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Bills at Bengals: What to look for / opponent preview

A host of factors could decide Week 9’s Bills-Bengals showdown

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Buffalo Bills Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are headed for Ohio to take on the Cincinnati Bengals for a Week 9 showdown on Sunday Night Football. Neither team has lived up to the lofty expectations they held at the beginning of this season. As such, each side aims to secure a victory that could matter a great deal later this season when it comes to the playoffs. The Bengals started off with a whimper but have come on strong with a three-game win streak. The Bills have mostly been the opposite, with their struggles more recently surfacing.

As a heads up for our purposes with Buffalo Rumblings: This week you’re getting a hybrid look at Buffalo’s Week 9 game and an opponent preview. Rumblings writer and analyst B.J. Monacelli won’t be able to bring you his “what to look for” article and graciously offered to let it rest in my straw-filled hands. I like what he’s been doing and I want to keep it going, so I’ll mesh some of his format into my usual opponent preview.

New Faces

The Buffalo Bills have added several players of note since the last time we saw them play. Don’t be surprised if running back Leonard Fournette suits up. A veteran player at a position that can quickly acclimate to a new playbook means good odds of being featured on a play or three. The Bills could look to add more of a power-running element into their game if the situation arises.

Speaking of veteran players at positions able to quickly acclimate, defensive tackle Linval Joseph is another new face to keep an eye out for this week. Overall this season, Cincinnati has struggled to run the ball but found a groove in Week 8 against the San Francisco 49ers. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Joseph sub in for likely run downs to try and prevent running back Joe Mixon from having another good day.

As much help as the defensive backs need due to injury, recent trade acquistion cornerback Rasul Douglas feels like a longer shot to hit the field this week. Buffalo hasn’t been shy about having a rotation at the position in the past, so that’s always on the table to get Douglas on the field for at least some of the game.

Stat Break

Some of this will be used in the other points to look for section, so let’s get it out of the way now. You’ve seen these +/- charts before, but as a quick reminder — red numbers are bad on offense, good on defense.

The Bengals are good at avoiding being intercepted and good at getting interceptions. While they’ve had their moments, especially in recent weeks, their aggregate numbers are dreadful. It’s possible the last three weeks are the real team after being asleep, but their three-game win streak included a fairly uninspiring victory over the Seattle Seahawks that, on paper, looks a lot like the Bills’ win over the New York Giants. Until Cincinnati looks consistent don’t count on it. We Bills fans know that applies to our team as well.

The Mini-Bye Week

After a short week of rest between the loss to the New England Patriots and the win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Buffalo Bills now have a coveted Thursday-to-two-Sundays-later stretch to prepare for the Bengals. That’s ten days instead of the usual seven to prepare and rest up.

That’s huge for Buffalo, which won’t see its actual bye for quite some time still (Week 13). Quarterback Josh Allen was officially on the injury report with a shoulder issue we’ve all been worried about and that extra time to heal sounds good to me. As of Friday, Allen was no longer on the team’s injury report, and his status is full-go for Sunday night. I’m confident other players will similarly benefit from a few more days of rest.

On the Bengals’ side of things, not only did they play last Sunday but it was an afternoon game. It was also a West Coast game three time zones away. For the research-loving fans, jet lag starts becoming a major issue at three time zones and is usually worse traveling West to East like the Bengals just did in coming home. This combination of extra Bills rest and Bengals jet-lag could be a sneaky advantage for Buffalo.

WR1 vs. Defense — Mirror Match

Statistically, you can insert that Spider-Man meme of him pointing at himself when it comes to the WR1 situations for Buffalo and Cincinnati. Stefon Diggs and Ja’Marr Chase receive about 33% of their team’s total targets (90 and 85 targets respectively). Both are just over 70% catch rate. Diggs edges out Chase in yards per reception 11.7 to 10.9 but both are clearly doing well. Chase has a slight advantage in first downs with 40 to Diggs’ 37. I know, you get it. They’re both clear WR1s.

