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Buffalo Bills opponent preview: Denver Broncos’ passing game

What will the Bills’ defensive secondary be up against?

While I’m a firm believer of the concept of “any given Sunday” it’s also true that there is such a thing as a “should-win game.” The Buffalo Bills should beat the Denver Broncos. If they don’t it will certainly be called an upset. If that were to happen, what might be the cause?

It could be the defense. The depleted secondary, mild weather forecast, and what Josh Allen has done to better defenses already suggest that’s unlikely. Plus that answer is boring with their defense typically getting the credit. The more intriguing avenue for an upset is the volatility of their passing game.


Play 1

The NFL’s Next Gen Stats (NGS) site tracks quarterback aggressiveness and that’s where we begin our journey. Per their glossary, aggressive passes are ones where the quarterback throws the ball to a player and the defender is less than one yard away at the time the ball arrives. Like this pass.

This throw to K.J. Hamler fits any definition of “aggressive.” As highlighted in the GIF, coverage is closing in before Drew Lock even starts to throw. Per the NFL, 18.9 percent of Lock’s passes meet their definition of aggressive. That’s tied for eighth highest in the league. Aggressive quarterbacks can sometimes pull off a few passes that might not otherwise occur and that can give an edge when one is needed.

Play 2

Please note before you rip me apart in the comments; I’m talking things that COULD lead to an upset. All of the factors to be discussed have a flip side. For instance, on this play an aggressive pass/decision led to a wasted play. I could also have shown a clip or two of this trait leading to the receiver getting wrecked. If Denver pulls off a win it’ll likely be the result of a string of coin-flip type plays that fall their way. I acknowledge that coins have two sides.

Play 3

The trio of Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler provides a good group of targets for Lock. Based on the available NGS charts this group has been used in a well-balanced manner. Jeudy seems to be using a diverse route tree to get the ball in the intermediate zone. Patrick gets the ball at varying levels but provides their steady hands on shorter passes. Hamler is a guy you don’t want getting behind your defensive backs. When all cylinders are firing like they are on this play, they can gash an opponent.

Play 4

The Broncos like 11 and 12 personnel, which puts them in “perfectly ordinary” territory for the 2020 NFL. They do seem to steer toward spread formations when they’re in 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) like we see here. A good guess is that the coaching staff wants to create some natural spaces for Lock to find a target. To respond to this, defenses also need to spread out—which means knowing who can be left alone (Tre’Davious White) and who might need assistance in coverage.

Play 5

Not only is Drew Lock aggressive per the definition above, the coaching staff is aggressive in calling plays that allow for deeper passes. Lock’s average intended air yards (IAY) sit at 9.5, which is second highest in the league. If you didn’t check out that glossary yet IAY measures how far downfield a pass travels before reaching the target. It’s a vertical measurement from the line of scrimmage to where the ball travels. Being second highest in the league suggests a strong tendency to try the deep ball.

Play 6

Like passes into tight coverage, deeper passes carry lower chances of success. We’ve all seen how a few big plays can change the outlook of a game and lead to an upset (See: Matt Barkley versus the Jets).


Summary

It boils down to a very simple equation. Teams that take a lot of risks will sometimes find themselves on the right side of the ledger when the dust clears. This article originally started as a review of the wide receivers and they’ll be a big part of any success Denver will find. The trio noted above provide a solid group of targets with the skillset to make some of those risks pan out.

Ultimately it became impossible to separate the analysis from the coaching and quarterback aspects so let’s end with some trends to find out more of what to expect. First let’s revisit that 9.5 IAY. This stat should always be paired with completed air yards (CAY). It’s the same measure but only includes completed passes. For Lock, this number is 6.3 yards on average.

Comparing these numbers to Josh Allen, Lock is 1.1 yards higher for IAY, which is a huge difference. For CAY, Allen is actually ahead of Lock by 0.3 yards. That disparity between the two numbers with Lock suggest that he’s attempting a lot of deep throws but isn’t hitting them at a high rate.

I’m also a fan of catch rate as a rough measurement of the relationship between a receiver and his quarterback. Tim Patrick leads the Broncos, catching the ball 64.2 percent of the time. Jerry Jeudy is the worst at 46.5 percent. For the Bills, Gabriel Davis sets the floor at 59.6 percent. Both Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley are above 70 percent. Beasley leads the team at 77.2 percent. Well technically Isaiah McKenzie does with 95 percent but the type of plays they use him for inflate that rate.

Is it the receivers’ fault? Probably not. The Broncos are 24th in the league with 13 dropped passes. That’s one per game, which is pretty good. And while I wouldn’t trade the Broncos’ top three for the Bills’ top three by any means, the trio comes across on tape as a competent group.

The reason Denver has a league worst 4.8 percent interception rate is the same reason they might pull off the upset. A team with an aggressive identity and nothing to lose may just be able to pull off a few big plays that can turn the tide.