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How the Jets stopped the Bills’ pass rush

The Buffalo Bills’ pass rush failed to pressure Sam Darnold all game—but why?

One of the biggest disappointments this past Sunday (besides the final score) involved the lack of pass rush from the Buffalo Bills. The Bills registered zero sacks and never seemed to make rookie quarterback Sam Darnold uncomfortable. This lack of pressure was a major factor in the eventual New York Jets victory. Across the land, the cry went out; “What was wrong with the pass rush?”

While it’s natural to look at where the Bills lacked, in this case the Jets deserve a tip of the cap for doing everything they could to protect their quarterback from his single biggest threat. Simply put, the Jets sold out to win in the trenches. Let’s nerd out on this fact.

As a (very) basic primer on offensive-formation philosophy, the NFL allows five “skill position” players to take the field in addition to the offensive line and quarterback. We’ll take a look at how the Jets’ and Bills’ game plans differed in how they divided their five skill players between running backs, tight ends and receivers.

The Buffalo Bills had 76 snaps on offense. They had precisely 76 snaps from running backs. They did add 12 fullback snaps to this total. That means that on 12 plays, the Bills had two backs, which is typically an indication of an extra blocker. Tight-end snaps above the 76 mark is also generally a good indicator of an extra blocker. The Bills had 78 tight end snaps. When you really want to block, an extra lineman will do the trick, as long as they remember to report in as eligible. The Bills used an extra lineman on one play.

When you put that all together, that’s 15 snaps that suggest an extra blocker. This doesn’t necessarily translate to 15 plays, as a two-tight-end- and two-running-back-formation would be legal, for instance. For the sake of our discussion, we’d discuss that formation as having two extra blocker snaps but on one play. The above does give a decent handle on how frequently extra blockers were used though. The Bills did not use them very often. To put things in a different perspective, the wide receivers totaled 213 snaps. That averages to 2.8 receivers per play, strongly suggesting the Bills leaned heavily toward three-receiver sets.

The New York Jets, on the other hand, made a concerted effort to keep Sam Darnold clean and win the line vs. line battle. They had 54 total offensive plays. They don’t employ a fullback, but had nine extra running-back snaps (63 total). That actually shakes out to a similar percentage as the Bills. The big differences came from tight ends and linemen. There were 66 lineman snaps, which should shake out to an extra lineman in on 23% of the plays. That’s an incredible amount of additional blocking power. Even more telling, perhaps, are the 81 snaps played by tight ends. That’s 27 snaps more than the offensive total. Or about half the time, there were two tight ends.

Compared to 15 for the Bills, the Jets had 48 snaps that suggest extra blockers. It’s glaring enough knowing that’s more than three times the Bills’ total. I’d reiterate that the Bills also ran 22 more plays, making that gap even wider. Where Buffalo averaged 2.8 receivers per play, the Jets averaged 2.1 receivers. While that’s only 0.7 difference on paper, this strongly suggests that the Jets heavily favored formations with only two receivers.

I was so confident in the data I turned to Twitter for six numbers to semi-randomly select three Jets’ plays (numbers represented quarter and offensive play number). Thank you to Kyle, Amanda and Stanley for your help. Let’s see what plays they selected.

Play 1

The very first play Twitter helped me select starts off on the wrong foot, with a three-receiver set. Whoops. On the other hand, this does show that the defensive line was putting in the work. When not facing extra blockers, they nearly hit home.

Play 2

Here we are. Though this is a running play, it shows what I mean. An extra back comes in for blocking purposes and even Quincy Enunwa gets in on the action. This is very nearly a goal-line formation—at midfield. Hopefully the third play selected by Twitter will show them using extra blockers to protect Darnold. Fingers crossed.

Play 3

Oh, thankfully that worked out...kinda. While the two tight ends didn’t stay in to block, the Jets used the high rate of extra blockers and heavier formations to toss a little confusion at the Bills. For this play in particular, there could also have been more comfort in calling a play where both tight ends ran routes instead of staying in to block. The Bills’ have their second-string defensive line in. Eddie Yarbrough nearly hits home anyway.

The Jets added extra blockers on a lot of plays, which is a big part of the story. They also did a good job keeping the Bills guessing. An early four-wide-receiver set wouldn’t be suggested by the data above, yet it happened. As the plays above demonstrate, extra tight ends and backs weren’t always just in to block. Bottom line? The Jets came to play.