The last time the Buffalo Bills' defense ranked first overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, it was 2004, and that great defense wasn't enough to get the 9-7 Bills in the playoffs. A decade later, the Bills once again rank first in those metrics, and at 8-6, they're currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in once again. In both cases, it was the offense that underwhelmed, and one wonders where these Bills would be had Kyle Orton started all season for them, as opposed to coming in against the Lions in Week 5, replacing an obviously overwhelmed EJ Manuel. Still, there's a lot to talk about when it comes to the AFC's current ninth-seed, and it's all about what's happening on the defensive side of the ball, especially over the last two weeks.
Against Peyton Manning's Broncos and Aaron Rodgers' Packers, Jim Schwartz's defense played as well as could be imagined in a statistical sense: Manning and Rodgers combined for 358 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. Manning's performance (14 of 20 for 173 yards, no touchdowns and two picks) was his worst with the Broncos franchise as tabulated by passer rating (56.3). Rodgers had never been through a worse performance than he had last Sunday against the Bills, completing 17 of 42 passes for 185 yards, no touchdowns, two picks and a 34.3 quarterback rating. It was one thing to hold Manning underwater to that degree -- Manning has not been the same quarterback of late, and the Broncos still won their game against Buffalo, 24-17, on running back C.J. Anderson's three touchdowns. Far more intriguing was what the Bills did to Rodgers in a 21-13 victory.
"Sunday was a rough one," Rodgers said Tuesday on his weekly ESPN Milwaukee radio show. "I didn't play well. That's not news to anybody. Now, it was frustrating because obviously I hold myself to a really high standard. I know I can play better, and I should've played better."
To be fair, Rodgers wasn't the only one who should shoulder the blame. Green Bay's receivers, according to ESPN Stats & Info, dropped seven passes -- the most by any NFL team since 2008. And the dropped pass by a wide open Jordy Nelson with 31 seconds left in the third quarter was especially frustrating, because Nelson had beaten cornerback Corey Graham, who bit hard on Rodgers' play fake, and that would have been an easy 94-yard touchdown.
Rodgers also pointed to some defensive contact calls that could have been made by referee Bill Leavy's crew, and it's true that Buffalo's cornerbacks play on the edge, and sometimes over the edge, of what the NFL decrees to be appropriate contact. Still, this was as much about what Buffalo's defense did as what the Packers' offense didn't do.
"I thought it was a function of Rodgers, but there are a couple of things they did," Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup told me Thursday. "They didn't do anything tactically that nobody's ever seen. People start getting into this 'blueprint' stuff, which of course means that if you're into that, every team will now do it, and the Packers should just bench Aaron Rodgers. Here's what the Bills did: When Randall Cobb was in the slot, the Bills almost always had a deep safety to that side of the field, as a Cover-2 deep safety. It didn't matter who was outside Cobb on that side of the field. So many of Rodgers' throws come late in the down, as he moves and navigates through the pocket. Those throws did not happen in this game. There's a random element to Rodgers' game that he more often than not compensates for with outstanding velocity and precise ball location. That did not happen in this game. There were also a number of outside throws versus man coverage -- the back-shoulder throws -- in which there appeared to be poor communication between Rogers and [Davante] Adams and [Jordy] Nelson. The Bills' approach was very coverage-based -- there were very, very few blitzes. If there were five, that's a lot. They played all nickel because the Packers played three-wide just about every snap in the game."
Cosell's point about Rodgers making plays late in the down is well-founded. According to Pro Football Focus' charting metrics, only Russell Wilson, Geno Smith and Colin Kaepernick average a longer time to throw the ball than Rodgers' 2.89 seconds per throw, and all three of the quarterbacks ahead of Rodgers in that regard are playing different versions of the modern quarterback game. That dropped a tenth of a second per throw against the Bills, but in or out of the pocket, a tenth of a second can make a world of difference.
"I think the biggest thing was just trying to get after him, get him rattled, just kind of get him not looking at where he was trying to throw the ball," defensive end Mario Williams said of Rodgers. "We got close a bunch of times, we kind of lured around a bunch of times, and unfortunately he got out once or twice. You can’t sit there and try to do too much because he shakes left and shakes right, he does that to try to get someone going one way or another."
In a larger sense, this Bills' defense is based on the best front four in the game when it comes to quarterback pressure, and that allows the linebackers and secondary to shuttle back and play spacing concepts even when they're in man coverage. One of the things that stood out to me above all else in this game was how often the Bills played man coverage against Green Bay's receivers -- they'd come right up, disrupt routes, and go with single coverage. Because Buffalo's pass defenders are so talented, they were able to get away with it. Still, the idea of having a deep safety to help with Cobb was a stroke of genius, and it led to Rodgers' first of two interceptions.
Here's why you need a deep safety on Cobb in the slot -- because he's not a typical slot receiver. With his downfield speed and route-running ability, Cobb will test defenses at multiple levels. Here is Green Bay's first offensive play of the second half, from the Packers' 20-yard line with 9:16 left in the third quarter. Cobb blows by safety Aaron Williams in the slot, and catches the ball from Rodgers on a slot post before deep safety Duke Williams can get there. This was a gain of 20 yards, and Duke Williams was injured on the play. Backup Baccari Rambo came in at that point, and things were about to get interesting.
With 3:40 left in the third quarter, the Packers had second-and-7 at their own 23-yard line. Cobb ran another deep route -- this time from the right slot -- and inside cornerback Nickell Robey handed Cobb off to Rambo, who did a great job of jumping the route.
"Me and Robey just communicated, studying film and just talking to those guys," Rambo said. "We knew once 18, Cobb, once he ran that route, I was going to take him and he was going to free up. When it happened I was like, 'Oh, here it comes.' I just saw Rodgers eyeing his guy, and I just broke on the ball and made a play."
Rambo's second interception of the day came with 11:15 left in the game. This time, the Packers had third-and-4 at the Buffalo 34-yard line. Rodgers tried to throw a quick slant to receiver Jarrett Boykin, who was the outside right receiver in an empty backfield package that featured three receivers to that side. This was going to be a man coverage situation, and the star here was cornerback Ron Brooks, who trailed Boykin inside perfectly.
The Packers were apoplectic after the play, insisting that Brooks got to Boykin early and initiated illegal contact, but it wasn't called. It would have been a bang-bang call, but you can see from this view that they may have had a point.
The Packers' last chance came with 1:58 left in the game, and this was a good example of how Rodgers was limited late in the down by pressure and coverage. Left end Mario Williams manhandled backup right tackle JC Tretter, stripped the ball out of Rodgers' hand, running back Eddie Lacy recovered the fumble in the end zone, and that was all she wrote.
"We believed in each other all week," Rambo said. "The coaches, the team, the players, everybody just believed in each other. We knew that we could come in here, do the right things, and do what the coaches ask us to do, and we could stop this team. We believe in each other, throughout this whole week. We still believe in each other. This is just a huge confidence boost for the whole defense. To not allow not one quarterback, but two of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL to no passing touchdowns, this is a huge, huge confidence boost for us.
Head coach Doug Marrone saw this two-game stretch as a definitive one for his team.
"Obviously, they played at a very high level," Marrone said of his defense. "We were able to go in and, early on, we took away some of the stop-nines they were trying to run and get them to the second read. I knew earlier in the week that we were going to play some coverage, two-man and things like that. They hurt us on some of the runs early on because we had to stop them with seven in the box. They did a good job of cutting us off, but overall guys stepped up; guys that weren’t even here with us in the beginning. Bacarri Rambo comes in for Duke and he gets two interceptions. That’s what you need. You need to do that. Obviously, we had some opportunities on offense, weren’t able to capitalize early on in the game, but to beat this team, you’re going to have to play well in all three phases."
Right now, it could be argued that there isn't a better defense in the AFC. The Patriots and Broncos would certainly have room in that debate, but what the Bills have done on that side of the ball through most of the season shouldn't be ignored. That defense will get its final test among the holy trinity of NFL quarterbacks when it faces the Patriots in the regular-season finale on Dec. 28. When the Bills last saw Tom Brady, he lit them up for four touchdown passes and no picks in a 37-22 win on Oct. 12. At that point, the Bills will be playing for more than pride -- it could very well be to see if they can get this league-leading defense into the postseason, and reverse that ugly precedent set a decade ago.