Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Buffalo Bills upset the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday. To say Kirk Cousins was terrorized all day is an understatement. Three turnovers and four sacks don’t begin to tell the narrative from this game. Let’s take a look at the defensive line’s big day. The first six plays below, are the first six Buffalo defensive snaps. The early successes forced the Vikings’ hand, which led to both teams making major adjustments.
The anatomy of such a lopsided game will nearly always be a combination of scheme and execution in perfect harmony. The best-case scenario scheme-wise is for the match-ups identified above to occur, leaving Matt Milano free to the quarterback. The Vikings see Milano and adjust, making it hat-to-hat across the board. This does leave Star Lotulelei and Jerry Hughes facing single opponents and execution kicks in. Kirk Cousins manages to complete the pass, but it’s well-covered by Rafael Bush and half the Buffalo defense swarms to the ball.
We should not expect the results of this game to be replicated as the Vikings’ offensive line is definitely their weak link. The extra blockers have been a common theme this year, with Cousins using the extra time they buy to diagnose the back end and find an open man. This does give defenses the numbers advantage, so an effective pass rush goes from effective to DEADLY in this scenario. I noted in the Riley Reiff preview that he tends to have success facing bull rushes and other power moves. Jerry Hughes showed all game that he did his homework. By shading a touch inside, he sets Reiff off balance and prevents Cousins from stepping into his throw.
On the third defensive snap (3rd and 7) the Bills’ defensive line shows that they’ll let the back end worry about the run. With five threatening rush, the Bills use only four. Confusion and versatility are common themes for this game. At the two-second mark, Cousins is faced with a rapidly disappearing pocket. The Bills’ defenders have several individual victories and the result is their first forced turnover of the game. The Bills identified that speed was the Achilles Heel of the Vikings. This was the first snap where Lorenzo Alexander filled in for Star Lotulelei, but nowhere near the last.
This is the first snap after the Vikings got the ball again. The Bills are solidly in their head already, and the extra blockers come back into play. With seven defenders crowding the line, the Bills are ready for a run—betting that if they’re wrong the defensive backs will still have an edge. One second into the play, Lotulelei is in the backfield forcing the runner into a lane where Matt Milano is waiting. Ryan Lewis finds a lane as well and helps clean up the tackle, displaying nice speed and recognition.
Remember that the Bills are only up by ten and the game is still in the first quarter. As such, this is pretty aggressive. The Bills are counting on their speed to close on the play, allowing some potentially gigantic lanes. Star Lotulelei is the difference maker. Shaded to his man’s left side, he uses surprising agility to evade any significant contact and step around the center, Brett Jones. The speed on the back end means this might not have been a huge gain, but Lotulelei makes sure it’s over early.
The Bills crowd the line of scrimmage with nine players, seven of whom are in the area usually occupied by the defensive line. Only four actually rush the passer. The confusion seems to pay off, but it’s Jerry Hughes winning his contest easily that creates the second turnover of the day.
The Bills are up by 17 and the Vikings are getting desperate. Buffalo is still on the gas defensively, trying to confuse Minnesota. The expectation here is that Tremaine Edmunds and Ramon Humber will drop back into coverage. Instead, it’s Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes, with Edmunds and Humber rushing the passer. Murphy and Hughes have both proven capable in coverage and do so again here. This gives us a glimpse of the vision on defense. Confusion. Versatility.
As the Vikings took the field in the second half, Buffalo didn’t feel the need to make major adjustments. The ends routinely set up in the Wide-9 orientation with clear pass rush roles. The Bills were happy to let the Vikings try to run and tangentially burn up the clock. With a one-dimensional team in front of them, the Bills became more and more straightforward as the game progressed. Players continued to execute the simplified defense.
Early successes allowed the Bills to dictate the Vikings’ game plan on offense and exploit weaknesses all day. There should be no expectation that all opponents’ weaknesses will play so well to the strengths of Buffalo. However, the game planning above showed a willingness to adapt based on the opponent. If the Bills continue to do their homework on defense, the unit could be very challenging to face.