When the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals kick off on Sunday, both teams will essentially be playing for their respective seasons. With the AFC playoff race tightening, both Buffalo and Cincinnati can ill afford to lose another conference game. At 4-5 with a 1-4 conference record, Buffalo is in dire straits, especially with the New England Patriots dominating the division yet again. The Bengals, on the other hand, sit at 3-5-1, but with a 3-3 record in the conference and a mediocre division, their playoff chances are actually okay with a win. The game is as close to a must-win as it gets for both teams, and the Bills will need to stop a three-game losing streak in order to pick up the “W.” Here’s how they can do it.
Stopping the Bengals’ Offense
Everyone knows that Buffalo’s biggest defensive problem this year has been poor secondary play. Whether through miscommunication, incorrect assignments, or bad plays on the ball in the air, the unit that was thought to be a strength in the offseason has turned into a huge disappointment. Quarterback Andy Dalton averages 283.7 yards per game through the air and has thrown 10 touchdowns against only four interceptions on the season. All-world wideout AJ Green is third in the league in receptions (66) and second in yards (964). He’s added four touchdowns to what is shaping up to be another Pro Bowl year.
Slowing down this connection is of incredible importance to success against the Bengals. Playing some form of double-team on Green (whether through a bump-man with a safety over the top or with a man-under with that same safety lurking to help on the deep ball) might not take him out of the game completely, but it would certainly help in slowing him down. His worst game so far came in Week 2 against Pittsburgh, when he was held to just two catches for 38 yards in a 24-16 loss. Steelers’ CB (and former Buffalo Bill) Ross Cockrell shadowed Green on that day, frustrating through All-Pro through physical play and great reads on balls in the air. One would assume that the duty of shadowing Green will fall to Stephon Gilmore this week, as he and Cockrell are the same size (6’0”, 190 lbs.) and play with similar physicality. Well, at least Gilmore is capable of playing with that same physicality. He needs to be better, but he needs help. With Corey Graham likely locked on stud tight end Tyler Eifert, that leaves the over-safety role that has been up for debate since Aaron Williams was injured even more in the spotlight.
Aside from assistance in coverage, another way the Bills can help their secondary avoid the deep ball is by hitting Dalton early and often. The Bengals’ offensive line has allowed 28 sacks and 49 hits to the quarterback, and with Marcell Dareus returning to a unit that already leads the NFL in sacks (30), this could turn into a short, quick passing attack for the Bengals in no time. Between Dareus, Kyle Williams, Lorenzo Alexander, and Shaq Lawson, the Bills will have plenty of opportunities to disrupt the offensive timing. Bringing some extra pressure (whether through the blitz of simulation of it) will help to force Dalton into making quick decisions, which naturally discourages the deep pass. If the Bills make him work quickly, they’ll be in good shape.
With all this focus on the passing game, I haven’t even mentioned the Bengals’ potent running attack. Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard form an excellent 1-2 punch, with Hill the thunder to Bernard’s lightning. The Bengals lead the league in plays of 40+ yards, are 11th in total rushing yards, and 12th in yards per carry. Hill leads the team with 561 yards, and Bernard has chipped in with 316. Bernard is also a threat out of the backfield, catching 34 passes for 296 yards on the season. He’s a handful in coverage even for someone with Zach Brown’s skill set, so I wonder if the recently demoted Nickell Robey-Coleman could see time as a dime back whose main responsibility is shadowing Bernard in the passing game. Linebackers will have to be sound in their reads and assignments to ensure gap coverage against this dangerous ground game.
Finally, the Bengals use a ton of misdirection and odd formations to create matchups and miscommunication. Buffalo should be no stranger to this, as both Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn have done similar things in the past, but the Bengals will throw anything at you—they’ll split tackles out wide and use fullbacks on the line, and then the next play go unbalanced with six linemen and run a counter-trap away from the formation’s strength the next. The Bills need to talk, and the coaches need to make sure the team is prepared for anything.
