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Analyzing the Buffalo Bills’ secondary play against Miami

An All-22 review of Buffalo’s performance against Miami’s high-powered passing attack

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins rolled into their Week 15 matchup against the Buffalo Bills on the heels of two lackluster performances on offense (reference my article from last week to review those games). The big question heading into the matchup for the Bills’ defense was, could their secondary replicate success had by the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers? Let’s take a look into how Buffalo's secondary performed in their victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Statistically speaking

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa posted a stat line of 17-of-30 (57%) for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Buffalo blitzed Tagovailoa 13 times and produced two sacks, one knockdown, and five hurries.

Per my article from last week, according to Fantasy Pros, Tua leads the league in air yards per attempt (AIR/A), which is how far the ball traveled in the air before being caught. Against the Bills, Tua averaged 5.0 AIR/A, which is below his season average of 5.7 AIR/A. This means the Bills were generally able to keep the Dolphins’ wide receivers in front of them, forcing Tagovailoa to throw it to slightly shorter routes than normal. But we know there were two deep-pass outliers that spurned Buffalo’s defense for touchdowns. Here is Tagovailoa’s passing chart from Next Gen Stats:

Notice that a majority of the passing attempts were under 10 yards — but when they did throw the ball deep, they had some success.

Here is another interesting tidbit:

I was surprised at this tweet initially, because I thought cornerback Tre’Davious White had a solid game. White did record three pass breakups, and all of those came on excellent coverage. But White did get burned twice for deep pass plays, once by wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and once by wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. In both of those plays, White just got himself slightly out of position, and didn’t have the speed to catch up with Hill or Waddle. Even though he did give up a few catches on Saturday, I think White showed some encouraging signs.

The Bills are also starting to notice White returning to form, because I think they are starting to adjust their defensive coverages around him. A handful of times, I noticed that White was lined up on the “weak” side of the formation playing press man coverage, while the rest of the secondary played zone. I know the Bills and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier value having a top-notch corner to take away one side of the field, and I can see them using more of this type of coverage with White as they ramp up for the playoffs.

Time for some All-22 review!

Cover 2 on 3rd & 11

The Bills play a press Cover 2 on this 3rd & 11 play. They do a nice job of understanding where the first-down marker is, and covering any routes that would stop at that line. They force Tagovailoa to throw the outside “hole shot” in Cover 2, and he overthrows it — which is just what the Bills wanted.

Tre’Davious White’s pass breakup vs. Tyreek Hill

Here’s White going to work on Hill. Press man coverage on Hill can be a risky proposition, but White perfectly executed it. He patiently shuffles off of the snap, and then gets a nice jam in when Hill commits to the inside release. Hill is forced to go through White to head inside, and this allows White to turn his hip and stay with the route, which ends in a pass breakup.

Good coverage leads to red zone sack

The Bills execute perfect team coverage on this 3rd & 1 play, which leads to a sack and forcing a field goal. Pay attention to all of the different looks that the Bills give Tagovailoa on this play, and how they switch it up post-snap. Safety Jordan Poyer is lined up on the inside receiver at the bottom of the screen — but at the snap, he jumps to the outside receiver. Nickel corner Taron Johnson feigns a blitz, but then flashes to the flat to take away the quick completion. This was Tagovailoa’s first read, and Johnson’s play ultimately leads to the sack.

Copying the Chargers

Reference my article from last week to see this exact same coverage look by the Chargers versus “jet” motion. Johnson follows the motion man across the line of scrimmage, but then bumps to the inside receiver, protecting the inside of the field. For those Bills fans who are upset that the Bills didn’t “copy” the 49ers and Chargers... here’s proof otherwise. Also, the Dolphins probably self-scouted and made adjustments to what teams were doing against them — after all, that’s what good teams are supposed to do. Every game is different, and you can’t just perform a carbon copy of someone else’s defensive game plan. Okay, rant over. Nice pass breakup here by cornerback Kaiir Elam. I was excited to see him get some playing time in such a big game.

White beaten deep by Waddle

The stutter step by Waddle gets the best of White on this play. White ends up backing up to the inside when Waddle stutters, which puts him further away from Waddle. Then Waddle’s speed is too much for White to catch up with before the ball gets there. A better-thrown ball by Tagovailoa likely would have resulted in a touchdown.

Miscommunication leads to Miami TD

This play is disappointing on multiple levels. The obvious disappointment is that the Bills gave up a long touchdown. Another disappointment is that it was on third down. But the biggest disappointment was the miscommunication that happened on this play. Pay attention to linebacker Tremaine Edmunds before the snap; he’s clearly trying to convey a message to Poyer. Without knowing the play call and being in the film room with these guys, we will never know who is truly at fault for this breakdown in coverage. But the most frustrating aspect of this play was that the communication failed between two of Buffalo’s most veteran defensive leaders. This needs to be cleaned up come playoff time.

Press man coverage

Tell me if this looks familiar to what the 49ers and Chargers did, because it does to me. White almost takes this the other way for a touchdown. I’m excited to see him work his magic as this season progresses toward the playoffs.

White beaten again by speed for TD

Another play where White couldn’t keep up with Miami’s speedsters. Blazing speed was never White’s forte. He usually wins with sound technique — understanding how the coverage relates to the game situation — and great route anticipation. White misses his jam initially, and is then unable to recover. Let’s hope that White can knock off the cobwebs and tidy up his technique versus fast receivers. It would also be nice to see safety Damar Hamlin take a better angle on this ball to make a hit at the catch point.

Johnson’s near-interception

Check out Skarekrow’s breakdown of Johnson for an in-depth look at his solid performance. In this play, Johnson shows why he’s one of the best nickel corners in the league. Matched up with the consensus fastest wide receiver in the league, Hill, Johnson shows no panic. Johnson stays patient and waits for Hill to declare his route. Once Hill breaks to the outside, Johnson is right on his hip, and almost comes away with an interception. Johnson makes this play look easy, but I can assure you, it’s not.

In summary

Buffalo’s secondary played well throughout the game, but was burned for a few big plays. The Bills obviously want to prevent those big plays from happening, but those big plays are how Miami’s offense is built to succeed. We can expect Buffalo’s defense to continue incorporating White as a “shutdown corner” into their defensive game plans. I think the more games he gets under his belt, the better he will be. I’m assuming the game versus the Chicago Bears will be more run focused, but the Bills’ Week 17 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals should be Buffalo’s next test against a top-tier passing attack.