Happy Friday, friends. Today, we digest the formerly ascendant Buffalo Bills, who have lately been pretty descendant. In fact, they’ve lost seven in a row and are 5-9. They've won two blowouts, lost four, and are 3-4 in close games. It’s been a weird season.
Really, the 5-2 start was the case of a team with below-average talent and no depth overachieving on the strength of excellent coaching and good early health. The good health significantly disappeared, some marginal players had to play, defenses started playing to take away the short passing game, and the overachievement ended. After the jump, we’ll explore the Bills in detail.
a. The Bills play a hybrid 3-4 front that mixes up their approach but generally likes to two-gap. They go even-front sometimes in passing situations, and they are also known for moving guys around to a lot of different gaps to try to make a protection scheme think. They do a lot of stunting, and not so much blitzing. In general, their pass rush is far below average.
The Bills defense only does one thing particularly well, and that’s turn over the opposing offense. They have 16 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries on defense, and they’re even for the season in turnover differential. Early on, when the Bills were winning, it was almost always on the strength of winning the turnover battle.
b. Here is the snap data for the Bills defense. As you’ll see, they average five DBs, and this is really a switching 4-2 to 3-3 nickel grouping on both plays. When they play so much nickel, they’re really vulnerable to the running game, even though the nickel guy is often a Safety.
|Pos||#||Name||Snaps||% of Total|
|Total Defensive Snaps||910|
c. The Defensive Line group isn’t too good overall, but I’ll admit that DE-NT Marcell Dareus is already a lot better than I thought he’d be. The draftnik types said that Dareus could play anywhere from 5-technique to 5-technique, and that’s exactly what the Bills have had him do. He’s best on the Nose, and he’s been really tough for Centers to handle there. The other starters are Alex Carrington and Dwan Edwards, and they’re both below average. The backups are a bunch of flameouts from other places, like Lionel Dotson, Kellen Heard, Kyle Moore, and Jarron Gilbert, who was so super-fantastical that he could jump out of a pool and land on his feet. The Bills have missed the outstanding Kyle Williams since he went on IR after Week 5. He was a big part of their early-season success, and the effect of his loss has been understated.
d. At Linebacker, the Bills don’t have an awe-inspiring group, but they’ve done a pretty solid job. The best player is ILB Nick Barnett, and he wasn’t good enough to play for Green Bay. He’s a solid player, but has never been a playmaker. His counterpart Kelvin Sheppard is a promising rookie who’s had a strong first season and projects to be a longtime starter for the Bills. The Sam LB is converted DE Chris Kelsay; I think the Bills need to upgrade there, but Kelsay has at least looked strong against the run to me. The Will is split between Spencer Johnson (who also plays some DE with his hand on the ground) and Arthur Moats. Those three primary OLBs have combined for only 4.5 sacks all season. Kirk Morrison and old friend Andra Davis are backups who have started a lot of games in the NFL, and OLBs Danny Batten and Antonio Coleman are also around.
e. The Bills are a team that typically rushes four and drops seven into coverage. They play a lot of Cover-2, and their inside guys can all catch the ball, especially FS Jairus Byrd. Here is some detail on where the rush comes from. It’s pretty straightforward; the outside guys are usually coming, and the inside guys are usually dropping.
|Pos||#||Name||Rush||Coverage||% Rush||% Coverage|
f. The starting CBs are Drayton Florence and rookie Aaron Williams. Florence was matched up on Brandon Marshall all game last week, and Marshall tore him up a little bit at times, although Florence ripped a fumble out of the Beast’s arms. I would expect to see Florence on Demaryius Thomas all game on Saturday. Williams struggled with Brian Hartline too. Matt Moore only threw 20 times on a snowy day, but the CBs didn’t cover much. The backups are Justin Rogers and former first-rounder Leodis McKelvin, who didn’t see a single defensive snap against Miami. The perfectly named Reggie Corner is the deep backup.
