The 2022 NFL season is finally here. There will be a total of 272 games played this season before we get to the playoffs, and the first of those games sees the defending champion Los Angeles Rams begin their Super Bowl title defense by welcoming one of this season's favorites -- the Buffalo Bills -- to SoFi Stadium on Thursday evening.
In what projects to be a thrilling debut contest, we will see stars all over the field. From Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs to Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp, and Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to Von Miller and Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, the gridiron will be overflowing with some of the league's best players. There could hardly be a better way to open this campaign.
Before we get to breaking down the matchup, here's how you can watch the game on Thursday night.
How to watch
When the Bills have the ball
Before we get into discussing the various stars around which the matchups on this side of the ball will orbit, it's important to talk about structure.
No defense in the league played more early-down (first and second) snaps with six or fewer defenders in the box last season than did the Rams, according to Tru Media. Buffalo's offense, meanwhile, saw opponents play with light boxes on early downs more often than all but two other NFL teams. So, the Bills are used to seeing this defensive posture -- and finding success against it, as they finished the season ranked eighth in EPA per play on those snaps.
Beginning under Brandon Staley and now under Raheem Morris, Los Angeles first and foremost wants to take away the deep pass, and structuring the defense this way allows them to do so while -- for the last two seasons, at least -- not giving up too much in the run game. Without players like Sebastian Joseph-Day up front, it will be interesting to see if Morris can still play things the same way, or if he has to change to more traditional four-man defensive lines and maybe even drop a safety down into the box more often than he would like to. Either way, the Rams would surely prefer that the Bills put the ball in the hands of Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, or James Cook than those of Josh Allen.
The Bills, though, have an interesting counter available to them -- using Allen as, essentially, a running back. We saw them do this in their early-season game against the Chiefs last season, when Allen had 11 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown, and played a huge role in the Bills marching directly down the field for a touchdown on their opening drive of the game. Allen had 31 designed runs against six-or-fewer men in the box last season, the most of any quarterback. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry on those plays, an elite mark by any measure.
The Bills over the second half of the season also utilized heavier personnel groupings to give themselves better numbers in the run game, and also to open up play-action passing against linebackers. It proved quite successful, and we could see more of that against the Rams. Over the second half of the season, Allen also proved more willing to check the ball down to secondary targets and let them make plays after the catch. Buffalo specifically targeted pass-catching backs this offseason to aid in that style of play, first pursuing J.D. McKissic in free agency, then signing Duke Johnson and drafting James Cook. If Cook (or Johnson, if he's active) can make the first man miss off a swing pass or checkdown (a difficult task against the lines of Bobby Wagner and Ernest Jones), that could prove very useful.
Buffalo's other counter against the "take away deep shots" style defense was to simply throw the ball all the way over the top of them. Allen was 13 of 31 for 534 yards and two touchdowns on throws of at least 30 air yards during the regular season, and we saw against both the Patriots and the Chiefs that he has both the arm strength and confidence to sling the ball as far as he can, and the trust in his receivers to come down with it.
How the Rams elect to play things on the back end against Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Jamison Crowder, and Dawson Knox also bears watching. Morris used Jalen Ramsey in the slot more often than did Staley, but Diggs doesn't line up there all that often; he did so on only 21 percent of his routes last season. McKenzie seems likely to open the season as the primary slot man. Is getting Ramsey closer to the ball and the line of scrimmage worth as much if he's going to spend the majority of his time coverage Buffalo's shiftiest wideout, but one who is nonetheless the third or fourth option in the passing game? And can Morris trust Troy Hill and David Long to hold up against Diggs and Davis on the perimeter? Morris did not use Ramsey to shadow receivers last season, but it might be worth considering in this matchup.
Of course, Allen needs to have ample time to actually throw the ball to those wideouts, and that could be more difficult than imagined. Aaron Donald is capable of single-handedly wrecking any game plan, and the games where Buffalo struggled offensively last season were those where the offensive line was simply overwhelmed by the opposing defensive front. How well the interior of that line can hold up against the best player in the game is perhaps the single-most important factor in Buffalo's offensive success.
