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2017 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 14, Bills Offense, A Foolproof West Coast Scheme Any QB Can Run?

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On December 10, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to the state of New York to take on the Buffalo Bills. In this Week 14 matchup, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we are up against.

The Bills finished 2016 with 7 wins and 9 losses. This year they have found some success as first year head coach Sean McDermott has implemented his system and a playoff berth is a possibility. The last time the Bills played in a playoff game they gave up 100 yards on the ground to Eddie George and the Steve McNair lead Titans won their 1999 Wildcard matchup. Right now, the Bills find themselves on the outside looking in but their remaining schedule makes it possible for them to once again be facing the Titans in the Wildcard round. To say this game means more to them that it does us would be a vast understatement.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 14.


Offensive Scheme

Obviously there’s no such thing as a foolproof offensive system and not every quarterback can run this system. Two weeks ago, the Bills coaches seemed to think this was the case — that they had created the perfect system. There’s no other way to explain their decision to start Nathan Peterman. While the kid did his best, the Bills coaches realized the error of their ways when they lost by a large margin to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Rick Dennison is the Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator whos has helped to craft this system. Dennison has been around the league a time or two making stops in a few NFL cities before his landing in Buffalo. His biggest influence without a doubt was Mike Shanahan. He learned his short passing, zone running, west coasting, running to set up the passing, scheme from one of the best to ever do it.

I took a long look at and will be sampling heavily from this piece from Chris Trapasso over at Buffalo Rumblings. Let’s take a look at the west coast scheme Dennison has implemented:

Basic Formations

These are just a few of the basic formations among the myriad of looks this system can show to a defense before the snap. There will be a fair of I-formation and two-tight end sets.

Over the past decade, shotgun has been incorporated to many of these alignments, but much of what Dennison wants to do from a formation perspective is similar to what Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn did with the Bills in 2015 and 2016.

One thing that I found interesting is that the two images above were taken (and cited as such) from Battle Red Blog which is SB Nation’s Texans blog. We should all have a pretty solid recollection of Gary Kubiak’s Texans running the ball down our throat with Arian Foster. This offense shouldn’t look much different.

Zone Running Game

The zone run game features offensive linemen who block a “zone,” not a particular defender on each run play. When this happens, the offensive line slants in the same direction, providing a plethora of creases for the running back to burst through. It sometimes naturally (and sometimes purposely) opens a cutback lane if no holes form to the play side.

Here’s a quintessential zone or “stretch” run from the Broncos this past season.

Buffalo’s likely (or potential) offensive players have been penciled in at each position.

The offensive line moves in unison to the right, and blocks a zone as it executes the “stretch.”

While there’ll be minimal (if any) pulling action from the offensive linemen, which is a staple of the Jim Harbaugh / Greg Roman offense, the lead-blocking fullback has a prominent presence in Dennison’s system.

LeSean McCoy was good in 2015, running in a power scheme with a ton of lead-blockers and exploded in 2016 in Buffalo’s smash-mouth system. He did begin his career with Andy Reid, another Walsh disciple, who used a zone blocking system. The blocking gives McCoy plenty of options to utilize his amazing vision to find the best lanes, or he can “freelance” if necessary.

This should look familiar. These same exact outside zone runs are what used to kill our Colts defense every time Arian Foster stepped onto the field. This single play, if consistently executed well, will set up the rest of the Bills offense and their passing game.

Play-Action Bootleg With Crosser

The stretch run will be called out of variety of pre-snap formations and personnel but will look almost identical each time after the snap. It’s a smart way to lull the defense to sleep, especially with the capability of using play-action off of it.

With the offensive line stretching to the right, creating the defense to flow in that direction, here’s the pass play the Broncos set up for Trevor Siemian after a play-action fake was used to sell the run.

Siemian showed the football, and the line stretched to the short side of the field. The slot receiver ran a clearing route almost directly down the hash, and the outside receiver ran a deep comeback route, which also was essentially a route to clear coverage.

After the play fake, Siemian bootlegged to his left, whipped his head around and saw this. You will notice eight defenders on the opposite side of the field as the quarterback and where the ball is intended to be thrown.

Easy pitch and catch. That play-action bootleg can and will be run from anywhere on the field, in any direction -- to the quarterback’s strong or weak side — to any target.

Because of the amount of traffic the linebackers and, in some cases the defensive backs, have to sift through to get to the ball-carrier on the stretch run, they all have to respect to the run to that side which leaves the majority of one half of the field vacant.

But this offense isn’t just a combination of stretch runs and bootlegs. Over the years, Kubiak (and likely Dennison) have adopted “new” spread conceptions and featured much more shotgun.

“Trips” Formation

This offense has evolved to deploy plenty of “trips” looks before the snap. Utilizing three receivers on one side of the formation — their alignment is irrelevant — creates mismatches and, occasionally, confusion in coverage.

In Denver, the Broncos utilized trips to open throwing lanes for Siemian.

(The orange circle is where the ball was thrown.)

The West Coast Offense is meant to stretch a defense horizontally, so most plays consist of at least one dig, drag / shallow cross, or slant.

Here’s another example of trips manufacturing a big passing lane for Siemian.

(The orange circle is where the ball was thrown.)

If you’re interested in reading the entire piece from Buffalo Rumblings, it’s a good read and can be found here.

Nothing about this offense is groundbreaking. We’ve seen it dozens of times before, in week 5 against Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers and due to its continued effectiveness I see no reason to believe it will lose relevancy any time soon. From Shanahan to Kubiak to Rick Dennison and these Buffalo Bills.

A scheme will only get you so far no matter how tried and true. Ultimately you have to have the right players to get the job done.


Quarterback

There is no doubt in my mind that you heard about Bills head coach Sean McDermott’s decision to bench Tyrod Taylor for third round rookie Nathan Peterman two weeks ago. Unless you live under a rock you probably also know that the rookie threw 5 first half interceptions and was benched in favor of Taylor who has thrown just 4 interceptions on the year.

It was a baffling move at the time, not because Tyrod Taylor is a good quarterback, I wouldn’t call him that, but he’s good enough to win you games with a solid rushing attack and a good defensive effort.

When your team is very much in the hunt for a wildcard playoff berth, why start a rookie when your established starter could take you to the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades? I have no answers.

If you hop on over to Buffalo Rumblings you’ll read a lot of, well, rumbling that Tyrod isn’t a great QB and that it’s time to move on. I get it, I really do. They’ve been let down time and time again and this year is looking no different, no one believes that Tyrod is the long term answer for the team but he is absolutely the best option they have if they are actively trying to win football games. His benching makes little sense and his subsequent starting once more has made for a strange couple of weeks.

His numbers aren’t impressive; 2090 yards, 12 TD’s, 4 INT’s and a 63.2 completion percentage. He’s added another 334 yards and 3 TD’s on the ground. He doesn’t fill up the stat sheet but he’s scoring far more than turning the ball over. He is the definition of a game manager.

  • Taylor is as mobile as advertised:

Here he does a good job avoiding the rush, extending the play and finding an open man. This isn’t something a rookie is going to do consistently or even well.

  • This is the type of play you can expect to see from him a lot:

Sorry for the weird edit here, I’m experimenting with video as opposed to gifs, I have a longer term goal to create video content to go along with these scheme breakdowns and you’re getting to see me work out the kinks.

If you notice on this play Taylor has trips left, like the scheme breakdown mentioned, he had a receiver going deep on a go route and a receiver on a drag. Taylor took the safest option, found the open receiver and picked up positive yardage.

  • You’re not going to see this too often in the NFL:

You don’t see it for a lot of reasons, one of them is the coaching staff clearly isn’t worried about Taylor starting for the team long term so while I’m sure they aren’t actively trying to get him hurt, they probably aren’t worried about it either. The second reason is, most NFL quarterbacks aren’t good enough athletes to effectively run this play against professional defenders.

  • Two angles, one play:

I wanted to give you both angles of this play. The first look you get, from the side appears that Taylor ran before he needed to, but when you see it from the endzone angle you have a better idea what he saw. It’s also an excellent example of his quickness and just how dangerous he can be when the play breaks down.

  • Uncharacteristic:

Taylor truly doesn’t turn the ball over that often but here he gets caught being careless with the ball.

Tyrod Taylor isn’t a great QB, but he’s not bad either. If he’s your starter you should try to upgrade the position but you can try to upgrade it while being highly competitive. In that way he is similar to what I feel Jacoby Brissett’s ceiling is.

