Written by John Sparaco
The 2022 season kicks off where the last one ended, at SoFi Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LVI and the home of the Los Angeles Rams. Shortly before game time, the defending champions will unveil a banner from the canopy roof commemorating their victory, as the Buffalo Bills are forced to watch on.
Although Buffalo did not appear in last year’s Super Bowl, the pregame ceremony serves as a bitter reminder of what could have been, after falling just short in each of the past two seasons. Alternatively, veteran leaders of the team can let this fuel them as a motivation tactic. For one member of the Bills, however, that banner brings up nothing but fond memories.
Von Miller, who signed a six-year, $120 million deal with Buffalo this offseason, played a big role in bringing that championship to LA, recording two sacks in the big game. Miller’s trophy case is far from empty, as the 33-year-old pass rusher has earned two rings, Super Bowl 50 MVP honors, Defensive Rookie of the Year, eight Pro Bowl selections, three first-team All-Pro honors and four second-team All-Pro honors throughout his illustrious 11-year career. Although brief, Miller still holds his time with the Rams close to his heart.
“They came and got me at a time when I really needed that. They refreshed me,” Miller said to the media after Sunday’s practice, referring to his trade from the Denver Broncos last November. He added that he will always love Los Angeles for that and this week will be like playing against his brothers. Though the game will be emotional for him for a multiple reasons, Miller is committed to being the best version of himself for his new teammates.
There is a reason why the Buffalo Bills, a small-market team, are the ones taking center stage against Aaron Donald and the champs in the first NFL game of the season. The world was watching when quarterback Josh Allen strung together one of the most impressive postseason performances the league has ever seen statistically. They witnessed a team starving for success go down swinging in one of the wildest playoff games in recent memory. Adding a player of Miller’s caliber was the cherry on top, skyrocketing hype around the Bills, even making them a betting favorite to win it all this season. Now, they have a chance to make a statement under the bright lights against the best of the NFC right away.
- Familiar faces: Von Miller is not the only former Ram who will be suiting up for the Bills on Thursday. Starting left guard Rodger Saffold, who signed a one-year contract in March, spent his first nine seasons with the Rams organization. There are also some family ties between the two organizations. Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer’s son, Zak, is a Rams offensive assistant. Additionally, Bills wide receivers coach Chad Hall and Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford are brothers-in-law.
- Opportunity arises for Isaiah McKenzie: After spending the last few seasons behind Cole Beasley on the depth chart, McKenzie earned the opportunity to have a bigger role in the offense than gadget plays. Now wearing No. 6, McKenzie is on track to begin his first season as the clear cut starter in the slot.
- A new punter takes over: Buffalo opted for experience in their search for a new punter, signing former Lions and Broncos punter Sam Martin to a one-year deal on Aug. 31. Despite setting the team’s all-time record for net punting last season, Martin was released by Denver on Aug. 29 after refusing to take a pay cut. He has not had much time to get up to speed with his new team, but is prepared to hold for Tyler Bass and punt when necessary in his Bills debut.
- Another chapter in the rivalry of Josh Allen and Jalen Ramsey: In a 2018 interview with GQ, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who was a member of the Jaguars at the time, did not hold back his opinion of the Bills rookie quarterback. “I think Allen is trash,” Ramsey said. “I don’t care what nobody say. He’s trash. And it’s gonna show too. That’s a stupid draft pick to me. We play them this year, and I’m excited as hell.” Later that year, Allen passed for 160 yards and rushed for 99 more, scoring two touchdowns which led the Bills to a 24-21 victory against Ramsey and the Jaguars. Ramsey carried a different tune when they met for the second time in 2020, calling Allen “talented” ahead of their Week 3 matchup. Allen threw four touchdown passes in that game, including a last-second game winner to Tyler Kroft in a 35-32 shootout win against the Rams. Leading up to round three, Ramsey made it clear that he will not be handing out compliments to Allen or wideout Stefon Diggs. “I’m not about to sit up here and boost them up,” Ramsey said on Tuesday.
Impact matchups to watch
Kaiir Elam/Christian Benford vs. Allen Robinson
It would be easy to focus exclusively on Rams WR Cooper Kupp as the top mismatch here, and for good reason. Kupp led the league in receptions (145), touchdown receptions (16) and receiving yards (1,947) last season. He is only the fourth player in NFL history to lead the league in all three categories during the same season, capping off his historic campaign by winning Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP.
While Tre’Davious White is out for at least the first four games on the PUP list, the Bills will have some uncertainty at outside cornerback. Fortunately for Buffalo, Kupp lined up in the slot for nearly two-thirds of his snaps last season, meaning most of his work on Thursday night is expected to be against Taron Johnson, one of the best nickel corners in football. As defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier stated this week, Johnson “will have his hands full” against Kupp, but Buffalo has plenty of confidence in the fifth-year corner, as evidenced by his contract extension last season, which made him one of the highest-paid players at his position.
Aside from Kupp, the addition of Pro Bowl wideout Allen Robinson has flown a bit under the radar. Once the Rams found out that Von Miller would not be re-signing, they opted to give some of the money they offered him to Robinson instead. The 6-foot-2 receiver has produced big time numbers in the past, but has never had the chance to play with an above average quarterback in Jacksonville or Chicago. Matthew Stafford is by far the most accomplished quarterback he has played with and how he fits in this new offense will be intriguing. Coach McDermott has yet to name Kaiir Elam or Christian Benford the starter at outside corner yet. However, it is expected that both rookies see action during the game. Whichever corner that lines up across from Robinson will face a serious test in their first official NFL action. They will benefit from the absence of talented wide receiver Van Jefferson, who has already been ruled out due to injury.
Von Miller and revamped Bills D-Line vs. Rams’ O-Line
The Bills completely remodeled their defensive line in free agency, bolstering the interior with the signings of DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle. They also brought back fan favorites Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson, providing quality depth behind a starting defensive line that includes Von Miller, Ed Oliver and Greg Rousseau.
Their first test as a unit is a Rams offensive line that was forced to replace two core members this spring. Longtime starting left tackle and team captain Andrew Whitworth retired at the age of 40 after the Super Bowl. Right guard Austin Corbett, who started every game for the past two seasons, signed a three-year deal with the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Joseph Noteboom and Coleman Shelton, who both have limited starting experience at this level, are tasked with filling those voids. How both sides perform in this game should have a sizable impact on the final outcome. Buffalo appears to have the advantage here on paper.
How to watch
Kickoff is scheduled for Thursday at 8:20 p.m. EST on NBC. Sunday Night Football broadcasters Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth will be on the call with Melissa Stark reporting from the sidelines. There will also be a special halftime performance by Ozzy Osbourne, which fans watching on TV will be able to see a portion of. The Bills will be wearing blue jerseys and blue pants, according to Jordan Phillips’ Instagram story. Weather is not a concern, as the stadium is indoors. Plus, it is Los Angeles after all.