Buffalo’s plan should include plenty of blitzing, or at the least the simulation of it, to induce harried decisions from Andy Dalton. They should keep their linebackers close and ready to support against the run. They’ll need great individual days out of Stephon Gilmore and Corey Graham, but they’ll need to scheme help for Gilmore to take Green out of the picture. The pass rush is the key.
Beating the Bengals’ Defense
If you want a crash-course in how to neutralize Cincy’s best two pass rushers (Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins), just watch what the New York Giants did on Monday night. They ran quick slant after quick slant, mixed in plenty of screens and draws, and just kept the line moving in order to frustrate the Bengals’ top two quarterback hunters. In terms of what the Bills do well, this should be a near-direct copy of the game plan. Under Anthony Lynn, Buffalo has seen a return of the quick slant game. In Buffalo’s last game against the Seattle Seahawks, Tyrod Taylor was simply phenomenal, throwing on time and with accuracy all throughout the night. Add in the fact that Buffalo can move the pocket against the Bengals in a way that the Giants would not due to Eli Manning’s athletic limitations, and Buffalo is in good shape in the passing game.
Additionally, the Bengals have allowed 19 passing touchdowns this season (for comparison’s sake, Buffalo’s much-maligned secondary has allowed 10). Attacking them through the air is a good plan, as Adam Jones has not been nearly as strong as he was last year, and Dre Kirkpatrick is playing well for him, but not at a tremendously high level, according to our friends at Cincy Jungle. With Percy Harvin set to play a full game for the first time in over a year, the Bills will look to utilize the extra firepower to overwhelm a below-average secondary.
In the rushing game, the Bills should look to feed LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee early and often. The Bengals allow 4.4 yards per carry and 116.8 yards per game, so there are certainly yards to be had for the league’s third-best rushing attack (and first in terms of YPC at 5.3). With Tyrod Taylor’s ability to scramble mixed in, the Bills can find holes with draws, sweeps, and misdirection plays. Avoiding Atkins (who is a truly dominant player) in the middle is advisable, and helping Ryan Groy in his first start of the season will be a big focus, as well. He’ll have his hands full with Cincy’s best interior lineman, but I’d expect that either Richie Incognito or John Miller will help him out a great deal.
In the passing game, Buffalo could also look to go back to their big-fly, deep throwing ways of 2015 if they utilize some more play action. Peter Keating mentioned Taylor’s play-action prowess in an article for ESPN the magazine, and he also noted that Anthony Lynn has used it less. Against Seattle, it appeared that the play action was back, and it’s no coincidence that Taylor had his best game as a professional.
Mixing in the play action game with draws, screens, and quick throws should help Buffalo to keep the Cincy defense off balance. Attacking their linebackers over the middle will help to open up the passing game outside, and moving the pocket for Taylor will allow him to operate in space and create explosive plays. Consistently efficient offense will take some pressure off of the defense, and in turn should lead to a highly competitive victory for the Bills.
Quick Special Teams Notes
Do not even bother kicking the ball to return man Alex Erickson. He had two big returns on Monday night (65 yards on a kickoff and 18 yards on a punt) that set up all ten of the Bengals’ second-half points...Mike Nugent is outstanding from inside 40 yards (12-12) but pretty awful outside of 40 (4-9)...the Bengals’ punt coverage unit has been a weakness, as Kevin Huber is averaging 45.7 yards per punt, but is only netting 39.3, good for 25th in the league (Colton Schmidt is 26th at 39.2). Huber’s punts have been returned 23 times for 205 yards, and those 205 yards are the tenth-most in the league.
These are two similar teams. Both the Bills and the Bengals have talent, and their records do not indicate how strong their rosters actually are. On the surface, this game appears to be more of a matchup of also-rans; however, their sub-.500 records hide the talent that exists on both teams. Expect a dog fight, but if Buffalo can pressure Dalton and keep their own offense on time, they should come away with a huge road victory. If the Bills struggle to block Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap (which is a possibility if Ryan Groy and Jordan Mills are left to fend for themselves), Tyrod Taylor holds the ball for too long, and the Bills play unimaginative coverages that allow Andy Dalton time to make decisions in the pocket, then we may start making preparations for next year’s draft before Thanksgiving dinner is served.