Bills-Titans MNF preview: Who must succeed for their team to win

When we last saw the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans face off, it was October 18, 2021 — Week 6 of the season. Tennessee pulled off a thrilling 34-31 comeback win, scoring 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, and pointing running back Derrick Henry at Buffalo’s nickel-heavy (and run-light) defense as if Henry was the biggest possible power tool — which, of course, he was. Henry led the way for the Titans as he had the two seasons before, and as he did until his season was halved by injury. He ran 20 times for 143 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-decider with 3:05 remining.

While the Bills are well aware of what Henry can do to them when healthy, it might not be the main story as these two teams get ready for their Monday Night Football matchup (7:15 EST, Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium, ESPN/ESPN2). Henry has not yet looked like the back he was before missing half the 2021 season with a foot injury. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is coming off a season in which he led the league in third-down interceptions with 11. Tennessee’s receiver corps is very much in flux after the A.J. Brown trade, and a defense that used to be one of the NFL’s best has some questions marks in both pressure and coverage.

As for the Bills, everybody’s chic Super Bowl LVII pick lived up to the hype and then some in their 31-10 outright thrashing of the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Buffalo’s defense made Matthew Stafford’s crew look like a bad Division II offense, and Buffalo’s offense caused coverage busts that Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey was eager to discuss after the fact.

So, we could see two very different teams in this battle of AFC titans in the Week 6 rematch. Here are seven under-the-radar players who must step up and succeed if their team is to win.

Nicholas Petit-Frere, RT, Tennessee Titans

(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Titans selected Petit-Frere out of Ohio State with the 69th overall pick in the third round of the 2022 draft. And in Tennessee’s preseason against the Ravens, Buccaneers, and Cardinals, Petit-Frere allowed no sacks, no quarterback hits, and two quarterback hurries in 48 pass-blocking snaps. The rookie also looked solid in the run game, using his 6-foot-5, 316-pound frame to load up on enemy ends from the right tackle position.

Petit-Frere took that momentum to his first regular-season game against the New York Giants and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s multiple fronts and blitz-heavy packages. He didn’t allow a single pressure of any kind in 39 pass-blocking reps, and he was once again strong in the run game — an absolute necessity if you’re going to block at any position for this particular team.

Of course, after what the Bills did to the Rams’ offensive line in the 2022 regular-season opener, Petit-Frere has had all week to look at that game tape. The Giants have some formidable pass-rushers, but this Bills front is an entirely different beast. And since Von Miller lined up on both sides of the formation pretty equally against the Rams, and the Bills moved their other pass-rushers all over the place, Petit-Frere won’t likely have static matchups in which he can gear up for the same type of opponent on a down-to-down basis.

Petit-Frere will need every bit of the tenacity he showed on this 23-yard Ryan Tannehill pass in Week 1. Here, Petit-Frere (No. 78) pinches inside to take defensive tackle Justin Ellis (No. 71), allowing Tannehill to boot out to the right with no obstruction, hitting receiver Cody Hollister for the big play.

Amani Hooker, S, Tennessee Titans

(Syndication: The Tennessean)

The Titans played dime on nine of Daniel Jones’ passing attempts in Week 1, allowing seven catches for 78 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. Veteran safety Amani Hooker, a 2019 fourth-round pick out of Iowa, had that interception, and given the extent to which Buffalo’s passing game can put any defense to the test and force it into pass-centric coverage concepts, it’s worth taking a look at how Hooker got it done.

With 8:55 left in the Giants game, Big Blue had third-and-7 at the Tennessee eight-yard line. The Titans were in man coverage across the board, and Hooker (No. 37) had running back Saquon Barkley (No. 26) as his coverage responsibility. When Barkley flared out of the backfield, Hooker matched him step for step, jumped the route, and came away with the crucial interception.

The Bills are completely comfortable with stretching your pass defense from any part of the field, and on any down, with four- and five-receiver sets. Hooker will be a crucial part of Tennessee’s response to that, especially in late and close situations.

Jordan Phillips, DI, Buffalo Bills

(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bills’ defense went all Shark Week on Matthew Stafford and the Rams in the 2022 season opener, amassing seven sacks of Stafford without blitzing on any of them. It was a tour de force by Sean McDermott’s and Leslie Frazier’s defense, and Von Miller did indeed lead the way, as many had foreseen.

