For the second week in a row we’re talking about the Buffalo Bills’ pass rush and for good reason. Through two weeks they’ve looked like a completely different team from last season in this regard. After two sacks and six QB hits against the quick-release offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bills took on the slightly slower* Tua Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett-led Miami Dolphins. That led to six sacks, 11 QB hits, and of course zero points allowed. What was the secret? Let’s find out.
*They rank ninth- and tenth-fastest time to throw, respectively. Ben is still number one.
A few trends that would carry throughout the game all appear on the first Miami snap of the day. The Bills rush five, with a defensive back blitz. The Dolphins have no one even looking at Taron Johnson, let alone blocking him. Meanwhile, Star Lotulelei is shoving 40 percent of the line around, Ed Oliver is tying up two of his own, as is Greg Rousseau. Even if Tua Tagovailoa saw the hit coming he had nowhere to go.
And nowhere to go with the ball. Let’s run some quick numbers. Lotulelei, Oliver, and Rousseau are occupying (and beating) six Dolphins. Jerry Hughes is number seven. The running back has made himself pretty much useless (not likely his fault entirely) by not blocking anyone AND not slipping out as a safety valve. That’s four defensive linemen negating EIGHT Dolphins. That allows only two receiving targets for Tagovailoa to beat Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Levi Wallace.
On this play (third one in the game) the Bills add a new wrinkle. There’s still a defensive back blitz and the line is still overall winning their matchups. But now they’ve added some confusion at the line. Showing seven, they only rush five. Micah Hyde is the one who comes off the edge clean this time, but Ed Oliver and
Mario Addison Vernon Butler (credit to trussell417 for the catch) are right on top of the play with Hyde after running through some teal and orange.
I don’t generally like to show injuries, but this is really an excellent play to highlight from A.J. Epenesa. The Bills show five, but only rush four. Despite the number disadvantage Epenesa is just way too fast and a quick rip move allows him to make contact in just over two seconds.
I love this play because it has a lot of the same elements we’ve been seeing, but is very clear on one key aspect of the whole “confusion at the line” strategy. You need to be able to ACTUALLY mix it up on who is dropping into coverage. Greg Rousseau is in coverage and Matt Milano brings the heat. Based on the result, it appears this trick worked. Milano flushed Brissett. Groot reacts and makes an open-field tackle for his first sack.
A defensive back blitz, some individual victories and trusting your defensive backs was a great combo all game, leading to an interception by Levi Wallace here.
Crowding the line like this can be risky as your coverage needs to be able to close more ground in the event the quarterback can get the ball out fast enough. The Dolphins did try to adapt and this quick toss is good evidence of that. With the amount of cushion that Buffalo was giving, this is a bit disappointing of a gain. One reason this strategy worked for the Bills is because they trusted their back end to limit the damage even on completed passes.
To further illustrate, this could be a good blitz beater. Get the ball out fast and make the Bills beat you in the open field. Micah Hyde is barely visible on screen on the “rush five” slide of the GIF. Hyde closes fast and makes a tackle for a loss.
The Bills deserve a lot of credit for scouting the enemy and exploiting weaknesses all day. The confusion-heavy defense loved crowding the line and essentially choosing who was rushing on any given play by feeding play calls through a random number generator. It worked because the Dolphins didn’t have the team speed to consistently make the Bills pay for their aggressive style.
The heads-up play of the defensive back group was able to close large swathes of field over-and-over again and diagnose plays almost like they were in the Miami huddle. Overall team versatility gets a nod as well. Greg Rousseau as the “Wooden Dime” player in coverage might be the most symbolic way to summarize it all.