The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills matchup with their opponent in every game of the 2023 NFL season. This series will look at five key matchups; Bills Pass Offense vs. Opponent Pass Defense, Bills Rush Offense vs. Opponent Rush Defense, Bills Pass Defense vs. Opponent Pass Offense, Bills Rush Defense vs. Opponent Rush Offense, and Bills Special Teams vs. Opponent Special Teams. This entire analysis will conclude with three sections; “Why Buffalo Will Lose”, “Why Buffalo Will Win”, and a score prediction for the game.
Below I present 2023’s ninth edition of this analysis for the Bills Week 9 clash with the Cincinnati Bengals. Included is my “patented” 👏 scale which ranks the advantage in each matchup from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage) to 👏 (Minimal Advantage).
Bills Pass Offense vs. Bengals Pass Defense
Josh Allen has taken his play to another level in 2023. He currently ranks #2 in Positive Touch Frequency (72.16%), #3 in Yards per Touch (6.88), and #1 in Touchdown Frequency (6.59%). He’s hitting Stefon Diggs (WR) at every level, starting to lean into Dalton Kincaid (TE), finding Gabe Davis (WR) in places he’s never found him before, and feeding the rock to other players like James Cook (RB) and Khalil Shakir (WR). This versatility in pass catchers has helped to evolve Allen from a big play merchant into one of the more precise pass throwers currently playing in the NFL. His game isn’t without weakness though with his Turnover Frequency of 2.99% ranking #23 out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. It’s that that should concern Bills fans most come Sunday night when they take on a defense run by a coordinator that is known for bringing out the worst in anyone who takes the field against him.
That coordinator is none other than the Mad Scientist himself, Lou Anarumo. He’s an expert at disguising coverages and confusing opposing quarterbacks through a methodical rotation of differing personnel groups and his utilization of both man and zone schemes. Their base is Nickel which means most often Cam Taylor-Britt (CB) will be on the outside, Chidobe Awuzie (CB) or DJ Turner (CB) on the other side, and Mike Hilton (CB) in the slot. Each of these four players have been impressive through the first half of the season with only Awuzie (129.9) giving up a Passer Rating over 85.0. The corners are only a part of the formula for Anarumo though, who also has toys at Safety and Linebacker that are effective at defending the pass. Second year player Dax Hill (S) and ex-Ram Nick Scott (S) have taken over for the since departed Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell and are playing well above expectations so far. In front of them are linebackers Logan Wilson (LB) and Germaine Pratt (LB) who Anarumo seems to always have in the right place at the right time facilitating their abilities as ball hawks in the middle of the defense. It’s no wonder Cincinnati ranks #1 in the NFL in Interceptions per Game at 1.43, making this a rough matchup for a Bills team whose quarterback has a reputation for being less than protective of the football.
It doesn’t get much easier for Bengals opponents in the trenches where Cincinnati is getting elite production from its edge rushers. Trey Hendrickson (DE) continues to dominate in his third season with the Bengals as he ranks #6 in the league with 8.0 sacks through seven games. On the other side his running mate Sam Hubbard (DE) is no slouch either as he comes into Sunday with a solid 4.0 sacks himself generating concerns for the Bills offensive tackles Dion Dawkins (LT) and Spencer Brown (RT). Those tackles have been impressive in their own right though, as each has given up just 1.0 Sack this season which could foretell an impending wrinkle to how the Bengals design their pass rush against the Bills. Expect both Hendrickson and Hubbard to do most of their work off the edge but from time-to-time stunt into the B or A gaps as they rotate BJ Hill (DT) to the outside in an effort to expose the Bills weaker interior offensive line. Do this successfully a few times this weekend and an already difficult matchup for the Bills pass offense could quickly turn into a disastrous outing for a typically dominate unit.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Bengals Rush Defense
While Josh Allen has been dominant though the air, he has been relatively quiet on the ground. He’s on pace for career lows in rush attempts (76.5) and rushing yards (401.6) although his 5 rushing touchdowns currently rank #8 in the NFL. But something seemed to click last Thursday night as the recently cautious Allen began to take off against the Buccaneers. He finished the game with a season high 7 rushes including 4 scrambles that saw him pick up 3 first downs and a rushing touchdown. Quietly it looks like Allen has unleashed himself and reintroduced an aspect of his game which has made him borderline impossible to defend. Against the Bengals it remains to be seen if this style of play will continue but if it does Allen’s legs could introduce an unwanted catalyst to the Bengals defensive recipe.
