Bills 34, Colts 21: Defense Squares Off Against Peyton

Even in the pre-season, when game plans are basic, experimental, and somewhat boring, there's nothing but great opportunity when your team plays Peyton Manning. The Buffalo Bills' first-team defense got that exact opportunity Thursday night against Indianapolis, and, as might be expected when playing Manning, they got roughed up a little bit.

In five possessions, the Bills gave up two scores, despite the fact that Indy was playing without the vast majority of its starting offensive line (similar to Buffalo's offensive experience a week ago against Washington). But several defenders also made plays and had nice outings, and the fact that the defense produced a score of its own obviously helped the situation as well.

In all, the defense got 21 reps against Manning and the Colts' first-team offense. Here are my notes on those reps.

Scoring Plays
* 17-yard run by Joseph Addai: The Colts execute their blocking scheme well, so this is going to be a moderate gain regardless. Paul Posluszny takes on a lead blocker, as his assignment dictates, but sheds a hair too late and misses Addai at the ankles. Donte Whitner, who had fill responsibility on the play, uses awful tackling technique and blows the play; Addai scoots by nearly untouched for the score.

* 78-yard interception return by Terrence McGee: Manning gets rid of the ball quickly and on target, but the ball goes through the hands of intended receiver Anthony Gonzalez; Drayton Florence had tight coverage on the play. McGee plucks the deflection deftly before it hits the turf, rolls, pops up, and is led by Whitner down the field for the score. McGee showed great ball skills on the play, and Whitner showed nice hustle in throwing two blocks to keep McGee's path clear.

* 21-yard pass from Manning to Jacob Tamme: Antonio Coleman gets a nice rush on a stunt inside, but the guard gets enough of him to keep Manning clean for the throw, though No. 18 is forced to do so almost off his back foot. Buffalo uses two-deep coverage with underneath trail from its nickel linebackers; Bryan Scott draws man coverage on Tamme. Scott lets up, thinking he'd have safety help, but Tamme runs right between Whitner and George Wilson, and Manning drops it into the triangle for the score. This was a great route, a great play-call by Manning, and Buffalo's defense didn't really stand a chance without a stronger pass rush.

Formations
Given the fact that the Colts' offense uses three receivers as its base formation and Manning operates the no-huddle, it's not surprising that 17 of Buffalo's 21 snaps came out of one alignment - a nickel formation with four down linemen. In fact, Buffalo used three down linemen just three times - twice out of their base 3-4 look, and once out of a 3-2 dime look. (A four-linemen dime look was the other rep.)

Personnel Usage
With so much nickel used, Buffalo's Jack linebackers - Reggie Torbor and Aaron Maybin - barely saw the playing field. In fact, Coleman got more reps than both of them, though he wasn't used much, either, as the Bills liked to use their strong-side linebackers (Chris Kelsay and Chris Ellis) on the defensive line in their nickel package. When four down linemen were utilized, the strong-side linebacker would line up weak, while the defensive end (usually Marcus Stroud or Dwan Edwards) would line up on the edge on the strong side.

Bryan Scott and Paul Posluszny were the two linebackers on the field in the nickel formation, and when Posluszny was pulled, Kawika Mitchell took his spot. Reggie Corner was the dime back, as usual. Torbor made it onto the field only for the team's two base looks, while Maybin - used always as a down lineman - was on for a nickel look and in the 3-2 dime look.

Ellis spelled Kelsay at SLB (which really played DE). Spencer Johnson got some reps in place of Stroud and Edwards. Andra Davis saw a few sub-package looks, but only as a sub - it's clear the Bills want him off the field in that look.

Player Notes
Kyle Williams was the only front-seven defender that played every snap, and he looked particularly good - probably because he was playing in a more natural (for him) 4-3 look. But Stroud was the best lineman on the field against Indy, batting down a pass early and splitting a double-team to tackle Addai for a three-yard loss. Williams had a fantastic read on a screen pass to snuff out the Colts' opening possession.

Ellis looked better in space than he did against Washington, showing good quicks and power to stop Donald Brown a yard short of the sticks on one possession. He and Kelsay both looked much stronger than Maybin and Coleman rushing the passer.

Aside from his miscommunication with the safeties on the Tamme score, Scott also completely whiffed on a tackle in a run fit that allowed Brown to pick up big yardage. Scott was unblocked on the play, and absolutely has to make that stop. Posluszny looked rough as well, though to be fair, he was knocking the rust off in his pre-season debut. He was late reading and reacting to a couple of throws in the flat, one that picked up first-down yardage to rookie tight end Brody Eldridge, and another on a long gainer to Addai. Mitchell was still worse in coverage; Eldridge torched him on a route in the middle of the field. Mitchell doesn't have the fluid hips required to drop, turn and pursue the way coverage linebackers should. He has looked impressive, however, fitting up the run.

Leodis McKelvin looked terrific. Manning tried to catch the Bills off-guard with a quick snap on the second play of the game, but McKelvin went stride-for-stride with Reggie Wayne and nearly intercepted the fade pattern. For a guy that has been knocked for his lack of focus, this was a particularly sharp play by McKelvin. He also made a nice play on an intended bubble screen, jamming the receiver while avoiding a block so that Manning had to throw it away. His tackling has been excellent in both pre-season games.

When a team needs to get a few yards through the air, and uses a short route to accomplish it, expect them to target McGee all year. McGee's fatal flaw is his jam; receivers separate from it all too easily. Gonzalez separated from a jam with ease on a quick in to get first down yardage.

Reps
With so many sub-packages used and a healthy dose of substitution thanks to getting players out that had been injured, a whopping 19 players saw field action against Manning's offense.

Player # Reps Pos.
K. Williams 21 NT, DT
T. McGee 21 CB
D. Florence 21 Slot CB
D. Whitner 21 SS
G. Wilson 21 FS
L. McKelvin 19 CB
M. Stroud 18 DE, DT
D. Edwards 16 DE
B. Scott 15 Nickel LB
C. Kelsay 10 SLB
P. Posluszny 10 WLB
K. Mitchell 10 WLB
C. Ellis 8 SLB
Sp. Johnson 6 DE, DT
A. Davis 5 MLB
A. Coleman 3 JLB, DE
R. Torbor 2 JLB
A. Maybin 2 JLB, DE
R. Corner 2 CB, Dime

Not much was learned here that we didn't already know. Buffalo used a lot of four-man rush, and struggled to lay a hand on Manning, even with all of Indy's injuries up front. The secondary covered well, but without a pass rush, holes will be found. The team's linebackers continue to struggle in coverage. Buffalo is blessed with solid depth (stay healthy!), so they'll be able to at least keep defenders fresh. They need to work on their nickel looks, but they've shown that they're capable of making plays from it, as well. McKelvin's bounce-back performance was nice to see. In all, this was an up-and-down performance, but if you're making plays on Manning, you're doing something right.

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