The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up with their opponent in each game of the 2022 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 2022’s seventh iteration of this analysis for the Bills’ Week 10 clash versus the Minnesota Vikings. Included is a scale ranking the advantage in each matchup from 👏 (Minimal Advantage) to 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage).
Bills Pass Offense vs. Vikings Pass Defense
One of the few ways a season can get derailed for an elite team is through injuries. Buffalo has had its fair share of those this season with the latest being a day-to-day injury designation for quarterback Josh Allen. While Allen has played poor football in the past six quarters he has appeared in, the obvious assumption was that, sooner than later, the script would flip back to MVP-caliber play. His current elbow sprain dampens that optimism where, worst-case, backup Case Keenum will be forced into action and, best case, a less than 100% Allen will take the field. That being said, a less than 100% version of Allen is a better option than 20+ other starting quarterbacks in the NFL and in theory is more than enough to keep the Bills’ offense afloat.
Against the Vikings this week, whoever plays quarterback for the Bills will do so against a middling Vikings pass defense. Minnesota currently ranks 20th in Passer Rating Against (92.4) and 16th in Pass Defense DVOA (+6.0%). In the secondary, the pairing of aging stars and somewhat inexperienced youth has been the primary cause of this competent yet underwhelming defense. 32-Yard old Patrick Peterson handles CB1 duties while 33-Year old Harrison Smith handles the strong safety spot as two players that are past their prime but still capable of making a game-changing play or two. They are joined by Camryn Bynum at FS, Chandon Sullivan at Slot CB, and rookie Akayleb Evans at CB2. Both Bynum and Sullivan have been solid players for Minnesota this season, so look for the Bills to attack Evans, who likely takes the place of Cameron Dantzler at CB2 due to injury. This means the Bills’ offense at points could be funneled through WR2 Gabe Davis, a clear mismatch for the Bills but one that isn’t as certain due to Davis’ recent case of the drops.
Where Minnesota will look to gain an edge in this matchup is through a pass rush built on high-end talent against a Bills’ offensive line struggling to protect their quarterback. Extra attention must be paid to Za’Darius Smith, who is #2 in the NFL in sacks (8.5), and Danielle Hunter, who ranks #14 in hurries (6). Add to them a solid interior DL which includes Dalvin Tomlinson (pending health) and ex-Bills fan favorite Harrison Smith, and Buffalo could have some issues in the trenches this week. Both left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Mitch Morse have been rock solid this season but the rest of the offensive line has been unimpressive. The result is pressure being applied to the Bills’ quarterback at an inconsistent clip, sometimes off the edge and sometimes up the middle. If this pressure is as consistent this week as it was against the Packers and Jets, this game could quickly flip on its head for the Buffalo Bills.
EDGE: Bills 👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Vikings Rush Defense
The Bills simply must be more efficient at moving the ball on the ground in a traditional manner. Against the Jets, the duo of Devin Singletary and James Cook combined for 12 carries and 39 yards, producing a measly 3.25 Y/A. Buffalo’s offense is correctly funneled through their franchise quarterback, both through the air and on the ground, but some semblance of a run game outside of Allen would provide major benefits for the Bills. The hope is with added time, ex-Colts RB Nyheim Hines will fill a larger role on the Bills’ offense. Primarily expected to be a pass catcher, Hines’ explosive speed still can, and should, provide a change of pace for a backfield that is in desperate need of it.
Against Minnesota though, revamping the run game will be a tough task for Buffalo. The Vikings currently rank #9 in Y/A Against (4.2) due in large part to their pair of linebackers, Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks. Kendricks was named First-Team All-Pro in 2019 and coming into 2022 is on a six-year streak of 100+ tackles. A similar player in size to the Bills’ Matt Milano, Kendricks leverages his elite athleticism and high football IQ to consistently impact plays at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. As for Jordan Hicks, he came to Minnesota by way of Arizona and is also on a 100+ tackles streak, doing so each of the past three seasons. One of the more consistent tacklers in the league, Hicks has only exceeded a 10.0% missed tackle rate once in the past five seasons. There is an argument to be made that this is one of the better pairings at LB in the NFL which presents the Bills with a tricky proposition when moving the ball on the ground Sunday.
