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Notes From The Line: Buffalo Bills vs Los Angeles Chargers

Our weekly series continues with offensive-line analysis from Sunday’s game against the Chargers

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills fell to the Los Angeles Chargers 31-20 in Week 2. As to be expected with a team in transition, there were some good and bad things that happened Sunday. Below, I walk us through each drive of the first half and a couple plays into the third quarter. My time was limited, but I was able to glean a few determinations about the line, which I discuss at the end.

Drive One (0-0)

1st and 10 ( LeSean McCoy rush for no gain)

What ruined this play was Kelvin Benjamin not being fast enough to engage the DB who was filling the hole. The DB had cheated inside when Zay Jones ran a reverse-action and immediately read run. Jordan Mills moved into space and engaged a linebacker. John Miller got a straight-ahead block on a defensive end and maintained it. Groy completely whiffed on the defensive tackle and fell over, becoming the guy on the ground for a Three Stooges-type pushing-over of an unsuspecting victim (Miller’s guy). That created a nice pile, which effectively cut off backside pursuit. Patrick DiMarco took on a linebacker in the hole. The only guy who had a chance to stop McCoy before he got at least 3 or 5 yards was the defensive back who Benjamin couldn’t catch. To his credit, Benjamin didn’t hold or block the guy in the back. Vladimir Ducasse didn’t block anyone, just followed guys into the Groy pile and Dion Dawkins sealed a guy towards McCoy in order to give Jones a clean shot at an end-around if he had the ball.

2nd and 10 (McCoy rush for 3 yards)

Groy pulled right with Ducasse left to pick up the defensive tackle who was following Groy. Ducasse kept the defensive tackle engaged while Groy bee-lined for a linebacker at the second level and tried to chop out his legs. It didn’t work, but it did slow the guy down. Dawkins sprinted to the second level and got a hand on a linebacker who he pushed downfield and across the formation. Miller pulled to lead the play and also couldn’t take down a defender with a cut block. Mills sealed off a defensive end to the left of the play. Charles Clay engaged a linebacker and stuck with him as he moved laterally but his man got in on the tackle.

3rd and 7 (sack)

The Chargers sent three with a fourth coming on a slightly delayed rush. Miller was slow to recognize it and wasn’t fast enough to stop helping Groy and Ducasse to get in front of the rusher. Josh Allen was forced to step up into the pocket. Dawkins was pushed back but it wasn’t until Allen moved past Dawkins that Dawkins’ defender was able to slide to his right and get Allen. Allen’s only possible option was McCoy who was about 13 yards from the sticks with a pair of defenders in his way.

Drive Synopsis

While it was Dawkins’ guy who got the sack, it was Miller’s guy who made it happen.

Drive Two (0-7)

1st and 10 (6-yard completion to McCoy)

Allen took a quick look to his left and then threw a swing pass to McCoy, who may have been his primary target all along as no one was anywhere near McCoy. Dawkins was beaten around the corner and Mills was being walked back to Allen. Ducasse gave up hardly any ground at all. McCoy caught the ball at the 20 and the nearest defender was 10 yards away.

2nd and 4 (sack)

Allen turned his back to the line and faked a hand-off to McCoy. Before he could even turn around he was buried. Logan Thomas wasn’t nearly fast enough to block the defensive back who was coming on the blitz. I remember the announcer blaming Allen for not recognizing it, but the defensive back had followed Thomas across the formation. Meanwhile, a second defender moved inside between Mills and Miller and both engaged him. Better communication and it’s possible Mills would have left the guy for Miller to block and instead turned to his right to pick up the blitzing defensive back—though the line was blocking as if it was a run.

3rd and 10 (incomplete pass)

San Diego sent another defensive back blitz but the ball was out long before the guy got close to Allen. Dawkins took his guy behind Allen and the rest of the line held up. Allen decided where the ball was going and got it out before Benjamin had gone 5 yards—but it wasn’t an accurate pass. He could have gone to Clay in the right flat but Clay probably doesn’t get the first down anyway.

Drive Synopsis:

This drive was killed by the lack of efficient communication regarding blocking assignments on second down.

Drive Three (0-14)

1st and 10 (9-yard completion to McCoy)

Allen took a quick look downfield and threw to McCoy in the left flat with the nearest defender 10 yards away. Shady almost won the foot race to the sticks. It was an easy-money play and the line did fine.

2nd and 1 (Allen scramble for 3 yards)

Hey! A first-half first down! Progress? For the second time the Bills were ahead of the chains. Allen faked to McCoy and then faked to Jones on a reverse before setting up to throw. He had Clay on a slant to the left open for around a ten-yard gain—maybe more if Benjamin was capable of blocking the defensive back covering him. Allen hitched as though to throw deep to a well-covered receiver, but he pulled it down and got happy feet. Mills was on an island and his defender was getting around him and into the pocket, so Allen went around Mills the other way and ran for the first down.

1st and 10 (McCoy rush for 5 yards)

The Bills ran it into a nine-man box and still got five yards. Groy snapped and turned right to try to seal the defensive tackle away from McCoy. Miller tried to seal a linebacker as well, but only managed to push him well into the backfield and away from the play. Mills set up to block a linebacker in space but his man just ran around him and Mills’s weird attempt at hand fighting. Ducasse and Dawkins took on a defensive end with Ducasse disengaging and getting a piece of a linebacker at the second level. Two tight ends and a wide receiver blocked defenders on the left side of the line and that is where McCoy ran, more or less behind a Thomas block.

2nd and 5 (11-yard “completion” to Robert Foster)

Again the Bills were ahead of the chains and broke out a nifty play against a loaded box. Allen kind of played volleyball with the snap and Foster was around the edge of the line before anyone realized what was happening. Foster left an unblocked defensive back flat-footed and scrambling to catch up. All but Marshall Newhouse blocked to the left. Newhouse went downfield to engage a defensive back and took out his legs, the first successful cut block I’d seen. Clay had a great block, flinging his body into a defender to allow Foster around the corner. Benjamin got enough of a defensive back to keep him out of the play. Credit Newhouse and Clay on this one.

1st and 10 (incomplete pass)

McCoy stayed in to block and sold out to pick up a guy Dawkins had let zip past him. A free rusher came from Buffalo’s right as Ducasse’s guy got past him. Allen rolled right and threw on the run behind Jason Croom. The play was blocked as a run to the left, with a linebacker being unblocked in hopes that he would chase McCoy—that didn’t happen. Dawkins and Ducasse didn’t do well, but it was the play design that failed—the linebacker who was supposed to be unblocked didn’t fall for the play fake.

2nd and 10 (McCoy rush for 18 yards; called back for holding by Mills)

Buffalo ran into another loaded box while behind the chains. McCoy bounced outside for a long run. He probably would have made the corner without Mills holding, but hold Mills did. At the snap he locked onto 54 with his hands on 54’s shoulders. He was thrown off but re-engaged this time on top of 54’s shoulder pads. As McCoy came around, the defender tried to separate but couldn’t. Miller went upfield and locked onto 44, taking him out of the play. Groy didn’t do any particular good and Ducasse was beaten fairly quickly, while Dawkins stood up his man.

2nd and 20 (incomplete pass)

Buffalo isn’t built for this but it still could have worked if Allen hadn’t overthrown Marcus Murphy, who had about 20 yards of green in front of him before a defender could get there. The line held up as Murphy started his run across the field, but Dawkins and Ducasse couldn’t handle a pretty simple twist and Allen had to move off his spot. Even so, what a bad miss by Allen.

3rd and 20 (incomplete pass)

The Chargers sent six and the Bills had a back in to block. Clay leaked out, giving Allen four targets. He had Benjamin one-on-one on the left and glanced that way before looking to the middle. At that point, the pocket collapsed on him, pretty much from all sides. It was Murphy’s guy who got home as Allen was throwing. Happily, one of the Chargers was flagged for taunting.