For the Bengals’ defense, even with their signature win over the 49ers last week, they allowed Brock Purdy to throw for 365 yards, with two players over 100 yards (tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk). Turnovers prevented points for the Niners, but make no mistake that San Francisco moved the ball against Cincinnati. The 49ers haven’t been alone this year. What’s Cincinnati’s plan to limit Diggs this week, knowing how potent his connection with Josh Allen can be?

For Buffalo’s defense they’ve slid to 15th in passing yards/play, which is unusual territory for the typically elite air defense. A lot of this can be chalked up to an injury-depleted secondary, but that’s not exactly comforting for Bills fans. Buffalo should be prepared to send help in trying to limit Chase. That might be tough, as Chase can be successful anywhere — as shown by his Week 8 chart here:

The Bills rolled out a new dime defense last week that featured safety Jordan Poyer playing as a hybrid linebacker of sorts. I think a little more of that might be in store, as that allows speed on the field with one of those “small, fast” guys being Poyer — who’s capable of diagnosing and attacking plays in a manner that mitigates the fact that he’s not linebacker sized.

Damar Hamlin

Being candid, not only did I struggle on how much to highlight this narrative, I considered just leaving it out entirely. There’s an elephant in the room, though, so no point pretending there isn’t. Rather than recap any of the story we all vividly remember, let’s stick to how this impacts this weekend’s football game.

Keep an eye on Hamlin’s status as he’s been a healthy scratch most of the season. Now that I’m asking you to keep an eye on that, I’ll admit we can’t predict how this impacts the team. From a personnel stance, it’s a depth move that on paper doesn’t really move the needle for talent on the field. As a symbolic move though, that can be a whole other story.

From an emotional stance, professional athletes often play on a razor’s edge between routine/muscle memory and concentration/focus. The first thing being more automatic and the second thing being more deliberate. Feel free to search for the studies on this, but heightened emotions can have different impacts on both of these things. We all know of teams/players that rallied with that emotional weight helping push them forward. And we’ve all seen as recently as least season how the emotional weight can become a distraction or anchor.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about human beings and a situation that’s understandably stressful. I feel compelled to point out that trauma can create or trigger physiological responses and changes within the brain. It’s not always a simple affair to move past and very rarely is it as easy as telling yourself “I think I can, I think I can” until you’re at the top of the hill.

Even if Damar Hamlin and the Buffalo Bills have been trying to move past what happened last season, there’s too much focus on it to allow them to do anything but face it head on. Best wishes for Damar and company returning to Cincinnati.

Keys to Victory

  • Neither team has shown much in the way of consistency this season. Whoever better rediscovers their identity and embraces it should win this one. For the record, I’d much rather see Josh Alien than Joe Cool this Sunday.
  • Make Joe Burrow uncomfortable. Burrow has the third-fastest time to throw this year at 2.49 seconds. That’s a good way to reduce sacks, though the Bengals are still mediocre at protecting Burrow even with his quick release. Even with injuries, the Bills are taking down the quarterback at a higher rate than anyone else, making this a matchup to watch.
  • Get a turnover or five. Burrow has been excellent avoiding them this season. But if there’s a “regress to the mean” game for him, why not against Buffalo whose defense boasts the seventh-best takeaway rate?
  • On the flip side, Josh Allen will need a clean game as the Bengals’ defense boasts the second-best interception rate. Turnovers sunk the 49ers against the Bengals, and we’ve seen turnovers sink the Bills this season. On the turnover front the numbers heavily skew to Cincinnati’s favor, which is not ideal if it plays out as the data suggests.
  • Prepare the team for a balanced attack on offense. Buffalo’s best bet might be to take control of the game with their offense. Check the chart above as the Bengals have struggled pretty globally on defense. The Bills have enough tools in the kit to change things up if Cincy has early success.