ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The last time the Buffalo Bills were in Cincinnati, the NFL world stood still as safety Damar Hamlin experienced cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field. But after a lengthy hospital stay, Hamlin regained his health and completed an uncanny comeback by making the Bills’ 53-man roster this season.
With another prime-time date against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium looming and 43 Bills holdovers from that fateful night on Jan. 2, many assumed the attention surrounding the team would be overwhelming this week.
But it hasn’t happened that way. Though Hamlin has been brought up in most conversations with players throughout the week, it hasn’t been the force many anticipated. Some of it is because Hamlin has been a healthy scratch in seven of Buffalo’s eight games this year.
But most of it this week is by design of the Bills. They set the tone early in the week, and while they acknowledge the meaning of their return and haven’t dismissed it by any stretch, they are approaching their trip to Cincinnati like business as usual.
“I think there’s a lot of valuable lessons that were taken out of that situation, and we’re extremely grateful that Damar is in a good spot,” coach Sean McDermott said. “That said, we acknowledge it, but we’ve got a football game and a job to do, so that’s what we’re focused on right now.”
“I don’t feel no way,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “That ship has sailed for real for me, especially because Damar is good. A lot of things have happened since then, so for me, like, that ship has really sailed. I try not to attach myself mentally to anything, not necessarily negative, but something that’s in the past. I feel like we all grew from it. A lot of good things have happened since as well, so not too much emotion.”
When it unfolded, Diggs played a prominent role — on the field as he helped his teammates, and off the field, too, as he remained in Cincinnati to stay close to Hamlin while he was in the hospital. His tone about heading back to Cincinnati was matched by teammates throughout the week. Quarterback Josh Allen said it hasn’t been much of a talking point.
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“I’m trying to take it as a normal game,” Allen said. “We don’t make it any bigger or less than the previous or the next one. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of emotions flowing through some guys there and being back on that field. Especially Damar. But at the same time, we’ve got a job to do, and we’ve got to figure out how we can either use it to motivate us or put it behind us and focus towards the game on Sunday night.”
For those who were there 10 months ago, it’s pretty clear. They’re all of the same mindset. However, it remains to be seen whether that tough exterior will remain when they arrive at the stadium, go to the locker room they were sequestered in when the game was paused and attempt to keep their full focus on the opponent in an utterly unprecedented situation.
“For me, I’m just going to attack it like every week,” center Mitch Morse said. “And then if feelings come up, understand that there’s a reason for them, have them, and then carry on with your job.”
Adjustments for the Bengals came in the offseason
There are several side conversations about this game and matchup, but from an on-field perspective, none is more important than how the Bengals were seemingly well ahead of the Bills in their playoff matchup. Even since last season’s “Monday Night Football” meeting, the Bengals offense looked outstanding and the Bills offense struggled to match. It’s led some to ask about what changes the Bills offense will make from a schematic perspective heading into Sunday night. However, the Bills did a lot of the work they needed to do well before this Week 9 showdown, and that’s with general manager Brandon Beane going all in on adding pieces to the offense to try to outscore any potential opponent on their playoff journey.
A big piece of this puzzle is the Bills’ offensive line. Through eight games, the pass protection of left guard Connor McGovern and rookie right guard O’Cyrus Torrence has been a legitimate difference-maker for an offense that struggled to protect Allen from both of those spots last season. The offensive line struggled in that playoff game against the Bengals, but left guard Rodger Saffold was the lowest-graded Bills player in that contest through our All-22 study and contributed greatly to their offensive downfall. Those two pieces should go a long way in creating more of a conducive offensive atmosphere for Allen, as should rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid.
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Kincaid, in his new role as the second- or third-most-utilized target within the passing offense depending on the week, creates a new challenge for the Bengals in how they defend the Bills. Last year, the Bills had nothing to offer out of their slot receiver position, and tight end Dawson Knox is relatively limited in his ceiling as a pass catcher. Kincaid is a different beast entirely, as his trustworthy hands and playmaking abilities to get yards after the catch can take advantage of a Bengals defense should it get aggressive and send blitzers toward Allen. It would not be a surprise if Kincaid becomes a go-to for Allen if the Bengals focus on shutting down Diggs. He and a fully healthy Gabe Davis (compared to what he was last year) could be the receiving keys to help the Bills go score-for-score with the Bengals.
