After the Bills’ near takedown of the Patriots in Week 4, the natural inclination was to pat Buffalo on the back and congratulate them for giving the (seemingly perennial) defending champs such a hard-fought game.
But please, don’t. The Bills are too good for moral victories. The team they were last Sunday is the exact team they’ve been every Sunday in this young NFL season—which is to say, while they are not the favorites, Buffalo is a competitor in the AFC East.
It starts, of course, with a defense that right now looks like the best-coached in football. With nearly all of last year’s lineup back (plus work-in-progress but talented first-round defensive tackle Ed Oliver), the Bills are fully acclimated to head coach Sean McDermott’s system, which is brilliant in its blend of simplicity and complexity. The Bills employ basic coverages but get to them in subtly different ways—including from various pressure fronts, which also drive their pass rush. McDermott has long been one of the league’s best at reverse-engineering an offense’s protection rules and exploiting it with selective, well-timed blitzes.
Because Bills defenders are so comfortable in a simple, but favorable scheme, they play at a torrid pace once the ball is snapped. Linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds (whose awareness has grown more than any NFL player’s over the last year) have been particularly electric, and they’re buttressed by diverse, interchangeable safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, plus ascending perimeter corners Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace, who can seamlessly shift from zone to man coverage.
It’s a potentially top-five defense in Buffalo, which brings us to the big question: can the offense be good enough?
The offense has been enhanced by a revamped front five. On the ground, the Bills feature perimeter runs built on the mobility of expensive new center Mitch Morse. Often joining Morse on outside pull-blocks is ex-Titans left guard Quinton Spain, whose mobility was called upon last Sunday as New England’s heavy defensive fronts spawned more traditional “power” runs.
But last Sunday against an equally stingy Patriots defense, most of those power runs were contained, which compelled the Bills to rely on Josh Allen. And that’s the question with this team—how much can the team count on the second-year quarterback?
So far, the answer, quite frankly, is “not very.” Yes, Allen’s second-reaction playmaking is terrific. At 237 pounds, he can shake would-be sackers in Roethlisberger-ian fashion. And as a runner, he plays faster than his 4.75 forty time, and is one of the league’s best scramblers. Defenses learned last year that you can’t play man coverages against Allen without spying him.
But second-reaction plays can’t carry an offense because most plays are decided somewhere in the quarterback’s first reaction.
Allen’s first reaction needs a lot of work. The third offensive play of the game against New England offered a perfect illustration. The Patriots, a known Cover 0 blitzing team, showed an unabashed Cover 0 blitz before the snap. And sure enough, they brought it. But Allen was caught totally unaware and quickly sacked. (Buffalo picked up a first down on the play thanks to a Stephon Gilmore holding foul, but that’s not the point.)
Allen’s trouble with identifying pressure is equaled by his trouble with identifying coverage, particularly as it pertains to the backside safety. His first interception against the Pats was a glaring example, when he failed to account for Devin McCourty out of a Cover 2 shell (the most basic of backside safety looks). Allen’s second interception—caught by cornerback J.C. Jackson—was, in some ways worse, as the young QB failed to account for a middle-field safety on a deep post that naturally takes the passer’s eye to … the middle of the field. The safety did not make the pick, but his presence allowed Jackson to play in trail coverage underneath the receiver, which is how the pick occurred.
Interceptions like these should be relatively from which to learn. For a good quarterback, making such blatant errors is like touching a hot stove, but that’s only the case if the passer understands how his team’s play designs relate to the coverage. There are plenty of non-turnover plays that illustrate the severity of Allen’s learning curve here. In Week 2 against the Giants, for example, on the game’s second play, the Bills ran a wheel route for tight end Dawson Knox. It was a perfect route combination to flood multiple players into the outside zone of New York’s Cover 4 (the play can also work against Cover 3—it’s a similar read for the quarterback). This was a scripted shot play that the Bills undoubtedly rehearsed carefully during the week. And yet Allen did not process the read and instead looked to the other (i.e. wrong) side of the field.
The following week, at Cincinnati, the Bills went back to this same concept midway through the game. This time, Allen was ready—but so were the Bengals. Likely figuring that Buffalo’s coaches had extensively gone over that missed opportunity with Allen, the Bengals sunk multiple defenders back deep against the tight end wheel route. Allen uncorked the ball anyway, throwing into the density. Luckily, it went uncaught, and the incompletion was actually scrubbed from the records, thanks to an illegal formation penalty against the Bills. But just like with the Gilmore holding penalty, that’s not the point.
On the one hand, Allen’s eagerness to target that wheel route illustrated a capacity for learning. He did not, after all, ignore the same route concept twice. But on the other hand, it was a robotic, predetermined throw, which you could argue reflects poorly on one’s learning capacity. A QB must understand that almost all throwing decisions are made in relation to the coverage read.
Quarterbacks who are mobile but can’t always diagnose the coverage are often frenetic in the pocket. They reach the top of their drop and their instinct is to run. But they’ve been coached not to run—not early in the down from a clean pocket anyway—and so they halt themselves and end up just gyrating around the pocket until the pass rush becomes noisy enough that running seems like a good idea after all. This happens with Allen too often.
What Sean McDermott and his offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, must figure out is how to accommodate Allen’s youthful flaws without catering to them. No QB can correct these weaknesses overnight—especially not midseason. But a QB can maybe avoid them if he’s asked to, say, dropback and throw on first and second down, when defenses, forced to consider the run, are inherently more predictable. Throwing the ball from two-back or two-tight end sets (aka “base personnel”) is a great way to exploit a predictable defense.
Daboll, a former tight ends coach, has a strong working knowledge of this sort of passing game, and the Bills this season have indeed shown some creativity with dropbacks out of base personnel (including spreading out into empty formations, which is another way to clarify the coverage for the QB). It’s a fine line to walk, though. Buffalo’s offense ultimately hinges on the success of its ground game; incomplete passes on first down can quickly derail a ground game. And Allen, gifted a fastball thrower as he is, does not deliver with stable accuracy. Like Cam Newton, he is liable to simply miss on a half-dozen throws each game. This cannot be coached out of a guy, it can only be coached around.
For Bills coaches, the workaround is an emphasis on designer deep balls, which play to Allen’s arm strength, require a little less precision and naturally come on first and second down out of run formations. But so far this season, Allen has mostly floundered here. On passes that have traveled 20 yards or more downfield, he is 7-of-22 with one touchdown and three interceptions. His 48.7 passer rating here is last among qualified quarterbacks.
Buffalo’s playoff hopes hinge on whether the young QB can get these deep balls righted. The Bills will be in a lot of games because their defense is capable of holding almost any offense to under 20. But to win those games, Buffalo’s own offense must cash in on big plays.
The best argument against Buffalo looking like the best-coached defense in football is that the distinction actually belongs to San Francisco. Robert Saleh’s unit has been transformed by the additions of defensive ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, plus the arrival of linebacker Kwon Alexander (who has played lights out). But the Niners suffered a major blow when Witherspoon went down, as they’d come to rely on quality one-on-one coverage at the corner spot opposite a still-viable Richard Sherman. Given how immensely Jason Verrett, back from three years of injuries, struggled in limited action against the Steelers in Week 3, and how serviceable fill-in starter Tarvarius Moore has been at free safety, don’t be surprised if the Niners ultimately turn to converted safety Jimmie Ward at right corner. That is, if Ward himself is healthy. He missed Weeks 1-3 with a finger injury.
SAINTS IN GREAT SHAPE?
If New Orleans’s defense continues to play like it has the last two weeks, Drew Brees could return in November to a team that sits atop the NFC South. When the Saints are rolling, their secondary, and particularly No. 1 corner Marshon Lattimore, is almost always at the forefront. That said, it’s the defensive line that defines this group. Under third-year D-line coach Ryan Nielsen, pricey 2018 first-round defensive end Marcus Davenport is steadily developing opposite top-shelf superstar Cam Jordan, while the interior—Malcom Brown, David Onyemata and, now, a healthy Sheldon Rankins—has become one of the game’s most destructive. This D-line has a lot of growth potential still left, especially since coordinator Dennis Allen has been known to give his front four great freedom in deciding what stunts it runs and when.
