Somehow, this offseason has been both long and short but here we are at the start of the 103rd season of the NFL. It is both an exciting time and a nerve-racking one as the slates have been wiped clean and possibilities are alive. Still, for the teams squaring off in the season opener, there are also massive expectations and a mountain of pressure that goes along with them. I am pulling triple duty on this one as I will be in attendance as my/our Buffalo Bills take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium to open the 2022 season on Thursday, September 8th.
(-135)Buffalo Bills at (+115) Los Angeles Rams (+2.5 O/U: 52)
The Bills enter the season as presumptive Super Bowl favorites with the Josh Allen MVP campaign already in full swing. While it’s wonderful to see the national media attention pointed in the direction of Western New York, it’s unfamiliar territory. That hype is nothing new for the Rams who were similarly positioned last season when they made the deal to acquire Matthew Stafford and they will be raising the championship banner before the game in Los Angeles as a result of that move. I know some jokes have been made about Bills Mafia cracking beers outside the stadium while the banner gets raised, but I am going to be in my seat for that because I want to see it for myself and I want to see the posture of the Bills players and staff during that moment.
Before the schedule was announced, there were rumors that this was going to be the kickoff game and I wasn’t sure I wanted that. Part of me would have preferred these teams square off later in the season when they both had adequate time to acclimate to the personnel changes and just have some more full-game reps under their respective belts. However, as the season has drawn closer, I’m more excited about this matchup happening in Week 1 because it still has some pretty meaty implications.
If the Bills win, they have beaten the defending champs and set the tone for the rest of the season. If they lose, then they know where the bar is set, their only west coast trip will be out of the way, they will have 10 days off before their home opener in Week 2 vs the Titans, and all their goals for the season will still be right in front of them. It’s a situation with a ton of upside and minimal downside, but let’s look at what they can do to leave LA with a win to start the season.
For me, the biggest key to the game is going to be pacing. The Bills tend to play a faster brand of football and are the younger team in the majority of key positions, but they can’t afford to be inefficient. We all love big plays, but racking up 1st downs and staying ahead of the chains is going to be important. Stafford led the league last season in 3rd down passing yardage and led the MVP candidate QBs in % of attempts and completions for 1st downs, so it will be paramount to keep the Rams’ offense off the field as much as possible. However, that goes both ways.
Josh Allen is an even more dangerous 3rd-down threat from the QB position as he can weaponize his legs in a way that Stafford can’t and had the 2nd highest % of his completed passes result in 1st downs, behind Stafford. So, with two excellent QBs coming off MVP-caliber seasons, you’ve got to look at who they are throwing to and who they are throwing against.
There is certainly some inexperience in the youth of the Bills’ active secondary, with the departure of Levi Wallance and the injury that Tre’Davious White is still working his way back from. That puts rookie cornerbacks Kaiir Elam and 2nd-year man Dane Jackson right in the thick of things against the NFL’s triple crown winner at wide receiver, Cooper Kupp, and the extremely talented Allen Robinson II who finally gets to play football with a top-tier QB. I listened in on a Twitter space last night where the idea was the consensus seemed to be that nickel corner Taron Johnson would primarily shadow Kupp in the slot.
While I believe Johnson is the best nickel corner in the league and capable of holding his own against Kupp, a.) I don’t see him locking down the best receiver in the league for the whole game and b.) Kupp won’t be relegated to slot-only duty. When these teams last played in 2020, Kupp played against a very good and healthy Bills’ secondary and still posted 9-catches, 108-yards, and 1-TD. The name of the game will be more about limiting him situationally (3rd downs) than it will be about stopping him outright and winning some one-on-ones vs Robinson. That said, the Bills still have the best safety tandem in the game behind their young corners and some very athletic linebackers to help out as well.
The inverse is even more interesting to me. For as good as Kupp and the Rams’ passing attack is (or at least was last season), the Bills weren’t far behind and I see a depth advantage for them vs the Rams’ secondary, especially with Van Jefferson out for LA. The champs brought back veteran Troy Hill to play opposite Jalen Ramsey, but Tony Scott, David Long Jr., and Robert Rochell are going to have their hands full with the likes of Isaiah McKenzie, Gabriel Davis, and the rookie Khalil Shakir. The Rams do have a formidable defense and adding future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner to the middle of that group gives them an ace at every level, led by NFL’s best defensive player in Aaron Donald. Wagner maybe isn’t as mobile as he once was, but his instincts are exceptional and he’ll sniff out a poorly disguised play call with ease. It will be on the Bills to keep him honest by forcing him into coverage matchups so he can’t play downhill.
When talking about defense, Buffalo did have the number one overall unit in the league last season. However, some of those numbers were elevated by playing against lesser competition and after giving up 42-points in the divisional round loss to the Chiefs, Brandon Beane and the front office got to work on overhauling that group. The pruning of unproductive defensive linemen and the additions of DTs DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle to help clog the middle came first and of course the courtship of future Hall of Famer Von Miller, who is coming from winning a title with the Rams last season. Miller’s presence has already been a blessing for players like Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa, and Boogie Basham, but his familiarity with the Rams should also help the Bills out in this particular matchup.
The Rams obviously know exactly what Von Miller is capable of, having practiced against him last season, and I am positive that they have a game plan designed to combat his presence. That is where the rest of the Bills’ D-line is going to need to interject themselves. Andrew Whitworth retired after LA’s Super Bowl win and while Joe Noteboom is a good player, he’s got a massive role to fill and the Bills would be wise to force the issue there.
As much as I have talked about the passing games, Buffalo has had a great pass defense for years but this version of the Bills’ defense was constructed more specifically to address the run. There were a number of games where Buffalo’s defense scheme and nickel personnel got beat badly on the ground. The additions to the interior D-line were made to address that, and taking away the ability of the Rams to dictate the pace on the ground will be a big factor here.
LA didn’t have a dominant ground game, but it was effective enough to set up their play-action looks and boost their passing efficiency. I know that getting to Stafford will be key but LA had one of the lowest sack percentages against them last season. So, if the Bills can hold the Rams to less than 4.0-yards-per-carry, they’ll have a better shot at getting after Stafford in 3rd & medium/long passing situations. Pressure will be the name of the game but that starts with eliminating the run threat.
It has been so long since I’ve sat down to write about football that it feels a bit foreign. Knowing that I will be at this game changes my perspective a bit because I want to sit back and enjoy myself as a fan too whereas watching it at home lets me see the game from a number of different angles with replays and all that good stuff. That said I am pumped for this! I could hardly sleep last night and I am ready for this season to get underway!
Pick: Bills | ATS: Bills -2.5 | O/U: Under 52 | Final: BUF 27 – 24 LAR
Thanks for reading! I still believe word of mouth is the best way to help, so if you enjoy what I’m doing, please tell somebody. And if you have a comment, I’d love to hear it! Liking, subscribing, and sharing go a long way too. And, as usual, be well, stay safe, and Go Bills!