In the third quarter of Buffalo’s 16-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills were nursing a 13-10 lead. Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson had just slid through the Bills defense for a touchdown to cut Buffalo’s lead to three points. The first play of Buffalo’s drive, Tyrod Taylor threw a deep pass to tight end Charles Clay that agonizingly fluttered in the air, nearly jumped by Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, before it fell into Clay’s hands for a 33-yard gain with a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on. It was a potential turning point in the game, one we’ve seen too often when the Bills meet the Chiefs in November. This time, it ended in Buffalo’s favor. Let’s break it down.
The Chiefs started this play with a two-deep safety look, but as Clay motions across the formation, a safety drops down into the box to man coverage. The eventual coverage is split; a Cover-0 man coverage shell on the offensive left side, and a Cover-3 shell on the offensive right side. From a 3-4 formation, the front five rush the passer while keeping edge contain, and the two inside linebackers drop into shallow zones in the middle of the field.
Against this look, Buffalo dials up a Sail concept. Sail passes call for the frontside receiver on the play to run a go route downfield to stretch the defense vertically. The other receivers cross the field from the backside to the frontside, running routes at different depths to do the same. This is a good concept to call against a zone defense because most zone looks only have two levels of depth, creating seams where this play could have openings.
Here’s the All-22 footage of this play, with the endzone view stitched onto the end. Take a few views, then let’s talk about the outcome. I’ll share my thoughts, but feel free to discuss yours in the comments below.
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The Bills keep six offensive linemen in to protect, with Seantrel Henderson working outside the right tackle, Jordan Mills. Henderson’s man backs off after the snap. Dion Dawkins and Richie Incognito both hold up one-on-one against their defenders. Eric Wood and Vladimir Ducasse double team the nose tackle with no issue. Mills, though, is beaten pretty early in the play. He manages to push his defender behind the pocket, but still forces his quarterback to step up to avoid pressure.
Deonte Thompson runs the clear out route on the right side. With a free release and great effort, Thompson gets downfield in a hurry and forces Peters to substantial depth. That opens up the space underneath.
Clay also gets a free release. He does a nice job shortening his stride to set up the turn to the right without tipping his intentions to the safety, Daniel Sorensen. Sorensen seems to anticipate a route that breaks closer to the left side of the field, and sits back to break on the ball. This backfires, and he ends up trailing far behind Clay.
Zay Jones, running his route from the split end on the far left of the offensive formation, has the toughest assignment. He’s up against press-man coverage, and Sorensen’s positioning doesn’t give him much room to work to the inside. He’s slowed down on his stem and can’t get ideal depth, but trails behind Clay with good enough separation.
Running off the play action, LeSean McCoy gives the Bills a checkdown option, but the ball is out before he’s looking for a throw.
Taylor takes the snap to a seven-step play action drop. He quickly identifies Clay as an open receiver crossing the deep middle. Both of those parts of the process were excellent. I do think the decision of target was correct. At the time of Taylor’s throw, Peters is still covering a deep zone behind Thompson. He doesn’t try to jump the route until the ball is in the air.
From watching this play, I can see Taylor turn his head slightly to the right as he’s finishing his drop. It looks like he’s eyeing Allen Bailey, the defender in the process of beating Jordan Mills. Taylor takes two hitch steps up in the pocket to avoid the pressure - again, this is what you want to see.
Taylor delivers the throw, but doesn’t quite follow through. Instead, he fades away to the left as soon as his arm comes forward. With Bailey a step away, it feels to me like an involuntary motion to avoid taking a hit. Either way, this is what creates the problem. There’s not enough force on this ball.
The placement on the ball is good. Clay catches it in stride and it goes right to his chest. But the slow velocity of the throw gives Peters a chance, even from far away. I’ve watched the catch point dozens of times now, and it’s insane how close this came. I think Taylor managed to fit it into a tight window, but he’s extremely lucky that Peters didn’t play this more physically. If Peters hadn’t sold out for the pick, he’d have gotten more handsy with Clay and could’ve tipped the pass for a teammate.
Most of the Bills on this play did their job. Their success, and a little bit of luck, created a big play for the Bills.