The Buffalo Bills have a punishing stretch to start the season. We’re facing four drastically different offenses to open things up, and we’ll be without one of our most important players. With his recent placement on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, Tre’Davious White will now miss a minimum of four weeks. It could be longer, in fact it likely will be, but how much longer is up for debate. Brandon Beane had the following to say on the matter:
“I don’t want to say he’s 100 percent playing Week 5, which is the first time he could be out there. But we’ll put a good plan in place. I know he’s got another doctor visit scheduled here upcoming. I think we’re closing in on a timeline for him internally”Brandon BEane, Per BuffaloBills.com (01/09/22)
The message is clear: We’re going to need to get comfortable without him to begin the season. It’s far from an easy start, and it’s all the harder without Tre. Knowing his minimum timeline for return, we ask: What will we do without Tre’Davious White?
What We’re Working With
Last season, our secondary led the NFL against the pass. When Tre White tore his ACL against the New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving, we still had our other starters our there and Dane Jackson helped fill the void somewhat, keeping the secondary strong. Now, we no longer have Levi Wallace on the roster, so Dane will shoulder a lot more responsibility. The presumed starter, based on his preseason snap count and the comments of the coaching staff, Jackson will need to bring his A-game.
But who starts across from him? First-round pick Kaiir Elam made good plays throughout preseason, but so did sixth-rounder Christian Benford. Does Elam need more time to grow? Will they rotate? We can also safely assume that Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer will be our starting safeties, barring something drastic. Taron Johnson is going to be our starting slot cornerback as well, unless a significant change in defensive philosophy has overcome Leslie Frazier. (Spoiler alert: It has not.)
The only major philosophical issue is that playing a zone defense without a star zone corner is much more difficult. We may see cornerbacks travel more, working on a matchup basis in man coverage until Tre White returns to restore order to the secondary. With Tre typically covering the left side, we can imagine his new co-corner to be manning the right after his return.
One Battle at a Time
So, week-by-week, how will the secondary combat opposing offenses? Let’s start at Week 1.
Week 1: Los Angeles Rams
Indisputably the best WR in the NFL least season, Cooper Kupp managed to win the Triple Crown, leading the NFL in receiving yards, touchdowns, and receptions. He was a First-Team All-Pro, Offensive Player of the Year, and Super Bowl MVP. Without Tre’Davious White, how do the Buffalo Bills stop him?
That task is hard enough, but then we factor in the addition of Allen Robinson this offseason. Robinson is a capable WR1 for many NFL franchises, and now he’s #2 in L.A. Just two seasons ago, he put up 102 receptions for 1,250 yards. This dynamic duo are still beatable though.
It seems we’ll be seeing Dane Jackson getting the Week 1 start, lined up against Cooper Kupp when he’s outside. It’ll be a huge test for the former seventh-round pick. When Kupp lines up in the slot, where he took 518 snaps last season (52.4% rate), Taron Johnson travels with him.
On the outside, we could expect Christian Benford to be against Allen Robinson. Benford excelled in preseason and camp, and the team may take this opportunity to use the formerly-unknown commodity. Kaiir Elam still struggled playing off-coverage so far, which Kupp or Robinson would punish him for. Elam getting snaps on predictable passing downs and long field scenarios rotationally is likely the best way to start 2022 off.
Thankfully for the Buffalo Bills, Van Jefferson is injured and may not play. If he did, the deep threat would almost definitely be the responsibility of Elam, with help from Micah Hyde when neccessary. Elam’s physical speed could make all the difference there. Jordan Poyer dropping down into the route of Kupp is our best bet to keep the league-leader quiet for the night, regardless of who’s lined up across from him.
Week 2: Tennessee Titans
In Tennessee, things will be different. The interesting thing about this opening stretch is the diversity in the offenses we face. Going from a veteran, consistent passing offense that utilizes it’s receivers based on their skillsets, to facing a power-run nightmare. Only eight months ago, the Tennessee Titans were the AFC’s #1 seeded team.
Since then, they’ve lost Julio Jones, A.J. Brown, and two-fifths of the offensive line that made the Derrick Henry-led run game one of the NFL’s scariest. Those linemen are now Buffalo Bills (Saffold, Quessenberry), and we’re all curious as to what this team will look like now. They drafted WR Treylon Burks, and traded for a former Bill: Robert Woods.
