Game preview: Panthers at Bills

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers at Bills game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s showdown in Miami.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams, primarily the opponent, ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

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Buffalo Bills

Despite a relatively strong start to the season, the Bills are riding a two-game skid and will surely enter Sunday afternoon’s contest with a sense of urgency as they look to make a postseason push.

Buffalo presents an extremely explosive, though ultimately one-sided, offensive attack. Led by quarterback Josh Allen, the Bills have scored 363 points (6th in NFL), and have the second highest point differential in the league at +134.

It all starts with Allen, who in his third season has amassed 3,524 yards passing for 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while adding 531 yards rushing and four scores on the ground. With Cam Newton on the other side, this will be a matchup of two of the biggest QBs in the league as Allen stands at 6’5″ and 240 pounds. He’s very tough to bring down and can routinely make plays on the run when the pocket breaks down.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – OCTOBER 18: Quarterback Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills is tackled short of the first down marker on third down by safety Amani Hooker #37 of the Tennessee Titans during fourth quarter at Nissan Stadium on October 18, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

And he has arguably the strongest arm in the league, keeping defenses honest as they have to account for the big play on every down. Many of those big plays are to his primary wide receiver, Stephon Diggs.

Diggs predictably leads the team in catches (78), targets (121), yard (972) and is second in touchdowns with seven. After breaking out as one of the top receivers in the league with Minnesota, Diggs has flourished in Buffalo and developed a strong rapport with his quarterback. His crisp route running and fantastic hands are among his most notable traits. But Diggs can take the top off of defenses with his speed as well.

Cole Beasley has been another reliable target for Allen, especially on third down. Beasley, the team’s slot receiver, does most of his damage in the middle of the field on short man-beater routes such as shallow crosses and drags. Beasley isn’t often a threat in the red zone (he has just one touchdown) or a big-play threat (long of 29 yards), but he racks up a lot of catches and can help sustain long drives.

Tight end Dawson Knox has been banged up at portions of the season, but has maintained a considerable target share in the offense. He’s another go-to guy on third downs. But he’s most lethal in the red zone and leads the team with eight touchdowns this season despite missing two games.

Devin Singletary and Zach Moss form the two-headed backfield. But given Buffalo’s overall lack of a run-game, they have been more relegated to pass-catching roles out of the backfield, in which Singletary gets the edge. He’s a shiftier, quicker back that can get yards after the catch. And while Moss is capable out of the backfield, he’s used much more on early downs and short-yardage situations being a bigger back that he is.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 03: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills makes a catch against Desmond King II #25 of the Houston Texans in the third quarter at Highmark Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

The Bills have solid playmakers at every level of the defense, though they’re not really elite at any position. Safety Jordan Poyer is the leader of the secondary and at age 30 is still producing at a high level. He’s second on the team in tackles (77) as he often plays in a variety of spots particularly near the line of scrimmage. And he has a team-high five interceptions this season to go along with nine pass deflections. He also has a sack and five tackles for loss to go along with his stats in coverage. Tre’Davious White is a talented outside corner who has missed a couple games due to injury, but can battle with some of the better receivers in the league.

Linebacker Tremaine Edmonds is an ascending player in the league and is the team’s best all-around linebacker. He can make plays sideline to sideline, but also gets off of blocks and is able to make plays in the run game. He’s not often used to rush the passer, though, as the team likes to utilize his cover skills as much as possible.

Finally, on the defensive line they have young talent that’s playing some really good football. Rookie Gregory Rousseau has made an impact at defensive end, logging three sacks, an interception as well six tackles for loss and quarterback hits. He applies pressure consistently in his pass rush, and will draw the attention from the Panthers tackles. On the interior is 24-year-old Ed Oliver, who uses his athleticism to penetrate into the backfield an either blow up rush lanes or force the quarterback out of the pocket.

Overall they’re a defense predicated on not giving up the big play and they keep everything in front of them, forcing teams to stay patient and sustain long drives in order to score.

Injury reports below:

Carolina Panthers

After battling back to .500 at 5-5 with a win over the Cardinals November 14, the Panthers have dropped three straight for the second time this season. That’s put them very much on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture. They now sit at 5-8, and would likely need to win out in order to secure a postseason berth.

The nostalgia and energetic boost of Cam Newton’s return has worn off as the offense has continued to struggle putting together consistent successful drives and establishing a rhythm. While he still poses a rushing threat, primarily in the red zone, Newton’s inconsistency through the air has impacted much of the team had hoped it could do with playmakers like Robby Anderson and DJ Moore. The only problem is: the Panthers are pretty much out of options at this point. PJ Walker has had his struggles, too. And now with offensive coordinator Joe Brady gone, and Christian McCaffrey done for the season, the outlook is bleak in Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 12: Robby Anderson #11 of the Carolina Panthers completes a five-yard reception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter over the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But as they continue to fight for a potential playoff spot, they’ll get extended looks from Chuba Hubbard, who has had some up-and-down performances throughout the year. Meanwhile Anderson is becoming more involved in the offensive gameplan and is coming off of a season-high 12 twelve targets against Atlanta. And after strong starts to the season, even Hassan Reddick and Brian Burns have cooled off in recent weeks. But that’s not to say there aren’t still great pieces on both sides for which to build on in these final weeks.

As evidenced by last year’s one-possession games, and this year’s fourth quarter efforts, it’s clear the team isn’t just “mailing it in.” Matt Rhule is potentially coaching for his job, and players are continuing to develop. While a playoff spot is unlikely, crazier things have happened in the NFL. And if they lose out then the team may head in a completely different direction. And that alone can offer some hope to an otherwise frustrated fanbase.

But it starts this Sunday at Buffalo.

Keys to the Game

Get to the QB: They may not be the league leaders in the sack department anymore, but the Panthers still have plenty of talented pass rushers to wreak havoc on any given Sunday. They’ll have about as good of an opportunity as any to pin their eyes back this week against a Bills team that almost exclusively passes. Allen has attempted the fifth-most passes in the league (494), and often looks for the deep shot. Getting to him quick and early will limit that potential.

Get the ball out quick: While they blitz only 23.5% of the time (21st in NFL), the Bills are creating QB hurries on a staggering 14.7% of dropbacks (1st in NFL). For the Panthers to find success on offense they’ll need to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers and let them do their thing. Cam likely won’t have much time in the pocket, and thus some short, quick routes, can help Carolina build momentum early. And that’s imperative with a high-scoring team on the other sidelines.

Must win turnover battle: Some teams in the league can battle back from losing a possession or two due to turnovers. But those teams are typically ones that can have one-play drives resulting in touchdowns, or at least have high-powered offenses. That’s just not the Panthers, and so any turnover can become a fatal blow in an instant. Especially when Josh Allen and company are as opportunistic as they are.

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