How Do the Bills Keep Pulling Off Upsets?

Buffalo grabbed their second win of the season on Sunday, with a green rookie QB surrounded by the worst roster in football. How are they doing it?
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At 2-3, no one is saying the Buffalo Bills deserve a parade. But the team that’s widely regarded as the NFL’s least talented—including by yours truly—has now beaten the Super Bowl-contending Vikings on the road and AFC South-leading Titans at home. Head coach Sean McDermott, just like he did as a first-time head coach last year, is making chicken salad in Buffalo. His recipe is worth examining.

Start by understanding Buffalo’s ingredients. Quarterback Josh Allen has mesmerizing arm strength and underrated athleticism. His accuracy is a work in progress. So is his field-reading, to a much greater degree. Allen does not yet understand how defensive fronts relate to potential pressure designs. He struggles to identify defensive looks that change after the snap. He sometimes predetermines downfield throws, which is to be expected given that he does not yet have a full grasp on how certain route concepts defeat specific coverages. This is not atypical of a rookie four starts into his career. We’ve seen equally raw but less gifted QBs go on to have nice careers. (McDermott tried to let Allen take the Patrick Mahomes path and learn from the bench, but Nathan Peterman wasn’t exactly Alex Smith.)

The problem is that there’s so little around Allen. The offensive line is slow and lumbering. The receiving corps is weak. No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin is an unrefined route runner with little sense for passing game nuance. Throws to him are inherently blurry; you’re pretty much just trusting science: a 6' 5", 240-pound target will defeat a 5' 11", 195-pound defender. The receivers behind Benjamin—possession guy Zay Jones, undrafted speedster Robert Foster and veteran journeyman Andre Holmes (whose failure to work back to the ball caused Allen’s only interception against Tennessee)—are also questionable.

But these are the ingredients that McDermott and first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll must use. On Sunday, they figured out how. Many coaches believe that to help a developing QB, you throw the ball on first down, when the defense is in a predictable zone look. But last week against Green Bay, the Packers played a lot of variegated matchup coverages on first down, making Allen’s reads more difficult. It became a day of third-and-longs, with seven sacks and two interceptions the end product.

With the Titans being a zone-based defense but having three quality man-to-man corners (Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson), plus a run defense that was without top linebacker Wesley Woodyard and ranked 27th coming in, Buffalo committed to pounding the rock. They ran on 27 of their first 36 snaps, and on 43 of 64 snaps overall. LeSean McCoy, who came in with 21 attempts for 85 yards in three games on the season, matched that 85-yard season total on Sunday, on 24 carries.

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This run-first approach didn’t set the world on fire; Buffalo’s limited O-line still struggled at times with Tennessee’s front. But the Bills avoided turnovers and stayed on schedule, and their quarterback looked much more comfortable. Most impressive was that McDermott and Daboll were willing to double-down on the approach late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 12-10, they got the ball with just under five minutes left and proceeded to run eight times in 10 snaps. McCoy was the chisel, and backup Chris Ivory, as he’d been on several key short-yardage plays earlier, was the hammer. When Allen did throw, it was on quick-hitting defined reads to the perimeter.

The drive, which ended with Steven Hauschka’s 46-yard field goal as time expired, was a microcosm of the game. Besides running the ball, the Bills had defined Allen’s reads, often through perimeter throws. Most notable were the play-action bootlegs and rollouts, which can be viewed as an extension of the running game. By moving the pocket, Buffalo hid its O-line against Tennessee’s pass rush, which, like every pass rush, is designed primarily to attack a straight dropback QB. (Designing a pass rush to reach a moving QB would involve severe risk-taking and guesswork.) Allen, moving outside the pocket, became responsible for reading only the side of the field he was moving towards. And with the sideline now a factor, “throwing the ball away” is closer to the front of the QB’s mind, propagating more responsible overall decision-making.

Of course, run-first play-calling and a controlled passing game are more for how to “not lose” than for how to win. For the approach to work, you need a playmaking defense. This is where McDermott, a defensive specialist, has been most impressive. Besides bull-rushing maestro Jerry Hughes, Buffalo’s D lacks natural pass rushers. It has shrewd technicians like Kyle Williams, Lorenzo Alexander and Star Lotulelei, but nobody who makes an offense adjust its protections. The Bills also don’t have great corners other than Tre’Davious White.

So McDermott runs a scheme that’s simple after the snap but complex before it. The Bills employ a variety of basic zone coverages, which allow their men to play faster. But before the snap, they present those coverages with roving safeties and various pressure fronts (most notably, the double-A-gap that McDermott learned from the late, great Jim Johnson in Philadelphia). This makes offenses play a tick slower.

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From there, the hope is that a high-octane, rally-to-the-ball mentality can make for opportunistic turnovers and third-down stops. That’s what happened at Minnesota, and again vs. Tennessee. The Titans on Sunday had three turnovers. Some were sloppy offense. Others, like Taron Johnson’s interception against receiver Nick Williams’s slant route, were great defense.

In a well-coached, simpler defensive scheme, men play hard and steadily improve. The Bills reflect this almost every week on film, most poignantly at linebacker. 2017 fifth-round pick Matt Milano has been magnetized to the ball much of this season. First-round rookie Tremaine Edmunds is playing faster physically by slowing down mentally. The 20-year-old was wildly susceptible to play-action fakes and misdirection early in the season. The last couple of weeks, he’s been more consistent in his zone responsibilities.

The Bills, just like last year, are a cautionary tale against dismissing an “untalented” roster. With the right coaching and in the right system, untalented players—especially professionals—are capable of overachieving.

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