The Buffalo Bills' 35-34 loss to the Tennessee Titans has a deja vu feeling to it.
We've seen the Buffalo Bills' 35-34 loss to the Tennessee Titans before. No, I'm not referring to Buffalo's losses to New England in Week 4 and San Francisco in Week 5, though the team's defense was similarly bad in both of those games. We need to dig deeper than that.
Think back to a time when Buffalo's offense and special teams played well enough to win, but the defense let the team down, doing so by allowing more rushing yards than passing yards to an opponent. If you're thinking back to the Dick Jauron era, where the Bills lost eight games where they scored over 20 points and handed the opposition rushing yards in large sums, you might just be on to something.
Chan Gailey called a really good game. Gailey knew that his running backs could carry the offense, so he let them do it. Running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson touched the ball on 36 of Buffalo's 59 plays, gaining 222 of Buffalo's 382 yards.
Buffalo executed 37 designed passes and 22 designed runs, though many of the passes were screens or short passes to the backs. The Bills ran the ball with Spiller and Jackson on 21 of 22 called runs, gaining 141 yards. The two running backs also caught 14 passes for 81 yards. Gailey kept it relatively simple for Ryan Fitzpatrick, showing some acknowledgement of his quarterback's strengths and weaknesses. Of Fitzpatrick's 27 completions, 19 were completed for under 10 yards and for a total of 87 yards - a highly effective, though somewhat limiting, passing scheme. But it worked.
You can forget blaming the last three drives on Gailey. Buffalo's third from last drive gained a first down, and would have continued if not for a holding penalty on Erik Pears, which negated a 16-yard completion to Scott Chandler. The next to last drive saw Fitzpatrick throw a bad interception at a bad time. The Titans played off coverage on the Bills' final drive, limiting them to short passes to end the game. Though the Titans have the league's worst defense, Gailey knew what he had on offense, and made it work. For most teams, Gailey's offense is enough to win games.
Buffalo's defense is back to looking like it did under Jauron, when the Bills ran the Tampa 2. It took me seven weeks to understand what's causing the defensive breakdowns. It certainly can't be talent, and youth accounts for only so many mistakes. After watching Buffalo's defense today, I'm certain of what I'm seeing. Buffalo's scheme is a one-gap defensive front four, backed by fast-flowing linebackers, with mostly zone coverages, which is very similar to a Tampa 2 scheme.
The results are the same as in the Jauron era - good pass defense and run defense outside of a few big plays. Buffalo gave up 193 yards passing, and Matt Hasselbeck was held to 6.2 yards per pass, both good statistics. The Titans did gain 197 yards rushing - outpacing their passing yardage, something reminiscent of the Jauron days - but gained the majority of their yardage on four runs. Chris Johnson had the Titans' only four runs longer than 10 yards, breaking runs of 16, 83, 25 and 27 yards. That's 151 of 197 rushing yards on four plays, with the other 46 yards coming on 23 runs. Ergo, Buffalo's defense is working most of the time. What's the problem?
First, if the defense plays two-deep zone (they do a lot), the defense runs the risk of having insufficient personnel to cover every gap assignment. In a standard set with two receivers, two backs, and a tight end, the defense works well. As soon as the offense goes to one back and adds a tight end or an H-back, the defense has too many gaps to cover. Second, these types of defenses attack the line of scrimmage. If one defender misses a gap assignment, no front seven defenders are positioned to stop the runner if he hits the gap where the assignment was missed. What you get is a defense that plays the run well most of the time, but when is misses, the runner gains yardage until the safeties tackle him. We saw that during the Jauron era, and we saw that Sunday.
Let's Not Overreact
It's too soon to start calling for firings. Gailey's offense worked. He found a nice combination of relying on his two running backs and short, high-percentage passing. The offense plays better defenses in the coming weeks, but offensive linemen Kraig Urbik and Cordy Glenn return to the lineup by then; both linemen played a big role in Spiller's dominant early-season games.
If I can figure out the weaknesses in Wannstedt's scheme, certainly the folks at One Bills Drive, who get paid to analyze football full-time, can figure it out as well. Wannstedt's been around the league for a long time, and he knows defensive football. We know he's been exposed to the 3-4 and Jim Bates' version of the 4-3 through the jobs he's held, and it's fair to assume that he knows how other defenses work. He's got a choice now: continue to try to get the Bills' defenders to play to near perfection in his scheme, or try something different. He's got a whole bye week and seven more games to work the defense into shape.
Outlook. It's never ideal to head into the bye with a loss, but the bye is certainly needed for the defense. While I think the comparison to the Jauron-era defense is fair, things aren't totally the same. Buffalo's defensive talent is far better now than in 2009. GM Buddy Nix has stocked the shelves on defense; Perry Fewell never had this kind of talent while coordinating in Buffalo. So while the defense is bad, it's not hopeless. Step one is identifying the problem, right? Now it's up to Wannstedt and the players to act. They have two weeks to do so.