Let’s get to it.
1.) AC: The Bills have suffered significant injuries this year, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. How well has Buffalo been able to withstand the injuries, particularly at cornerback, and how well will the replacements hold up against the Bengals’ talented wideouts?
MB: The Bills have admirably weathered defensive injuries to this point — but the results have been mixed at best. Prior to losing the trio of cornerback Tre’Davious White (season-ending Achilles tear), linebacker Matt Milano (long-term IR for leg injury), and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (torn pectoral), Buffalo’s defense was among the best in the NFL this season.
It’s nearly impossible to fully replace any one of those players, but having to do so for all three at once is an astonishing ask. Outside of the fan base, many people aren’t aware of the important role Jones played. He was on an All-Pro tear, better than every other DT as both a house-wrecking 3-tech and an immovable force at 1-tech. His play elevated everyone around him, and he’s a huge part for the defense’s regression towards the mean.
Still, Buffalo’s defense has slid to 15th in passing yards/play, largely based on the exorbitant number of injuries at DB. At some point this season, there have been nine different names (though I could be off as I’ve lost count) at defensive back on the Bills’ injury list. I’ll try to run through the biggest of them to address your question, but bear with me as it might get wordy (not loud, like it did with White, Page, and The Edge).
The Bills began the season with White at CB1 and Christian Benford at CB2. This was after many months of battling to finalize CB2 — where second-year cornerback and 2022 NFL Draft pick Kaiir Elam and also Dane Jackson were both left in the dust by the former sixth-rounder in Benford.
All was well until White was lost, at which point Benford immediately slid over to CB1, with Jackson (yes, not the team’s first-round talent in Elam) taking over CB2 duties. Then a rash of injuries took hold, and the team had to piece together a unit that, at times, featured many different cornerbacks getting starter’s reps. That meant Elam finally saw the field, but it didn’t go well. At all.
As such, head coach Sean McDermott was forced to call up practice-squad players, first in the form of JaMarcus Ingram and then 35-year-old cornerback Josh Norman. And Elam remained a healthy scratch. Yet with Norman, he didn’t play a snap on defense — finding work on special teams, which Elam doesn’t provide as a player.
Now, Benford’s listed on Friday’s injury report with a hamstring injury, but no designation. The team of course made a trade for Rasul Douglas, who should be a great fit in the team’s zone-heavy scheme. But if he plays, how much — and to what extent will he know the defense?
Once the Bills announced the Douglas signing, news came of Elam’s battle with a foot injury, one he supposedly has had trouble with for some, if not most of this season. That was news to essentially everyone, and discussions of him being sent to Injured Reserve came to pass late this week.
How will Buffalo’s defensive backs hold up against Cincinnati’s receivers? That’s a great question. I’ll look at it from two sides...
It goes well if: Benford is healthy and plays; and/or Jackson/Douglas man CB2 to an adequate degree. All should receive help from safeties, Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and/or Taylor Rapp.
It goes poorly if: Benford can’t suit up, Jackson and Douglas are forced to play featured roles and Douglas isn’t fully ready within Bills’ scheme. The Bills find they need to bring Poyer down more often in dime LB looks due to their just-as-concerning injury issues at LB, and Rapp/Hyde have to operate more as CBs than safeties.
2.) AC: Josh Allen has looked unsurprisingly superb this year, complete with 17 touchdown passes and a 101.5 rating. Two questions: it appears that whatever gripes existed between him and Stefon Diggs (however overblown or not) have dissipated, correct? And how much do you foresee the sore right shoulder problem affecting him going forward?
MB: Being candid, none of us know what those supposed “gripes” were all about. (Also, Stephen A. Smith needs to check himself.) What we do know is that Stefon Diggs is an Alpha dog, and he’s among the most focused, motivated, and inspiring players in the NFL. He puts up incredible numbers — figures that would be remarkable for young stars, let alone someone in his ninth season.
But stats aren’t the be-all end-all, defining Diggs. They’re simply a by-product to his clear motive: winning. Diggs doesn’t care if he gets 15 targets, 100-plus yards, and tons of TDs each game if it’s not helping the team win. He simply wants to do what he knows he’s capable of accomplishing against almost every defender in the NFL. I believe people will always misjudge Diggs, largely due to media portrayal and the silent way a TV camera can paint any narrative a person desires.
As for Allen’s shoulder... he’s proven to be among the toughest of QBs to ever play the game — on par with guys who sacrificed far too much 100 years ago. His shoulder should be okay, but there’s certainly concern for re-aggravation due to any fall it has to absorb. The mini-bye had to have helped Allen heal.
While he showed up on the team’s injury report early in week, that was more out of caution and plan-of-action by Buffalo’s training/medical staff. Allen will be good to go, and he’s no longer on the injury report as of Friday. I don’t predict it will limit him Sunday night, but he’ll need to be mindful not to put himself in harm’s way. I’d imagine the Bengals intend to test his health.
3.) AC: Damien Harris is on IR, and the Bills picked up Leonard Fournette for their practice squad this week. Latavius Murray remains the top back—what will we see out of the Bills’ running game this Sunday night, and how effective do you expect that to be?
MB: Well, hopefully for Bills Mafia, there’ll be a fair amount of running by QB17. Buffalo’s offense is simply better all-around when Allen’s utilized as a runner. But actually, Murray isn’t the Bills’ top back. That role is James Cook’s, and it’s one he’s played well.
Murray has started games and comes in for goal-line work, but Cook is as featured a back that can be found in Buffalo’s offense. He’s light-years ahead of his rookie season, hitting holes with more determined efficiency, and making defenders pay at the second level. While his game incorporates a large amount of speed and elusiveness, he’s recently shown an aggressive north-south shoulder dip to great effect.
I’m not sure how much, if at all, Fournette will play in Week 9. His signing does cause me to wonder about Damien Harris’ overall health, after suffering a very scary-looking head/neck injury. All reports to this point have been positive about Harris, but I’m not certain they sign Fournette if Harris was likely to see the field soon.
That said, I love the signing. He’s still fairly young for the position, and he’s proven capable as a dual-threat back who can mix it up inside and out, and provide solid pass protection.
With the Bengals being less-than-great at stopping the run this season (allowing 138.6 y/g at 5.03 y/p), I would expect the Bills try to set the tone via an early commitment to the ground game. However, saying that goes against what I believe they should do. That’s because in recent weeks the team has chosen a more methodical approach on offense — one that seems to limit their scoring potential until the end of halves.
Had I the opportunity to do it, I’d have them implement a more thorough screen game that utilizes the receiving ability of Cook, coupled with that of Diggs, Khalil Sharkir, and Deonte Harty operating between the sticks to confound the defense in space.
4.) AC: I loved Dalton Kincaid in this year’s draft, and he had a nice game against the Buccaneers last week. He was behind Dawson Knox going into the year and now is a top option for Allen going forward. How do you expect he’ll respond with a higher profile role, and what has he shown so far?
MB: Breathable airspace is the limit for Dalton Kincaid. We’ll all save comparisons to another tight end who’s dating someone a few people know — that’s not a fair nor apt comparison, at this point. But Kincaid is the real deal. He catches essentially everything thrown to him that’s not out of leaping reach.
I suspect Kincaid will continue to show well, so long as he’s not asked to do traditional, in-line TE things. That’s not his forte, despite his size. Rolling him out in 12 personnel hasn’t even allowed him to utilize his full potential. It wasn’t until that game last Thursday you referenced — one played in 11-personnel — where Kincaid finally looked like the X-factor many expect him to be.
With tight end Dawson Knox on the field at the same time as Kincaid, the passing game has been efficient, but lacking dynamism. Kincaid on his own is a whole other bag of catnip. In “11,” Kincaid can more meaningfully force a defense into undesirable matchups. But with his limitations as a blocker, it necessitates bringing offensive guard David Andrews into the game at moments. Still, “11” is the way for 86.
