Despite a season littered with conflict, controversy, and concern, the Buffalo Bills find themselves in excellent playoff position. On paper, the Jacksonville Jaguars are the better team, dominating every major offensive and defensive statistical category, but the NFL is unpredictable because of matchups.
“They’re very dangerous in our eyes no matter what people on the outside say, because they’re not coaches, they’re not game-planning, they’re not watching as much film as we are.” Jaguars head coach, Doug Marrone said earlier this week. “They’re a very good football team.”
A closer look at what makes the Bills a “very good” football team from a game-planning perspective leads to some fascinating observations about Sunday’s matchup.
I. Tyrod Taylor vs. The Jaguar Secondary
This is the obvious microanalysis. The Jags house one of the best defenses in the league, top to bottom. Their Jalen Ramsey-led secondary has been spectacular, particularly in man coverage where Taylor has struggled, completing just 51% of his passes against it over the last 3 games.
So how should Tyrod and the Bills offense attack this Jaguar secondary and how is this an advantage for Buffalo? The middle of the field.
In Week 12, a 5-6 Arizona Cardinal team led by Blaine Gabbert completed 7 of its 10 passes to the middle of the field for 161 yards and two touchdowns on their way to a win despite an inferior quarterback and lesser talent on the outside.
Here’s an example of vulnerability in the middle of the field:
This is cover zero. Man coverage across the board and safety Barry Church commits a cardinal sin football, don’t get beat inside. There’s no help over top and Gabbert makes the easy throw.
This second example is where the Bills can really excel with Tyrod and as an offense:
This is play action against a safety in zone. The coverage area getting work is in Cover-2, the safeties eyes are on the quarterback and gets deceived by Jaron Brown on the bender route. Brown gets back over top and it’s an easy touchdown. It is very similar to Nick O’Leary’s touchdown below from last week.
Here the safety is in zone playing centerfield with man coverage underneath and one high safety. Once again, the safety has eyes on the quarterback and O’Leary runs a sharp route back across the field. The safety can’t react and Tyrod hits an easy target for the touchdown.
These are examples show that the Jags are vulnerable in the middle of the field given their defensive scheme and how the Bills are capable of exploiting it downfield.
Beyond the splash plays, Gabbert and the Cards kept it simple with short throws underneath and taking what they could through the air. This plays well into Tyrod Taylor’s game and what the Bills like to do offensively.
Last week against the Dolphins, Taylor completed 9 of his 17 passes between one and seven yards down field. While a 52% completion percentage isn’t desirable, the amount of attempts does frame what the Bills like to do offensively and if they can find a way to better execute on Sunday, the scheme may play in their favor given the proven exploits.
II. LeSean McCoy vs. Jags Run Defense
McCoy’s status is still up in the air with an ankle injury. He’s been taken out of a protective boot but nothing definitive has come out yet.
“I don’t want to make any promises.” McCoy announced this week. “People that know me, they know I want to be out there. But I’ve been in a situation like this before here, and played on a bad ankle, bad foot -- actually a bad hamstring -- and I didn’t do well at all. And it kind of hurt us.”
The bottom line is if McCoy can run, he’s going to play. Players of his caliber don’t miss big games and he’s going to find a way. That being said, how does a hobbled McCoy and this offensive line matchup with the talented front seven from Jacksonville? The stats and the film say pretty well.
The Bills rank sixth in total rushing yards in 2017. Tyrod Taylor’s presence as a runner certainly contributes that spot but McCoy and the offensive line are one the better units around the league on the ground.
This play here is beautiful:
This is just a power-run play but look how dominant this unit is up front. Richie Incognito has thighs for arms and abuses the linebacker on this play with a simple nudge. Physical plays like this will go a long way Sunday no matter who the back is.
Make no mistake, this Jacksonville defense is historically great. The amount of talent GM David Caldwell and Tom Coughlin have procured in recent years is incredible and the product is a fast, physical defense.
To beat this team the Bills will have to be able to run the ball with some level of effectiveness. In each of Jacksonville’s losses the winner was able to compile at least 100 yards rushing. McCoy’s health and Tyrod Taylor’s ability to use his legs may be the difference in the game.
III. Bills Secondary vs. Blake Bortles
The Jaguars don’t want to throw the football with Bortles. He struggles as decision-maker, gets rattled under pressure, and is prone to the errant throw when the pocket collapses.
This is where the Bills must take advantage with their secondary. Jordan Poyer is having an excellent year at safety and leading very talented young group of defensive backs.
The interception here is gorgeous:
Most INT’s come by way of tips or overthrows, but on this one, Poyer just reads, reacts and snatches it. Brady thought he had the under route—and against most defenders he would—but Poyer high-lows this one, baits the play perfectly, and earns his check. Any coaches out there? Show your kids this one.
Given Jacksonville’s tendencies, the Jags are going to feed Fournette to bleed the clock and play great defense throughout the game but when the opportunity presents itself in the air, it’ll be up to the secondary to make a play.
Nobody predicted this team to be here but a cat in gloves catches no mice. Even as a playoff team, this Bills group will not win by playing carefully or cautiously. In this game, reserve and restraint will achieve nothing. Pull out all of the stops and go for the win.
After all, it’s been 17 years.
Julian Whigham is a contributor at the SB Nation blog covering the Syracuse Orange, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. He played cornerback for the Syracuse Orange under Doug Marrone and his successor, Scott Shafer, and was signed by the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter.