I continue to get some great reader-submitted questions about the Buffalo Bills lately. (Keep those coming, by the way, via Twitter or email - they often make for great, post-worthy discussions.) This morning, we're going to be multitasking as I try to answer two questions with one thread, if you will. Those two questions:
No. 1: "Brian, everyone is talking about mechanics these days. We know the throws that Ryan Fitzpatrick can't make. Can you describe some that he excels at?" - Ed
No. 2: "In your post about the potential uses for Dorin Dickerson, you showed us how David Nelson was used on what is essentially a tight end slip screen. Are there any more examples of how Nelson was put into a favorable matchup? Chan Gailey really seems to know how to get Nelson open." - Quinn
Here's one play that the Bills ran at least twice last year (with great effectiveness) that answers both of those questions. We'll start in a Week 1 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and then we'll fast forward to a Week 16 win over the Denver Broncos.
As you can see, this is a spread formation with three receivers to the right and two to the left. The interesting wrinkle of this four-receiver, one-back personnel grouping: the team has chosen to align its top two offensive weapons, Stevie Johnson (slot) and Fred Jackson (wide), to the left. That leaves Donald Jones (wide), Roscoe Parrish (slot) and Nelson (off right tackle) lined up to the right.
15 weeks later, the Bills lined up with the same personnel package in essentially the same alignment. The right side of the formation is the same, with Nelson joined by Derek Hagan and Kamar Aiken this time around. To the left, Johnson and C.J. Spiller are lined up, with the only difference being that Spiller is in the slot with Johnson out wide.
In both cases, the Bills drew man coverage from the opposing defense. That's a key to this specific route for Nelson, as he's got a one-on-one, man-to-man matchup with a safety in the first scenario, and a nickel back in the second.
In Kansas City, both outside receivers to the right release to the inside, causing the cornerbacks to turn their hips toward the middle of the field nearly instantly. Meanwhile, Nelson is off like a bullet running a basic corner route upfield and to his right. Reserve safety Sabby Piscitelli, who had come into the game for the injured Eric Berry, drew Nelson in coverage. That's a matchup that favors Nelson, who should be able to get open on the majority of safeties in the league thanks to his size and quicks.
Denver came at Buffalo with a more aggressive form of man coverage. You can see that Aiken, for instance, has been jammed on the outside. The Broncos tried to jam Nelson, too, with 5'10", 190-pound undrafted free agent rookie nickel back Chris Harris getting that assignment. Nelson defeated the jam pretty easily and got a fairly clean release, then proceeded to run his corner route. With no safety help over the top, Nelson - who has a seven-inch advantage on Harris - was going to be wide open.
This answers the second question above: Gailey knows how to get Nelson open because he knows that while Nelson isn't a jaw-dropping physical talent, he's got a lot of length, which makes him extraordinarily difficult to defend for the linebackers, safeties and smallish sub-package corners he's running routes again as a slot receiver. There are more creative ways to use Nelson, to be sure, but Nelson is consistently effective because Gailey and the Bills have correctly cast him in this specific slot receiver role.
Now, to answer the first question: the throw from Fitzpatrick. On both of these plays, Nelson has a lot of separation deep with no safety help against players that are shorter, which makes Fitzpatrick's life a lot easier for two reasons: players don't get open deep often in the NFL, and Nelson's wide catching radius means that Fitzpatrick doesn't need to throw this ball with pinpoint accuracy. Still, this isn't simple pitch and catch: the ball has to have velocity, but it also has to travel at the right trajectory to get over the top of the trailing defensive back.
Both of Fitzpatrick's throws on these plays were gorgeous. The second was a bit better, as it hit Nelson in stride, but on both plays Nelson was able to easily and smoothly make the catch and turn upfield. Combined, these two Fitzpatrick-to-Nelson throws netted the Bills 65 yards.
There are more throws that Fitzpatrick has nailed down over the last couple of years, but this one is the best and most explosive in the arsenal.