However, it would be a mistake to ignore the contributions of two lesser-known Buffalo defensive linemen, and Phillips is the first. The veteran who has never had more than 29 total pressures in a single season led all Buffalo defenders with six total pressures — two sacks, one quarterback hit, and three quarterback hurries.

On this sack, Phillips (No. 97) started head up over Joe Noteboom at left tackle, and then devastated left guard David Edwards with a killer spin move. Guys standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 347 pounds are not supposed to be able to do this, and it’s always nice to have at least one “Planet Theory” dude on your defensive line.

The Titans have a pretty decent interior defensive line, and fellow defensive tackle Ed Oliver is out of this game with an ankle injury. That puts the onus on Phillips to be the primary man in the middle — especially when Derrick Henry gets the ball.

Kyle Phillips, WR, Tennessee Titans

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The Titans are still figuring out their post-A.J. Brown receiver situation. First-round pick Treylon Burks from Arkansas neatly matches Brown’s size/speed prototype, though he’s still refining the nuances of his game. Tennessee selected another receiver in the 2022 draft, and that was Phillips, taken with the 163rd overall pick in the fifth round out of UCLA. Of all the receivers Ryan Tannehill had to throw to in the Giants game, Phillips was the most productive, catching six passes on nine targets for 66 yards.

This 21-yard catch with 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter, which set up Randy Bullock’s unsuccessful 47-yard game-winning field goal attempt (Kickers, man…) showed Phillips’ understanding of the route nuances required in the NFL. Phillips (No. 18) is in the left slot, the Giants are playing Cover-1 (man coverage with a single-high safety), and Phillips just burns Giants cornerback Darnay Holmes (No. 30) on the corner route with some outstanding movement skills.

The Bills will give rookie cornerbacks Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford a lot of snaps in this game, but it may be up to slot man Taron Johnson to deal with Phillips, and that will be a fascinating matchup. Phillips has been dealing with a

Rodger Saffold and Ryan Bates, OG, Buffalo Bills

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Especially since edge-rusher Harold Landry is out for the 2022 season with a torn ACL (a major hit for Tennessee’s defense), the Titans will have to get a majority of their pressure from the inside. Fortunately, they have defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, who I regard as the NFL’s best interior defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald. Simmons did his usual dance all over the heads of the opposing offensive line in that Giants game with two sacks and six total pressures. While Simmons lines up all over the place in that defense, he spends the majority of his time making life miserable for guards.

And that’s where Rodger Saffold and Ryan Bates come in. Saffold didn’t allow a single pressure of any kind against the Rams, which is certainly impressive, given that he was dealing with that Aaron Donald guy from time to time. Yes, Saffold was helped by Buffalo’s strategy to get the ball out quickly, but still.

As for Bates, he did allow a sack against the Rams, but you almost want to forgive it, since is came against Donald, who beclowned Bates (No. 71, right guard) as only he can. With 4:26 left in the first quarter, Donald employed one of his patented Animal Style moves on Bates, and it’s hard to think of a response to that.

Whether it’s Saffold, Bates, or any other guard subbing in, they’ll all have to have Simmons as the focus, just as much as they designed the timing of their passing game around Donald.

Caleb Farley, CB, Tennessee Titans

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

The good news for the Titans’ secondary last week was that the Giants don’t really have one receiver who can just nuke your defense on a week-to-week basis.

The very bad news for the Titans’ secondary this week is that the Bills have several receivers who can do all of that, from Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis on down.

That puts just a bit of pressure on Tennessee’s cornerbacks, starting with Farley, the second-year man from Virginia Tech, who was selected with the 22nd overall pick in the 2021 draft, and might have been a top-five selection had injuries not been an issue. Especially since fellow cornerback Kristian Fulton is dealing with a hamstring injury… well, this is not the week you want to be light in your cornerback room.

Farley played just 60 snaps in his rookie season after suffering a torn ACL in last year’s Bills matchup, but he looked pretty good against the Giants, allowing one catch for six yards on two targets.

But the Titans had more than their share of coverage busts in Week 1, and while Farley wasn’t the only one responsible for that, this kind of stuff just can’t happen against the Bills. On Daniel Jones’ game-winning touchdown pass to Chris Myarick with 1:09 remaining, Farley (No. 3) got a bit to aggressive to the backfield at the snap, leaving receiver David Sills (No. 13) as open as he could he had Sills not stumbled out of his route.

If the Titans throw coverage like this at the Bills, especially in the red zone, things could get out of hand in a hurry.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire