Instead of asking if first-time head coach Sean McDermott’s 3-1 Buffalo Bills are for real, let’s ask a more pertinent question: Can McDermott’s Bills continue to win with their style of play? Buffalo’s three victories are “very real” (in pro football, almost all victories are), but they were achieved via stingy defense and an ultra-controlled offense—a combination that hasn’t produced many serious contenders since the early 2000s.
With Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, the Bills must run a limited, highly specified offense that carries a thin margin for error. To put it bluntly, there are parts of Taylor’s game they must hide. Taylor is not a progression-read pocket passer. His vision is iffy and he doesn’t anticipate throwing windows, which forces a play-caller to use simpler route combinations. Taylor relies heavily on his mobility. When his initial reads don’t show open, he quickly assumes a runner’s mentality, breaking himself down in the pocket regardless of the pass rush. Occasionally, he’ll do this even before an early read unfolds. Open receivers go untargeted every game.
Weaknesses like these have ruined many careers, but there are systems that can accommodate a quarterback like this, if he’s athletic. We saw that with the run-oriented 49ers in the early Colin Kaepernick years, and with Washington and the zone-reads in Robert Griffin III’s rookie season.
Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is playing to Taylor’s mobility, though his approach is different than those of San Fran and Washington in the past. Designed QB runs are not part of Dennison’s foundation, but designed movement is built into the passing game. Dennison’s Bills have run the ball more than every team except Jaguars. They’re averaging just 3.4 yards a carry— the sixth worst in the league—but the commitment to the run augments a first down play-action game that aids Taylor. Dennison is frequently putting Taylor on bootlegs and rollouts, where Taylor’s limited field vision and pocket poise are nonfactors. Taylor, for the most part, sees the field well when he’s outside the pocket, and at times he’s one of the league’s best touch passers. This includes throwing downfield. Dennison has featured route combinations that give Taylor multiple options all on the same side of the field. The reads become more defined, and if Taylor doesn’t like them, he’s in a better position to scramble.
These concepts always come on first or second down. And very often, Dennison calls them to start a drive. In third-and-long, the Bills have consistently called passes that attack short of the sticks, where the risk of turnover is low and the chance of punting to fight another day is very high. McDermott is known to be almost obnoxious in stressing turnover prevention.
Even if the offense does its part, this approach is only as fruitful as your defense allows. So far, Buffalo’s defense has been surprisingly stellar. It’s allowing a league-low 13.5 points a game, and its seven takeaways trail only Jacksonville (10), Detroit (11) and Baltimore (11). There’s an energetic liveliness to this unit. McDermott runs a straightforward scheme; he keeps his front seven fresh with frequent substitutions; he has a knack for dialing up designer pressure concepts at just the right times. McDermott doesn’t blitz often, but when he does, it’s with the exact pressure package the offense doesn’t want.
Can this continue? As important as energy and scheme are, in the end you’re only as good as your personnel. Buffalo’s secondary has two potential studs: rookie corner Tre’Davious White (his short-area agility is tremendous) and former Packers safety Micah Hyde (he was outstanding in the win at Atlanta). But the rest of the all-new backfield consists of career-long fringe starters and backups: corners E.J. Gaines, Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright, and safety Jordan Poyer. They’re playing well, but coaches will tell you that any plan that’s contingent on guys continuing to overachieve is unwise.
In a scheme like McDermott’s, however, a secondary’s play often hinges on whether the D-line pressures the quarterback. Jerry Hughes ate up Falcons stalwart left tackle Jake Matthews last Sunday. Hughes has the power/speed combination to consistently win off the edge. But off the other edge, the Bills are still searching for answers. If it’s not 34-year-old Lorenzo Alexander, who looks every bit as dynamic as he did in his breakout 2016 campaign but is not an everydown edge player, then Buffalo could have problems. Last year’s first-round pick, Shaq Lawson, hasn’t shown the flexibility and burst of an NFL defensive end. In fact, in nickel he now plays inside, next to Kyle Williams and ahead of Marcell Dareus, whom this new staff is employing like a midlevel backup.