Woods is now 30, coming off a torn ACL less than a season ago, and is expected to be WR1. Burks is exciting, but going against this tough secondary in only his second game is a tall order. To top it off, starting QB Ryan Tannehill’s job isn’t secure any more. With Malik Willis sitting just behind him, and Tannehill’s play lacklustre at times, we might be seeing a new offense entirely.
But how do we beat them? With this roster turnover, the Titans likely play a lot of power run anyway, and we are forced to change tactics to handle it. Subbing out Taron Johnson on most downs for a third linebacker, we may transition to a traditional 4-3 defence against Tennessee. That linebacker? Terrel Bernard.
Put Dane Jackson against Robert Woods with Jordan Poyer getting involved and allow Kaiir Elam some time to work out his rookie troubles against someone going through the same thing. Burks vs. Elam is a proving-ground kind of matchup that affords both players a chance to shine. Elam in press coverage, his specialty, interfering with Burks’ route at the line of scrimmage is important in order to keep the Titans committed to the run game.
Week 3: Miami Dolphins
Miami is one team that got significantly better in 2022. Their passing game will have more time to develop behind an improved offensive line, and the pass-catchers are a class above those who came before. If Tua Tagovailoa developed his arm even a little this offseason, they could be tough to beat this season. Without Tre’Davious White, it’s a tougher task.
Kaiir Elam has to start this game, plain and simple. There’s only one player in the Buffalo Bills secondary that can keep up with Tyreek Hill, and that’s Elam. He will inevitably make some mistakes, but we have great safeties to help out. This will be Micah Hyde’s chance to shine as the safety net of this defense. Getting in front of Hill’s inevitable slants and posts will be critical to beating him.
As for the rest of the field, Taron Johnson will be back in the slot, and Poyer roaming down low and occasionally blitzing. We should see plenty more of Dane Jackson on the other side but, depending on the play of both expected starters here, we likely won’t see much rotational input from Benford. If Elam is capable of holding his own against Hill for 60 minutes, Benford could have a hard time getting on the field again this season.
Week 4: Baltimore Ravens
Yet another unique team to give Leslie Frazier fits. This offense is tough, but, as far as our young cornerbacks are concerned, this is the easiest game on the ticket so far. The Ravens have a healthy Lamar Jackson, which will inevitably cause issues, but their receiver depth in non-existent. We could see more of that traditional base 4-3 we mentioned earlier, with Terrel Bernard in the place of Taron Johnson. Baltimore’s biggest threat as a receiver may be tight end Mark Andrews, after all.
Putting Kaiir Elam on Devin Duvernay is the best way to minimize the Ravens’ already-limited deep-shot potential. This leaves Baltimore’s other starter, Rashod Bateman, across from Dane Jackson. Bateman is by far the more complete receiver, and Dane is a more balanced cornerback. Poyer will need to find himself involved both here and against Mark Andrews, as the Bills try to keep the Ravens short game ineffective and forcing them deep.
How Will the Buffalo Bills Fare?
This is a new hill for Sean McDermott, who drafted Tre’Davious White before he ever called a play in Buffalo. He’s had to manage without his star CB1 for only a few games in his career as a head coach. We’ve been fortunate to this point, and we still are. The secondary has had weak points over and over again, and this is no exception. Two of the offenses we face during this early-season window have arguably regressed, and the other two have new players at important roles. They’re good, and we shouldn’t belittle that fact, but secondary coach and passing game coordinator John Butler is capable of managing the divide.
Tre’Davious White is coming back. He’s coming back soon. It won’t be right away, but before the midseason mark we’ll see the All-Pro out there.
“I think he’ll play a considerable number of games.”Brandon BEane, Per BuffaloBills.com (01/09/22)
For now, we all continue to wish Tre’Davious White not only a speedy recovery, but a complete recovery above all. When he returns, the position goes from one of weakness to one of surprising depth for the Buffalo Bills. We’ll need all of it to hoist that coveted Lombardi when February rolls around.
Featured Image: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports