The 2022 NFL Season kicks off Thursday night as the Los Angeles Rams host the Buffalo Bills for a primetime game at SoFi Stadium. Buffalo will watch the Rams’ Super Bowl ceremony prior to kickoff, giving the team a sense of what they can experience should they live up to the high expectations placed upon them this year. Both teams feature high-octane offenses led by superstar quarterbacks Josh Allen and Matthew Stafford, and both squads boast game-wrecking front seven defenders in Los Angeles defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Buffalo’s edge rusher Von Miller, who won a Super Bowl with the Rams the last time he took the field.
With all eyes set to be tuned in on Thursday, here are the biggest individual player matchups to watch when the Bills are on offense, as these key battles will undoubtedly determine the outcome of the 2022 NFL Season opener.
Top 5 matchups to watch when Buffalo’s on Defense can be found here
Rams DT Aaron Donald vs. Bills Interior OL
The biggest key for offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey’s debut as Buffalo’s play-caller will be limiting the effect that Aaron Donald has on the game. The future Hall of Fame defender will undoubtedly win a fair share of his matchups, but the Bills need to find a way to contain him as best they can. During the last meeting between the two teams, Donald had a monster game, making six tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble, but thanks to Josh Allen’s heroics, the Bills squeaked out a 35-32 victory.
Donald was a menace in 2021, recording a whopping 84 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He capped off his season with a huge sack on Joe Burrow to win the Super Bowl, also. Donald is nearly unblockable as a pass rusher, tallying 86 pressures and winning 22.9-percent of his pass rush reps – the fourth-highest rate among defenders last season. But he’s equally dominant against the run, ranking third among defensive linemen in run stops (46) with an average depth of tackle at 1.6 yards (12th-best).
The Bills’ interior offensive line struggled throughout the majority of the 2021 season as the unit couldn’t find any sort of consistency. But when the team inserted Ryan Bates into the lineup for the final three games of the regular season, things changed for the better. In the five games (including postseason) that Bates was in the lineup, Buffalo rushed for 800 yards and nine touchdowns on 152 carries, showing physicality and cohesiveness that was absent for much of the season prior. Bates also surrendered just four hurries in pass protection during those five games, and the line as a whole played much better in this aspect as well.
Add veteran free agent signee, left guard Roger Saffold into the mix, and Buffalo has a veteran trio along the interior that can make things difficult for the 6-foot-2, 285-pound destroyer lining up across from them.
Bills WR Stefon Diggs vs. Rams CB Jalen Ramsey
On the other side of the ball is another elite wide receiver in Buffalo Bills pass-catcher Stefon Diggs. Diggs has been Josh Allen’s favorite target since joining the team in 2020 and caught 103 passes (164 targets) for 1,225 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. Diggs’ 2021 numbers are impressive, but most would say that he and the Bills’ offense could have been better. Diggs averaged just 3.1 yards after the catch, which is well below the league average, and a much smaller number than the NFL’s elite receivers produce.
Allen and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey have emphasized the importance of ball placement and focusing on creating more yards after the catch in 2022, so Diggs could be in for a monster year. But whether that dominance will begin in Week 1 is a big question mark, as he’ll run the majority of his routes against Jalen Ramsey, one of the NFL’s most talented cornerbacks.
The 27-year-old former No. 5 overall draft pick had yet another stand-out, yet somewhat inconsistent season in 2021, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 cornerback. He allowed 59 catches on 93 targets (63.4-percent) for 595 yards and three touchdowns while breaking up 16 passes and intercepting four. Regardless of the peaks and valleys from 2021, Ramsey is one of the few cornerbacks in the NFL who trail the opposing offense’s No. 1 receiver. He’s a long, physical and talented cornerback that presents a massive challenge for whoever lines up opposite him.
Bills TE Dawson Knox vs. Rams LB Bobby Wagner/S Taylor Rapp
Dawson Knox broke out in a big way in 2021, catching 49 passes for 587 yards and a whopping nine touchdowns. Knox emerged as a focal point in Buffalo’s passing attack and one of the most reliable weapons in Josh Allen’s arsenal. That will likely continue in 2022, as Ken Dorsey has stressed the importance of tight ends in his offense and hinted at an increase of 12 personnel usage.
Knox is a big (6-foot-4, 254-pounds) and athletic weapon that’s effective from any alignment. He can stretch defenses vertically from the slot, be used in motion, attached to the line as a blocker and can even split out wide and threaten boundary cornerbacks. Knox is a modern tight end who can stress opposing defenses at all three levels of the field. His seven receptions on targets 20-plus yards downfield trailed only Mark Andrews at the tight end position and converted them into 238 yards and a score.
On Thursday, Knox will run his routes against a few Rams defenders, including safety Taylor Rapp and a new face in linebacker Bobby Wagner – a future Hall of Famer that spent the first 10 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks before joining Los Angeles in free agency. Wagner is an aging vet, but still one of the most instinctive and productive players in the league. On a bad Seahawks defense, Wagner tallied 170 tackles, three tackles for loss, five pass breakups and an interception in 2021.
Rapp has been inconsistent since being selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but he’s a matchup safety that has a blend of size and athleticism that allows him to play in a variety of depths and alignments on defense. However, Rapp was a weak link in Los Angeles’ defense last season, giving up the fifth-most catches among safeties (43) for 479 yards and four touchdowns. The Rams as a whole surrendered 90 catches for 879 yards and four touchdowns to opposing tight ends last season.