g. The starting Safeties are George Wilson and Byrd. They’re very smart, and they tend to be in the right place most of the time. Bryan Scott plays a lot as the “big” nickelback, and against the Dolphins, which are not a sub-heavy team, Scott played 52 out of 64 snaps as a third safety. Da’Norris Searcy and Josh Nesbitt are little-used backups.
a. The Bills run a really interesting offense which features a lot of short passing and shotgun running. Head Coach Chan Gailey has always been one of the best offensive thinkers in the world, and his teams have always overachieved their talent on that side of the ball. The Bills get as much value from their scheme as any team in the NFL. It's really not a variant of anybody else's long-developed scheme either, it's really just a Chan Gailey offense, which stands on its own.
b. The participation data for the skill position guys follows. The Bills tend to switch between 11 and 20 personnel, but they usually have at least three WRs on the field at a time.
|Pos||#||Name||Snaps||% of Total|
c. America is a place where expertise and knowledge have become bad things, and where nuance has become something to sneer at. We go by our Gut in America, and we believe what we believe, and everybody's beliefs should be respected, because they're BELIEFS, man. To help us believe nonsense, certain narratives get constructed to “make sense” of things that are going on. By “make sense” I mean make it understandable to a stupid person with a short soundbite. It’s okay if the narrative includes facts and reality, but it’s not strictly necessary.
In case you’re wondering, on the strength of his excellent Tebow article and the fact that I usually like his work in Esquire and on Grantland, I bought Charlie Pierce’s book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free this week, and I finished it on Thursday. It was excellent, and it made me feel like smirking at group dumbassery, so that’s what you get. You could say that I had noticed many examples of what he was talking about on my own, but I enjoyed his writing, and some of the details about examples of American stupidity in action.
So, yeah, about narratives which facilitate convenient but false understanding. There’s this dude named Ryan Fitzpatrick who plays QB for the Bills, and he had a really excellent start to the season as a lot of things were going right for the whole team. He signed a healthy contract extension, and the Bills started playing poorly right after that. The narrative became that Fitzpatrick wasn’t worthy of the extension, and it was a mirage, and MAN, the Bills must regret that extension.
In Pierce’s book, he invokes the frequent saying “perception is reality,” and he makes the case that the American media has largely decided that that is the case, which has contributed to the vast numbers of people who believe utter nonsense. Pierce is absolutely correct, though, in pointing out that that’s completely idiotic. Perception is perception, and reality is reality.
One thing that has gone wrong is that Fitzpatrick has started throwing a lot of interceptions, and the early-season positive turnover margins have become negative ones. I believe that that is not all on Fitzpatrick. The Bills have gotten banged up on their offensive line and haven’t protected well in the second half of the season. Further, the Jets showed that blitzing Fitzpatrick and smothering the short routes that the Bills like was a good approach, and a lot of teams have copied that blueprint. Fitzpatrick has a 91.1 QB rating this season with no pressure, and a 37.8 rating in the face of pressure. That is a massive variance, and the problem that the Bills have been having is that pressure has been coming even on 3-step drops.
I saw Fitzpatrick hit a ton of short passes with excellent timing and accuracy against Miami, like he seems to always do when his guys block and his receivers get open quickly. Fitzpatrick got in trouble going downfield a couple times, like he does. I’m not going to say that he’s a bad downfield thrower, because he’s not, but his receivers are best at gaining quick separation, and when a route takes the time to get downfield, DBs have been able to catch up to the receivers and force tougher throws.
The difference between Fitzpatrick and Drew Brees is downfield accuracy. Fitzpatrick has completed 77% of his throws traveling less than 10 yards this season, so that’s an issue for any defense. I’m telling you, he makes quick decisions, and he throws darts in the short game if he’s allowed to. I still say that he’s the same guy he was when he was getting protected well and when Fred Jackson and Donald Jones were healthy, and I’d bet you that the Bills don’t regret anything.
