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.
2016 saw the Buffalo Bills hire a new coach while our Colts decided to forge ahead with Chuck Pagano. The Bills made the move to hire longtime Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott.
McDermott was a DC in Carolina for five years and saw his defenses consistently rank highly and play deep into the postseason making a trip to the Super Bowl following the 2015 season.
I took a look at Buffalo Rumblings to see if I could glean a little more insight into what McDermott hopes to run. Chris Trapasso has created some of the best scheme breakdowns of any team I’ve covered this year and I highly recommend you take a look at the entirety of the article I pull from below. Let’s take a look:
McDermott is a disciple of the late, legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson who ran the defense for the Eagles during the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia. Johnson ran a 4-3 known for its exotic zone blitzes that routinely baffled quarterbacks as they scanned the field.
But while McDermott learned everything about defense from Johnson, the new Bills head coach’s 4-3 is far less reliant on the blitz.
There isn’t a vast difference between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments today because of the proliferation of the nickel package, which essentially knocks defenses out of their “base” look.
However, one fundamental disparity remains between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses — gap responsibilities for defensive linemen.
Trapasso goes on to explain that traditionally speaking 4-3 defenses are responsible for a single gap up front while 3-4 teams 2-gap. Wade Phillips is the exception to the gap rules, as I’m sure all five of you reading this remember from our week one matchup against the Rams.
In McDermott’s system — like most 4-3 alignments — the defensive line is unleashed on the opponent’s backfield (and quarterback) in a relentless one-gap onslaught. There’s little to no two-gapping for defensive linemen. That’s more important than anything else in this article.
McDermott’s (and originally Johnson’s) idea is that quick penetration into the opponent’s backfield from any one of the defensive linemen is the fastest and most efficient way to disrupt the offense. This scheme doesn’t “protect” linebackers against pulling guards. It’s designed to stop run plays before the pulling guard’s block can have an effect at the second level.
Let’s look at the main, front-seven looks in McDermott’s defense with the Buffalo defenders likely (or potentially) penciled in at each position.
4-3 Under (Base Defense)
Like most 4-3 alignments, McDermott’s base is a 4-3 Under. All that means is the defensive line is shifted “under” the weakside of the offensive formation. The linebackers are shifted toward the strongside of the offensive formation.
The first thing that may stick out to Bills fans in the above picture is the left defensive end labeled “Shaq” for Shaq Lawson. Yes, with McDermott comes the return of the Wide 9. It’s not precisely the same at Jim Schwartz’s double Wide 9, but there is a defensive lineman who lines up at the “9 technique,” or the spot well outside the offensive tackle (if there’s a tight end on that side, the 9 technique aligns with his outside shoulder).
From this alignment, it’s easy to see how all gaps are covered.
Arrows for the last two defenders were purposely left out.
While the 9 technique would typically attack the outside shoulder of the right tackle, on this particularly play, he crashed inside and the safety creeping into the box right before the snap filled the furthest outside gap.
The gap responsibilities for the 9 technique and box safety are interchangeable, but normally (and logically), defensive backs fill outside gaps as opposed to inside gaps where enormous offensive linemen roam.
This may look like a standard, run-of-the-mill 4-3 alignment, but it’s a 4-3 Over, because of the positioning of the strongside linebacker (in this shot, it’s No. 54.) Instead of playing right on the line of scrimmage, on an island of sorts as a quasi-defensive end in the 4-3 Under, in this alignment in McDermott’s defense, the strongside linebacker aligns to the strongside of the formation (imagine that), which is the side to which the defensive line is shifted.
Against a two wide receiver set here, McDermott felt he could be aggressive, and he sent “Zach” (Thomas Davis) and Thompson on inside blitzes, while middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had Devonta Freeman in coverage.
Here are the gap assignments for this alignment:
Again — and this will become a theme — the “break through the offensive-line creases” mentality of McDermott’s defense is obvious.
In this defensive configuration, the wide alignment of the 9 technique along with the strongside linebacker on his side means the tight end, in essence, can’t run an unimpeded route. If he did, he’d leave the right tackle out to the dry in pass protection, and Thompson likely would’ve been assigned to him coverage. Because he didn’t leave the line of scrimmage, Thompson came on a delayed blitz.
In nickel on this play, the Panthers subbed out Shaq Thompson for a defensive back. If the NFL had a collective base defense, this is it. Every team runs nickel about 55-65% of the time today.
Davis (on this play, Ragland) moved into a strongside linebacker’s position in a 4-3 Over as the Saints running back went into motion.
He and Kuechly (Zach or Preston here) showed blitz but ultimately dropped into coverage. As usual, at the snap, all the defensive linemen immediately attacked the gap they were positioned to attack.
Double A-Gap Blitz / Bluff
Speaking of linebackers showing blitz, if there’s one, go-to “disguised” blitz in McDermott’s defense, it comes by way of cramming both A gaps (between the center and both guards) before the snap.
Two linebackers show the vaunted Double A-Gap blitz pre snap. Sometimes they both rush. Other times, only one blitzes. Sometimes neither blitz. It’s McDermott’s way of creating anxiety and confusion for both the offensive line and, more importantly, the quarterback.
Here’s an example of the Double A-Gap show that ends with only one linebacker blitzing... and the result is a sack. It’s from an awesome mashup video created by Billy Marshall.
As for the coverage philosophies and secondary-member responsibilities in McDermott’s defense, well, it’s pretty cut and dry.
Zone is standard, and it’s used the majority of the time. Every variety of it. Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4. He’ll sprinkle in some Cover 1 (man under with one free safety in the middle of the field), but for the most part, McDermott’s cornerbacks are assigned to a zone and have the interception-creating luxury of watching the quarterback while routes are being run, which certainly isn’t the case in man coverage.
He loves to disguise Cover 3 — his “base” coverage — by showing a two-high safety look then asking one safety to either play “Robber” (freelancing middle-of-the-field coverage) post-snap or come down into the box or into coverage on the slot receiver.
This 2016 play against the Chargers gives an idea as to how McDermott can disguise his coverages. At times, the safety rotation occurs even closer to the snap than it did here. But Carolina shows two deep safeties yet it drops into Cover 3. It led to an interception.
Note the show of the Double A-Gap blitz too. That’s a foundational piece of McDermott’s defense.
His secondary relies on its front seven to apply pressure on the quarterback. And defensive backs with their eyes in the backfield allow them to sit on and ultimately jump routes for pass breakups or interceptions.
It’s a pretty straight forward, easy to understand 4-3 base with multiple blitz packages and is heavily reliant on zone coverage. It relies on penetration into the backfield on every play and is designed to let its players play quickly, get upfield and wreak havoc.
Havoc, is always easier to wreak with good players, below we’ll take a look at each level of the defense and unlike the cryptic Tweets of conspiracy theorists, we’re going to name names.
Earlier in the year, this unit was one that I would have talked about as a highly talented group. As of today, this lineup is a shell of what most people thought it would be before the season began.
For starters, the Bills made the awful decision to trade Marcell Dareus to the Jags for a washing machine and a six pack of Coors Light. After they contributed to making a division rival’s defense better while getting nothing in return, they lost promising 2nd-year defensive end Shaq Lawson for the year.
In their place, the Bills will start DE Eddie Yarbrough and DT Adolphus Washington. Neither of those two players have played at a high level in the NFL and there’s no nice way to say these two are a complete liability for the entire Bills defense.
The other starters, DT Kyle Williams and DE Jerry Hughes have had far more success. Williams is coming off of a 2016 pro bowl appearance. Many Colts fans point to Jerry Hughes as a point of failure for the Colts who traded what many people considered to be a bust of a 1st round pick and upon arriving in his new city posted back to back 10 sack seasons on the opposite side of Mario Williams and the previously mentioned Kyle Williams racked up 16 sacks of his own while Marcell Dareus chipped in 17.5 of his own.
In short in no way was it a mistake to trade Hughes. Once all of his teammates sack numbers came back to earth and teams figured out how to block their pass rush Jerry Hughes hasn’t had more than 6 sacks in a year. He benefited greatly from being surrounded by elite pass rushing talent. Jerry Hughes is not, nor has he ever been an elite pass rusher.
