Author’s Note: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve written one of these articles, but they’re amongst my favourite. Here are a few I’ve written in the past:
The Colts are back in the playoffs for the first time in 2 years, and they don’t get an easy matchup facing Josh Allen and the red hot Buffalo Bills offense. Josh Allen has been a top 3 MVP candidate this season and has helped elevate the Bills to one of the best teams in the NFL. Brian Daboll has done a phenomenal job turning around the offense and his performance will most likely land him a head coaching gig in 2021.
Stopping them is not an impossible task. In fact, the Colts were able to shut down the Chiefs offense in 2019, a team who won the Super Bowl on the back of their special quarterback and incredible offense. Matt Eberflus and the Colts have done it before and this year’s team is far more talented than the team of 2019.
Based on my years of coaching and breaking down opponents on top of my years of writing (and several hours of film study in preparation for this article), I’ve developed a multi-layered approach to looking at offenses (and defenses) and figuring out which areas to attack and how to take away weapons. It’s by no means the right approach, but just a glimpse into how I view things. With that being said, this is how I believe the Colts can shut down the Bills’ offense.
Bills Offense by the Numbers
Total Yards/Game: 396.4 (2nd Best)
Total Points/Game: 31.3 (2nd Best)
Yards per Point: 12.7 (5th Best)
Yards per Play: 6.1 (6th Best)
Third Down Conversion Percentage: 49.73% (Best in NFL)
Average Time of Possession: 31:45 (3rd Highest)
1st Half Points/Game: 16.6 (2nd Best)
2nd Half Points/Game: 14.8 (5th Best)
Red Zone Scoring Percentage (TD Only): 61.76% (13th Best)
Giveaways/Game: 1.4 (20th Best)
Important Note: They are stronger at home.
Those stats tell you one thing: they get a lot of yards and they control the ball for a long time. They are equally strong in each half and a bend, don’t break approach is key on defense to fight their successful drives. Capitalizing on their giveaways will be key, especially if it’s a close game where the turnover margin is crucial, and limiting the Bills to field goals (they aren’t great at converting in the red-zone) will also be important.
The Colts allow 332 yards per game on defense. If they were to allow that many yards to the Bills, Buffalo would still put up around 26 points based on their yards per point figure. Shutting down is a possibility as explained later on, but a more likely scenario will be to slow down them and anything under the 26 point figure should be considered a successful day for the defense.
1st Down Rush Percentage: 29.97% (20th Highest)
Passing Play Percentage: 60.25% (13th Highest)
Intended Air Yards per Attempt: 8.5 (7th Highest)
They don’t like to run the ball often as they like to rely on Josh Allen with the ball in his hands. What stands out is the Bills don’t like to run on first down, and instead opt for passing plays, but as seen by the intended air yards per attempt, they don’t opt for super short passing plays very often. The Bills like to push the ball down the field, at least 5 yards at a time, which works when you have an offensive line that gives you time and receivers who get open. As you’ll see later on, forcing Josh Allen to make tough throws under pressure to his 2nd and 3rd receiving options will be key for the Colts defense.
How to attack Josh Allen
Josh Allen has been phenomenal this year, but he is still a young quarterback who will be playing in his 2nd ever playoff game. He is not unstoppable by any means.
This season, Josh Allen has had the 3rd most time to throw out of any qualified quarterback. He gets just over 3 seconds to throw, which is a lot and well over the NFL average. Part of that is by design (rollouts), part of that is his athleticism (he is great outside the pocket), but I would say a large part of it has to do with his top 10 offensive line, which will be discussed more later. Under pressure, Allen ranks as the 10th best quarterback (out of qualified QBs) in terms of passer rating and 22nd in terms of adjusted completion percentage. He is clearly not as strong when under duress.
Thanks to NFL NextGen Stats and Pro Football Focus, we can get a better idea, through charts, of where Allen likes to throw the ball and what type of routes he likes.
Allen has been on a hot streak since his Week 9 game against the Seahawks. In those last 8 games, he has gone:
210/295 (71.2%) | 2372 Yards (8 YPA) | 21 TDs, 5 INTs | 111.6 Passer Rating || 44 Rushes for 191 Yards and 4 Touchdowns
He has been responsible for 76% of their offense, an absurdly high number. Based on his passing charts in those 8 games, there are trends we can see and game-plan around.
