Buffalo’s 32nd-ranked passing offense turned in another ho-hum result on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, with Tyrod Taylor turning in his sixth game of the season with fewer than 200 passing yards. Granted, he was working without Robert Woods or LeSean McCoy for over half of the game (not to mention Sammy Watkins’ continued absence), but Buffalo’s offense stalled on a number of drives during the 16-12 victory.
The game seemed like a pretty standard Bills output for 2016 - running game looks solid, passing attack is hamstrung but largely mistake-free. Or was it?
#Bills All22: Tyrod was just awful. Missing receivers. Running from clean pockets. Didnt notice much during game. Blindingly bad on film.— Thad Brown (@thadbrown7) November 23, 2016
When I heard a claim like that one, I had to investigate myself with the All-22 film. Was Tyrod’s failure the reason Buffalo kept punting?
I watched all of the called passing plays from last week’s performance, and as is my practice when I’m doing a deep dive into a college prospect, I took notes on each one to try to evaluate what happened on the play, what opportunities were available, and what circumstances affected the outcome. What I found was that this game is a perfect case study for identifying Tyrod Taylor.
Let me insert the shorthand notes, then I’ll follow up with the conclusions I drew. You can share in the comments below if you feel the same.
- pass 1 (the Bush 18-yarder): Robert Woods wiiiiiiiiiiide open for a TD out deep. Looks like Tyrod maybe saw it, but he stepped up into Groy and tripped and had to escape the pocket
- pass 2 (4 yards to LeSean): Charles Clay wiiiiiiiiide open for a TD deep middle. Tyrod pats and checks down to McCoy. Though I'll say that Clay was his third or fourth read, so it wasn’t likely Taylor was going to move to him in his progression.
- pass 3, bubble screen for 1 yard to Harvin
- pass 4 (24 yards to Woods) - great job quickly identifying Woods open in a zone, getting him the ball in space for YAC
- pass 5 (4 yards to Woods) - weird (lousy) play. From the 11 yard line, only two receivers run routes, one receiver runs only one yard downfield on a shallow out. 2 RBs stay in to pass protect. Taylor gets the ball to Woods with room to earn a few yards.
- pass 6 (where Woods gets injured): Cincy had this well covered. Goodwin was possibly open on the deep post, but he was bumped during the play which threw off timing. Taylor had a free rusher heading for him when he threw. Shoulda thrown it away, got lucky that it was caught for + yards
- sack 1: Initial coverage by Cincy is very good. O'Leary starts to come open in the deep middle, and Taylor doesn't see him. Taylor escapes the pocket and runs himself into a sack.
- scramble 1: Cincy had lockdown coverage. Taylor makes some positive yards on the play.
- pass 7 (the 3rd and goal after Richie's penalty): Justin "Touchdown" Hunter was open for a lobbed pass on the right side of the end zone. Taylor (who was mostly looking left) checks down to Clay instead and the Bengals have that covered well.
- pass 8 (5 yards to Goodwin): three step drop. Taylor quickly finds Goodwin open in the right-middle and gets him the ball on the hitch. He's getting better at completing these short passes.
- pass 9: Designed swing pass to McCoy. The DE gets in the passing lane and it falls incomplete. More on the OL-DL matchup than Taylor
- pass 10: Good coverage by Cincy. Taylor doesn't see anyone, a rusher comes free, and Taylor juuuuust gets the ball out in the direction of Brandon Tate for 15 yards.
- pass 11 (8 yards to McCoy): Taylor's quick three-step drop suggests McCoy was the designed target on this play. But receivers were open on both deep sidelines for an extra 15 yards.
- pass 12: Good coverage and Taylor takes a 3 yard checkdown to Reggie. If he'd been a bit more vigilant and aggressive, his left slot receiver turned around his defender and could've caught a deeper pass
- scramble 2: Really good coverage by Cincy. Taylor escapes the pocket and gets some yards and heads out of bounds
- pass 13 (interception): Great coverage by Cincy. Seantrel gets beat and forces Taylor to escape the pocket. Instead of throwing the ball away (2nd and 4, one minute left, two timeouts, already in field goal range), Taylor throws it to the end zone and it gets picked. Terrible decision. Terrible.
- —End of half—
- pass 14: Another quick three-step hitch play. This time to Clay.
- pass 15: I believe Tyrod was confused presnap by the coverage. He ignores the left side of the field, where he has two players open for 5 yard gains. e focuses on the right, where a receiver is blanketed in man coverage. Then he hesitates and checks down to JWill, who gets tackled for no gain.
- scramble 3: Cincy switched coverages again as the snap happened, from a Cover 1 look to a Cover 2. Did this confuse Taylor? He doesn't throw at the top of his drop. Coverage is pretty good across the field. Then he gets distracted by Glenn's pass rusher. He falls victim to Cincy's spies when he tries scrambling for yards. Had he kept looking he'd have found Goodwin open across the middle.
- pass 16: Tyrod identifies his open guy on the short pass pattern from an empty set look, but the pass is tipped by a DT.
- pass 17: Shovel pass to Clay. Someone (I think John Miller) whiffed a block, so it goes for small gain
- pass 18: Glenn is beat, and there's not much room to step up. Taylor overthrows his receiver deep for an incompletion.