Let's take a look at what the Bills will show us on Sunday
- Wide 9 on display:
The thing that jumps out the most are those splits. At the snap of the ball, it looks like there’s going to be a huge hole on the backside of the run, leaving the back alone with a DB who would essentially be attempting an open field tackle. Instead, Kyle Williams shows why he’s a 5-time pro bowler and makes a great play.
- Jerry Hughes making a play:
This was a combination of Hughes being quick off the ball and a really slow footwork from Eric Fisher. He isn’t the guy that gets credited with the sack but he made it possible on this play.
- Penetration is the staple of this defense for a reason:
Eric Fisher is a special kind of bad on this play, Hughes isn’t an elite pass rusher but he is quick off the ball and Fisher seems completely unable to deal with that quickness. Either way, the Bills defensive line makes a nice stop on this one.
- The wide 9 creates a nice pocket:
This play demonstrates an issue the Bills will find themselves in when no one is able to beat a blocker. All of their defenders run upfield which creates a really nice throwing lane for Josh McCown to step up and find an open man.
Ultimately this defensive line isn’t great. If I had to choose between the Colts line and this one, I’d take the Colts 10 out of 10 times.
Their aggressiveness and overall lack of talent should be used against them, if we don’t have multiple screens built into the game-plan I will be absolutely floored. Further, I expect to see Jacoby Brissett escape the pocket, straight up the middle when he fails, again, to throw a safe pass deep downfield.
With these four playing for penetration and only being responsible for one gap the linebackers do take on a more difficult role (in my opinion). Below we’ll take a look at the Bills’ backers.
Preston Brown was taken in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft. He’s gone on to start all but two games of his 4 year NFL career. The Bills other two starting linebackers haven’t had such a straightforward career trajectory.
Lorenzo Alexander started his career as a UDFA in Carolina in 2005. He never played a snap for the Panthers and instead made his NFL debut in 2007 for the Washington Redskins. In his 9 years in the league before he found his way onto the Bills roster, he had played for three teams and started a total of 16 games in his entire career. Once in Buffalo, Alexander finally got his shot as a full-time starter for the first time at 33 years old. He responded by performing very well earning a pro bowl nod and a new contract.
Ramon Humber started his career in 2009 as a member of the Indianapolis Colts. Since that time he has played for the New Orleans Saints and now the Bills. Humber is having a solid season despite missing 4 games earlier in the year with a broken thumb.
Needless to say, this is an interesting group. Unfortunately for the Bills being interesting, doesn’t make them any good. Yeah, they’re not good.
- No one sets the edge:
If Marlon Mack gets a crack at the edge of a defense the way that Elijah McGuire gets the one above it’s going to get exciting really quickly. No one sets the edge and the linebackers aren’t able to fight through traffic to get to the back. Had he not stepped out of bounds this play could have gone for much more.
- Biting hard on the fake:
The linebackers bite hard on the fake, leaving Travis Kelce alone with a couple blockers. Ultimately a DE is the one who puts the initial hit on Kelce and there isn’t a linebacker to be seen.
- This is just bad:
Only one backer (Alexander) is able to attempt a tackle on this play. The other two LB’s take themselves out of the play, seemingly hoping that someone would make the tackle.
Bills fans were okay when they traded Reggie Ragland to the Kansas City Chiefs. They believed they were deep at the position and Ragland may not have fit in their new 4-3 scheme. Based on what I saw in these games, Ragland may not have been a perfect scheme fit, but I would want to see if he could upgrade any of the three positions. These guys aren’t good and Ragland would be hard-pressed to be worse at this point in their careers.
While I came away unimpressed with the Bills’ front seven their secondary is one I would feel good about if I were a fan of the team. In the first round of the 2017 draft, Buffalo selected TreDavious White, a cornerback out of LSU. His rookie year has been stellar considering most rookie cornerbacks have quite an adjustment to make, that hasn’t been the case and White may have a legitimate argument to make for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He’s intercepted three passes on the year including one last week against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
E.J. Gaines came to Buffalo from the Los Angles Rams as a part of the Sammy Watkins trade. Watkins was obviously the headliner of that deal. I follow the NFL pretty closely, I take in somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-24 hours worth of podcasts, shows, reading articles and research to write these articles. I have adult friends who work less than I consume about pro football and I honestly had no idea E.J. Gaines was involved in the Sammy Watkins trade. Which is a shame as Gains has undoubtedly had the larger impact for his new team. Gains has played really well, despite only having one interception on the year.