In those graphs (which excluded the Week 16 Monday night game):
- 34.3% of his attempts are under 5 air yards and his completion percentage is 87.6%
- 60.6% of his attempts are under 10 air yards and his completion percentage is 84.1%
- 74.5% of his attempts are under 15 air yards and his completion percentage is 79.8%
- 13.1% of his attempts over 20 air yards and his completion percentage is 44.1%
To me, one of the most important stats to note is his completion on passes that travel between 5 and 10 yards. For Allen, that number is at 79.4%. If you complete a pass between 5 and 10 yards on any drive, you are most likely going to pick up at least one first down because you initially pick up at least half of the first down yardage just with the pass, and then receivers usually get a couple of extra yards after. With Allen completing nearly 80% of those types of passes, it allows the offense to get long drives going because they get multiple first downs, which kills the clock and ends in points. In order to slow down the Bills’ offense, stopping those passes under 10 yards, especially the 5 to 10-yard range is absolutely crucial.
Keeping Josh Allen within the pocket will be important as well. When improvising outside the pocket, he can make tremendous plays and has the arm strength to make any throw from any position on the field. He is lethal outside the pocket and that’s up to the defensive ends and the outside linebackers to ensure that he stays within the pocket and does his throwing from there. Keeping a spy on him, especially on passing downs, can do wonders for the team to ensure he doesn’t take off and run and he doesn't extend plays with his feet.
Based on the two first graphs, it shows Allen isn’t as strong throwing to his left as he is throwing to his right and down the middle. His receivers are always on the move pre-snap and playing on both sides so it’s not a receiver issue. I believe it’s a mechanics issue. I made a video that helps describe some of the issues plus showcase them.
Josh Allen throwing to his left under pressure has posed him issues. This video is a part of my Bills offense breakdown for Stampede Blue that will be posted tomorrow. #Colts pic.twitter.com/aEYyCnRbAU— Andrew Aziz (@AndrewAzizSB) January 6, 2021
In simpler terms, a quarterback’s mechanics should work in a sequence, with:
- The hips turning/rotating through first
- Followed by the chest
- Followed by the shoulder
- And the finishing up with the elbow rotating and turning.
To maintain accuracy and consistency, the chain should remain in that order and it will relieve a lot of stress on the elbow joint capsule. Allen used to struggle with this but underwent a lot of good training over the summer and has fixed this issue, although it appears on throws to his left, especially under the pressure, he’s still a tad weak. Pressure makes players revert back to old habits and it seems that’s what Allen does under pressure throwing to his left. He tends to make “arm throws” and throw off his back foot, which will lead to very poor ball placement and the ball coming out inconsistently.
So all in all, the keys to slowing down Josh Allen is to:
- Take away his 5 to 10-yard throwing options
- Pressure him and collapse the pocket
- Get him throwing to his left (ideally under some pressure)
Stopping Stefon Diggs
Stefon Diggs has been one of the 2-3 best receivers in football this season and has completely transformed the Bills’ offense. Stopping him will not be easy. Three of Diggs’ weakest games of the season came against the Chargers, Rams, and the Chiefs. The Chiefs use press man coverage amongst the most in the NFL and with a combination of safety help, that usually does a good job of slowing down one player but opening up other opportunities for others. The Rams like to have Jalen Ramsey play very physically, so it’s similar to the Chiefs’ situation. The Chargers use a lot of Cover 3 in their base scheme but did a very good job of matching up Casey Heyward, one of the best cornerbacks in football, against Diggs for a lot of the game. Two different approaches, but both were effective. I believe there is one approach, which Bill Belichick has used amazingly over the years in big games that the Colts should use against Diggs.
Bracket coverage is essentially a design that puts two defenders on one receiver. Usually, one defender plays out and the other defender plays in (so if you picture a bracket it looks like this [ ]). One also tends to play over the top, shadowing the receiver well off the ball before the snap and the other tends to play close to the line in an attempt to jam the receiver (to screw up timing) and to eliminate any short passes (such as screens or hitches).
What separated Belichick’s style of bracket coverage versus others was his personnel usage. He would put his 2nd or even 3rd best coverage corner on the receiver and have his best safety helping as the 2nd bracket man. When the Colts played the Patriots in the famous Deflategate game, he put Kyle Arrington, who was not his top cornerback by any means, on T.Y. Hilton and had Devin McCourty play him over the top.
I believe the Colts should use this type of approach and put a handsy cornerback on Diggs. That’s where I think TJ Carrie can offer a lot of value. Carrie is handsy and physical and has been playing well as of late. If it were Carrie vs Diggs one on one, then it would be a huge mismatch, but with a player like Julian Blackmon playing over the top to cover Carrie’s butt on deep passes, it makes defending him a lot more manageable.
In short, play bracket coverage (double team) with Carrie and Blackmon.
Where does that leave Rhodes and Moore?
The two top coverage players on the Colts would then be faced with Cole Beasley (if he even plays), who plays primarily in the slot, and Gabriel Davis, who tends to play to the outside. Kenny Moore is one of the best slot corners in all of football so he vs Beasley one on one should be a win for the Colts and Rhodes vs Davis should also be a win for the Colts. In terms of tight ends, the Colts should feel comfortable with Leonard or Okereke in coverage on Dawson Knox.
