1. Premier firepower
Sunday night's game will feature two of the more prolific passing attacks in the league. Cincinnati's rough start to the season hasn't allowed their statistical figures to reflect the firepower of the Bengals, but they've come on of late, winning three of their last four games. Not coincidentally that surge in play has coincided with QB Joe Burrow returning to full health from a preseason calf injury.
An indication of the big uptick in their passing attack has been their big-play ability. After managing just 14 explosive plays through their first six games, Cincinnati put up eight in their impressive road win at San Francisco last week.
"We executed really well," said Burrow. "We've got to take care of the ball better, but it was our best game of the year, so we've got to keep building on it."
Burrow and Josh Allen are both top three in the NFL in passing touchdowns since 2021, counting playoffs, and neither have shown any sign of slowing down. Allen and Burrow are two of only four quarterbacks with 50-plus total touchdowns since 2022. They are also right next to one another in the rankings when it comes to hooking up with their top wideouts for the most downfield touchdown passes since 2021. Allen and Stefon Diggs have 22, while Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase have 21.
Allen and the Bills are coming off an encouraging performance of their own in a win over Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
"I felt like we executed at a pretty high level," Allen said. "Obviously, there are some third downs that we wish we could have back. But that's honestly what it comes down to, our guys and myself being put in the right positions and making the plays."
Both quarterbacks have relied heavily on their top wideouts in Ja'Marr Chase and Stefon Diggs. Chase and Diggs both rank in the top five in receiving yards per game and in receptions per game since last season. They are two of just three players in the league to have more than 25 receiving touchdowns since 2021. And this season Chase (8.6 rec; 93.7 yds) and Diggs (8.0 rec; 93.5 yds) are the only players averaging eight or more receptions per game and 90 or more receiving yards per game.
2. Bills need to move past simple vs. Cincinnati defense
Buffalo's offensive approach last week got them into an early rhythm for the first time in a month as their no-huddle, up tempo style helped them roll up almost 250 yards in the first half averaging close to 7.5 yards per play.
"I think it was just the pace, honestly," said Khalil Shakir in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "I mean, when we're going that fast, it's kind of hard to get adjusted, especially teams that like to mix things up. Give us different looks and blitz a lot as well show a lot of different pressure when we're going that fast that it can be hard for them to communicate. So that works in our favor."
The difference this week is the Bengals (29.6%) don't blitz quite as much as Tampa Bay (37%), and they have one of the best defensive coordinators in football when it comes to throwing something new at their opponent each week.
"This defensive coordinator is as good as there is in ball, Lou Anarumo for the Bengals," said Dan Orlovsky in his weekly appearance on ‘One Bills Live.’ "He had Kyle Shanahan figured out, and Kyle Shanahan is one of the greatest and most creative offensive minds in football, he had him figured out (last week)."
The Bengals effectively neutralized San Francisco's most potent personnel grouping of two backs and one tight end and held the 49ers to 17 points. Orlovsky tried to anticipate what Anarumo might throw at Buffalo's offense on Sunday night.
"I promise you, he is going to multiple times, have six or seven guys up at the line of scrimmage and then drop all of them and they're going to rush two guys, they're going to rush three guys," Orlovsky said. "They're going to have a ton of people in underneath coverage. And they're going to force Josh to be very patient. They're going to force Ken Dorsey to call runs. They're going to force some of the RPO looks. That's a little bit of what the Jets did to Philadelphia and their RPO game. You take it away before the snap with bodies at the line of scrimmage.
"So, I think identity-wise that's where some of the Bills' tempo will present itself. I think some of the perimeter screens have to be a little bit more in the conversation. All you need to do is hit them once for 15 or 20 yards and then they're like, 'Uh oh.' and then that's a concern."
Josh Allen sounds hyperaware of the Bengals simulated pressure packages.
"(Anarumo) does a really good job of making some concepts look like man and getting out to zone and really forcing the quarterback to stay within himself and take the easy ones," said Allen of the Bengals defensive play caller. "And a lot of times, the quarterbacks will start pressing a little bit and start forcing the ball down field and they've been doing a good job of taking the ball away."
3. Different defenses in 2023
Allen is right, Cincinnati's defense ranks second in the league interceptions with 10 and leads the AFC in turnover differential with a plus-seven. Buffalo has one more total takeaway on the season (14) than the Bengals (13), but it might be one of the few things the two units have in common.
Since last season, the Bills have their veteran safety tandem back in place with a healthy Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. Hyde missed both meetings with the Bengals last season. Meanwhile Cincinnati lost both members of their veteran safety tandem to free agency in All-Pro Jessie Bates and veteran Vonn Bell.