1st and 10 (21-yard completion to Clay)

The line gave Allen all kinds of time to scan the field. He had time to set his feet and look at his options.

1st and 10 (McCoy rush for no gain)

The Bills ran into another nine-man box. Ducasse and Dawkins both tried to cut guys and failed. Groy ran a circle and somehow found no one to hit. Miller and Mills each sealed off a defender. Jones was faking a reverse, Croom had to put down the guy Dawkins didn’t cut, and Clay was on the backside of the play. That pretty much expended all the blockers and there were still three defenders ready for McCoy. Maybe the Bills ought to work on cut blocking.

2nd and 10 (sack)

The Chargers rushed four and Allen had Clay to the right for a quick five yards but was looking left at Benjamin or McCoy. He realized Benjamin was too well-covered and drifted right, away from pressure he felt from Mills’ man—that put him in the crosshairs of Dawkins’s guy. Allen had about three to four seconds before he started to move but couldn’t come off his left to see Clay to the right.

3rd and 21 (8-yard completion to McCoy)

Allen never looked anywhere else. Mills failed at a cut block but everything else went okay. The receivers started blocking as soon as they caught up to the defensive backs, making it a screen pass all the way.

4th and 13 (43-yard field goal by Stephen Hauschka)

Drive Synopsis

This field goal brought to you by Allen. He’s not yet trusted to change the play call when the box is loaded and stayed too long on his preferred target on second down.

Drive Four (3-21)

1st and 10 (6-yard completion to Jones)

The line did a nice job, but Allen failed to recognize he had a wide receiver right down the middle against just the safety. All he had to do was throw the ball down the right hashes beyond the 50-yard line and the safety would’ve had to either make a great play or interfere with the receiver. He went short to Jones, staying ahead of the chains.

2nd and 4 (Murphy rush for 2 yards)

Murphy missed the hole and plunged into the first gap he saw. Groy again didn’t really block anyone. Ducasse and Dawkins took defenders to the left, as did Mills. Miller sealed the backside of the play and it was between Mills and Miller that Murphy should have run. Maybe Murphy didn’t because Miller didn’t cut his man.

3rd and 2 (Murphy rush for -1 yard)

The Bills spread the Chargers out and Allen faked as though he was running with the ball. Dawkins drifted upfield and right, eventually locking onto a defensive back. Ducasse crashed down the line to the right, pushing a linebacker through the wash. Groy dodged a defender who was cutting across Miller’s face, and meandered right until falling down all on his own. Miller could have been called for holding as he had his arm around the neck of the guy Groy sidestepped…and the guy still got in on the tackle for a loss. Mills did a reasonable job of standing up his defender.

Drive Synopsis

This drive failed when Groy and Miller didn’t work together. Miller was trying to move right as the defender in front of him moved left. That suggests Groy should have picked him up since Groy was to Miller’s left. That preseason tinkering with the offensive line had a cost.

Drive Five (3-28)

1st and 10 (incomplete pass)

The Bills sent four wide receivers on vertical routes, with McCoy leaking out as the pass rush went by him. The linebackers had retreated ten yards when the play started, but came forward when they saw McCoy clear the wash. This left Jones alone with the free safety who was about 15 yards from him in a hole in the zone, while Clay was covered the whole way—but also by one defensive back. A throw to Jones as the linebackers moved towards McCoy would have gotten him the ball with one man to beat. The line did well on the play. Mills and Miller double-teamed the defensive end, but Mills came off of him to pick up a linebacker on a slightly delayed rush. Ducasse and Groy took on the defensive tackle, but Ducasse kept his head on a swivel and disengaged when he saw Dawkins losing leverage to the defensive end.