I know the comparisons are going to be made in this one, Brissett to Taylor but the fact is, they aren’t that similar as players. Brissett has a higher ceiling as a passer and Taylor is 10x the athlete that Brissett could ever hope to be.

Can we stop calling Brissett a good athlete or saying he’s a mobile QB? That’s not a slight, I just want to acknowledge what the guy is actually good at. He isn’t even the most athletic QB under contract in Indy and even though he does run the ball fairly often, it isn’t because he’s some great rushing threat. He ran a 4.9 second 40 yard dash and he plays consistent to that speed.


Running Back

We all know who LeSean McCoy is. You’ve probably seen his highlights and you know he’s a dangerous back. One thing I didn’t realize before really, actually watching him is how similar a current Colts running back is to “Shady”. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying Marlon Mack is as good of a back as McCoy, what I am saying is when you watch them run they’re very similar stylistically.

Currently McCoy is on pace for more than 1,100 rushing yards which would give him 6 1000+ rushing yard seasons for his career. One thing I didn’t do a good job demonstrating in the clips below is how often he is used in the passing game as he is on pace for 60+ catches on the year which will lead the team by a large margin.

  • Stop, start on another level:

How he stops, turns and accelerates as quickly as he does here is a mystery to most NFL running backs. His ability to do so while making the first man miss more often than not is a big part of what separates him from other quick backs around the league.

  • Working through traffic

If we’re going to compare McCoy to Mack (which I’ve done) McCoy is more consistently able to find room between the tackles. It’s an area of Mack’s game that frankly we don’t know what to expect with such a small sample size. Is he able to hit take what’s there when he’s getting 12-18 carries a game? We just don’t know yet. McCoy on the other hand, we know will take what’s there if he’s well contained on the edge.

  • That linebacker didn’t stand a chance:

If McCoy gets in space against us, our guys will look foolish as well.

  • Look familiar?

Not many guys have the acceleration to consistently beat NFL defenders to the edge. McCoy is one of the few.

  • It doesn’t always work out

This blocking is bad and McCoy trying to get outside does little to help. Realistically he has nowhere to go on this one.

  • This should also look familiar:

McCoy has a ton of runs that go for -2 to 2 yards and then will hit one for 11 and then a few for 1-3 and then break off a 30 yarder. He doesn’t consistently churn out 3-6 yard runs but his chunk plays make everything else seem pretty okay.

  • Another short run

At times, you’ll see Shady dance and be indecisive when he should probably just go forward and get what he can.

LeSean McCoy is a home-run hitter and is willing to strike out a few times if it means connecting on the long ball. He’s an exciting player to watch and has the ability to make our defenders look silly all day. It could end up being a long, frustrating day for our front seven.


Receivers

Hearing the names Jordan Matthews, Zay Jones and Charles Clay probably wont strike fear into the hearts of opposing fans and based on production alone, it shouldn’t. None of them are on pace to have more than 550 receiving yards this year. In fact none of them are currently leading their team in receptions, that nod goes to LeSean McCoy.

This is a talented but largely under utilized group. When we talked about Tyrod Taylor above and I said he wasn’t a good quarterback, this is what I meant. Stats without context are meaningless but there are some statistical thresholds that just get met in the modern NFL with competent play.

These thresholds aren’t going to be met for the Bills in 2017. Lets take a look at this unit and keep blaming the quarterback for their lack of production, shall we?

  • Zay Jones:

In Jones’ senior year at East Carolina he caught 158 passes for 1,746 yards. He never averaged more than 11.2 yards per reception. Part of his somewhat low average was the offense he was in and he finds himself in another system focused on short, high percentage passes. Jones fits perfectly and plays like the one above show what he can do.

  • Tough catch:

This wasn’t a great route but he was able to hold on to the ball to pick up a first down inside the redzone.

  • This one is tough to see:

Watch the receiver lined up at the top of the screen. He uses a great move to get open and catches a well thrown ball somewhere in the white letters in the endzone. I wanted to focus on the well run route on this one.

  • Another nice route:

A double move here beats man coverage and gives Taylor an opening to throw. This is a talented unit.

  • Charles Clay getting in on the action:

Here Clay proves his worth with the double move to get open over the middle, behind the linebackers against cover 3. Good route, good pass, good catch.

