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 in 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 most important individual player matchups to watch on defense, as these key battles will undoubtedly determine the outcome of the 2022 NFL Season opener.
Rams WR Cooper Kupp vs. Bills CB Taron Johnson
No offensive duo was more explosive or productive than the instant connection formed between Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. The two hooked up for an astounding 145 receptions, 1,947 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. Kupp is a big, physical and explosive slot receiver that creates ridiculous separation and explodes to create yards after the catch. The 6-foot-2, 208-pounder dominated in nearly every game of the 2021 regular season, posting 11 100-plus yard outings and catching at least seven passes in 15 contests.
Not only did Kupp rack up an enormous amount of catches, but he continued to make plays with the ball in his hands, leading the NFL in yards-after-catch with 861, at an average of 5.9 YAC average while forcing the second-most missed tackles among receivers (24). He did damage at all three levels of the field, too.
Primarily used in the short area of the field (his average depth of target was around eight yards), Kupp was devastating when Stafford targeted him deep. Just 23 of Kupp’s 189 targets were 15-plus yards downfield, but he converted those into 15 catches for 570 yards and a touchdown.
The Bills are already without their star cornerback Tre’Davious White for this contest and will be relying on a mixture of two rookies in first-round draft pick Kaiir Elam and sixth-rounder Christian Benford opposite third-year cornerback Dane Jackson, who’s replacing Levi Wallace on the outside. Taron Johnson is now the veteran in the cornerback group and he’ll open the season with a daunting matchup in Kupp.
Johnson has quietly been one of the NFL’s best slot cornerbacks and his strong play continued in 2021. He allowed just 33 receptions on 62 targets (53.7-percent) for 423 yards and two touchdowns. He intercepted one pass and forced seven incompletions. Johnson is strong, physical and quick, but he’ll need to elevate his game to another level against one of the league’s most productive pass-catchers in Cooper Kupp.
Bills DE Von Miller vs. Rams LT Joe Noteboom
After signing a six-year, $120 million contract in free agency, it’s only fitting that Von Miller will make his Bills debut against his former team. Miller, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft was brought to Buffalo not only for his abilities as a ferocious pass rusher, but for the veteran leadership he possesses and the respect he commands from his peers around the league.
At 33-years old, Miller isn’t the same player he was four or five years ago, but he still brings a lot to the table. In 2021, Miller made 50 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, and 9.5 sacks. His 60 quarterback pressures were 15th-most among edge rushers and his 18.6-percent win rate was tied for 10th best at his position.
Miller is no longer a full-time player and was primarily used as a pass rusher in 2021 (430 snaps), but still was one of the more impactful run defenders among the league’s edge rushers. His 20 run stops were 13th-best in the NFL and the 0.5 yards of average depth per stop was the best in the NFL.
Miller will see the majority of his snaps against Rams left tackle Joe Noteboom, who signed a three-year, $40 million extension following Andrew Whitworth’s retirement. Noteboom, a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft has been a serviceable swing tackle throughout his career in Los Angeles, surrendering just three sacks, 14 hits and 42 hurries in nearly 1,200 snaps. The 6-foot-5, 321-pounder has only started in spot duty to this point but based on the contract he signed, it’s clear that the Rams have confidence in his abilities to protect Matthew Stafford’s blind side. Miller surely is familiar with Noteboom’s skills and will present a tough task for the first-time starter in Week 1.
Bills DE Greg Rousseau vs. Rams RT Rob Havenstein
Opposite Miller, second-year edge defender Greg Rousseau will look to build upon his strong rookie campaign. The 2021 first-round draft pick out of Miami tallied 42 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks and three pass breakups as a rookie. The 6-foot-7 edge rusher has been working with Miller throughout the summer to improve his technique and looks like he added good weight to his long frame as well.
As a rookie, Rousseau was at his best defending the run. His 35 tackles were fifth-most among edge players and he didn’t miss a single tackle. His 13.3 run stop percentage was also the highest rate at his position with an average depth of 2.4 yards past the line of scrimmage. He was productive as a pass rusher, too, tallying 30 total pressures.
Rousseau is expected to take a big leap in year two and will open his sophomore campaign against Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein. Havenstein is a quality starter that’s been in the league for a while and is one of the few offensive linemen in the NFL that can match Rousseau’s length. Havenstein is 6-foot-8, 330-pounds and has 33 3/4″ arms. Last year, Havenstein surrendered seven sacks (12th-most among tackles) and 26 total pressures, finishing 21st in PFF’s pass rush productivity metric.
Buffalo will be relying upon their defensive line to step up this season and it all starts with the tandem of Von Miller and Greg Rousseau.
Bills CB Kaiir Elam vs. Rams WR Allen Robinson
Elam gets to make his NFL debut on a national stage against one of the best offenses he’ll see all season long. The former Gator will face off with Los Angeles receiver Allen Robinson, a veteran looking to prove doubters around the league wrong. Robinson had the worst statistical season of his career in 2021, catching just 38 passes for 410 yards and one touchdown. But the 29-year-old still has size (6-foot-2, 220-pounds) and athleticism that makes him a tough matchup – especially for a rookie.
Robinson is one year removed from a 102-catch, 1,250-yard, six touchdown season and he hopes to get back to that trajectory with the Rams. Elam is a long, physical corner that surrendered a 46-percent completion rate over his final two collegiate seasons and showed promise during the preseason. In 64 coverage snaps, Elam gave up three catches on six targets for just 30 yards and broke up two passes.
Tremaine Edmunds vs. Cam Akers
The 2022 season is huge for middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who is hoping to cash in as an unrestricted free agent. However, he’s one of the most polarizing players among the Bills’ fanbase. But now with a stout defensive line in front of him thanks to the offseason additions of DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle, and Jordan Phillips, Edmunds should be free to flow and make plays at the line of scrimmage.
It’s unclear how Los Angeles will divvy up carries in Week 1 between Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson, but Akers was announced as the starter. Akers didn’t look 100 percent during the playoffs last season, rushing for 172 yards on 67 carries, but following an offseason of recovery, he should be ready to go. Akers is a big, strong back with burst that can catch passes in space. The chess match between Edmunds and Akers will be a fun one to watch.