2nd and 10 (57-yard pass to Jones)

Allen looked at McCoy but then turned his head back to the right. Jones came open almost at the same time as the safety was moving up to help with either of the two deep-crossing routes. A throw to Jones right then was a touchdown. As his head came around, the defensive back on Benjamin realized Jones wasn’t covered and peeled off to try to get in front of him. Allen saw Jones and reset before delivering. A ball in front of Jones still would have been a touchdown as the defensive back was two yards behind and didn’t have the angle. The ball was underthrown and a second defensive back was able to catch the play and drop Jones. Groy, Ducasse and Dawkins sandwiched two defenders between the three of them with Miller and Mills going one-on-one with two other defenders. There wasn’t a reason for Allen to have moved off his spot before throwing to Jones—no defender was within two yards of him and none were free. His movement actually got one of the defenders free from the sandwich as the linemen weren’t expecting to block towards the sideline.

1st and 10 (incomplete pass)

At least Allen went for the end zone. He was pressured and moved right, which meant Andre Holmes was the only game in town. He came close to the completion while on the run. Dawkins was walked back to Allen. Groy and Miller were blocking a defensive lineman when Miller saw that Mills was losing to his man and tried to help. He was a little late and the defender managed to slip in between them. This put Allen on the run and dictated his lone receiving option, a difficult throw to the corner to a guy running all-out towards the boundary.

2nd and 10 (false start Dawkins)

2nd and 15 (8-yard completion to Clay)

After a Dawkins false start, the line held up and no one was near Allen as he threw. His options on the play: Benjamin for five yards, a low-percentage shot to the corner, two receivers running towards three defenders and Clay. Allen chose well.

3rd and 7 (sack)

Allen hit his back foot and had a defender on him. Conventional wisdom says to throw to that side but both receivers had a defender within two or three yards, and neither was getting the first down. Had Allen read the left linebacker, he would have seen that he had Jones to the right on a short out with another receiver going vertical against just one defender as the coverage linebacker reacted to Clay. A pass to Jones was the best bet for getting the first down, but the ball would have had to come out before Jones looked back to Allen. Whether it was on Allen or Groy to change the protection, someone failed to account for the linebacker who got the sack. They only sent four guys, so Miller had nothing to do. Ducasse and Dawkins teamed up on a defensive lineman, with Dawkins eyeing him the entire way. Had Allen read the blitzing linebacker, there was no one between him and the line to gain. The rush left a gaping hole he could have exploited.

4th and 15 (40-yard field goal by Stephen Hauschka)

Drive Synopsis

Allen has to recognize the free linebacker even if Groy was calling the protections. A quick flip to Jones and the Bills keep the ball with three more shots at the end zone. The Dawkins false start hurt.


Drive Six (6-28)

1st and 10 (McCoy rush for no gain)

2nd and 10 (McCoy rush for 27 yards)

I’m out of time but want to do McCoy’s long run. The Chargers had seven in the box, thinking pass since the Bills were behind the chains. Dawkins never caught anyone to block him. Ducasse rode a defensive lineman to the right, and kept with him until McCoy was past. Groy locked up a linebacker at the second level, while Miller sealed a defensive lineman to the left and away from McCoy’s run lane. Mills hit a linebacker and drove him back and, more importantly, kept him from moving into McCoy’s lane. Clay and Thomas doubled a defender and rode him downfield, while keeping him from spinning free. As McCoy passed by, Thomas disengaged and blocked a defensive back who was responsible for outside contain. The result was a hole the size of the yardage numbers. It was a beautifully executed play.

A couple of final thoughts

Allen is limiting the offense. Duh. He’s a rookie. Not only is he making mistakes on who to throw the ball to, he isn’t yet trusted to change bad play calls. The Bills ran into eight- and nine-man fronts several times in the first half, presumably because he’s been told to run the play that is called. Allen is allowed a little freedom on read options and run-pass options, but not to outright change the play. His inaccuracy is showing—the throw to Jones should have been a touchdown and instead it was well short of him, and that required Jones to wait on it. Murphy could have converted a 2nd and 20 if Allen could have gotten him the pass.

The line is doing better than most seem to think. That said, communication is a real issue. Not settling on a starting line earlier in camp/preseason is hurting as the players are still trying to figure out who is doing what on any given pass play. They do better on run plays where their assignments are dictated than they do in free-flowing pass protection. This should improve somewhat as the weeks roll by.