Allen isn’t the only runner the Bengals will need to contend with however, as second year running back James Cook (RB) has been a force for the Bills this season. Amongst NFL running backs he currently ranks #5 in scrimmage yards (678) as he is learning how to leverage his speed and vision in the NFL while introducing some power running to his game. The Bills two primary runners should stress what has been an otherwise weak Bengals rush defense, a unit that is giving up the third worst rushing yards per attempt (5.0) while ranking #25 in Rush Defense DVOA (-2.9%). Opponents have been using the Bengals pass rush against them as Cincinnati bails out to get to the opposing quarterback and in the process open lanes for runners to get to the second level. Once there the Bengals must rely on Germaine Pratt and/or Logan Wilson to make open field tackles, linebackers who have missed 7.5% and 8.1% of their tackles, respectively, this season. The ground game could be Buffalo’s bread and butter this week as they look to find ways to force the Bengals to adjust as opposed to adjusting to what Anarumo shows them.
There is an area of concern in the ground game for the Bills as the Bengals have one of the most formative interior defensive linemen on their side of the ball. That man is DJ Reader, a 6’3” 335lb behemoth who has flourished in Cincinnati. After a ho-hum four years in Houston, Reader made his way to the Bengals in 2020 and since has been a dominating presence in the middle of their defensive line. He has a proven ability to play anywhere from the 0 to 3-technique as a chess piece for Anarumo up front that allows the Bengals to attempt some exotic blitzes occasionally. This week he will stress Connor McGovern (LG), Mitch Morse (C), and O’Cyrus Torrence (RG) as the key for the Bengals against the Bills ground attack. Just like Hendrickson and Hubbard trying to win off the edge, if Reader can win consistently up the middle what should be an advantage for the Bills could quickly become a vulnerability Sunday night.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Bengals Pass Offense
Injuries forced the Bills to search for some reinforcements at the trade deadline ultimately resulting in them trading with the Packers for cornerback Rasul Douglas. In due time Douglas will take over for Dane Jackson and be paired with Christian Benford as the Bills outside CB duo for the remainder of the season, but that happening this week seems unlikely. Buffalo’s pass defense is highly complex and relies heavily on communication on the backend making it difficult for any player to adopt in just one training camp, let alone one practice. This means this week Douglas is likely used sparingly, if at all, in some subpackages and situationally. In the meantime, the Bills need Dane Jackson to have a massive game as they head to Cincinnati to take on a three-headed monster that can be a nightmare for any opposing defense.
The Bills defense has been underwhelming since losing Tre White (CB) in week four. Their performances against Trevor Lawrence, Tyrod Taylor, Mac Jones, and Baker Mayfield were less than impressive, raising concerns on how they would perform against a quarterback like say, Joe Burrow? Making matters worse for Buffalo the real Joe Burrow seems to be back. In his first six games he posted an abysmal 34.78 QuBeR but just last week carved up an elite 49ers defense to the tune of a near flawless 90.06 QuBeR. He finally seems to be healthy, allowing him to not only move in the pocket but deliver more precise strikes to his stable of impressive pass catchers. That includes one of the league’s best receiving options in Ja’Marr Chase who currently has accounted for a whopping 60 catches for 656 yards as the Bengals unquestioned WR1. Their WR2 has been less impressive as the uber talented Tee Higgins has struggled through the early part of the season with just two games over 26 receiving yards. For most teams this would be a damning revelation but with Burrow’s ability to fall back on one of the NFL’s best WR3s in Tyler Boyd as well as receiving Tight End Irv Smith or even Joe Mixon out of the backfield a passing attack that has been struggling seems poised for a breakout game against the Bills.
