Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie’s jet sweep and perimeter role, oftentimes referred to simply as a “gadget” role, is one that’s been discussed in the Buffalo Bills community a lot over the last two seasons. Last year, with Andre Roberts handling both punt and kick return duties, the sixth and final receiver spot came down to McKenzie, Duke Williams, and Ray-Ray McCloud III. With the Bills’ lack of speed at the running back position, McKenzie’s usage in jet motion and its ability to hold the backside linebacker to allow for a potentially slower frontside play to be made was evaluated for its importance frequently. McKenzie ended up not only making the team, but contributing to a record-setting Bills offense and re-signing for the 2021 season (not for candy).
After special teams coordinator Heath Farwell said McKenzie was “in the driver’s seat” as it relates to the punt and kick return job in 2021, McKenzie’s job is much safer than it was considered last year at this time and his role on offense is clearer.
But what if McKenzie is hurt? Who fills that “gadget” role?
The mind might immediately go to Marquez Stevenson, the 2021 Bills draft pick at wide receiver out of Houston. When he was drafted, a common narrative was that he would compete with McKenzie for the returner job and potentially even his roster spot. But when the Bills started pulling out plays against the Green Bay Packers in preseason Week 3 that typically would have involved using McKenzie in his usual perimeter role, a different jersey flashed in that spot: running back Matt Breida.
Given the apparent stranglehold Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have on the top two Buffalo running back jobs, using Breida in McKenzie’s role is inspired. Breida has consistently shown up on the list of the fastest players in the NFL by miles per hour over the last couple of years, but his opportunity to get to the outside of the offense and utilize that speed would be limited in this offense if it wasn’t able to be used in this fashion. Bills Mafia saw Breida live and in person at Highmark Stadium, taking jet sweep handoffs and collecting bubble screen passes as part of 21 personnel with two halfbacks in formation. The joy of this particular personnel grouping compared to the 11 or 10 personnel where McKenzie would historically appear is that 21 personnel, even if no fullback is used, can often convince the defense to counter with base personnel. If the Bills go lighter and McKenzie is on the field, the defense is more likely be in nickel or dime. A heavier defensive personnel grouping is more susceptible to perimeter speed, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bills utilize a few of these plays even in the regular season with a healthy McKenzie if the defensive talent they’re facing dictates a preference for a third linebacker over a nickel defender.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” and “Food for Thought” ever week on the Buffalo Rumblings media network!