d. Jackson’s loss was a killer for the Bills. He was playing as well as any RB in the NFL. C.J. Spiller has stepped into the breach capably, but he’s missed as the dynamic change-of-pace guy that he was in Jackson's presence. The Bills do a lot of stuff with two RBs on the field at the same time, and Jackson and Spiller together were a lot more threatening than Spiller and Tashard Choice. Spiller is excellent as a runner out of the shotgun, and he’s very good as a receiver as well. I consider him to be by far the most dangerous Bills offensive player. The primary backup at this point is the recently well-traveled Choice, as mentioned. When the Bills use a FB, which isn’t real often, Corey McIntyre is the guy.
e. The WR corps has been the primary driver of the success or failure of this offense in 2011. When they’ve played well, Fitzpatrick has had good numbers and the team has won. When they haven’t, it’s been a different story. Nobody in this group is a dynamic long-ball threat, but Stevie Johnson is a handful to cover for the whole route tree. He has excellent natural receiver talent, with size, strength, and quickness, and he was very good at Kentucky, so I have never understood why he went in the seventh round. Whatever the reason, he was a steal there. The other starter is David Nelson, who was one of Tim Tebow’s lesser receivers at Florida. Nelson is 6-5 and crafty as a possession receiver, if not particularly fast or quick. I’m a longtime fan of the recent #3 guy Derek Hagan. He caught five passes against the Bills for the Raiders this year, and then shuffled off to Buffalo. (Ewww that sounded like something Woody might say. Gross.) He has four catches in two weeks, but he’s a strong and physical inside receiver, and a solid pro. Brad Smith is kind of a utility guy, and he plays a good bit at WR. He’s a gifted athlete, and he’s dangerous with the ball, but he’s not a terribly skilled WR.
f. The starting TE is Scott Chandler, who had a breakout first quarter of the season, with six TDs in the first seven games as the Bills went 5-2. During the seven-game losing streak, Chandler has no TDs, and he missed the last two games. Chandler is questionable for Saturday, but he’s a big and effective target, so the Broncos would be catching some good luck if he’s out. The backups Lee Smith and Mike Caussin are strictly blockers, and pose little threat as receivers.
g. The Offensive Line really gelled early and was playing great football, but they really missed LT Demetrius Bell during this losing streak, and they continue to miss C Eric Wood, who’s on IR. Bell has had a solid season and looks like a worthwhile developmental guy, although I’d feel better with him as a RT. The LG Andy Levitre has grown into a good starter too. Kraig Urbik moved from RG to C to replace Wood, and Chad Rinehart slid in at RG and has been solid. The RT Erik Pears is pretty terrible, despite the recent contract extension that the Bills gave him. I see him much more as a depth guy than a starter in the NFL. The Bills are vulnerable from the edges, especially on Pears’ side, as we saw in the preseason game this year.
h. Because so much of what they’re doing is short passing, and Fitzpatrick gets the ball out quickly, the Bills minimum-protect most of the time. When they do keep somebody in, it’s generally a RB. Spiller struggled a bit in protection against Miami, getting knocked backward by bigger rushers. Here is a breakdown of what the skill position guys do in the passing game:
|Pos||#||Name||Pattern||Protection||Snaps||% of Total|
Beating the Bills Defense
a. I think that the Broncos can have their way physically with the Bills in both the passing and running games. I think back to the preseason game in August, and I remember thinking that the Broncos were much stronger and more physical than the Bills on both sides of the ball.
The Broncos should start with the running game, and I really think that will be enough to get the ball moving against Buffalo’s front. One thing to note is that the Bills have to defend the shotgun run game in practice in full team sessions (to the extent that those happen with the limited pad rules this time of year), and in any case, they’re used to the angles of it, and how it looks. I think that this is a game to use the zone read heavily, and to try to get Tim Tebow outside.
b. The traditional under-center running game can be very effective too. I watched Reggie Bush tear up this defense on a snowy day behind a banged-up offensive line. The Broncos should be able to knock Buffalo off the line, and physically dominate this game.
c. I like both CB matchups, with Demaryius Thomas on Florence, and Eric Decker on Aaron Williams. I don’t think that either CB can hang with the Broncos WRs physically. I also don’t think that the Bills want to play a third CB, and that putting Eddie Royal and/or Matt Willis on the field virtually guarantees a zone look from the Bills’ big nickel group, probably Cover 2. The Broncos can wear out the 4 Verticals concept against Cover 2, as we saw in the Minnesota game.