A PERFECT REGULAR SEASON
A major component in the ongoing CBA negotiations between NFL owners and players is the length of the regular season. The perfect solution: shrink the preseason to two games, extend the regular season to 19 weeks but give each team 17 games and two byes. The extra bye helps offset the wear and tear from adding the extra game, allowing the NFL to expand its regular season while still prioritizing player safety. That 17th game would be an international game for each team. The international market is brimming with potential; accelerating the NFL’s foray into that would, in the long run, generate much more revenue than would an 18th regular season game. (Plus, with an extra bye, there could be fewer games leaguewide each week, which makes it easy to concentrate TV audiences into the best game—something the NFL has prioritized in the 4:00 window in recent years.) Growing the game internationally also addresses the elephant in the room, which is that more and more American parents are becoming reluctant to let their kid play football.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Bears vs. Raiders (London)
Without Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears won’t get many successful sandlot plays when things break down, but it’s also likely that things won’t break down quite as often. What stood out last Sunday in the team’s win over Minnesota was how consistently Chase Daniel got the ball out on schedule—especially underneath, which is where Trubisky has mostly been throwing anyway. Timing and rhythm is critical in Matt Nagy’s system. With Daniel, the Bears may actually get sharper here.
Colts @ Chiefs
The blueprint for facing Kansas City’s offense: man coverage. It didn’t stand out thanks to a 28-point second quarter, but the Raiders in Week 2 gave the Chiefs some tactical trouble with man-to-man. Patrick Mahomes and his receivers still made some outstanding individual plays, but the offense did not always function at its high-octane level. In Week 4, the Chiefs (by their standards) struggled again, this time against a stingier man-based Lions defense. The Colts are one of the NFL’s most zone-centric defenses. It will be interesting to see if coordinator Matt Eberflus deviates from that script Sunday night. One thing we could see often: man coverage played out of zone structures behind a slot blitz.
Packers @ Cowboys
What has gotten into Robert Quinn? The 29-year-old Cowboys defensive end looks like he did at 23, when as a Ram he led the NFC with 19 sacks. Quinn’s explosiveness is augmented by unique pliability. As a long bender, he tends to get more depth upfield in his pass rush, which worked great early in his career but has become less effective as quarterbacks now throw more out of shorter dropbacks. But last Sunday at New Orleans, there were cases where Quinn got too far upfield and passed the quarterback, only to—amazingly—redirect and come back downfield and still impact the throw. It will be a treat watching him face Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, one of the league’s most agile technicians.
Why do we sprinkle extra admiration on someone who works out early in the morning instead of later in the day? We bump into this weird praise all the time in the NFL. We’ll hear about how dedicated Joe Player is because he is in the weight room at 5 a.m. every day. What if Joe Player is like most human beings and feels groggy as hell at 5 a.m.? Are we to commend him for going in early to get a much crummier workout? And what all does Joe Player have going on in his world that he has to get his workout in at 5 a.m.? He’s in the NFL… how many things during his daylight hours could possibly be more important than working out? And if Joe Player is going to bed at 9 p.m. because he gets up and works out extra early then… so what? The great author Lionel Shriver in her book Big Brother called this a “faux farmer” schedule. The 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. sleeper is still sleeping the same number of hours as the more conventional 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. sleeper. So why does the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. sleeper get to feel righteous? And, back to our example, if Joe Player is actually sacrificing sleep to get up and work out at 5 a.m., then chances are he’s not gritty and dedicated, but rather, just perpetually exhausted. For a professional athlete, that’s not commendable. Just ask SI’s Jenny Vrentas, who wrote smartly on this topic in 2015.
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