We are less than a week away from the kickoff of the 2022 NFL season - and it all starts next Thursday night when the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams host the AFC-favorite Buffalo Bills. It’s a clash of two teams that expect to be among the best of the best this season, and it’s going to be a battle between two high caliber quarterbacks, LA’s Matthew Stafford and Buffalo’s Josh Allen.
An offseason of anticipation has led up to this big moment - and it’s almost here.
Between free agent signings, the draft, training camp, and the preseason each franchise feels as if they’ve done what it takes to put their team in the best position this season. All of these offseason moves were made with surgical intentions, but the test of time proves not all work out as expected.
The Bills are already finding that out the hard way, and they made two difficult roster cuts ahead of the regular season that could shape their opening matchup in LA.
OJ Howard, TE
As defenses around the league continue to adopt the Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley schemes and deploy two-high shells at an increasing rate, the counter-punch by opposing offenses is to put 12 (1 RB, 2 TE’s) or 21 (RB, FB, TE) personnel on the field more frequently.
Two years in a row the Bills have signed veteran backup TEs in free agency, OJ Howard and Jacob Hollister.— Joe DiBiase (@SneakyJoeSports) August 30, 2022
Both fail to wrestle roster spots away from cheap young guys.
Savvy teams like Buffalo embrace modern trends and pass the ball as often as possible, and they don’t plan to sacrifice offensive efficiency by reducing their pass attempts out of these heavier personnel packages. They intend to create mismatches by forcing defenses to leave extra linebackers or linemen on the field and then isolating them against a receiver, tight end, or running back in space.
OJ Howard seemed like the perfect complement to 2021 breakout Dawson Knox - and the Bills’ 1-yr $5M investment in him shows this was a priority for the team.
But Buffalo released Howard as they cut down from 80 players to the final 53, leaving just Tommy Sweeney (2019 7th rounder) and Quintin Morris (2021 USFA) backing up Knox.
Asked what went wrong with OJ Howard signing, #Bills GM Brandon Beane said "I think you've got to do your best in this seat to pick the best 53...that was a nip-and-tuck competition with those guys after Dawson (Knox)." Added he wouldn't hesitate to bring OJ back.— Mike Giardi (@MikeGiardi) September 1, 2022
Does releasing Howard indicate that either Sweeney or Morris are ready to take the next step, or are the Bills potentially reversing course on their plan to frequently deploy 12 personnel?
Duke Johnson, RB
The Bills’ first choice this offseason at running back was not to sign veteran Duke Johnson - he was the team’s consolation prize after JD McKissic agreed to terms as a free agent, but reneged on the deal in order to return to the Washington Commanders.
The Duke Johnson signing after missing out on McKissic signals the #Bills weren’t just looking for RB depth: they were looking for a very specific TYPE of RB.— Bruce Nolan (@BruceExclusive) March 21, 2022
They wanted someone better equipped to be involved in the pass game.
Buffalo’s interest in McKissic suggests that they were after certain skillset at the running back position, which perhaps is another counter to defenses playing in two-high shells. If defenses take away downfield attempts and force you to live off of short passes, making those dump offs as explosive as possible is a way to punish the opposing team’s approach.
The Bills doubled-down on their search for a pass-catching running back by selecting James Cook, brother of veteran Dalvin Cook, in the second round of this spring’s draft. After releasing Johnson, Cook is likely the primary backup to start Devin Singletary - though Singletary offers limited upside as a pass catcher. Even though Buffalo was able to retain Johnson on their practice squad, he’s still at least fourth on the depth chart and unlikely to get called up for Week 1.
Duke Johnson didn't get necessarily outplayed to get himself cut from the Bills, he was merely RB insurance before the Bills ended up drafting James Cook early.— Patrick Moran (@PatMoranTweets) August 30, 2022
Fellow UFA signee OJ Howard on the other hand straight up got outplayed by incumbent TEs already on the roster.
How this impacts the Week 1 matchup:
Los Angeles needs to be prepared to defend Buffalo’s running backs as dump off options and in space. The Rams’ first priority will be to take away downfield attempts to Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis, but the Bills will be more than happy to give LA a death by a thousand cuts. It’ll be important for inside linebackers Bobby Wagner and Ernest Jones to interrupt passing lanes in the middle of the field. The Rams could also deploy a box safety like Taylor Rapp, who struggles at times in coverage but could probably fair better one-on-one versus a back than Wagner or Jones.
Don’t be fooled when Buffalo deploys heavy personnel packages early and often - they aren’t planning to ground out tough yards on the ground. Stick to your game plan and take away explosive plays to their star receivers. If you can force the Bills to be patient and string together long drives, you decrease their margin for error - just one sack or tackle for loss could derail their momentum and put them in disadvantageous third down scenarios.
3. In Dawson Knox's estimation, the Bills have spent more time working in 12 & 13 personnel so far than any time he can remember. That's the allure of a healthy OJ Howard. At one point, he split out wide & had to have had at least 5 inches and 50 pounds on the DB. https://t.co/dYWweQLhXY— Mike Giardi (@MikeGiardi) July 26, 2022