- scramble 4: Glenn and Incognito both beat. Taylor scrambles out of pressure and gets the first down.
- pass 19: Tyrod steps up in a compressed pocket and amazingly swings the ball to Brandon Tate on the run for 34 yards
- scramble 5: Great coverage by Cincy. Taylor eludes more heat, courtesy of a badly-beaten John Miller. He picks up two yards on the scramble.
- pass 20: Tyrod lets the crossing pattern develop and looks off a defender enough to find Harvin, who picks up five.
- pass 21: Taylor finds Goodwin at the end of his drop for ten yards.
- pass 22 (Clay drops the TD): Taylor really lasered that in. And he needed to, because he picked a challenging target surrounded by defenders. The ball went to the right spot, but Clay doesn't pull it in. There may have been easier options around the field.
- pass 23: Taylor hesitates a tick before throwing to Gillislee and that gives a defender time to undercut the route and knock it away.
- pass 24: Another easy five yard hitch pattern, completed.
- pass 25: Pass was on target to Tate for the first down but he dropped it. Also, there was an illegal shift penalty.
- pass 26: Another short ~5 yard completion. I swear, this is the only thing the Bengals D was giving up all game.
- sack 2: Charles Clay was open deep middle for a potential TD. Taylor was looking left, didn't see anyone open for a first down on 3rd and short, and escaped a clean pocket to try and run for the first down. The defenders came free and sacked him.
- pass 27: 3rd and 3 trying to put the game away. Taylor tries to fit the ball around Carlos Dunlap, it goes a bit too far outside for Harvin, incompletion.
- --End of game--
Did you follow all that? Here’s what I think:
On nine of Buffalo’s 34 called pass plays, I noted Cincinnati having “good” or better coverage. Good meaning that all receivers were reasonably covered, but a great pass could fit the ball to one of them. Anything above that meaning that nobody was open. To add to that, four of the passes were designed “space” plays - screens or shovel passes that try to ignore coverage. When almost a third of your pass plays result in nobody being open, and a few more are sending the ball to players behind the line of scrimmage, you’re not going to put up great numbers.
Taylor has really gotten comfortable with throwing passes in rhythm. At the start of this season, and at times last year, he struggled to find a target in a timely manner. He had the longest “time to throw” of any NFL quarterback in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. Taylor still has his moments of uncertainty, but he’s become a chain-mover. Every game, we’re seeing a half dozen passes by him for five or six yards to an open receiver. As Kent Dickerson reminded me in our Slack channel, Anthony Lynn is to thank for that. Here’s a quote from Lynn’s first press conference after being elevated to offensive coordinator, when he was asked how to help Taylor use the whole field when passing:
True to form, Taylor has been making a lot of pre-snap reads in this offense, whether it’s finding his target from the get-go or cutting his progression down to half the field before the snap. And he does a solid job of that, evidenced by his low turnover count and decent completion percentage. The issue is that he leaves a large chunk of yardage on the field by outright missing wide open players. On the first two pass plays against Cincinnati, Taylor had golden opportunities for touchdowns, but he overlooked them. At times, the Bengals would shift their coverage shell as soon as the Bills went into their silent snap count, and I believe it confused Taylor more than once. The receivers struggled to get open against Cincinnati’s man coverage, but when they were open, they were sometimes overlooked. Another issue with his decision-making: Pocket presence. Taylor is still inconsistent with the minute movements that buy him extra time in the pocket. He stepped up into pressure or fled a clean pocket a handful of times on Sunday, and it cost him some potential big gains.
Taylor’s accuracy, something that has been tossed about as a fatal flaw at times, was actually very strong in this game. I only counted four inaccurate throws from Taylor: The incomplete swing pass to McCoy that he tried to fit around a free defensive end, the interception targeted to Goodwin (which was primarily a really bad decision), the deep incompletion when he was pressured from the left side, and the pass to Harvin on 3rd and 3 that he tried to fit around Carlos Dunlap. Everything else was... Exactly where it needed to be. Especially the hitches, which have quickly become a great strength of Taylor’s.
So as a passer, Taylor fits into the template of “not a wizard reading defenses, but with good arm talent.” But there’s one more dimension that he brings to the table, of course: His ground game. Taylor leads the league in yards from scrimmage among quarterbacks, and it’s not even close (Cam Newton, in second place, is nearly 150 yards behind him). The contributions from his legs help elevate him from the bottom in passing yards to 22nd in total yards among NFL quarterbacks. Crucially, it buys Buffalo’s offense second chances when the pass protection breaks down. We’re still learning how to measure the value of a running quarterback in the offense, but you’ve seen the results pretty much every week: Taylor’s electric legs are what make this offense hum when it’s at its best.
This is who Tyrod Taylor is: A quarterback with elite athleticism, good arm talent and accuracy, and a weakness moving through his progressions. If he can improve his field-reading, we already know that Taylor has the arm strength and touch to drop a 50 yard pass into the bread basket. Three months from now, when you’re asking yourself why the Bills retained Taylor on his $27 million extension, the answer is: because they feel like he has 2⁄3 of the franchise quarterback traits already figured out. And that’s something worth betting on.