The offensive line for the Bengals is starting to gel as well. Orlando Brown is beginning to acclimate to the Bengals offense at Left Tackle whilst Jonah Williams is coming into his own at Right Tackle. In the middle of their line Ted Karras remains a solid Center while Alex Cappa is an impressive Right Guard leaving Left Guard Cordell Volson as the weak link in an otherwise solid offensive line. It’s Volson who the Bills seem primed to attack most likely through the play of Ed Oliver. Oliver is off to the best start of his career and has been a matchup nightmare for any interior lineman that he’s played against in 2023. He has the ability to win this game single-handedly if he can dominate in that role while the Bills occasionally send a blitzing linebacker and rely on their edge rushers to get home at least a few times on Sunday. The Bengals are too good to lose to the banged-up backend of the Bills defense making the only path to winning this matchup for Buffalo by winning up front.
ADVANTAGE: Bengals 👏👏👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Bengals Rush Offense
Since DaQuan Jones and Matt Milano went down the Bills have been surviving, not thriving, against opponents on the ground. At this point in the season, they rank #17 in Rush Defense DVOA (-4.7%) a number that is masked by the dominate play of this team when Jones and Milano were on the field. Since then, the Bills have been looking for answers while relying on second year pro Terrel Bernard (LB) to win in the middle. Bernard has done just that, and, in the meantime, Buffalo may have found a temporary patch to their injury woes. That patch, a rotation at LB2 that includes rookie Dorian Williams and veteran Tyrel Dodson as well as Safety Jordan Poyer who moves into the box while Taylor Rapp fills his role in certain situations. It’s a risky rotation for Buffalo and one which will be tested against the Bengals, but also something the Bills need to work if they expect to leave Cincinnati with a victory.
The good news for the Bills is they are set to take on a Bengals rushing attack which hasn’t faired all that well this season. They have just 553 yards on the ground this year which is good for #31 in the NFL whilst having only one running back with more than 30 rushing yards on the roster, that being Joe Mixon. Like the rest of the Bengals offense, Mixon struggled through the early part of the season calling into question if at 27-years-old the 2021 Pro Bowler was already over the hill. Against the 49ers he seemed to answer that question with his best performance of the season, a 16 attempt 87-yard game against a 49ers front seven that is known as one of the better units in the NFL. He flashed the elite speed and agility that has made him a threat for seven seasons in the league resulting in major concerns for a Buffalo Bills team that will need to now account for him. Time will tell if that performance by Mixon was a mirage but at least for this week expect Sean McDermott’s defense to treat him like the real deal.
Like the Bills, the Bengals gain even more leverage in the ground game by way of their franchise Quarterback. With Joe Burrow’s calf strain hampering him through the first six games of the season he accounted for just 14 total rushing yards. Coming out of the bye against the 49ers and seemingly healthy, Burrow would rack up an additional 43 yards as he exuded confidence and showed the ability to escape pressure as he moved the sticks 4 separate times with his legs. He is seeing running lanes easily and attacking them with conviction right now adding another dynamic to an already dynamic Bengals offense. This is another thing the Bills will need to account for and with the necessity for their linebackers to hit their zone drops expect the Bengals to try and stress the Bills with interior Quarterback runs. Like the passing matchup this game, this one may come down to Ed Oliver and the Bills interior line and whether they can get after Burrow while simultaneously containing him.
ADVANTAGE: Bengals 👏👏👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Bengals Special Teams
Against the Buccaneers Bills kicker Tyler Bass got back on track after 2 weeks of struggles. He’s now 36 of 39 on kicks which includes him drilling all 25 of his Extra Points. He remains one of the league’s elite kickers and looks to be through some early season adversity. Meanwhile Sam Martin remains sparingly used but is coming off what may be his best performance with the Bills. Last week he dropped 3 of his 4 punts within the 10-yard line and saw the fourth barely bounce into the endzone for a Touchback. He’s a player people don’t see much of but when called upon has been nothing short of solid. As for return, Deonte Harty began to show flashes of what made him a one-time All-Pro return man as the Bills Punt Returner while Khalil Shakir remains an underwhelming sure handed option for Buffalo on Kick Return.
