Taking a closer look at this week’s Thursday night football matchup
The Bucs (+9) are headed to Buffalo for a Thursday night showdown with the Bills (-9). The Bucs are 3-3 and coming off a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Falcons (-2.5) so they are hoping to bounce back this week but that will be easier said than done.
To preview the game, we sat down with Matt Byham of Buffalo Rumblings to help breakdown this matchup even more.
1. The Bills have been one of the NFL’s best over the past few seasons but they have struggled recently losing 2 of their last 3 and that one win being a nail biter against the Giants. What is the current perception around Buffalo and their chances at making serious noise in the playoffs right now?
Well, I’d venture a guess that it depends on who you ask and when. Often, it seems like the most vocal fans are those with the biggest complaints. But that doesn’t mean that the Bills are absent of justified criticisms. The offense has gone very conservative — and it doesn’t suit Josh Allen. There aren’t a ton of deep plays in any given week now, which is partially due to the way defenses have played Buffalo — high Cover-2 shell. Still, there’s been such an influx of 12-personnel use that the explosive plays seems rare, and most of the passing game has chosen the successes found with underneath routes.
Most fans want to believe that the Super Bowl is still the team’s ceiling, but it’s begun to feel like wishful thinking this season. While numbers will say the offense has been better-than-good in most metrics, and great or better in others (top five in total points scored), the eye test shows a unit that often lacks in creative design (unless slow and methodical is the goal), void of a bona fide receiver, and unable to fire on all cylinders until the end of each half — at which point they’ve been far more proficient scoring touchdowns the last three games.
For as great an idea as it was to roll out heavy doses of 12 personnel, it may be hurting Allen’s productivity. Allen’s best seasons have been when he operates out of 11 personnel. But the Bills drafted tight end Dalton Kincaid in the first round, and paid tight end Dawson Knox a lot of money to stay in town. With Knox now injured and absent a time frame for return, and depth tight end Quintin Morris also injured and out this week, I expect the Bills to return to 11 personnel, featuring Kincaid at tight end. Dorsey has utilized Kincaid all over the offense through seven games, but he’s yet to be featured as the only TE on the field. That changes in Week 8.
I hope to see Dorsey implement a fair bit of no-huddle moving forward, not entire games — just enough to let the offense shine in up-tempo looks when the defense least expects it.
If I were to sum the Bills’ current situation on offense succinctly: It’s akin to someone who has a multi-million dollar Koenigsegg Jesko Absolut but never takes it out of their climate-controlled garage.
2. On defense the Bills have lost two important players in Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano to injury. How have they gone about replacing those players in the lineup and how has it gone so far?
Injuries have once again been a huge story line for the Bills this season. It’s unfortunate, because the team is beginning to age, and the “we’ll get ‘em next year” thought process can only last so long. As with any situation where you’re replacing two former All-Pro defenders, the results have been mixed. A massive amount of injuries have befallen the cornerback room, but to this point each of them (other than White) have returned to play.
Right now, Christian Benford — the team’s 2022 sixth-round pick — has shifted over to the CB1 role, with Dane Jackson taking Benford’s usual role of CB2. The Bills also have Kaiir Elam, himself a former first-round pick from the 2022 NFL Draft. He’s been inactive most weeks, only playing due to injury. Elam was supposed to come in and lock down the CB2 role opposite White, but there was trouble from the start. He’s a highly athletic, aggressive player who does best in man-cover schemes. He showed some promise in 2022, then lost time to injury and seemed to struggle before regaining form during the playoffs. Most figured CB2 was Elam’s to lose this summer, and lose it he did. The Bills ask their corners to play a lot of zone, and it’s been to the detriment of Elam. Benford immediately took to the zone system and, after splitting time with both Elam and Jackson last season, won the CB2 job outright over the summer. He lacks elite measurables but his intangibles are incredible. He’s also very motivated and a quick learner.
Still, there’s much to want from the cornerback position at this point in the season, due to both injury and disappointment from the likes of Elam.
As for Milano’s replacements, it’s been more miss than hit. Opponents’ success rate on passes to the middle third is 22.4% higher with Milano off the field this season.
The Bills drafted linebacker Dorian Williams in the third round this past April — which many fans thought meant he was destined to replace the MIKE role of Tremaine Edmunds. Wrong, as he became the understudy to Milano. Williams was thrust into action once Milano went down and he didn’t look terrible as a very green rookie. But he hasn’t looked great and McDermott has been very quick to pull him out of games for missed tackles, assignments, etc. In fact, Williams rode the bench after the first drive by the Patriots last weekend, an apparent liability in his head coach’s eyes. He was replaced by Tyrel Dodson (and has been each time), with similarly uninspiring results. Dodson is no starter, and he resembles more of a classic ‘backer — not one able to play a larger area of the field and chase down wide receivers. Buffalo’s linebacker unit is a bit of a mess right now. The bright spot has been Terrel Bernard, who surprised everyone with his play after missing most of the offseason to injury. He, too, has his limitations as a still-learning player, but the outlook is bright. But absolutely no one saw him coming in and making Edmunds an afterthought.
