The Los Angeles Rams will raise their championship banner on Thursday Night Football. Then they have to get right back to work defending it. They will defend it against the odds-on favorite to win it all this season. Vegas odds makers name the Buffalo Bills their favorite to win the Super Bowl. The Rams aren’t far behind, falling in fourth place.
It’s no mystery as to why. The Rams and the Bills both have tremendous rosters and both improved during the offseason in some intriguing ways.
Key Improvements: Los Angeles Rams
The Rams added strength to strength by adding Allen Robinson to their wide receiving corps. Robinson joins Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson replacing Robert Woods as the third starter in Sean McVay’s favorite 11 personnel package. (One running back, one tight end, and three receivers)
Kupp is coming off a historic season after capturing the NFL receiving triple crown. He led the league in receiving yards, catches, and touchdowns. Jefferson is coming off a career year. He caught 50 passes for 802 yards. Jefferson had knee surgery that cut his training camp short and may miss the Rams season opener.
With Robinson, the Rams added something they haven’t had in the McVay era, a true X receiver. But he also has the potential to be so much more than that. He is also an over-the-middle threat and a bully runner that can pick up yards after the catch to move the sticks. He will also help open up the running game by forcing defenses to play with a light box. Robinson is similar to Stafford in that we have never seen him used to his full potential. What makes it even more interesting is that we may not have seen the best version of the McVay offense.
The Rams also have interesting depth at the position. Ben Skowronek proved to be a versatile receiver down the stretch and has earned the trust of the coaching staff. Tutu Atwell brings an otherworldly speed element and has been a highlight coming out of Rams training camp.
Brandon Powell has shown a flash of a Deebo Samuel-like quality when he moves with the ball. His pinball punt return ability can translate to yards after the catch on offense. The Rams also ran him out of the backfield on several packages during training camp. Lance McCutcheon led the NFL preseason pack with 259 yards of receiving. He had the third most first downs with 10 and was tied for the lead with two touchdown catches.
Without Jefferson, the Rams will use the depth in rotation as a committee approach.
Last season the Rams were a pass-heavy offense. This season it could be even more electric and dynamic. And Odell Beckham Jr. isn’t even on the team yet.
The Rams linebackers in recent history have been a place of weakness for the Rams. That was compounded by Staley’s two high safety/light box defense. The two high safeties prevented big throwing plays, but simultaneously, those lightboxes dared teams to run the ball. Teams that had the ability to run the ball, like the 49ers, did with devastating effects.
This year is a different story for the Rams linebackers with the addition of Bobby Wagner and the continued ascension of Ernest Jones.
Regardless of who plays the MIKE linebacker position on any given down, they now have a quality tackler and run stopper with Jones and Wagner. Wagner will likely don the green dot and therefore will have to be on the field for 100 percent of the defensive snaps. But that won’t interfere with Jones’ development or playing time. The Rams will rotate the two between rushing the passer and holding down the fort on the second level.
The Bills are a team that can punish you on the ground as well as with big plays downfield. With this duo, that threat level is sharply decreased.
Key Improvements: Buffalo Bills
Last season the Bills were ranked 14th in pass blocking and 26th in run blocking per PFF. In response, they added five new linemen this off-season. Dion Dawkins will anchor the left side at tackle. He was one bright spot on the line last season. Opposite him at right tackle will be newly added David Quessenberry. Quessenberry was a phenomenal run blocker and a mediocre pass blocker, but an upgrade from Spencer Brown, nonetheless. Also a more consistent presence as well.
Ryan Bates returns at guard and will be joined by former Ram, Rodger Saffold.
The Bill’s offense looked great last season even with sub-par offensive line play. While these improvements are not earth-shattering, they will unlock a higher level of play from the offense as a whole.
Key Questionable Areas: Buffalo Bills
By DVOA the Bills were the number one rated defense in the league last year. The bulk of that work was done by the secondary. The Bills were one of two teams with a -20 passing DVOA or better. The Bills were -23, the Cowboys were -20.5 and the next best team was -12.6. For more context, the Rams were -1.2 in sixth place.
By defensive rushing DVOA, the Bills were 11th. The defense against the pass was so good it pulled a mediocre run defense to the top of the league.
