Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is still coming down from the high of being victoriously carried off the field against his former Lions club last Sunday. Schwartz’s defense is the reason Buffalo, despite making a quarterback change after Week 4, enters this week with a chance to take the AFC East lead over New England, its Week 6 opponent. Against the Lions, the Bills recorded six sacks while giving up just 13 first downs and seven points. On the season, Buffalo is yielding 14.6 points per game.
But Schwartz this week faces a problem that all defensive schemers are struggling with these days: what to do with his linebackers versus the pass. Specifically, what to do with starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. The fifth-year veteran is the most prototypical, old-school middle linebacker in the NFL—he’s a sensational downhill run-stopper but a shaky pass defender. This paradox is a large reason why Spikes is no longer with the Patriots. Bill Belichick decided that in today’s NFL, great run-defending no longer trumps subpar pass-defending, not even for a middle linebacker.
Schwartz, however, might feel obligated to keep Spikes on the field because the Patriots, as expected, are going back to being a base two-receiver offense. The tricky part is it’s a diverse base, featuring both two-RB personnel with fullback James Develin and two tight end personnel with Tim Wright accompanying Rob Gronkowski.
Spikes almost surely will stay on the field against the two-back set because someone needs to blow up Develin’s increasingly potent lead blocks. But from here, the Bills run the risk of having their middle linebacker exploited by New England’s quick play-action passing game.
Against the two tight end sets is where Schwartz has to really ponder his personnel. Tim Wright played 19 snaps (and flourished) Sunday night against Cincinnati, all out of two tight end personnel groupings. The limber ex-Rutgers wideout has the type of receiving prowess that would inspire most defenses to cover him with a No. 3 corner, which means taking a linebacker off the field to play nickel. The Bengals at times did this. The Bills, rich in cornerbacks, have the resources. Stephon Gilmore is on his way to becoming a shutdown star. Leodis McKelvin runs well and can defend vertical routes. Slot man Nickell Robey is a superb blitzer and physical man-defender. And No. 4 Corey Graham is a smart veteran, good enough to start for a lot of teams.
However, the Patriots ran the ball on six of Wright’s snaps last Sunday, racking up 64 yards. With Kiko Alonso out this year, the Bills don’t have the dynamics to stop the run with just two linebackers on the field. Keith Rivers, Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown all progressed well over the first quarter of the season, but no pairing from that trio would ever be mistaken for Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (Carolina's nickel linebacking gold standard).
If Schwartz elects to keep Spikes and the 4-3 base personnel on the field against Wright and Gronkowski, the Patriots are sure to have a special package of plays specifically designed for attacking the stiff 250-pound linebacker in coverage.
How Schwartz gets around the nickel dilemma will determine the outcome of Sunday’s game. The rest of Buffalo’s defense matches up well to New England. It’s been a highly successful group in man coverage, thanks in part to playing behind a galvanized four-man defensive line where Mario Williams has actually become the second most dangerous defensive end, behind the faster Jerry Hughes, and where Marcel Dareus is starting to exhibit his top-tier raw talent with more regularity. And New England’s most difficult man-to-man matchup—Gronkowski around the seams—is one where Bills safeties Da'Norris Searcy and Aaron Williams can at least compete.
Man coverage is the best way to defend Tom Brady's torrid-paced offense. But the Patriots run the ball remarkably well out of their hurry-up, especially inside the opponents’ 30-yard-line. That will be a problem for Schwartz if he plays nickel. And in hurry-up, substituting won’t be easy. Schwartz will have to commit to either his base or nickel package during the week and build in new wrinkles in hopes of off-setting the mismatches New England presents.
Jumping out on film
The Cowboys controversial late first-round pick a year ago, Travis Frederick, has been the best center in football this season. He’s the driving force on an offensive line that’s chaperoned DeMarco Murray to 670 yards on the ground. Frederick is tremendous on reach-and-seal blocks, which is where a blocker off the snap must immediately cross the face of a defensive lineman who lined up over him and cheated towards the attack side of a run. Reach-and-seal blocks are the crux of great zone-blocking. And with Frederick and the Cowboys, they’ve also helped set up some man-blocking ploys, allowing guards Ronald Leary and Zack Martin to prosper.
Something Dallas will likely do to distort Seattle’s matchup zone principles is align wideouts Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant on the same side. Washington had success with similar concepts Monday night on DeSean Jackson’s touchdown. The Cowboys’ white-hot running game has really helped their play-action. With so many of those play-action designs incorporating extra pass blockers early in the down, expect on Sunday to see play-caller Scott Linehan dial up plays like this:
Smart watching for Week 6
Keep close tabs on what kind of formations the Jets line up in against Denver. They need to go with more condensed sets—i.e. having wideouts align inside the painted field numbers. Doing so will help set up more combination routes in lieu of isolation routes. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg needs to employ combo concepts more regularly given how none of New York’s receivers can get open on their own. This will have the added benefit of defining reads for the struggling QB—or QBs (plural) if Rex Ryan decides to experiment with Geno Smith and Michael Vick again this week. Route combinations against Denver means man-beater concepts—like crossing patterns, stack releases and trips bunches. The tighter to the formation those routes occur, the more congestion for the defense.
On the podcast this week
Everything you need to know about Week 6 (and nothing you don’t, like which team will “capture the momentum!” or “make a statement!”) Plus, I’ll ask Chargers Pro Bowler Eric Weddle about how a safety goes about freelancing.
10 film study quick-hitters
1. The Colts have been masterful with their route combinations against two-high safety looks this year. That must continue because there’s no reason for defenses to drop a safety in the box against their running game.
2. Owen Daniels made an interesting point on last week’s podcast: a lot of Gary Kubiak’s patented play-action rollout game (which has been employed less often in Baltimore than Kubiak did in Houston) is contingent on facing defensive ends who tend to crash down the line of scrimmage against the run. Defensive ends that attack upfield off the snap are tougher to roll out against.
3. Speaking of rollouts, they’ve been the backbone of Cleveland’s passing attack. Brian Hoyer has been sharp, particularly at the 15-20-yard range.
4. The best guard in football right now: Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda.
5. The Raiders need D.J. Hayden back ASAP. Fill-in corner Chimdi Chekwa has been a liability.
6. It’s only a matter of time until Keenan Allen becomes the NFL’s best pure route runner. Right now it’s Antonio Brown.
7. A budding star is Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes. Under defensive backs whisperer Mike Zimmer, the well-sized 2013 first-round pick has developed a good feel for angles along the boundary. An increased level of comfort has also led to improvements in Rhodes’s recovery speed.
8. Expect to see more of a traditional power running game from the Giants while rookie Andre Williams fills in for the injured Rashad Jennings (knee). That could spell more snaps for fullback Henry Hynoski, who excelled as a perimeter lead-blocker last week.
9. Something that always stands out: Earl Thomas’s and Kam Chancellor’s speed and understanding of angles in confined areas.
10. Dez Bryant has drawn the most double-coverage in the league this season, and without a peep of complaint so far.
For film study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit
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