When the Rams have the ball
The big thing to watch here is how the Bills' defensive backfield handles the Matthew Stafford-Cooper Kupp connection, and whether the Rams' other receivers can take advantage of the attention that must be paid to the league's most productive receiver from last season.
Buffalo will be without star cornerback Tre'Davious White, who is still recovering from an ACL tear he suffered last season. That leaves two rookies -- first-round pick Kaiir Elam and sixth-round pick Christian Benford -- in line for heavy playing time alongside Dane Jackson and Taron Johnson. Will the Bills be able to play as much man coverage as they typically like to (just three teams played man at a higher rate on early downs last season, according to Tru Media) without their star corner? Considering Kupp had 24 more receptions against zone coverage last season than any other player in the league, it might be advisable to avoid letting him just find soft spots in between defenders.
The thing Stafford really elevated for the Rams last season was their ability to connect on big plays down the field. A year after Jared Goff went just 13 of 49 on throws at least 20 yards down the field, Stafford completed 31 of 73 such attempts and tied for the fifth-best EPA per play in the league on those dropbacks. The Bills, though, were better than any team in the NFL at limiting big plays in the passing game. Buffalo allowed just 10 completions of 20 or more air yards all of last season, limiting opponents to a hilarious 10 of 45 for 283 yards, zero touchdowns, and seven interceptions on those passes. With Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer still patrolling the deep portion of the field, the Rams may have to attack the short and intermediate areas more often; and if the Bills have to play more zone due to their lack of experience at corner, those areas of the field will be open to them.
Beyond Kupp, it will be interesting to see how the Rams use Allen Robinson, their new No. 2 receiver. He's a much different player than either Robert Woods or Odell Beckham Jr., the last two players to fill that role. Robinson is 6-2, 220 and is much more of a perimeter ball-winner type than either of those players, and that could prove tough for Buffalo's defensive backs to handle if he and Stafford can develop immediate chemistry on back-shoulder type throws. (Stafford's elbow injury is also worth watching here. Can he fire the ball to the outside with his typical elite arm strength?)
The biggest area of concern for Los Angeles offensively is up front. This is an offensive line that did get overwhelmed at times last season, and both no longer has Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and lost potential starting guard Logan Bruss to an injury during the preseason. Buffalo has a tone of both firepower and depth along the defensive line, as Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier can run out any of Von Miller, Gregory Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa, Shaq Lawson, Boogie Basham, Ed Oliver, Daquan Jones, Jordan Phillips, and Tim Settle to test the Rams in a variety of ways.
Not having to resort to the blitz is key against the Rams, as Stafford punished defenses to a hilarious degree when they sent six or more rushers after him last year, averaging 1.01 EPA per dropback -- best in the league by a mile and so much better than the league average of just 0.15 per dropback that it's barely worth making the comparison. Buffalo blitzed at around a league-average rate a year ago, but could be tempted to do so more often early this season due to the absence of White, in the hopes of having the young corners spend a bit less time in coverage on the average snap.
Finally, how the Rams split snaps and touches between Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson bears watching. The team had planned to use Akers as a Todd Gurley-style workhorse before he tore his Achilles prior to last season. When he returned from the injury miraculously quickly, they shifted a bunch of work onto his plate despite his relative ineffectiveness. Sean McVay has been talking about the pair of backs as more of a committee coming into this season. Who he trusts and whether he is willing to ride the hot hand instead of just going with the guy they had higher hopes for, will be interesting to see. Buffalo finished just outside the top 10 in run defense last season, per Football Outsiders' DVOA, and was most vulnerable to runs on the perimeter -- right past the Bills' aggressive pass-rushers. If the Rams can find some success attacking that area in the run game, it could open up play-action and bootleg shots down the field against a defense that doesn't typically allow for those to be completed.
Prediction: Bills 33, Rams 30