All eyes on Sunday will be focused on the NFL’s leading receiver in yards and targets, the Buffalo Bills’ Stefon Diggs, and the man he surpassed last week, DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals.
Both of those players will be catching balls from two rising stars at quarterback in Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Arizona’s Kyler Murray.
From a wider angle, the Bills and Cardinals feature some of the more talented receiving groups in the NFL. They are the only NFL teams who have run 10 personnel of four receivers and no tight end more than 50 times (they have done so 115 and 104 times respectively).
So excuse coaches and players on the Cardinals defense — in this era of high scoring and strict rules skewing in favor of the offense — if they’re riled up this week, especially after Arizona was out-executed last Sunday in a 34-31 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
“Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t drop back this much and survive — receivers couldn’t survive and quarterbacks surely couldn’t survive,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday. “But in this new NFL, they play ’til they’re 45 years old because nobody’s getting hit. And when you hit ’em hard, they’re calling a penalty.”
Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who said that he takes defensive pass interference calls personally, went on his own tangent Thursday about how strict NFL rules have gotten.
He suggested the league adds more referees after an official told him last week that he thought Peterson was making contact with a receiver — even though the official was blocked from seeing actual contact because Peterson’s back was to him.
While comfortable airing their grievances, NFL defensive players and coaches also know this is their new reality.
Halfway through the year, NFL teams are averaging 25.3 points per game, a record through Week 9.
Teams have scored a ridiculous 41.3% of the time on drives. The record of 36.8% was set in 2018.
Like the Cardinals’ offensive resurgence over the past two years under Kliff Kingsbury, the Bills are having their own. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who Kingsbury has admitted to stealing plays from, was receivers coach for the New England Patriots during Kingsbury’s run as a backup quarterback there.
Things have changed at that position, too.
“I always thought he was a tremendous offensive mind and has had great success whether it was college or the NFL calling plays,” Kingsbury said. “(Bills QBs coach) Ken Dorsey has done a great job developing Josh (Allen), and Josh is as talented of a player you’ll see when you’re talking about arm strength and athleticism and being able to escape and move and make plays. He was awesome last Sunday.
“If you watch that Seattle game, the ball hardly touched the ground, and he’s had a great year, so it will be a heck of a challenge for us.”
Allen, like Murray, has earned early MVP consideration. He’s completing 67% of his passes, has a 19-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has 241 rushing yards so far.
Joseph sees a more poised quarterback in his third season.
In a 44-34 win over the Seattle Seahawks last week, Buffalo decided to forego the ground game.
Despite taking seven sacks, Allen tied a career-high with 415 passing yards. He completed 31-of-38 passes (71%) and threw three touchdowns while rushing for another.
The Cardinals, at least, feel confident they can hit reset against that dynamic offense thanks to the return of injured players.
Nickel Byron Murphy (COVID-19 reserve) and corner Dre Kirkpatrick (thigh) are back after problems arose with backup Kevin Peterson, undrafted rookie Jace Whittaker and newcomer De’Vante Bausby all taking snaps alongside Patrick Peterson against Miami.
Because last Sunday was safety Jalen Thompson’s first week back since he was hurt two snaps into the 2020 season, it means the Bills game could give Joseph a full starting group of defensive backs for the first time this year.
Maybe Allen won’t target weak links with lob passes to receivers, just as rookie Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa did last week to draw pass interference calls on Arizona.
That’s still on the table for Diggs. He has 813 receiving yards midway through the year to lead the NFL in his first season since being traded to Buffalo from Minnesota.
“He’s so special, just very, very shifty — very, very crafty at the line of scrimmage and also into his routes,” Patrick Peterson said. “He love to do these little hesitation moves to get the … DB(s) feet to stop so he can gain more yardage.
“You have to make sure you keep your eyes low on him. He’s a guy that fights for the ball when the ball is in the air. Very, very talented receiver.”
As a whole, Buffalo’s success goes deeper than the Diggs acquisition. It deploys a versatile group with slot man Cole Beasley, deep threat John Brown, plus Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie and Andre Roberts.
“Those guys have a lot of weapons, Josh trusts them,” Peterson said. “You got McKinsey who’s a jet guy, John Brown who’s down the field, you got Diggs who can do a little bit of everything, you still got Andre Roberts out there, Beasley.
“It’s probably going to be the best receiving corps that we played against all year from top to bottom.”