Home NFL AFC TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-CARDINALS

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-CARDINALS

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ORCHARD PARK, NY – NOVEMBER 08: John Brown #15 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball after a catch against the Seattle Seahawks at Bills Stadium on November 8, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

Welcome to Week Ten of the 2020 NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, 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’ tenth game of the 2020 season will take place at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona as they face the Arizona Cardinals. Here’s what you should know:

GLENDALE, ARIZONA – SEPTEMBER 20: Quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals is congratulated by DeAndre Hopkins #10, Larry Fitzgerald #11 and Patrick Peterson #21 after scoring a 21 yard rushing touchdown against the Washington Football Team during the second half of the NFL game at State Farm Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Washington Football Team 30-15. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

ARIZONA’S OFFENSE IS THE NFC’S BREAKOUT UNIT IN 2020

One of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2019 was the Arizona Cardinals’ hiring of Kliff Kingsbury as head coach to replace one-and-done flameout Steve Wilks. Kingsbury, a former backup quarterback in the NFL and head coach at Texas Tech, was considered by some to be an coordinator candidate for pro teams but was hired as a head coach likely due to his being a young and bright offensive mind. So far Kingsbury has shown that the job isn’t too big for him and that his scheme – which is a mix of traditional NFL concepts and Air Raid plays – can translate to the professional level.

Executing the system is former Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. Like the acquisition of Kingsbury, the Cardinals stunned outside observers by taking the 5’10” Murray with the first overall draft pick out of Oklahoma a year ago, and he has since supplanted former Cardinal Josh Rosen as Arizona’s quarterback of the future.

Murray has become a sensation in the National Football League with his strong arm and elite quickness and speed. His accuracy is a bit scattershot, but he mostly executes Kingsbury’s system – which, like the Bills, leans towards the usage of 10 and 11 personnel and two-tight end sets – with ease. Arizona also likes to use three-by-one bunch sets (three wide receivers on one side and another wideout or a tight end on the other) to help Murray in the passing game. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “The unusual distribution forces a defense to reveal if it is in man or zone coverage. It also creates opportunities to flood one side of the field or set up downfield crossing patterns.”

The Cardinals also incorporate a lot of designed runs like zone reads, run-pass options, quarterback sweeps and lead draws to take advantage of Murray’s ability to make people miss in space. Helping him create yards on the ground are the speedy combination of Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds, and the offensive line that opens holes for them in the running game is made up of D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh, Mason Cole, J.R. Sweezy and Kelvin Beachum (who has replaced Marcus Gilbert due to COVID-19).

To boost the team’s passing game, general manager Steve Keim made a splash during the offseason to acquire All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins might not be the fastest wideout in football, but he succeeds with good quickness, body control, route-running ability and excellent hands – akin to Hall of Famer Cris Carter. He’s also versatile by being able to align all over the formation and is especially adept on in-breaking routes over the middle of the field.

Hopkins’ pass-catching compatriots are deep threat Christian Kirk, tight end Maxx Williams and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Now in his 17th NFL season and second on the NFL’s all-time list behind Jerry Rice in receptions and receiving yards, Fitzgerald was once known as one of the league’s premier threats as a boundary receiver and a red zone target. But as he’s gotten older, Fitzgerald has become more adept at crossing routes out of the slot and as a blocker. Essentially, he has transformed from the role of a Randy Moss to that of Hines Ward.

Drake and Williams may not suit up because of ankle injuries.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA – OCTOBER 25: Safety Budda Baker #32 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates with teammates after Baker returned a 90-yard interception to the Seattle Seahawks 8-yard line in the first quarter of the game at State Farm Stadium on October 25, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

CARDINALS’ DEFENSE HAS PIECES TO BUILD AROUND, BUT SO-SO THUS FAR

Former Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph was given the keys to the Cardinals’ defense by Kingsbury, and he leads a 3-4 unit that has some talented parts, but haven’t been able to put the pieces to the puzzle together just yet. Joseph prefers to use Cover One on the back end and bring various blitzes up front, but he doesn’t quite have all of the personnel to make it work. He also will likely use more zone coverages on Sunday to account for Josh Allen’s running ability.

Former Bill Jordan Phillips, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract in the spring, is out for Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury – along with one of pro football’s best pass rushers in Chandler Jones (out for the season with a torn biceps muscle) and rookie Leki Fotu with an ankle issue – leaving Corey Peters, Angelo Blackson, Josh Mauro and Trevon Coley as Arizona’s defensive linemen. At linebacker, the Cardinals can pick and choose from a pool of speedy second-level defenders that includes Haason Reddick, De’Vondre Campbell, Jordan Hicks, Markus Golden, Devon Kinnard, former Bill Tanner Valejo and rookie Isaiah Simmons. Simmons is a hybrid-type who has experience at both linebacker and safety, and could be used by Joseph to spy Allen and keep an eye on him at all times.

Three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson, now in his 10th NFL season, still resides in the desert at cornerback for Arizona and remains a top-notch player at his position. He is supplemented by veterans Dre Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Joseph (who both fit better in schemes defined by zone coverage) and second-year defensive back Byron Murphy. Budda Baker is a blossoming star at safety and his tag-team partner is Jalen Thompson.

Baker and Kirkpatrick are listed as questionable with groin and thigh injuries, respectively.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 08: A.J. Klein #54 and teammates celebrate after a sack fumble during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Bills Stadium on November 08, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE SOLID AGAINST SEATTLE

Over the last two years the Bills’ defense became one of pro football’s elite units. Led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Ed Oliver and Jerry Hughes – and supplemented this year by the free agent signings of Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, A.J. Klein and Josh Norman – last year’s defense ranked third overall in the NFL. Additionally, they were 10th against the run, fourth against the pass, seventh-best on third down, 10th in sack percentage, 10th in interception rate, second in points allowed and 12th in sacks.

But at various times throughout this season, Buffalo’s defense has struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole has seen defensive play decline in 2020, but given the amount of resources that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott poured into creating more depth along the team’s front seven last offseason, it was jarring to see the Bills take too many penalties and create little in terms of a pass rush or be unable to fill gaps against the run.

Those problems reared their ugly head once again in Week Eight, as the team allowed 188 yards on the ground to the New England Patriots. But despite the 34 points the team allowed against one of the NFL’s best offenses in Seattle last week, Buffalo’s defense rattled Russell Wilson and company with an aggressive, blitz-happy game plan and racked up five sacks and four turnovers. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come from the Bills.

Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap (mainly Cover Two and Four) but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott’s calling card (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers – for more info on McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s unit, please read: https://fromthe300level.com/2018/08/pressure-package-how-the-late-buddy-ryan-has-influenced-the-buffalo-bills-defenses-for-over-20-years/?fbclid=IwAR3iYcnJ5qvl8shWHkZJVNO50VJXPeaEx8k0-Rk1VWV_Qx2OEfsAn2NY_ys).

This unit is a bit banged up going into Week Ten. Cornerback Josh Norman is out for a fourth straight week after testing positive for COVID-19 and fellow defensive backs Levi Wallace and Dean Marlowe were also placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list after having been in close contact with him. Milano’s pectoral muscle problem flared up again against New England, leading to the team placing him on injured reserve and knocking him out of the lineup for at least the next two or three weeks (Milano, Norman and Wallace will be replaced by recent signees Darron Lee and Daryl Worley, and rookie Dan Jackson). Hyde is also questionable with an ankle ailment.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – NOVEMBER 08: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills waits for the snap against the Seattle Seahawks at Bills Stadium on November 8, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE AGAIN LAST WEEK

Going into Week 11 last year, the Bills’ offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every major offensive category. To address this lack of production, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll moved from the field up to the press box to call plays and get a bird’s eye view of what was happening on the field.

The decisions to go upstairs and use more of an up-tempo attack paid off for the most part, as Buffalo got significant contributions from players like Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, John Brown and Cole Beasley over the last seven weeks of the season. The Bills also increased their usage of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers), resulting in better production as evidenced by the team employing the NFL’s eighth-best rushing offense.

The proof was in the pudding. According to Warren Sharp, before week 11 Buffalo had utilized 11 personnel on 63 percent of their snaps. From then on, that number increased to 81 percent, the most in the league. This year, Buffalo has changed that approach slightly by using 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers) more often, but staying with 11 personnel as their base grouping.

However, the Bills’ inability to score points consistently – they averaged just 19.6 points per game – caught up to them in the playoffs against the Houston Texans. To address that problem, they went out and drafted running back Zack Moss – a solid back who runs with power – and traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs from Minnesota, who is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. Those acquisitions initially resulted in the Bills scoring 30 points or more in three straight contests in 2020, the first time they had done that since 2011, and 27 points or more in four consecutive games – the first time they accomplished that feat since 2004.