Cincinnati possesses a kicker akin to Tyler Bass in Evan McPherson. Like Bass, he has missed just 3 kicks this season and is a respectable 25 of 28 on attempts so far. He has leg to spare but more importantly is proven to be one of the league’s most clutch kickers making it a real possibility that he could drill a game winner this week. At punter for the Bengals is rookie Brad Robbins who is off to a decent start to his career. His 44.5 yards per punt as well as his 2:1 Inside the 20 to Touchback ratio is solid while his 39.5 net yards per punt indicates he can be susceptible to occasional returns. Speaking of return, the Bengals have a solid return option in Charlie Jones but due to injuries he will miss Sunday’s game. That means that the speedy Trenton Irwin will handle punts, where he has an 11.3 yards per return average on 7 punt returns. As for kick return, expect to see fifth year running back out of Texas A&M, Trayveon Williams. On his career he has a 23.1 yards per kick return while his career long of 42 makes him an unproven threat to take one to the house in phase three of this game.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
Lou Anarumo is brilliant and gets the worst out of almost any Quarterback he faces. He will have his defense humming at home and looking to force Josh Allen into multiple turnovers. Through constant pressure off the edge and disguised looks that should cause Allen to throw the ball into covered zones the Bills could struggle mightily through the air. In theory that should mean more ability to win on the ground but with the Bengals abilities in the trenches and players at linebacker a consistent rushing attack may not be enough to keep up with the Bengals offense.
On that side of the ball Joe Burrow looks all the way back and if that’s the case this team could be nearly impossible to beat. Burrow looked excellent last week and against the current version of the Bills defense is set to look even better. The Bills don’t possess a single player who can cover Ja’Marr Chase while Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are also matchup nightmares. Add to that a run game that will stress the Bills in the intermediate areas of their defense and I’m not sure there is a single team that Bills matchup worse with in the entire NFL.
Why Buffalo Will Win
Josh Allen at any given moment has the ability to put on his Super Man cape and will his team to victory. This week is no different. Make no mistake, the Bills don’t match up well against the Bengals, but no one matches up well against Josh Allen. Allen will look to feed the ball to Stefon Diggs who the Bengals are going to try and take away. If they do take him away the Buccaneers game showed us that they can win underneath with players like Gabe Davis, Dalton Kincaid, and Khalil Shakir. Add to that James Cook’s affinity on the ground and the Bills can put up points, maybe too many for the Bengals to contend with.
On the other side of the ball Buffalo must bank on two things, winning in the trenches and McDermott devising the perfect scheme for this game. As far as the trenches ae concerned you must trust Ed Oliver while the Bills also look for production from Leonard Floyd, Greg Rousseau, AJ Epenesa, and even Von Miller off the edge. If Buffalo can get after Burrow early and often that should allow McDermott to get into his bag of tricks. That bag will rely on the versatility of his team in the back end to create confusing circumstances for Joe Burrow. Do that, force a turnover, make a game changing play and Buffalo could walk away with a massive win.
Prediction: Bills 27 – Bengals 28
The last time I picked the Bills to lose a game was December 12, 2021. They lost that game to the Buccaneers. Since then, I have picked the Bills to win in 32 consecutive games, for good reason. The Bills have been the better team on paper in all those games and even if the matchup wasn’t great their talent far outweighed their opponent. I’m not sure their talent outweighs the Bengals, and I know that this matchup is awful. Will it surprise me if Buffalo sneaks out a win in The Jungle? No. Do I expect it? No. I expect the Bills to go down swinging this week and head back home needing to win at least 2 of their next 3 to stay afloat in a stacked AFC.