Although I’ve talked at length here, we’ve failed to cover what’s perhaps the Bills’ biggest defensive loss: defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. For as great as Milano was playing, Jones was even better — a true run stuffer who was also at the top of the league as a pass rusher before suffering a torn pectoral in London. His replacements just can’t do what Jones does — so Buffalo has to replace him with several players who can play either/or based on offensive personnel.
Simply put: without Milano and Jones, the Bills’ defense can’t really defend the middle of the field as they did to start the season, and the unit as a whole has really suffered on the field and in the rankings.
3. Josh Allen has always been sort of a gunslinger in his time in the NFL. What are your overall thoughts on his play this year and are the turnovers he can sometimes have concerning at all?
Josh Allen has played elite football through most of the first seven weeks. Yes, Week 1 was a bit of a disaster, but the Bills still had a chance to win the game by forcing overtime. Unfortunately, special teams decided to take a play off and the rest is history. I’m less concerned about Allen turning the ball over than are many others. I’ll take every bad play from him because I know he’ll make three incredible ones right after it. We’ve seen a fair bit of conservative Allen this season, and his numbers look great. Just for starters, he leads the league in completion percentage (70.1%) and total touchdowns (19 combined).
But the things that made him who he really is? They’re all but gone when he plays that way. Allen would really benefit from getting back to some of his old tricks, which included a healthy dose of him running the football.
Without having keys to the building, Bills Mafia can only surmise that offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey has dialed back Allen’s aggressiveness, which has, in turn, put a lid on the overall explosiveness on offense. To Dorsey’s credit Allen has been deadly efficient in play-action looks. However, there seems to be a lack in offensive design as well. Allen is struggling of late reading defenses pre-snap and finding the hot routes, mainly when out of his preferred shotgun looks. Allen also appears to distrust any receiver not named Stefon Diggs.
Head coach Sean McDermott and Ken Dorsey just need to let Josh Allen be himself — allow him to do the things he does best in the way he works best. Right now, Allen looks completely off, whether on the sidelines or on the field — where it seems as though he’s uncomfortable in the system.
4. When looking at this matchup, what would you say is the biggest X factor between these two teams?
There are of course, several. But this may be the biggest head-to-head overall matchup:
Tampa Bay’s top-ranked defensive red zone TD percentage (22%) versus Buffalo’s second-ranked offensive red zone TD percentage (71.4%)
I’ll also give you one on both sides of the ball from. When the Bills are on defense, It has to be their cornerbacks going up against the Bucs’ wide receivers. Buffalo really hasn’t faced a receiving unit like Tampa Bay — and the matchup doesn’t favor the Bills. The closest they can claim was facing the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. That didn’t go well for Buffalo. If the Bills can’t get pressure from its front four, then Benford and Jackson will each have to operate on an island against either/or Mike Evans and Chris Godwin — so Buffalo can bring a more aggressive blitz outside of the traditional four.
When the Bills are on offense, their offensive line must handle the blitz well, which Bowles and Tampa’s defensive coordinators seemingly like to do a lot. Dating back to the preseason, Buffalo has struggled against 3-4 looks/schemes. It began with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then reared its head in London, and again facing the New England Patriots. Defenses that force Allen to take the underneath options and can get to the receiver quickly to limit YAC have proven to be a bit of Kryptonite for Allen and the Bills.
5. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Bills are heavy home favorites at -9 points. Do you think the Bills can cover the spread and what is your score prediction?
I absolutely think they can cover the spread — any team that can light up the Miami Dolphins the way the Bills did a month ago should be able to replicate similar success in the future. However, when you look at Buffalo’s results in Weeks 4 through 7, saying they should be a shoe-in to cover might sound bold. That’s especially so against a quality defense.
There’s a lot of unknown between these two clubs, squaring off as seldom as they do. Head coach Todd Bowles traditionally gets the most out of defenses and I suspect he’s prepared a few things to stress and fluster Buffalo’s offense. The Bills are in a strange place right now.
These current Bills are a much different team than the one that began this season, especially on defense. No longer are Buffalo’s defenders able to adapt to situations on the fly — as evidenced by the Patriots’ game-winning touchdown drive. They can’t get off the field on third down, either. To begin the year, the Bills were second-best in DVOA from Weeks 1-4. Since Week 5, Buffalo’s defense dropped to 28th, and has allowed the second-most explosive plays (46). That doesn’t breed much confidence in Bills Mafia, especially heading into this game on a short week. Buffalo’s defense could provide just the needed spark for the Bucs to pick up their scoring pace.
Ultimately, I believe the Bills will find a way to win, knowing how important it is to their season. Buffalo tends to rebound well off a bad loss, and they play well at home, and often in primetime. Again, the Bills need this game in a bad way, so… even though I really dislike giving score predictions, if I must: Bills 23, Bucs 20.
Thanks so much to Matt for doing this!