After a strong first effort, the Buffalo Bills defense hoped to parlay that success into another great performance in their second preseason game against the Cleveland Browns. Instead, they were knocked off their feet like a boxer who didn’t see the counter coming. Cleveland’s opening drive was a systematic march downfield, moving 66 yards on nine plays and ending in a Browns touchdown. How did Cleveland beat Buffalo’s defense? Let’s turn to the tape.
Motion catches the Bills off-guard
The Browns are no longer relying on Hue Jackson to call plays, hiring offensive coordinator (and former Chiefs head coach) Todd Haley this season. Haley brought his effective, creative pro-style offense to Cleveland, featuring tempo shifts and tricky pre- and post-snap motion. The Bills didn’t gameplan for this (they didn’t necessarily need to; it’s preseason), and it caught them off guard.
On this first play, Tremaine Edmunds is the victim of Cleveland’s playcall. He’s reading between the guards to the running back. If he sees the guard turn and open a gap, it’s his job to shoot the gap and make the tackle. If the guard is pulling, he might follow the blocker and seal the edge.
The problem is, Cleveland pulled a tackle. Tackle pulls are rarer than guard pulls, and Edmunds misses this entirely. He jumps into a gap in the middle of the play, but the tackle hits Matt Milano and opens a gap off the left side for Carlos Hyde.
On the next play we can see the effect that Cleveland’s motion can have on Buffalo’s front. Every defender is responsible for a gap between two linemen. His job is to seal that gap and close the space where the runner could go. At the snap, Cleveland pulls a tight end across the formation. You can see Milano pointing frantically that the tight end is moving - this means that he, Edmunds, and Lorenzo Alexander need to be shifting to the defensive right in order to keep their gaps covered. If they don’t, there’s a hole with one extra blocker off the defensive right side. Actually, it would be two extra blockers, as a receiver follows in orbit motion behind the tight end. So they need to block these gaps.
When they do that, there’s a massive hole on the left side of the defense. No blocker, but a hole. You can see Jordan Poyer onscreen, and you can see the cornerback following the receiver in man coverage. Poyer takes a false step inside, following the motion of the play, and that’s all it takes to lose containment. In Buffalo’s defense, the safeties are frequently asked to make tackles in the running game. Poyer’s hesitation and the space created by Cleveland’s motion leads to a major gain.
Tyrod Taylor threw an incomplete pass after that, but the next play was another big run. This one was a combo of impressive performances by Jarvis Landry and Duke Johnson. As the Bills close inside, Johnson squirts between Milano and Edmunds to reach the second level. We don’t have a great end zone angle on this one, but it looks like Edmunds could’ve tacked a little further left to seal the gap that Johnson ran through.
At the second level, Landry does a great job bench pressing Taron Johnson out of the way, and Duke Johnson bursts ahead for the first down.
After a medium run, the Browns caught Buffalo’s defense sleeping. Taylor sells the play action fake, Cleveland pulls a guard, and all of Buffalo’s linebackers are thinking “RUN”. Instead, it’s Taylor’s bread and butter, a bootleg pass. Darren Fells chips the defensive end and spins out into the flat for an easy first down.
The Bills stopped Hyde for a one-yard loss on first and goal, but on second and goal another good play design leads to the touchdown. Tre’Davious White is in man coverage on the iso receiver, and Taron Johnson has responsibility for Rashard Higgins, who motioned from left to right before the snap (this motion helps signal that the Bills are in man coverage).
With shifted gaps, Buffalo’s linebackers are opposite the play side. At the snap, White’s receiver runs toward the middle of the field, and White tracks him. Johnson sees his man block down, and crashes to the line of scrimmage. This combo leads to a wide open gap on the right side of the field. Hyde strides into the end zone. Ideally, White would stay home outside, but that’s hard when you need to track the receiver in man coverage and you miss the mesh point of the handoff, unsure if it’s a run or another play-action pass.
What changed after the first drive?
After rushing for 59 yards on seven attempts and passing for 7 with two attempts on the first drive of the game, the Browns managed 105 rushing yards on 25 attempts and 76 passing yards on 22 attempts the rest of the night. The first difference was that the Browns used less of a combination of motion and tempo, giving the Bills time to set their gaps before the snap and limit mistakes. Milano and Edmunds both improved after the first drive, and Edmunds made some standout sideline tackles to force a Cleveland punt instead of a field goal attempt.
The simpler offense led to the second difference - with fewer mistakes, the Bills kept the Browns behind schedule on their drives. It’s easier to force a punt when a team doesn’t have access to its full playbook.
The other difference was that the Browns started testing more passes, and they just couldn’t find openings against Buffalo’s passing defense. The secondary covered the receivers while the defensive line took Taylor and Baker Mayfield off their comfortable throwing platforms.
In the future, expect the Bills to use more game planning to fix the problems from Friday’s game. Dealing with gap control against motion was a problem at times in 2017, and it won’t go away entirely this year. But getting these plays on film was a good example for Buffalo’s coaching staff to reference ahead of the regular season.