With the bracket coverage with Carrie and Blackmon, it gives the Colts favourable secondary matchups across the board.
Where to pressure the Bills’ offensive line
Who’s the weak link? The Bills’ offensive line goes as follows:
- Left Tackle — Dion Dawkins
- Left Guard — Ike Boettger
- Center — Mitch Morse
- Right Guard — Jon Feliciano
- Right Tackle — Daryl Williams
Because the Bills are a pass-heavy team and are a much more serious threat in the air, I believe it’s more important to look at the pass blocking numbers. Right off the bat, Ike Boettger and Dion Dawkins’ names jump off the page. If we break down the pressure allowed rate (based on total pass-blocking snaps), here’s how they grade out:
- Dion Dawkins — 4.8% pressure rate with a 0.8% sack rate
- Ike Boettger — 6.4% pressure rate with a 0% sack rate
- Mitch Morse — 2.2% pressure rate with a 0.1% sack rate
- Jon Feliciano — 4% pressure rate with a 0% sack rate
- Daryl Williams — 2% pressure rate with a 0.3% sack rate
Boettger and Dawkins are the two most viable options to attack. For the Colts, I would like to see DeForest Buckner line up on Boettger for most of the game. That would be a handful for Winters to handle and they would be forced to get Mitch Morse to double team, which would open things up for Denico Autry or Grover Stewart. Speaking of Autry, he should line up next to Buckner inside on all obvious passing situations (long distances and 3rd and medium or long). If Buckner gets double teamed, then that leaves Denico Autry one on one on an island against Jon Feliciano, which is a favourable matchup for the Colts.
If the Bills leave Buckner one on one with Boettger, then that’s a huge mismatch in favour of the Colts. Justin Houston would see a lot of Dion Dawkins and while that should be a good battle, I expect Houston to have his fair share of chances to get at the quarterback. The one matchup I don’t think is favourable is Kemoko Turay/Al Quadin Muhammed vs Daryl Williams and I think the Colts will come out on the losing end of that matchup.
With all that being said, the Colts, if they align properly, can have some good mismatches inside and may not be forced to blitz often to get pressure. They could adequately bring pressure with 4 guys if Buckner gets the favourable matchup throughout the game.
In terms of penalties, Williams has taken the most at 9, with Morse taking 6, Dawkins taking 4, Boettger with 3 and Feliciano at 2. They aren’t perfect so consistent pressure can cause mistakes (like holding penalties); most of them have played together for only a year so the chemistry isn’t as strong as the Colts’ offensive line, for example, who have been together for a few years now.
In short, the Colts need to get DeForest Buckner on Brian Ike Boettger.
Recap — How to make the Bills play left-handed
Bill Belichick has said in the past he likes to make teams play left-handed. He likes to take away your strengths and force you to beat him with Plan B or Plan C.
The top threat of the Bills’ receiving game is Stefon Diggs. Double-teaming him with TJ Carrie and Julian Blackmon will allow the Colts to keep their best coverage defenders on the other Bills’ receivers and it will consistently put two bodies on one of the best receivers in the game. It will also allow the Colts to have a physical and handsy player on Diggs with help over the top.
In terms of Josh Allen, finding the right matchups (Buckner on Boettger and getting Autry more reps inside) along the offensive line will allow the Colts to get consistent pressure on the quarterback and Allen is not very good when he’s pressured. Keeping him in the pocket will be important as well, so putting a spy on him makes a lot of sense. If they are to bring extra pressure, it should come from the defensive left to force Allen to his left.
The Colts also need to take away all short/intermediate passes from 5-10 yards away from the line of scrimmage, since this is where Allen makes his money with accurate quick throws that get good yards. Contrary to popular belief, he’s not as strong as some in terms of his downfield passing (although he has the strongest arm in the league), but rather, his passing within 10-12 yards within the line of scrimmage is as good as anyone in the NFL. Taking those throws away will make all the difference.
In terms of the running game, which was not mentioned before, the Colts are disciplined up front and have been one of the best groups in football against the run. By most measures, the Colts rank in the top 10 against the run thanks to keeping the right amount of players in the box in most situations and getting great penetration from the guys up front. If the Colts always keep 6 players in the box, with their gap discipline, the Bills should not do anything crazy in the running game. If the Bills manage to win the game with their running game, then kudos to them since that means they would’ve won with their “Plan C”. The Colts need to shut down Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs and force them to win with Zach Moss, Devin Singletary, and Gabriel Davis.
If the Colts make these adjustments, I’m confident they will limit the damage the Bills offense will do and make this a very winnable game. It will not be easy, but a win is very possible for this team full of veteran, experienced players.
Correction: Brian Winters’ has been replaced by Ike Boettger, so that error has been fixed in the article.