Dodson-Poyer combination looks potentially sticky for future games
One thing that stood out from the team’s Week 8 win is how well the strategy at outside linebacker worked through the first three quarters. It’s all designed around the strengths of the two players involved, linebacker Tyrel Dodson and safety Jordan Poyer, and devising a strategy to minimize where each player may be flawed by coming up with a counter. In Dodson’s case, he is an above-average to good run defender. He charges the line of scrimmage when he senses a handoff, helping him get to the ball carrier when it’s actually a run. By keeping him on the field for first and second downs, along with third down when the opponent has short to medium distances to gain, it keeps Dodson in a position of success. But because he is so reactive to the run game, it often gets him into trouble on obvious passing situations, which is where Poyer comes in.
Poyer shifting down to linebacker and putting Taylor Rapp on the field at safety not only takes Dodson’s flaw out of the equation, but also helps Poyer succeed in an area that suits his current skill set. Poyer is not as quick as he once was, and because much of his game relies on instincts and then the adequate speed to get to those places on the field, he’s been a step slow on some occasions, especially in the passing game. But by putting him in a more condensed area as a de facto linebacker, Poyer no longer has far to travel on obvious passing downs and can rely on his current speed and excellent instincts to be an impactful player. It likely wasn’t a coincidence that Poyer had one of his best games of the year with a minor shift in role.
The Poyer piece especially makes it seem like this could hold as a sound strategy. Then when you consider the improvements made on defense at cornerback and defensive tackle, it seems like the Bills are on to something. It could wind up being a bit flawed if teams begin attacking the Bills heavily on play-action on early downs, or if one of Poyer, Rapp or Micah Hyde get hurt. Rookie Dorian Williams would likely be the go-to in that case. No matter what, the Bills have a plan, and that’s a big development from how uneven it originally looked without star linebacker Matt Milano.
How much will the new defenders play?
The two new defensive additions — cornerback Rasul Douglas and defensive tackle Linval Joseph — have the potential to be impact players when they see the field. But with only two days of practice each since joining the team, what’s the likelihood the Bills will use either Sunday night? Considering the stakes, the opponent and the deficiencies the incumbent players had at cornerback and defensive tackle, it would not be surprising to see a considerable role for each. For Douglas, perhaps it’s splitting some series with Dane Jackson early on, allowing game flow to take over and then, if Douglas looks up to the challenge early, playing him for the majority of the second half. They likely don’t want to overload him too quickly, though his being well versed and as instinctive as he is with zone coverages can likely bridge the gap a bit better than most.
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With Joseph, it looks like a potential plug-and-play situation. They desperately need a run-stuffing one-technique in the lineup who can anchor against a double-team and set up the linebackers and safeties for success. When Joseph is at full speed, it’s fair to expect a role close to what Star Lotulelei used to play for the Bills, hovering somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of the snaps. In his first week, that might be slightly lower, but his role will be clear, and they don’t have anyone else like him on the roster — regardless of how many practices he’s had this week. But of the two new players, considering Joseph hasn’t been playing and is 35, he’s the more likely to be inactive this week.
Projected practice squad call-ups: CB Josh Norman
Projected inactives: IOL Alec Anderson, OT Germain Ifedi, DT Tim Settle, LB Baylon Spector, LB A.J. Klein, S Damar Hamlin
Prediction: Bengals 26, Bills 23
The Bills certainly have made improvements, and they’ll be motivated to show their playoff exit was a fluke and that they can match up well with the Bengals. But the primary thing holding me back from believing the Bills can get past the Bengals on the road is how uneven the Bills’ offensive drives have been, and how many points they’ve left on the field, even just since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game last week. The Bills will have their success as they test the Bengals’ multiple defense, but the Bengals look too cohesive on offense — especially if some defenders they looked to replace are in the game for a bit — for me to think the Bills can steal a road win. Ultimately, the Bengals will win a close one, maybe even with a last-minute or overtime field goal to seal the victory.
(Top photo: Timothy T Ludwig / Getty Images)