The quarter pole of the 2017 NFL season has passed, and the Bengals are preparing to host a Buffalo Bills team that’s 3-1 and leading their division.
For those old enough to remember the 2017 offseason, that might come as a huge surprise. After firing previous general manager Doug Whaley at the end of April and leaving first-time head coach Sean McDermott to navigate the NFL Draft by himself, the Bills looked from the outside like a franchise with no clear direction. When new GM Brandon Beane spent the summer pawning off young stars in Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, the organization looked set on getting worse before they got better.
Only four weeks in, it’s still hard to know what to make of this Bills unit. Hot starts aren’t an uncommon occurrence in Buffalo, but this is a group that’s being tabbed by experts – not ironically – as a contender to win the AFC East outright. That’s an uncommon and inherently bold assertion for a team that hasn’t visited the playoffs since the 20th century.
That might have as much to do with the usual dominance/unusual recent mediocrity of the New England Patriots as it does with Buffalo themselves, but the team’s record thus far is legitimate. McDermott’s unit has a distinct identity on both sides of the ball, and they’ve prevailed over teams that’ve looked otherwise dominant at times this season. Whether that success is sustainable remains to be seen – good teams win when their identity permits; great teams (can) win, when they have to, in spite of it.
The Bengals should be challenged by Buffalo, but it’s absolutely a winnable game for a good team. If they topple the Bills and head into their bye week at 2-3, Cincinnati’s poor start to the season will be forgotten and they’ll appear in the sneaky contender conversation.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals destroy the Browns
As with seemingly every other week this season, Cincinnati heads into this matchup without John Ross or Tyler Eifert. H-back Ryan Hewitt and reserve safety Derron Smith have also been ruled out of Sunday’s game, while reserve linebacker Jordan Evans is listed as questionable with a hamstring concern.
Outside of special teams, the absences of the latter three players should be negligible. Hewitt, while technically a starter on the Bengals’ depth chart, has been in on only 27 offensive snaps despite being active for all four games, per Football Outsiders. His role in the offense, for what it’s worth (one catch for sixteen yards against Cleveland) will be handed to undrafted rookie Cethan Carter this week.
On Buffalo’s side, the team will be without top (wide) receiver Jordan Matthews and leading tackler Ramon Humber. Behind Matthews at receiver, the Bills have only Andre Holmes, Zay Jones, Kaelin Clay, and former Bengal Brandon Tate. At Humber’s linebacker position, the listed backup is Matt Milano – a fifth round rookie from Boston College.
Elsewhere on the Bills, offensive tackle Cordy Glenn is listed as questionable with a foot injury. Cornerbacks E.J. Gaines (who didn’t practice on Friday) and Shareece Wright are listed as questionable with groin and back injuries, respectively. Safety Micah Hyde, who enters this week tied for the league interception crown (three), is listed as questionable with a knee injury.
A defensive coordinator in his last stop in Carolina, McDermott has done an incredible job of coaxing consistently dominant performances out of the underwhelming personnel available to him. This holds especially true in the secondary, McDermott’s original specialty. Tre’Davious White, a late first-round cornerback out of LSU, has already exceeded pre-draft expectations and looks like a rookie-of-the-year candidate. Micah Hyde was a quality depth player in Green Bay, but no one foresaw three interceptions through four games from him.
Overall, the Bills defense is 13th in the league in rushing yardage allowed per game (93.2), 11th in passing yardage (212.8) and eighth in total yardage (306.0). Most relevantly, Buffalo leads the league in total scoring defense, giving up only 13.5 points per game. Atlanta’s 17-point performance against them last week is the highest total Buffalo has given up so far this season.
That being said, Atlanta spent most of last Sunday playing without top weapon Julio Jones, who left the game with a hamstring injury. Against Denver, Buffalo surrendered a combined 13 catches and 173 yards to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Trevor Siemian had enough success finding his receivers to win – Denver lost because he made two terrible decisions that lead to interceptions.
That’s good coaching – it helps beat teams when they beat themselves, or otherwise play to less than the sum of their parts (or, as with Atlanta, simply can’t field all their parts). As football legend Fielding H. Yost once said: football games aren’t won, they’re lost. The concept of overachieving in the NFL comes from good coaches consistently not losing, and McDermott has so far been the quintessential overachiever.
Conversely, this accurately implies there’s a ceiling on how high the Bills can go. The Bengals have a game-breaking receiver of their own in A.J. Green, among other offensive weapons they have yet to fully utilize. If Andy Dalton does his job and Green gets his touches, McDermott can’t make his players big and fast enough to stop him. Distributing the ball to the best playmakers has been Bill Lazor’s modus operandi since ascending to the offensive coordinator job, and it should remain as such against Buffalo.
This is a very winnable game for the offense. They just have to not lose.
If the Bills’ defense is grounded in their identity, the offensive unit is completely tethered to theirs.
Aside from a 3-point showing in their loss at Carolina, that has yet to be a bad thing for Buffalo. The unit, led by former Gary Kubiak disciple Rick Dennison, has gotten by with a heavy dose of running the ball, complemented by some dump-off passes, play-action shots, and more running the ball. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor has yet to attempt 30 passes in a game this season but has already ran 31 times, while LeSean McCoy has run 68 times and backup Mike Tolbert has run 34.
In the passing game, McCoy led the team in catches three out of four weeks and leads the team in total receptions with 21. Tight end Charles Clay, the team leader in receiving yardage and co-leader in touchdowns, comes in second with 18 receptions. The inactive Jordan Matthews, despite leading the wide receivers, is a distant third overall in catches with only ten.
This isn’t a team that’s been hugely mixing up their personnel packages either – Matthews and Jones (receivers) are each on the field for over 80% of the offensive snaps, per Football Outsiders. They just run a handful of concepts through a handful of players, and they’ve so far been enough to win. Statistically, however, Buffalo is 29th in offensive yards per game (284.2), including 31st in passing yards (171.5). Of all the statistics regarding the offense, the most impressive and most telling is their turnover differential – Buffalo’s +6 margin is tied for second-best in the league.
For a strong defense like the one Cincinnati has enjoyed thus far, Buffalo is a deceptively great matchup. The fact that Buffalo has scored over 20 points in (and won) three of their four games has effectively covered for how poor overall the offense has been. Taylor, as a quarterback, is many good things – mobile, reestablishes himself well outside the pocket, doesn’t turn the ball over and has great touch on deep passes. He’s not an anticipation passer, he’s ill-suited to play from behind and has very little help around him to do so.
If the Bengals can hold the offense, acquire a lead and force Taylor into that situation – especially without Matthews available to him – they’ll be on the inside track to winning the game.
Bengals 23, Bills 16
The final score could fall anywhere along a wide range of combinations, based on how the matchup goes overall. Regardless of score, this is a game that Cincinnati would have to consciously lose at some point in order to let Buffalo leave with a victory. It’s within the realm of possibilities, as it always is, but it’s hardly a safe bet. The defense shouldn’t have back-end coverage breakdowns with so few weapons to keep track of – as long as the running game can be stymied, the offense should have enough chances to win.
They just have to not lose first.
– Andy Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32. Follow him on Twitter at @Andy_Hammel, and the cover32 Bengals team at @cover32_CIN.