This is a good foundation of cornerbacks that the Bills have established. Behind them, the Bills have found two really sold safeties in FS Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. Poyer was a 7th round selection in 2013 and has far outplayed his draft position to this point in the NFL. He has quietly become a very good safety.
Micah Hyde was taken in the 5th round of that 2013 draft and he too has far outplayed his draft slot. Hyde has been less quiet with his coming out as he has intercepted 5 passes. Hyde signed with the Bills in the off-season and while he was rewarded handsomely, I can’t help but feel that after this year he would have been much more valuable on the open market after this career year. It’s also a good look for a guy who was a late round pick who got a large contract and hasn’t “quit” or “gotten lazy”.
I don’t usually buy it when people say that about a guy who signs a deal and drops off as a player. I’m sure it’s true on occasion (Landry comes to mind) but it’s so hard to stay physically relevant in the NFL, I have to believe the majority of guys who sign a large deal and proceed to suck at football are sucking at football mostly due to the fact that they’ve reached their physical limit for playing this game, not because they’re content to steal millions of dollars from their employer.
- Won’t see this often:
The Bills scheme very rarely plays this kind of cover 1 with a single high safety over the top. Because it’s so rare plays like the one above are very possible when they give this look. This isn’t bad coverage, you would like the CB at the top of the screen to play this closer, but he was protecting against the double move and what could have easily turned into an 80-yard touchdown pass had he made a break on that route and been fooled.
As a coach, I have to believe you’re happy with how he played this. He eliminated the big play and allowed his teammates to do (or not do) their jobs. After the catch was made they did a good job of bringing down the wide receiver.
- A lot to look at here:
Just for starters, how long can you expect these guys to cover without getting to the QB before someone gets open? That pass rush has to help these guys out and it just didn’t do that here. I know Bills fans are clamoring for a QB in the draft but I have to believe a pass rusher is high on the list as well.
Back to the play above. If you watch the receiver who eventually makes that catch and you think he committed offensive pass interference, well the officials agreed with you as they threw the flag and called this TD back. Even when McCown is able to spend 5 seconds looking for a receiver (the average time spent in the pocket is less than 3 seconds, for what it’s worth) he can’t find a soul open so he throws a 50/50 ball and is trusting his wide receiver to go up and make a play. As a result, his receiver did make a play, he just committed a penalty doing so.
- Good throw, good catch:
The receiver might have got away with creating a little separation by extending his left arm, pushing off of the CB in the middle of the route but that subtle move is rarely going to draw a flag in real time.
Instead, McCown puts the ball exactly where it needed to go and the safety over the top just isn’t able to get over the top of this play quickly enough. Without the subtle push off this is a highly contested ball.
- Poyer stout against the run:
It’s always nice to see a DB who is ready, willing and able to step into the box and make plays in the run game. Here we see Jordan Poyer’s ability to do so on display. He does go unblocked but he still does a great job keeping the play inside and then making the tackle on the ball carrier once it’s clear he’s cutting upfield.
The Bills best position group might be these defensive backs. Will that be enough to beat our Colts? I’m not sure but Rob Chudzinski and crew should be able to put together a game plan that will move the ball against this defense.
The Bills were thought to be throwing the season before the season began. The moved a lot of good players and instead of losing right away, this team sits at 6 and 6. Much like their record they’ve been average. They’ve beaten bad teams and lost to good teams. I can’t say there have been a lot of surprises in their game results given the talent on the roster.
While we matchup with this Bills team better than I expected us to, I don’t know that it will be enough to get over the hump in this one. Mack and Gore should each see a healthy workload and I expect to see plenty of success on the ground. For what it’s worth this game may have an exciting finish that was preceded by 2.5 hours of not-great professional football. Get excited, sports fans.