie Roger McCreary are their top three cornerbacks. The linchpin of the Titans’ back end is the multi-faceted Kevin Byard, who can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz. He is joined on the back end by fellow safety Amani Hooker.
The many changes on this side of the ball helped the Titans improve in many areas. They finished the 2020 regular season allowing the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL, accumulated just 19 sacks (the third-worst mark in the league), gave up a shade over 27 points a game and were just 19th against the run. 2021 was much better, as Tennessee was just three yards shy of being the NFL’s leader in defending the run (second), 10th in interceptions, ninth in sacks and sixth in points allowed. However they were only 25th in passing yards given up.
The Titans utilize a lot of dime personnel and zone blitzes with cornerbacks rushing from the boundary, and they especially like to pair those blitzes with Cover Two principles and coverage rotations after the snap (with cornerbacks dropping to safety depth and safeties dropping down to replace corners underneath). Tennessee also loves using man coverage with a single high safety (Cover One) in the red zone – where they have struggled mightily the last few seasons. Will Vrabel change things up or will they remain true to themselves?
THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Todd Downing, who previously served as tight ends coach while Arthur Smith (now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons) called the team’s plays. Ironically, before Smith was promoted to Tennessee’s play-caller he also coached the team’s tight ends while Matt LaFleur – now the head coach in Green Bay – ran Vrabel’s offense.
Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur was Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
Like his former colleagues, Downing has used a playbook that 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-style of offense 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.
In 2019 former Miami Dolphin Ryan Tannehill replaced the inconsistent Marcus Mariota as the Titans’ man under center and promptly responded with career-highs in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards-per-attempt (9.6), touchdown-to-interception ratio (22 to six) and quarterback rating (117.5). After signing a contract extension Tannehill’s results were more of the same in 2020, completing 65.5 percent of his passes with 33 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 106.5. Those numbers saw a dip in 2021, however, as Tannehill had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of just 21:14.
Tannehill has some good weapons to work with. Even though he lacks great quickness, running back Derrick Henry boasts an abundance of speed, power and strength in his game – allowing him to become just the eighth tailback ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a season in 2020. But after accumulating 937 yards in only eight games in 2021 (nearly on pace for last year’s total) Henry suffered a fractured foot, ending his regular season.
A.J. Brown and five-time All-Pro Julio Jones gave Tennessee perhaps the most physical one-two punch at wideout in pro football. Yet the Titans didn’t have much continuity among their pass catchers last year as Brown and Jones each dealt with various ailments and missed playing time, leading to Jones signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Brown being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. In their place are rookies Treylon Burks and Kyle Philips, and former Bill and Ram Robert Woods, who is a solid possession receiver and a great blocker. Tight end has become a revolving door in recent years as the combination of Geoff Swaim and Austin Hooper currently man the position once held by Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser.
Tennessee’s offensive line is made up of three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan, Aaron Brewer, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere. The group came under fire a bit last year for their downturn in pass protection as they gave up 47 sacks (the seventh-most in the NFL) – particularly Lewan, as his game appeared to be on the decline – leading Downing to slide the team’s pass protection his way to help him.
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. 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 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 last week while racking up seven sacks (the fourth-most by a team without blitzing once since 2016). It’s also 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 year.
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 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.
This week’s matchup against Tennessee will be vastly different from other teams they’ve squared off against. Given how often the Titans run the ball compared to their past opponents, could the Bills use more base packages with an extra linebacker or “big” nickel with an extra safety on the field instead of a cornerback? They might not though, since they’ve allowed 80 yards or more to Henry just once in their four meetings against him.
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 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 didn’t punt for the third time in four games. It remains to be seen whether this approach will continue.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 26 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in nine of his last 16 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 24-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals.
- With a rushing score against the Rams, Allen is now third in franchise history in rushing touchdowns with 32 and surpassing Cookie Gilchrist. He’s behind only Thurman Thomas (65) and O.J. Simpson (57). 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 41-4 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 20 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).
- Speaking of Welker, Diggs needs 11 catches to tie him for the most receptions in a player’s first 35 games with a team (Diggs has 238, Welker 249). He also leads the AFC in catches and yards over the last three seasons and is third in touchdowns.
- 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.
- 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 after notching two sacks against L.A. now has 10 sacks in 10 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.
- Buffalo is playing in a September home primetime game for only the second time in 22 years. It’s the first time they’ve had a home opener in primetime since a Thursday night game against the New York Jets in 2016 and it’s the third time in the last two years they’ve had back-to-back primetime games.
- The Bills haven’t won on Monday Night Football at home 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.