Welcome to Week 10 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’ ninth game of 2022 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Minnesota Vikings. Here’s what you should know:
VIKINGS’ DEFENSE SOLID, BUT SPOTTY
After eight years of executing the defensive schemes of Mike Zimmer, the defensive unit of the Vikings now operates Ed Donatell’s tactics. Donatell, who is in his fourth stop as a coordinator in the NFL, used to be a heavy proponent of man coverage and blitzing in his earlier days. But as pro football has evolved, so has he – between 2011 and 2021 he worked alongside longtime defensive guru Vic Fangio at various stops and his influence has clearly rubbed off on him.
Like Fangio, Donatell doesn’t like to blitz much. Relying on a four-man pass rush and two-deep safety looks more often than not (according to Cover1, they align with split-safety looks before the snap 73 percent of the time, the second-most in the NFL), he heavily employs well-disguised hybrid coverages that feature man and zone concepts (especially Cover Four, or “quarters”). The system is at its best when it gets elite play from its linebackers, and luckily for Donatell he has one of the NFL’s best edge rush pairs in Danielle Hunter and ex-Packer Za’Darius Smith, who he liberally moves around defensive fronts to find good matchups. His inside linebackers are Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, who are adept in coverage, filling gaps against the run and blitzing.
On the back end, Minnesota has one of the league’s best safeties in Harrison Smith. An 11-year veteran who boasts a great combination of versatility, aggressiveness and intelligence, the two-time All-Pro was supposed to be joined this season by rookie first round pick Lewis Cine but Cine is sidelined for the remainder of the season with a compound fracture in his leg and has been replaced by Camryn Bynum.
Three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson, now in his 12th NFL season, has been a physical, sure tackler and a strong cover artist for most of his career, but the depth behind him is suspect. Cameron Dantzler and Akayleb Evans are the starters along with Peterson and Kris Boyd, Chandon Sullivan and rookie Andrew Booth Jr. are also on the team’s dept chart. The Vikings’ defensive line is stout, and headlined by former Buffalo Bill Harrison Phillips, Dalvin Tomlinson (who is out for Sunday’s game) and Jonathan Bullard.
This unit comes into Sunday’s game tied for fifth in takeaways and are 10th against the run but are 27th versus the pass. They’ve also played just two teams with a winning record and are 1-1 in those games (losing against Philadelphia in Week Two and beating Miami – albeit with a third string quarterback starting). Another interesting note is while Minnesota has allowed the least amount of red zone possessions in the NFL (19), they’ve given up touchdowns on 15 of those possessions. That’s the worst rate in pro football.
MINNESOTA’S OFFENSE CHANGING, BUT NOT THAT MUCH
The Vikings’ new head coach is Kevin O’Connell, a former backup quarterback in the NFL and assistant coach in Washington and Los Angeles. Having been hired after winning a Super Bowl with the Rams as offensive coordinator, it’s no surprise that his offensive philosophy is similar to that of his mentor’s – Sean McVay, who comes from the Shanahan-Gruden tree of the West Coast offense (as did former Vikings offensive coordinators Gary and Klint Kubiak).
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, and one of the NFL’s best backs in Dalvin Cook, a strong and speedy ball carrier, is the beneficiary of it.
In front of him are offensive linemen Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradberry, Ed Ingram and Brian O’Neill and they have helped the Vikings 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). The main difference between the McVay and Shanahan schemes is the former doesn’t use fullbacks much while the latter does, which explains C.J. Ham remaining on Minnesota’s roster from the prior regime – it helps that he’s a great run-blocker.
One tactic that McVay and O’Connell 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 Vikings’ 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 Minnesota is 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.
It’s an offensive scheme that quarterback Kirk Cousins is familiar with from his time in Washington with O’Connell. Cousins is a savvy, accurate signal-caller who does well when put in play designs that allow him to capitalize on his strengths – namely timing, rhythm, ball distribution and bold decision-making – but doesn’t offer much in terms of mobility nor pocket presence.
The weapons that Cousins has at his disposal are wideouts Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn and Jalen Reagor and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Thielen has long been one of the NFL’s savviest route-runners while Hockenson – acquired recently from the Detroit Lions for a pair of draft picks – is among the league’s most physically gifted players at his position.
Jefferson, meanwhile, has become one of pro football’s best wide receivers since being drafted in 2020 with the draft pick Minnesota acquired from Buffalo in exchange for Stefon Diggs. Versatile and excelling in every area, the Vikings also like to use Jefferson 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 Jefferson on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE
After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Ed Oliver – has more closely resembled the team’s defenses from 2018-19. That is, in being one of the league’s best.
In 2021 the Bills decided to invest in upgrading their pass rush. Gregory Rousseau, Carlos “Boogie” Basham and A.J. Epenesa injected a shot of youth behind the aging Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei returned after opting out of 2020. Harrison Phillips also had a breakout season two years after tearing a knee ligament.
