For six quarters of the season, the Buffalo Bills defense looked like an FCS program invited to open the season against Ohio State. They were a movable object facing an unstoppable force. Eventually, the team tightened up and turned a 28-3 blowout into a 31-20 respectable loss. How did the defense fall behind the curve against the Los Angeles Chargers, and did they return to form?
The above graph illustrates the “points above expected” for each play run by the Chargers on Sunday. Effectively, it asks: Given the down-and-distance and the current spot on the field, did the Chargers accomplish what they should have? In the first half, the team went above and beyond on pretty much every single play. You can see where the second half began, around play 32, and the Chargers suddenly stopped having that success.
Putting the Chargers behind schedule
|Situation||1st and 11+||2nd and 8+||3rd and 6+|
|Situation||1st and 11+||2nd and 8+||3rd and 6+|
A big reason why that was is that the Bills finally managed to put the Chargers behind schedule on offense. As long as a team gains an average of 3-4 yards per play, every play, they’ll advance the chains and be able to make use of their full playbook. If a pass falls incomplete or a runner is tackled for a loss, their options become limited. On 31 plays in the first half, the Chargers were practically perfect. Helped by Philip Rivers’s nearly completing every pass, they only ran three plays “behind schedule”. The Bills defense played 26 snaps in the second half, but doubled the number of “behind schedule” plays they forced.
Before we dive into some specific plays I thought were worthy of breaking down, here were my general observations from the defensive film:
- Philip Rivers was as effective a field general as you’ll see. He clinically diagnosed the weak points in Buffalo’s defense, and made lightning-quick decisions under duress. You can tell he’s in his 15th year of professional quarterbacking.
- The Chargers almost entirely avoided Tre’Davious White. White spent some of the day directly paired with Keenan Allen, but Allen was mostly targeted in the slot when he had more favorable matchups.
- Due to extenuating circumstances, the Bills were forced to play more heavy-duty looks than they’d probably like. Tremaine Edmunds played every snap, and Matt Milano and Ramon Humber combined for 100 percent. Lorenzo Alexander played 32/57 snaps, and Rafael Bush came in as “Big Nickel” for 68 percent of snaps. The Chargers took advantage of this with agile players like Austin Ekeler and Keenan Allen.
- The Bills attacked with more blitzes and stunts in the second half, the defensive line won one-on-one matchups, and they made Rivers uncomfortable. When they started putting the Chargers behind schedule, they earned some breathing room (though it helped that the Chargers took their foot off the pedal a bit).
Austin Ekeler runs for 22 yards on this counter play. The Bills start in a two-high safety look, but rotate into Cover-3 at the snap. Ekeler finds an open lane and runs through the second level of the defense.
In the GIF I call out Rafael Bush’s movement as signaling man coverage. After talking with Cover-1’s Erik Turner, I want to clarify that he isn’t so much in man coverage as he is helping the linebackers adjust as the strength of the formation shifts from left to right. The point being, the linebackers key their gaps based on the players on the line of scrimmage, using the tight end to identify the strong side of blocking, and when the tight end crosses they need to reassign their gaps.
The tight end pulls across the formation at the snap. This removes a gap on the defensive left side, and creates one on the defensive right side. Remember the tackle pull from the Cleveland Browns preseason match--up? It’s a similar situation here. Bush, Tremaine Edmunds, and Matt Milano all should be bumping one gap over after the ball is snapped. Milano and Edmunds both dive forward into the gaps ahead of them (because Star Lotulelei has opened up clear lanes by taking on a double team), and Bush stays home on the left side, despite no action that way. Jordan Poyer is left alone against a tight end and a running back, and Ekeler finds room to run.
The Chargers took advantage of Buffalo’s rookie linebacker on multiple occasions Sunday. He was asked to do a lot, especially with the team in a lot of base personnel packages, and while his athleticism was apparent, he continued to fall victim to misdirection.
On this touchdown throw, Edmunds is covering Melvin Gordon out of the backfield. Rivers does a great job using his eyes to manipulate the rookie, who drops to the middle of the field. Gordon crisply cuts to the right and Rivers finds him for six.
I wanted to highlight this play because it shows some great fundamental concepts that you’ll want to know as a fan watching the game. The Chargers line up with two receivers left, one right, and a tight end on the right side of the line. The Bills come out with two deep safeties, suggesting a Cover-2 look.
However, if you look at the slot receiver, you can see that this is a disguise. Any time you see a safety aligned directly over a receiver like this, with another defender in apparent man coverage close to the line of scrimmage, it’s a tell that there’s a blitz coming from that defender. Sure enough, the Chargers begin a dummy count and the Bills begin to move, showing that blitz.
Rivers makes an adjustment against that blitz—another example of how brilliant he was deciphering Buffalo’s calls. He knows that the safety on the offensive right side is going to drop to the deep middle, and that he has a tight end to tie up the linebacker on that side. That leaves one defender and one blocker in the vicinity of the right flat, and he’s going to call a swing pass to that vacant space.
Lorenzo Alexander understands that Rivers knows about the blitz. He’s expecting a quick throw, watches the quarterback’s eyes, and swats the pass into the air. Instead of a big gain, it’s nearly an interception.
After Rivers narrowly avoided sacks for most of the day, nimbly throwing shovel passes and quick crossers, the Bills finally had some success in the second half. Here’s the first sack of the day.
The Bills line up in a pass-rushing personnel package, with two defensive ends, one defensive tackle, and OLB Lorenzo Alexander replacing the other defensive tackle. They’re going to try a stunt in the middle, something both Alexander and Kyle Williams are well-acquainted with.
Rivers has two outlet options, with Tyrell Williams to your left and his running back to your right. Pre-snap, he chooses the right side of the field to work. Williams is going to chip and release, which will assist the tackle with pass protection. It’s something the Bills use a lot in their offense.
Trent Murphy sees Williams approaching and wallops him, hoping to buy time for his teammates. Kyle Williams starts to come free up the middle, but Jerry Hughes also wins around the edge and arrives first. Rivers wanted to throw to Tyrell Williams, but takes the sack because the receiver was jammed.
A work in progress
Brian Galliford’s column alluded to the changes Buffalo’s coaching staff will bring out week-to-week this season. Last year’s defense wasn’t especially dominant, but succeeded in the red zone and won the turnover battle. This year’s defense is a living, breathing, growing pain. Linebackers Milano and Edmunds have oodles of athletic ability but need to be more comfortable processing what they see. Tre’Davious White has done a bang-up job handling his coverage assignments, but he’s only one man. The defensive line shows flashes, and improved in the running game, but hasn’t gelled into a pass rushing force yet.
If the Bills defense continues to under-perform in the weeks ahead, and you want an answer, it’s probably something along the lines of “it’s not ready.” With time and health, they’ll continue to improve, but for now we’ll keep highlighting teaching tape in our analysis. We’re in transition.