In recent weeks the Bills would even the playing field in the ground game through the mobility of their quarterback, Josh Allen. Through eight games Allen is on pace for 132 carries, 833 yards, and nine touchdowns. One of the best runners out of the backfield in the NFL, Allen’s escape-ability and production have resulted in the Bills being the only team in the NFL to rush for 100+ yards in every game this season. Now though, due to injury, there is some question as to if Allen will carry the ball more or less, assuming he takes the field. Instincts suggest the Bills will try to keep Allen away from contact when he plays in order to avoid further aggravation either through contact with another player or the ground. The result is a Bills team that will be more reliant on their RBs to move the ball consistently, something which they have not proven capable of doing.
EDGE: Vikings 👏👏👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Vikings Pass Offense
The Bills have three All-Pro players in their secondary; Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Tre White. This season that trio has missed a combined 17 games with Micah Hyde done for the season, Jordan Poyer’s health in question, and Tre White expected back sooner than later. Even with all those injuries, the Bills have held opposing passers to a passer rating of just 76.4 (NFL-5) producing a pass-defense DVOA of -14.4% (NFL-5). Credit depth, credit Frazier/McDermott, credit Beane, or credit the talent of the players able to take the field for Buffalo but whatever way you look at it, the on-the-field product has been impressive. Against the Vikings that defense will be challenged yet again through solid quarterback play, a good stable of pass catchers, and one of the best receivers in the NFL.
Say what you will about Kirk Cousins but his style of play has resulted in one of the higher floors in the NFL. His ability to rarely make mistakes keeps the Vikings in games and allows their elite playmakers to be the determinants for victory. One of those elite playmakers is none other than Justin Jefferson, whom the Vikings selected with the pick acquired from Buffalo in the Stefon Diggs trade. Since joining the Vikings in 2020 Jefferson has been a perennial All-Pro with per-game averages of 6.4 Touches and 95.4 Yards. He is joined by the always-dependable WR Adam Thielen, slot WR K.J. Osborn, and newly acquired Top-10 tight end T.J. Hockenson to produce one of the better foursomes in the league. That amount of talented weapons coupled with Kirk Cousins’ ability to deliver the ball accurately and out of harm’s way will stress the Bills’ zone defense Sunday. Of course, that’s a defense that could theoretically add one, or two, All-Pros to the mix.
Expectations have been and will continue to be that the Bills’ secondary is up to the task of defending even the most elite of players. Where Buffalo continues to eye even more production is in its pass rush. Through the first few games of the season, the Bills were blitzing less than anyone while pressuring opposing quarterbacks more than anyone. Now through eight weeks, those numbers have regressed to the mean with Buffalo ranking 26th in blitz rate (16.6%) and 20th in pressure rate (21.2%). Von Miller remains one of the best pass rushers in the league when on the field but more production is needed from the interior DL on passing downs. Heading into Sunday’s game against the Vikings, Bills DTs Ed Oliver, Tim Settle, Jordan Phillips, and DaQuan Jones have combined for just 3.0 Sacks. An influx of pressure from the middle of the Bills’ defensive front would do wonders beginning this week.
EDGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Vikings Rush Offense
Questions are beginning to grow as to whether or not the Bills’ rush defense is as good as originally thought. Before the Bills’ bye week teams were averaging just 76.2 rush yards per game against the Bills. However, in the past two weeks, teams are averaging 141.0. This deviation was accepted against the Packers as a team that essentially fell on their own sword down the stretch of the game, but the Jets’ 174 rush yards proved pivotal in the eventual Buffalo loss. Missing Matt Milano and Jordan Poyer plays heavily into these issues but the Bills’ defensive line has done little to pick up the slack. Now this week against the Vikings, the Bills will be tasked with slowing down one of the better running backs in the NFL.
Dalvin Cook is one of the few remaining legitimate bell cow backs in the NFL. He has been on the field for Minnesota on 71.03% of offensive snaps while out rushing (attempts) the entire team 131 to 57. Cook has built an exceptional career off his quick feet, high top-end speed, and contact balance to the tune of three straight Pro Bowls and regard as one of the better rushers in the league. In 2022, most of his damage has come when attacking outside the tackle box, an area of concern for Buffalo with the recent injury designation to Greg Rousseau. The Vikings have a more sufficient air attack but the existence of Dalvin Cook makes it a much more dangerous proposition to bail out and stop the pass.
The hope for Buffalo is that either Milano and/or Poyer find their way back into the lineup against the Vikings. One or both would be key assets in assuring that outside runs by Dalvin Cook don’t result in chunk yardage gains. Each of these players has played at an All-Pro level when on the field for Buffalo this season, and they’re two of the better tacklers on the team’s roster. The Vikings will counter whoever is in the second level for the Bills via more inclusion of the newly acquired T.J. Hockenson in the game plan. Hockenson’s abilities as a pass catcher make him even more dangerous as a blocker which should allow him to get to the second level to open up more lanes for Cook. The Bills can ill afford to allow the Vikings to pass all over them with the same able to be said regarding the Vikings’ run game.
