Last week, the Buffalo Bills spent about 90 percent of their defensive snaps in a nickel package to try to better match up with a New England Patriots team featuring two elite interior receivers in slot man Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
It will be interesting to see if that trend continues in Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers. Jim Harbaugh's crew does not have a receiving option of remotely the same caliber as Welker, but transitioning from Gronkowski to Vernon Davis won't be an easy task for the beleaguered Bills defense.
To their credit, the Bills have done a better job defending tight ends in 2012. Up until Gronkowski went off (as he always does against Buffalo) for 104 yards and a touchdown on five receptions, the Bills hadn't allowed a touchdown to a tight end all season. But scoring is really the only area where strides have been made: opposing tight ends have 21 receptions for 260 yards and a touchdown this season. Compared to last year's output (86 receptions, 1,171 yards and 14 touchdowns), the gains appear to be minimal.
Davis is not the same player type as Gronkowski - he's not as physical as a blocker and he's not quite as long - but that matters little when talking about an athlete of the caliber of Davis. Blessed with the vertical speed of a receiver, the 6'3", 250-pound Davis can hurt teams in all of the same ways Gronkowski can as a receiver, with the added bonus of being even more difficult to track down in the open field.
Davis is off to a hot start, too: in the 49ers' first three games, Davis reeled in 13 passes for 169 yards and four touchdowns. (It's fair to mentally scratch off last week's performance, when he was largely put on ice while the 49ers built a huge lead on the New York Jets.) He was a star in last season's playoff run, contributing 10 receptions, 292 yards and four touchdowns in a win over New Orleans and a loss to the New York Giants. Hands down, Davis is one of the best in the business.
The question, then, will be how defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt and the Bills try to match up against San Francisco's run-first offense. Will they play their base personnel to shore up their massive issues defending the run, knowing that they're leaving themselves vulnerable trying to cover up Davis and the rest of the team's athletic receivers? Or will they play their nickel to cover up Davis and take their chances against the run, as they did against New England?
Bank on the former. San Francisco's offense is much different from New England's, in that they're run-first, where the Pats are pass-first. They also don't have Tom Brady; Alex Smith has been very good over the last year-plus, but he's not Brady - a coach can actually contemplate the idea of letting the opposing quarterback try to beat you. That alone should mean that the Bills trot base defense linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats onto the field much more than the ten and nine snaps each got a week ago, respectively. If that's their game plan, brace yourselves for a big day from Davis, even if Buffalo's defense plays much more competitive football.