The Bengals have a much younger tandem on the back end in former first-round pick Dax Hill and Rams free agent signee Nick Scott. ESPN NFL analyst, Dan Orlovsky, who called a Bengals-Rams game in Week 3, believes the tandem of Dax Hill and Nick Scott are making progress.
"They need that communication where, 'Hey, if I do this, I need you to do this.' And it's starting to show itself in Cincinnati," Orlovsky said. "I would say the difference is not (disguising coverage) as well, but not poorly. Dax Hill is a different athlete, though. He plays at a different speed than those guys did. So, the speed that he plays with and the tracking ability that he plays with, and the ability to tackle in the open field is a big deal and their young secondary is starting to play really good football."
The biggest changes for Buffalo are at middle linebacker, where one could argue that second-year linebacker, Terrel Bernard, has been a more consistent playmaker than his predecessor, Tremaine Edmunds. The other change is their defensive play caller in head coach Sean McDermott, but Joe Burrow believes much of Buffalo's defense to be the same.
"Similar stuff," said Burrow of the way McDermott runs Buffalo's defense. "Some new wrinkles. Every team has some new stuff every year, but the foundation of what they do is what they do."
What has been different is the Bills defense has created more splash plays. They're second in tackles for loss (46), tied for second in sacks (28) and third in quarterback knockdowns (34) in addition to their takeaway tally, which ranks third in the league.
4. More dime?
Still searching for the best way to replace All-Pro LB Matt Milano in the lineup since he was likely lost for the remainder of the regular season, head coach Sean McDermott employed a dime package last week against Tampa Bay on 38 percent of the team's defensive snaps. This was just a week after their coverages were compromised at the linebacker level at New England, and they used the dime package on just eight snaps.
Buffalo brings Taylor Rapp on the field and subs out a linebacker and has Jordan Poyer or Micah Hyde play closer to the line of scrimmage.
"I think it creates a different dynamic for offenses, moving Poyer around a little bit, moving all of us around a little bit," said Micah Hyde. "Creates a different picture and it's more the offense has to plan for. We're trying to create some looks to mix it up a little bit, get them thinking a little bit and from there we've got a pass rush that's able to get after the quarterback and kind of make it muddy for him."
Whether the Bills utilize that package to the same extent against Cincinnati this week remains to be seen.
"It certainly helped in their pass coverage," said Orlovsky of Buffalo's dime package last week. "It seemed the answer against Tampa was they were going to play with those three safeties and have one of those very skilled veterans down in coverage sometimes zone, sometimes man. It'll be really interesting to see if they do that versus Cincinnati. It makes a lot of sense to do it versus Cincinnati. Cincinnati does not get in a lot of unique personnel groupings. They're going to live in a lot of 11 personnel as well. One back, one tight end to live in a lot of RPO formations. They're very RPO-centric right now as well for their run and their quick passing game.
"It makes a lot of sense to play the three safeties, I just don't know how much sense it makes to play, man. Cincinnati has actually run the ball relatively well. With those three safeties, you're light (in the box). You just are, and that has to have a little bit of attention as well."
Scroll to see photos from the Buffalo Bills Week 9 Practice as the team prepares to take on the Cincinnati Bengals.
5. Will new arrivals contribute?
Buffalo made some roster additions this week mainly on the defensive side of the ball. The Bills executed a trade to acquire veteran CB Rasul Douglas from the Green Bay Packers at the trade deadline. Douglas has been a big-time playmaker with 10 interceptions in his last 26 games played.
Buffalo also signed veteran free agent defensive tackle, Linval Joseph to fortify their run front as the Bills yards per carry allowed has been languishing near the bottom of the league.
"He's a veteran and experienced player," said head coach Sean McDermott of Joseph. "From the reports we've received he's a high-character player, a leader. He's certainly a big man and the line of scrimmage is important."
Both players did not reach the practice field until Thursday, but head coach Sean McDermott did not rule out the possibility of both being active on Sunday night.
"It is within the realm of possibility. We'll have to see how it goes through the practice week and take it a day at a time," McDermott said. "The biggest thing is first are they healthy to play a game and then beyond that is adapting to the system and the terminology. They're both experienced players, so they've probably done systematically everything that we do because they've been with multiple teams, so it's just a matter of knowing the terminology."
After his first full day of practice Douglas said he has not yet received word on the likelihood of him being active Sunday night in Cincinnati.
"They haven't told me whether I'm playing or not," said Douglas. "So, I don't know when they will tell me but I'm going to prepare and practice like I'm out there starting."
Buffalo also added free agent running back Leonard Fournette to their practice squad. Fournette admitted the passing concepts in the Bills offense are brand new to him and it will likely take him two to four weeks to get a handle on everything.