EDGE: Vikings 👏👏👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Vikings Special Teams
Against the Jets, Bills Kicker Tyler Bass extended his consecutive regular-season XP streak to 97, just 15 shy of the post-2015 NFL record. Bass also missed his first non-blocked FG of the season, a 55-yard attempt as time expired at the end of the half. Bass has become one of the more automatic players at his position and should be viewed as such moving forward. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s rarely-used Punter, Sam Martin, has possibly his best game with the Bills, booming a 61-yard punt for a touchback and a 50-yard punt downed at the four-yard line. Unlike Bass in usage but similar in consistency, Martin has quietly been one of the better punters in the league this season. Lastly, the Bills continued to use Isaiah McKenzie on KRs, but got a glimpse of newly acquired Nyheim Hines whose lone punt return for Buffalo went an impressive 18-yards.
Kicking for the Vikings is fourth-year pro, Greg Joseph, who is off to a concerning start. Inside of the 50-yard line, he is 10/10 on FGs, but behind it, he is just 1/6. More concerning is he has already missed three XPs resulting in a poor XP% of 85.7%. Punting has been much more impressive for the Vikings, as Ryan Wright currently ranks ninth in net average at 43.5 while giving up just 5.9 yards per return on 18 returns. Last is the Vikings’ return duo of Jalen Reagor and Kene Nwangwu who have been consistent yet unimpressive. Reagor has returned punts where he averages 7.2 Y/R with a long of just 25. Nwangwu handles kicks and averages 22.9 Y/R with a long of just 33. Neither has really broken away on a return and against one of the better coverage teams in Buffalo, there is little reason to expect that this week.
EDGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
Josh Allen is hurt. More than any team in the NFL the Bills funnel their offense through one player, their quarterback. Without Allen on the field, the Bills are exposed to heavier boxes, more free rushers, and an inability to consistently pick up yards. If Case Keenum has to play, he does so as a sufficient backup, but a backup nonetheless. Add to that a Vikings team that does have talent on defense, talent that would be able to compete with Allen, and points could be far and few between barring health.
On offense for the Vikings, their ability to mix high-level passing with high-level rushing is a rarity in the 2022 NFL. If one is not working against Buffalo expect them to flip to the other while consistently mixing the run with the pass. They do so with maybe the best WR in the NFL in Jefferson and one of the better RBs Cook, producing maybe the most balanced offense in the league. Of course, Buffalo’s defense remains top-tier regardless of injuries, but if we have seen anything through eight games of the season it’s that the injuries on the defensive side of the ball significantly reduce the Bills’ margin for error.
Why Buffalo Will Win
Josh Allen might play. If Allen plays, whatever version of him we see is better than most quarterbacks you will see this season. His presence on the field demands respect from opposition even if his injury prevents him from throwing the ball 70-yards downfield, which he somehow can still do. As a runner, he also remains a massive threat and with Nyheim Hines picking up more and more of the playbook the Bills have rare speed out of the backfield. Also, let’s not forget that Stefon Diggs plays at his peak when he feels disrespected. Does he feel that way this weekend?
On defense, the Bills may, or may not, be getting healthier. Questions remain on whether or not a handful of high-level players will suit up Sunday but whoever does still makes for one of the better defenses in the NFL. The Bills have shown a propensity for slowing down any and all passers in the NFL while their recent struggles against the run are more likely a mirage than a realism. Expect Buffalo’s front-six to play re-invigorated this week while the back end of the defense keys on Justin Jefferson and challenges Kirk Cousins to beat them elsewhere in what is a bigger game for the Vikings than the Bills.
Prediction: Bills 21 – Vikings 20
Assuming Josh Allen plays, the Bills find a way to win this game. A hurt Allen is still a dangerous Allen and while recent struggles with ball security are a concern, a revamped offense keyed on short to intermediate throws may be just what the doctor ordered. Without the explosive movement of the ball though, the Vikings should get more opportunities to score. Buffalo plays their “bend don’t break” defense though and holds the Vikings to two FGs instead of three-plus Touchdowns. If Josh Allen DOES NOT play, watch out, this could get ugly for the Bills. The concept of Case Keenum is intriguing but he offers few similarities to Allen which could make for a game where Buffalo struggles to score. In that event this game is likely out of reach for the Bills, barring a defensive or special teams score, with Buffalo losing 10-24.