There’s not an abundance of pass rushers on this roster, and for the Bills to keep winning the way they have, there must be. The Bills’ three wins are certainly legitimate, and remember that in their lone loss the defense gave up all of nine points to Carolina. But are those three wins also came against a Falcons team that was missing starting receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu in the second half (Atlanta’s backup receivers could not separate against Buffalo’s third down man coverage). Other wins were against the Broncos when Trevor Siemian had a second half meltdown and the Jets, who have receivers that our own Peter King could cover. (Not really, but you get the idea.)
High-flying offenses (Bucs, Raiders and Saints) await, as do the Dolphins and Patriots, whom the Bills will face in four of their final five games. It’s been a great start, yes, but let’s wait and see with these Bills.
Film Note Elaboration
Hold on before you bray about Deion Jones. Take this tweet only at face value. When you put on Atlanta’s film, Riley is unequivocally the fastest linebacker. Now, there’s a fine line between playing fast and playing out of control. As Riley learns to toe that line, he very well may slow down. Jones plays fast—really fast—but also plays under control. Here’s the bigger takeaway, though: with Riley joining Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, the Falcons now have the fastest linebacking trio in football. That’s important when you play as much man coverage and Cover 3 as Dan Quinn.
Cause for Concern?
By now you’ve heard, New England’s defense ranks dead last in the NFL. End of an era? Overrated team? Overpaid, underperforming group? No. The Patriots are struggling with communication and mental mistakes. They were particularly bad last Sunday when the Panthers motioned to three-receiver bunches. Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are probably frustrated, but not worried. Mental mistakes are correctable. This defense, which is very talented, will be just fine, perhaps even as soon as Thursday night at Tampa.
Keep an Eye on
The Steelers defensive line. With Cameron Heyward, rising second-year man Javon Hargrave and now Stephon Tuitt back healthy, the Steelers have three men who can win via strength or quickness. And with the league’s most explosive linebacker, Ryan Shazier, behind them, they can afford to take chances by going underneath blocks to shoot gaps. If you go under a block and miss, the sea can part in your run defense. Shazier is one of those rare players who has the speed to cover you.
The Vikings will certainly miss Dalvin Cook (ACL). Backup Latavius Murray is a totally different style of running back. In fact, don’t be surprised if Jerick McKinnon, or someone currently not on the roster, winds up with the No. 1 job. But impressive as Cook has been, he wasn’t the sole reason for Minnesota’s two victories. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has been brilliant in his aerial designs, out-leveraging defenses with multi-receiver route combinations. That can continue regardless of who plays running back.
Non-Football Thing on My Mind
My cousin recently had his bike stolen on a trip to Walla Walla, Washington. Upon hearing this, I drifted back to an ugly experience with my first girlfriend. We were playing Scattergories. If you don’t know: Scattergories is a board game where you fill categories with words beginning with a chosen letter. So, let’s say the letter is A. Your card has 10 categories, and you must write as many as you can in 60 seconds. The categories are things like food (apple), band (Aerosmith), Disney character (Aladdin), etc. The key is finding double-dip phrases. For example, athlete: Andre Aggasi. That’s two points.
My girlfriend and I were playing the letter W. One of the items on the card was Place. I put Walla Walla, Washington—a rare play that is the Scattegories equivalent of stealing home in baseball. Three points! But, no? My girlfriend said that because Walla Walla represented just one city, it was worth just one point. (With Washington I got two points.) We argued, good naturedly, but it wasn’t long before I felt my breath shorten. Her dismissiveness was what was so infuriating. Nope, Walla Walla, Washington, two points. Eventually, her mother walked in and my girlfriend unilaterally appointed her as the “neutral” judge. The mother said Walla Walla, Washington was worth two. Three months later, we broke up.
Anyway . . . I’m still owed a point—and my cousin wants his bike back.
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