I’ve often compared Kincaid to Ed McCaffrey, while many within Bills Mafia see him as a jumbo Cole Beasley. Whatever comparison one makes, it must include the profile of a very quick, deadly precise route-runner with hands unlike most other receiving options in the NFL. I’m not sure that answers your question well, but I believe it’s fair to say we’ve yet to see the best of Kincaid — and that it’s likely to come with a continued focus utilizing 11 personnel, and at the expense of snaps for Dawson Knox.
5.) AC: There is so much to unpack in this one. In the Bills' corner, they have emotion from the 1.5 games played last year, and what transpired in each. They also have an extended break and have Allen playing at a high level once again. In the Bengals’ corner, they seem to be bouncing back to form on offense, they have a formula for beating the Bills of late, and they’re a bit healthier than Buffalo at the moment. Cincinnati is a 2.5-point favorite at home, per DraftKings. How do you see this one playing out?
MB: For as much recent history as there is between the Bills and Bengals, these teams somehow feel unfamiliar to one another, in my opinion. Sure, rosters change — but it’s beyond that... though how, I struggle to articulate.
Everyone has said that what happened to safety Damar Hamlin this past January is done and over. That may be true for fans. For those who were there, especially those directly involved with the situation, it’s quite possible their thoughts are consumed a bit by the situation — at least in the early going. And how could it not?
They’re human like anyone else. It remains to be seen if Hamlin will be active and on the field. He’s been a healthy scratch most of the season, because his role is as primary depth. But with the injury situation at cornerback and linebacker, there’s a chance McDermott again this week has safety Jordan Poyer up in dime linebacker looks. That could mean an opportunity for Hamlin awaits.
Apart from all that, this game is a difficult one for me to get a handle on. Yes, the Bengals have had the Bills’ number — and to me that’s been the use of a highly physical formula. Right now I believe both teams are at a crossroads, and things could quickly spiral in the wrong direction with a loss for either side.
The Bengals’ wins have all come via the NFC West. There are impressive teams in that conference, but an outsider might victories against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers differently than within the fan base.
This is also true of the Bills. Their one truly dominant win was in Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins — a game in which they played near-perfect, mistake-free football, while making the Dolphins look pedestrian. After that game, their skid began and everything they’ve accomplished has appeared challenging. They couldn’t even put away the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half — due to a lack of scoring drives and a defense that once again appeared over-matched, overworked, and simply void of enough extra quality depth to help offset injury.
The fan in me never wants to pick against the Bills. I’d like to think that between both teams, the Bengals are perhaps better than their poor start, but worse than their three-game win streak leads one to believe. So, too, with the Bills — they’re a team that’s lucky to be 5-3 after allowing games to be decided at the goal line on the last play the last three weeks.
Is Buffalo better than their worst losses? It’s likely. This weekend’s outcome could have a huge impact on the season and playoffs. Both teams have very tough divisions. I know that for the Bills, winning on Sunday gives them an 81% chance (per Pro Football Focus) at making the playoffs. If Buffalo loses? it drops to 50%.
As cliche as it sounds, this game likely comes down to turnovers. The Bengals have been great at avoiding them and even better at getting them on defense (ranked second in NFL). That plays to Cincinnati’s favor in this matchup.
Buffalo’s defense is pretty good at creating turnovers themself, currently ranking seventh in that metric. Whichever team can best-limit the mistakes, while somehow stealing a possession or two away from the opponent, should find a W just before midnight. The Bills need to have learned from their misgivings against the Bengals last season and worked to improve their flaws during this season’s first eight weeks.
As a team, Buffalo has a lot to overcome in terms of injury and newly added players, but if Josh Allen can be himself, then even with turnovers, the Bills should make for a very difficult opponent to best. All that to say: I don’t really have a good feel for how this game plays out, other than close.
Our thanks to Matthew Byham over at SB Nation’s Buffalo Rumblings for the superb writeup and thorough analysis. Go check out our other side of the conversation over there.