Buffalo ranked first in pro football in total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, points allowed and third-down defense and third in takeaways and interceptions. It was the first time they had ever led the NFL in points allowed and the first time since 1999 they paced the league in total and passing yards given up. Their sack numbers, while not elite over the full season, also picked up as they notched 24 in their last six games (including playoffs).
A disturbing pattern emerged on Buffalo’s defense last year, however, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills were gashed on the ground by power running teams. The biggest issue there was poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line.
To address this, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier decided that more youth and talent were needed along their defensive 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 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 adds to a group that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on nearly 31 percent of their defensive snaps last year – tops in the NFL.
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).
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 (although they played nine snaps of dime against Kansas City in Week Seven – 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 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, Xavier Rhodes, rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford and slot corner Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen, and bears watching even more with Hyde suffering a neck injury that will sideline him for the rest of 2022 and Poyer being in and out of the lineup (although White is on pace to return soon).
Hyde and Poyer’s replacements, the rangy and physical Damar Hamlin and savvy Jaquan Johnson, have held their own for the most part. Their ability to fill in has helped the Bills rank fourth in yards per game allowed, fourth in takeaways, tied for 11th in sacks and first in points surrendered per game and second in interceptions. They’re also seventh against the pass and sixth versus the run, and have held their opponents to 21 points or fewer in 12 straight regular season games (breaking the franchise mark set from 1999-2000). However, they’ve given up 191 rushing yards per game in their last two outings.
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 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 do along with special teams ability.
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. They have held up well for most of 2022, although they allowed Allen to be pressured on 36 percent of his dropbacks and sacked five times last week despite the New York Jets blitzing just twice all day.
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 and screen game greatly – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).
The Bills’ multi-receiver sets are traditionally their offensive calling card. In 2020 they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL at the time – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. 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 looks as well. It helped the Bills to a 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week One – the second-largest victory over a defending Super Bowl champion in Week One all-time (behind Denver downing Baltimore in 2013), converting nine of 10 third downs (tied for the best conversion rate in a game over the last 10 years) and not punting for the third time in four games.
That 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 and Green Bay, where he used backup lineman Bobby Hart as an extra body on run-blocking plays.
Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (third in points scored and passing, first in yards per game), two flaws remain – they’re tied for the second-most turnovers in the league with 14 (Allen in particular has eight interceptions and seven fumbles) and they have the lowest touchdown rate inside the five-yard line in the NFL. Perhaps they can get these areas fixed against Minnesota – but if Allen can’t go due to an elbow injury (and former Viking Case Keenum gets the start), winning may get tougher.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 29 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 12 of his last 23 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 27-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals, and Allen also set a new club record for regular season completion percentage (83.9) against the Rams.
- Only Steve Young has had more career regular season games (eight) with 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards than Allen (five).
- Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees (nine) and Tom Brady (eight) have more all-time. He also became the first signal-caller to throw for 250 yards, run for 50, toss three touchdowns, run for one, complete 80 percent of his throws and win a game in league history against the Rams.
- 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’s currently tied for sixth all-time in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks with 35 with Randall Cunningham and Steve Grogan. He needs three more to move past Michael Vick, Steve McNair and Tobin Rote into fourth place (behind Cam Newton, Young and Jack Kemp).
- Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except five– Chicago, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia.
- Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 25 times, tying Joe Ferguson and Jerry Butler for second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65).
- Since 2017 the Bills are 44-5 when leading at halftime.
- 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 Simeon Rice for 20th on the all-time sack list and is half a sack away from tying Robert Mathis for 19th.
- Buffalo’s point differential is plus-102 – best in the NFL.
- After beating Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, 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 (Tom Brady in 2021 is the lone loss).
- Five of the last 10 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 5-3 while McDermott’s is 7-4.
- McDermott’s career record against first-year head coaches is 11-5 including playoffs.
- Buffalo’s won 10 in a row at home against teams with a losing record and have won seven straight home games going back to last year – all by double digits. Meanwhile, Minnesota has won six straight games, all by one-score and have been behind on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter in five of their last six outings. They’ve come back to win all of them.
- Allen has turned the ball over at least once in each of his last five games and his team has coughed up the ball at least twice in four of the last five games. They haven’t had a turnover-free outing since Week Two against Tennessee.
- There are a lot of former Bills and Vikings players going against their old teams on Sunday. Those include Diggs, Keenum, Frazier, Rhodes, Harrison Phillips and Vikings running backs coach Curtis Modkins (who was Buffalo’s offensive coordinator from 2010-12 under Chan Gailey).
- Additionally, not only are James and Dalvin Cook set to square off in this battle of brothers but Minnesota’s offensive coordinator is Wes Phillips – the son of former Bills head coach Wade Phillips.