d. I really think that if the Broncos come out and do what they always do on offense, and avoid turnovers, they’ll win by two TDs. Turnovers have been the story of the Bills' season, and if the Broncos can avoid the fumbles we’ve been seeing, and keep avoiding interceptions (I’m pretty confident on that score), this should be a very winnable game.
e. OutInOregon asked through our contact form why the Broncos TEs aren’t very involved in the passing game. The short answer is that they aren’t very good at this point as receivers. Daniel Fells has had a few good moments, but has mostly looked like a quality backup TE, which is what he’s been in his career. Virgil Green has been good as a blocker, and has been getting more snaps lately, but I haven’t seen a lot of reason to think that he’s a good receiver. Julius Thomas is buried on the inactive list, and it seems like the Broncos view him as a project.
Using the TE is the next frontier for the Broncos, if they can find or develop a threatening receiver. There’s a lot of stuff that the Broncos can do that’s along the lines of what Florida did with Aaron Hernandez (getting a mobile TE involved in the spread stuff), but even beyond that, there’s something good we call “messing with the Sam LB.”
When you can flex a threatening TE out, you either force the defense to line the Sam up directly in front of the TE, or at worst, force him to split the difference and play halfway between his normal tight alignment and the flexed TE. In either case, the box is opened up for the running game, and if the Sam is regularly splitting the difference, you know you can always run routes to the outside with that TE. This is a lot of what the Patriots are doing with Hernandez. The Broncos just need to get a playmaker at that position, and there will be a lot of possibilities.
Stopping the Bills Offense
a. The film to watch is the first Jets game and the Cowboys game that came a week later. The Ryan brothers really schemed it well against Buffalo. The main thing you have to do is disrupt the short passing game. To do that, the Broncos will have to crowd the receivers and run some blitzes and quick opening stunts up front. Since none of the Bills WRs have threatening deep speed, I think we’ll see a lot of Cover-1 in this game with five-man rushes.
b. The Broncos need to recognize that Fitzpatrick is skilled at getting the ball out quickly, and be careful about leaving a RB uncovered on a blitz. I like a lot of sugaring the blitz and bailing in this game. Show it on the right, then drop out, and stunt from the left, stuff like that.
c. The Broncos are going to spend most of the day in nickel, and this doesn’t profile as the type of game where Joe Mays gets a lot of snaps. We’re going to need a really good tackling day from D.J. Williams and Wesley Woodyard, because the Bills love to run against nickel, like any team does. I really think the Bills could have done more with that against Miami last week, as the Dolphins struggled to stop Spiller.
d. The Broncos DBs should be ready to catch the football, because a lot of Fitzpatrick’s downfield throws have been into traffic. It’s about time that some of the balls that DBs have gotten their hands on become interceptions. The Broncos' turnover differential for the season is one that would normally be seen on a very bad team, and it’s time for the defense to do more with taking away the ball. If they can do that going into the playoffs, this team becomes much more of a threat.
e. If I didn’t mention it, sitting back in soft zones against Buffalo is asking for disaster. Fitzpatrick will carve a team up, like he did Miami last week, in almost bringing the Bills back from a big deficit. The Broncos are going to want to bring some pressure throughout the game and cover the short passing game tightly.
f. It’s about time for Von Miller to have a huge game in the pass rush. Pears is pretty awful, and Miller should dominate him. Von has been very consistent this season, but he hasn’t really had that multiple sack breakout game. Now would be a good time for it, as the Broncos are on the verge of clinching a trip to the postseason.
I expect that the Broncos will win this game on Saturday, as long as they keep it reasonable in the turnover margin. They’re the tougher and more physical team, and I don’t think the Bills can stop their offense. I’ll be in Buffalo for the game, sitting in the third row behind the Broncos bench, on the 30-yard line. I’ll take some pictures, and I’m hoping that the view I get gives me some interesting insights to bring back for Tuesday. Have a Merry Christmas, and let's root for victories by both the Broncos and Chiefs on Saturday.