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How the Buffalo Bills' pass defense has emerged as an elite unit

The Buffalo Bills have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL this season, aided by modern coverage concepts and impeccable execution. Here's one example of both at work.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The NFL's best defense - yes, I believe that to be true - had another dominant performance on Sunday versus the Cleveland Browns. The Buffalo Bills were money (see what I did there?) all game long against both the run and the pass, while also forcing four turnovers and scoring two touchdowns. (Scratch that... just found out that Jerome Boger has overturned that last sentence, and it should now be three turnovers and one touchdown.)

Communication is key to playing great defense. Today, let's look at the second interception that Da'Norris Searcy pulled in on Sunday, and how it was a result of great communication in the Bills' defensive backfield. One word of caution: when reviewing defensive plays, I do not know the exact play call, so I can only infer the assignments due to what the players actually did.

The play takes place early in the fourth quarter, with the Bills up 17-3. Cleveland has 2nd-and-6 on their own 24 yard line. Brian Hoyer is still the quarterback. This is a quick screenshot I took of the defensive backs as Hoyer is making an audible; they look to be communicating something to each other as well.


Here is the play call from the Browns. It's a "pin" route combination, which means it is a post combined with an in route. The Browns run play-action here and only send two receivers into the pattern. The play is supposed to draw the linebackers to the line of scrimmage, clear out the slot back and the deep safety with the post, and free up Josh Gordon into open space for a nice 15-yard gain.

The Bills' defensive play call is a bit more difficult to figure out due to a couple of things. The first being that Searcy (a safety) is lined up over Miles Austin (a wide receiver) instead of Corey Graham (a cornerback). That usually means some type of zone. However, if you watch the play, it looks like Stephon Gilmore is matched up man to man on Gordon. The coverage on Austin also changes between defenders as he gets passed off to the deep safety (Aaron Williams). This play helps to illustrate the increasing complexities of NFL defenses, where there are man and matchup zone principles in the same play. If it is confusing to watch it afterwards, it must be confusing for NFL quarterbacks to play against.


These next two photos show the pass off happening between Searcy and Williams. You can see Williams take over coverage and Searcy jumping the in route.



Here's a link to a GIF of the entire play so you can watch everything at once. When watching, notice the communication and seamless pass-off of the receiver. Searcy does a good job settling into his zone and reading the quarterback once that happens. Finally, Searcy's break on the pass is aggressive and excellent. He beats Gordon to the ball and makes the catch.

These types of switches and combo coverages are making life extremely difficult for quarterbacks when they are getting executed correctly. These were the specialty of the Bills' defense under Mike Pettine, and it is only fitting that it came back to bite him this year. The Bills' pass defense has really stepped up their game in the second half of the season, and it looks like they are getting more comfortable with the scheme. Denver will provide a huge test for them on Sunday. Hopefully, they are able to slow down Peyton Manning and company enough to keep the offense in the game.