The Colts aren't just any team, though; they have one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL in Andrew Luck - a quarterback that usually is able to shred opposing defenses. Why, then, were the Bills so successful in shutting down the passing game of the Colts? In my opinion, it was because of the great blitz packages put together by Rex Ryan and the rest of the defensive coaching staff.
As you know, however, the coaches don't suit up and play, so we must also give lots of credit to the great play of the Bills' secondary for four full quarters on Sunday.
Blitzing, while generally thought of as a way to generate pressure on the quarterback, can also be very effective in "covering" receivers. I put "covering" in quotation marks because when an eligible receiver (a back or tight end) is kept in to block additional rushers, then the secondary does not have to worry about covering them in a pass pattern. Even if that back picks up the blitzer, the back is also "covered" as well.
Here's an important wrinkle, though: what if you can confuse the offense into keeping more guys in to block, but not blitzing two or three defenders to do so? Then you are on to the Bills' Week 1 game plan - confusing Luck and the Colts' offense into keeping seven players in to block (leaving three receivers running patterns) and generating pressure by only rushing five or six defenders, with five or six left to cover those three receivers. To me, that looks like a nice advantage for the defense. Let's take a look.
This play is from the fourth quarter. The Bills hold a 24-8 lead, and the Colts have 3rd-and -0 on their own 25-yard line.
Look at the random assortment of defenders crowded at the line of scrimmage below. Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, and Ron Brooks are all lined up outside of the right tackle. Preston Brown is threatening the right-side A gap. Mario Williams is lined up as a three-technique tackle, Nigel Bradham is lined up outside the tight end, and Nickell Robey is just lurking back there. How do you come up with a blocking scheme that can block all of the possible pass rush combinations? Jim Schwartz did an excellent job with Buffalo's defense last year, but you were pretty sure which guys were rushing, and only slightly less certain where they were coming from. This? This is a totally different animal.
Here is what each guy actually did: all three players on the offense's right rush, with Kyle Williams pretty much coming in clean. Mario Williams occupies two linemen, and Robey is the contain from the other side. I am a big fan of bringing fast guys off of the edges, because they have to run farther, so naturally a faster guy would arrive at the quarterback quicker.
Here is a look as Luck is just dropping back: notice that Kyle Williams is already coming free, but also look at the middle, where three linemen and a running back are basically blocking Mario Williams. Confusion in the protection scheme equals pressure on the quarterback.
Ryan's defense allows me to resurface one of my favorite things from the Mike Pettine era at defensive coordinator: the "pink circle of shame". You are lucky enough to receive a pink circle of shame when free rushers come in at your quarterback, and you don't lay a hand on anyone. Congratulations to our winners this week.
I joke with the pink circles and all, but it is a huge advantage for the defense when you can only rush five defenders (one of which is back-side contain), and have the offense keep seven into block. It is an even greater advantage when of those seven, only five are actually are blocking. The Bills were effectively playing 11-on-9 on this play. Luck had to deal with this a lot on Sunday: pressure, confusion, and excellent pass coverage on the back end. Football really is a numbers game, and anything you can do to tilt that to your advantage will help you win games.
Next up: the world champion New England Patriots. Something tells me Ryan has been game planning for this contest for a very long time.