Buffalo’s wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan has done a good job with this unit, despite their lack of production. McGeoghan has a long resume that has included stints with the Miami Dolphins and most recently East Carolina. It seems the Bills are doing all they can to help their 2nd round rookie play at a high level as early as possible.

I wonder what it’s like to make developing 2nd round picks a priority.


Offensive Line:

Depending on who you talk to this offensive line is somewhere between average and bad. If you take a gander at the the PFF ratings of LT Dion Dawkins, LG Richie Incognito, C Eric Wood, RG Vladimir Ducasse and RT Jordan Mills, only Ducasse grades out as below average. Incognito receives the highest grade and is considered above average by the ranking service.

If you hop on over to Football Outsiders and look at their offensive line rankings using their advanced stats (shout out to the Whipper) this unit ranks near the bottom of the league. The real story is probably somewhere in the middle.

The only starter drafted after the 3rd round in this group is Mills who has bounced around the league and found a home after being drafted in the 5th round of the 2013 draft. Starting left tackle Dion Dawkins is a 2nd round rookie but has largely played well this season. Left guard Richie Incognito has a checkered past, much of which I feel was an exaggeration from a man unfit, mentally, to withstand the rigors of NFL life. Right guard Ducasse was taken in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft and center Eric Wood was taken in the first round a year earlier.

  • Poorly executed:

This entire screen attempt was bad from the start. The Chiefs did a good job sniffing it out but ultimately these Bills linemen have to make this play work.

  • Just enough room:

Incognito opens a hole just big enough for McCoy to get through. The fullback gets a hat on the linebacker and Woods is able to work his combo block to the second level of the defense. All in all this was a well executed play from the offensive line.

  • Defensive holding on display:

Here, the right guard works a combo block against the DT. He tries to work to the second level to go get a block on ILB Derrick Johnson. Instead you can see the DT hold the guard and prevent him from getting beyond the line of scrimmage.

It was a smart play by the DT, had he not held him this play was blocked well everywhere else and the Kansas City Chiefs would have had to rely on a safety in a 1 on 1 situation in the open field with the shiftiest back of his generation. Advantage, Bills.

  • Taking him where he wants to go:

Ultimately, you don’t want to let a pass rusher get to the inside like this. Dion Dawkins does a good job of staying with the defender and using his momentum against him. At the end of the day, Dawkins gave Taylor a chance to make a play.

  • Good thing they have Tyrod:

There’s not a lot of push happening here. With a lesser athlete at quarterback, they don’t get six here.

In watching them, I tend to believe they’re somewhere closer to the middle of the league rather than at the bottom. These guys aren’t the Dallas Cowboys, but they’re not the Seattle Seahawks either. I would be lying if I said I had done an in-depth study on the Bills line, but from the games I watched I came away feeling that this was an average group who often look better than they are due to the fact that Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy both have the ability to make people miss and both guys can extend plays and get yards when most players couldn’t.

Tarell Basham is the guy I want to watch against this line, specifically. This is exactly the kind of unit I hope to see further progress against. These are legit, starting caliber tackles in the NFL without being top 5 players at their position. If Basham is going to be more than an edge setting OLB in the league this game should give him an opportunity to prove it. 14 weeks in and all of the excuses that he’s adjusting to the pro game should be gone. If you haven’t adjusted, you probably wont.

I turned my back for less than 10 seconds and these are the first letters my daughter ever typed:

N VMNJJ JG

Had I accidentally hit my keyboard and typed that, I would have deleted it. Instead given that she’s 10 months old, the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me and the first thing she ever typed is better than roughly 50% of Doss’ comments, I’m going to leave it. Hopefully one day I can show her this story on the wayback machine and she’ll then realize that her dad is a total nerd.


Final Thoughts

The Buffalo Bills don’t have the best offense we’ve played this year but they have a slightly better offense than we do and they have a lot more to play for. If the Bills commit to the run game and continue running it late in the second half I think it’s likely we see at least one long LeSean McCoy run. While I don’t expect it to happen this defense has managed to make Blake Bortles look like Dan Marino twice this year and if Tyrod Taylor is going to have a big day, it seem as likely as ever it will happen this weekend.

At the end of the day I don’t believe either offense will win the game for their team. I can’t help but feel that it’s going to come down to which defense is able to go out and make plays. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at who has the advantage on that side of the ball.