All that to say, the Bills revamped their defensive line in response. Out with Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison and in with Von Miller, Gregory Rousseau, and Daquan Jones. The question is, will this make them significantly better? They signed Miller and Jones, two free agents on the wrong side of 30. Jones had one of his worst seasons in 2021, but at one time was a great run defender. Miller on the other hand had a fantastic season with the Rams.
Across from Miller, they opted to go with second-year edge Rousseau. He had an up-and-down, but a solid rookie season. He posted 36 pressures and four sacks. The one unchanged piece is Ed Oliver. He certainly isn’t Aaron Donald when it comes to interior pressure, but he does a bang-up job of it. Oliver moved around all over the defensive line last season, so expect the Bills to test out the Rams new starting right guard.
Key Questionable Areas: Los Angeles Rams
Andrew Whitworth retired after posting the best pass block PFF grade in the league last season with a 90.7. His replacement, Joseph Noteboom, was the second-best graded offensive lineman on the team, but nowhere near as good as Whitworth. He posted a 76.1 grade. The big question there is, can Noteboom make a jump from being a good backup to being a great starter?
A hard truth be told, regardless of how good Noteboom is, there will be a drop-off in talent level from Whitworth. The question here is just how much and how much will that affect Matthew Stafford? Like most quarterbacks, Stafford doesn’t become better with defenders breathing down his neck. Stafford’s turnover worthy plays percentage jumps from 1.2 to 8.2 percent when pressure is allowed. That’s .1 percent behind Jamies Winston.
There was also a change at right guard with the departure of Austin Corbett. His replacement looks to be Coleman Shelton. Shelton has played a total of 238 snaps on offense in five seasons in the NFL. So not a lot is known about his prowess at the position.
Week one will test both new starters, with Ed Oliver going up against Shelton. Per the Bills depth chart, Von Miller will be lining up on the right side, setting him to go against Noteboom.
Key Matchups: Rams vs Bills
Cooper Kupp vs Taron Johnson
So about that dominant Bills secondary from last season… The starting two corners won’t be playing in this game. Levi Wallace signed with the Steelers and Tre’Davious White starts the season on the PUP list.
This will likely force Taron Johnson to try to keep up with Cooper Kupp. Johnson is a good nickel corner, but Kupp is not an average slot receiver and he is of course much more than that. The question with Johnson will be, which version of him will the Rams see? First half or second half Johnson. He had six pass breakups and one interception last season. All of which, but one, came in the first half of the season. In the final eight games of the season, he only earned a PPF grade of 65 or higher once, against the Saints. (They were not so good passing the ball at that point last season.)
The Bills will likely start their first-round 2022 pick, Kaiir Elam on the boundary. Going up against Allen Robinson is a hell of a test for the first game of your pro career. The good news for the Bills is that their two best members of the secondary are returning. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer will act as a backstop for the formidable Rams passing offense. They finished last season as the number two and three highest graded coverage safeties by PFF.
Pass Rush vs Pass Rush
The improvement of the Bills defensive line improvement was laid out earlier. Adding Von Miller to an already effective pass rush spelled success for the Rams last season and the Bills hope he brings a similar effect to them this season. The advantage for the Bills is that Miller has spent an entire offseason working in the defense, thus avoiding that ramp-up acclimation period the Rams had adding him mid-season. If Miller picks up right where he left off, it could lead to a very long day for Stafford.
On the other side, there are more questions about how effective the pass rush will be. They have two set pieces; Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd. Donald is, of course, a terror. Floyd is a steady and versatile edge defender, which will be what he is this season. Outside of that are only questions. Terrell Lewis, Justin Hollins, and Keir Thomas all have a whole world of potential, but they are all essentially unproven pass rushers.
No quarterback is better under pressure, but Josh Allen is one of the best. Whether it is with his legs or extending plays with off-platform throws, Allen can make teams pay even when he is running for his life. Players have commented that he is one of the hardest to take down.
Allen is not immune to pressure. In four of the team’s losses, Allen was sacked three or more times. That includes the shocking loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, in which Allen was sacked four times and felt pressure 21 times.