But Weeks Five and Six were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings of 2020. Allen made some poor choices in the passing game – most of his struggles seemed to come when defenses would rotate their zone coverages and change the depth of their safeties at the snap, muddying what Allen was seeing from the pocket. He also stayed on his first read for too long sometimes and would sometimes run if his first receiver in the progression wasn’t open.

There was also some upheaval on the Bills’ offensive line. With Cody Ford and Brian Winters having replaced now ex-Bill Quinton Spain and the previously-injured Jon Feliciano, Buffalo struggled to create any sort of push along the line of scrimmage – culminating into one of the NFL’s least effective rushing attacks. That all changed last week when Allen threw for 415 yards and three touchdowns last week and ran for another, joining Drew Bledsoe as the only Bills quarterbacks to have two 400-yard games in one season. The 44 points Buffalo racked up last week were also the most the team has scored in one game under McDermott’s leadership, and the team also attempted 33 passes on their first 36 offensive plays.

Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system that’s 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 Isaiah McKenzie). They have also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly this season.

Not to be outdone by their defensive counterparts, the Bills also have some players on offense who are dinged up going into their outing with the Cardinals. Tight end Tyler Kroft is out after having been placed on the COVID-19 list and Ford is nursing an aching knee.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 08: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Bills Stadium on November 08, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Allen surpassed Jack Kemp’s team mark of 13 career games with both a passing and rushing score last week. He also became the only passer in NFL history with 2,500 passing yards, 19 passing touchdowns and five or more rushing scores through nine games.
  • Diggs is first in the league in catches and receiving yards, and is on pace to break Eric Moulds’ single-season team records in both categories. Hopkins, meanwhile, is third in receptions and fifth in yards.
  • Should Allen throw for 300 yards and rush for 50 again in the same game, he would join Steve Young (eight), Michael Vick (four), Newton (three) and Russell Wilson (three) as the only quarterbacks in the last 70 years to have more than two such games in their careers (Allen has done so twice in the 2020 season alone).
  • McDermott has 32 wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and is just six wins away from moving past Chuck Knox for third in franchise history.
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 24-1 when leading at halftime.
  • The Bills are in first place in the AFC East, and it’s the first time they are in the top spot in the division this late in the season since Week 13 of 1996. They are also looking to improve to 8-2 for the first time since 1993.
  • Murray is on pace to become the first quarterback in league history with 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. Murray also leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards and touchdowns, and is eighth in the NFL in rushing yards.
  • Conversely, Allen is on pace to break Bills’ team records for completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns in one season. He can tie the team’s record for passing touchdowns through 10 games if he tosses three scores on Sunday (the record is held by Joe Ferguson in 1975 and Jim Kelly in 1991).
  • Last week was just the third time since 2000 that Buffalo scored 41 points or more at home.
  • Buffalo leads the league in pass percentage on first down (59.2 percent) while Arizona is tied for eighth in rushing percentage on first down (55 percent). That number has led the Bills to nine straight games with 20 first downs or more – the last two teams to accomplish that feat (2017 Patriots and 2018 Los Angeles Rams) reached the Super Bowl.
  • Hughes can tie Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history with two sacks on Sunday.
  • Arizona has nine men on their coaching staff or front office staff who are either from the Buffalo area, played for the Bills or coached or worked for them in some capacity – Kingsbury was on the Bills’ roster in 2006 but cut in training camp, quarterbacks coach Tom Clements was Mike Mularkey’s offensive coordinator from 2004-05, running backs coach James Saxon held the same position in Buffalo in 2000, offensive line coach Sean Kugler is a Lockport native and coached the same position with the Bills from 2007-09, offensive quality control coach Jim Dray was a tight end for Buffalo in 2016, defensive quality control coach Rob Grosso is a graduate of Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School, Bill Bidwell Fellowship/quarterbacks coach Jordan Hogan is a Lockport native, a 2008 graduate of Newfane High School, an assistant coach at Buffalo State from 2013-16 and was a training camp intern with the Bills in 2016, radio play by play announcer Dave Pasch called preseason games for Buffalo in 2001 and color analyst Ron Wolfley is a native of Blasdell.

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