On January 9th, 2021 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to western New York to take on the Buffalo Bills. In this Week 18 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.
Colts head coach Frank Reich has many fond memories of Buffalo, having spent 9 years as a backup with the Bills. This week he’ll take his 11 win Colts in to take on a Bills team who are averaging more than 47 points per game in their last three games. Do the Colts have any chance at all against the hottest team in the NFL? Absolutely they do. Do they have a good chance? That’s the question I’ll try to answer this week.
Let’s see what we can expect in week 18.
Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has coached his way into becoming a top head coaching candidate for teams looking to hire their guy before the 2021 offseason fully gets underway. Daboll’s coaching career is an interesting one, a New England Patriots defensive assistant at 25, an NFL offensive coordinator at 34, Daboll has seen the highest highs and lowest lows of what NFL coaching can offer.
Now 45, Daboll has been around the league for two decades and has evolved beyond the early 2000’s Erhardt-Perkins system he used in those early days. After spending 2017 as the offensive coordinator of the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, Daboll returned to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills to try to develop a system that would allow rookie quarterback Josh Allen to develop into a franchise passer.
That system, and Allen’s growth, are what have teams interested in leading their franchises into the future.
Unless you live under a football rock, you’ve heard the legendary stories of Josh Allen’s arm strength. While it’s true Allen seems to be able to throw the ball a mile, you simply cannot build an offense that throws only deep passes and hope one of them connects every three or so downs.
Instead, Daboll has made the most of Allen’s arm strength while giving the young passer a lot of easier reads from concepts that often get players open.
They love the Yankee Concept
Bills Offense- they love these high-low crossers in the middle of the field.— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
The run action combined with the back and tight end getting into their routes created a massive hole in the Steelers zone coverage when the linebackers bit up.
I expect to see this on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/zzfi45tb4k
The Yankee Concept is usually a two-man route combo where one receiver runs a deep post and another receiver runs an intermediate in-breaking route.
Yankee works really well against both man and zone coverage. In the slow-motion clip above it becomes pretty easy to see how a simple two man route combo in the middle of the field could create so many problems for a defense.
When Josh Allen fakes the handoff to the running back it holds the linebackers where they are and they more or less stay in position as both the tight end and running back release into their routes.
The only problem is the outside corner released his receiver to the middle of the field. Had these linebackers had proper depth in their zones, this ball would probably have been checked down to either the back or tight end. Instead there’s a receiver in the middle of the field with no one within 10 yards of him.
The zone coverage on this play, just didn’t have a chance.
Similar concept against man coverage
Bills Offense- It just looks too easy pic.twitter.com/Oxvc5a0u13— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
This clip is for all of the people who will talk about how much they hate the Colts zone coverage. On this play the Patriots come out with man coverage and a single high safety. Once again the Bills run a deep post and an intermediate in breaking route. The safety does the right thing and runs with the deep receiver, taking him away as an option.
Every now and then you’ll hear a route called a “man beater” and when someone uses that term they almost always mean a horizontal route that crosses through the middle of the field.
The intermediate in-breaking route is very difficult for even the best defensive backs to cover all the way across the field and if a quality wide receiver is the one running the route, you can forget it.
So there you have it, that’s why this concept is so difficult to defend, no matter what defense you have called. It’s not impossible, it’s just very difficult. If you’re wondering why everyone just doesn’t use the Yankee concept 40 times a game, I’ll cover this a little more when talking about Josh Allen, but besides needing variety, not every QB can make the throws Allen can make.
What else do they do?
Bills offense- I don't know if I should credit Diggs for the route making the DB fall down or if I should make a joke about it being easy to score touchdowns when the guy covering you falls down.— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
Could go either way. pic.twitter.com/vLid6TEf3m
Yes, the defender falls down but this play design shows a little more of what the Bills look to do on offense.
Here the Bills get man coverage and face a five man rush from the Steelers. The two receivers lined up in the slot run a deep out and a vertical route which help to keep the single deep safety, deep and take one of the DB’s playing in the slot away from where this ball is designed to go; to the outside receiver.
While those two receivers are running their route the outside receiver runs an in-breaking route to open space. Had the DB covering him not fallen down, this may not have been a touchdown, but it probably would have converted a first down at the least. This is a well designed play to get someone open and Daboll dialed it up at the perfect time.
A little misdirection
Bills Offense- Everybody goes one way while the TE goes the other. pic.twitter.com/6PPmpAVHbw— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
If you watch that clip and you believe an offensive lineman just caught a touchdown pass, you’re not alone, the first time I watched this play I assumed the same. As it turns out the man lumbering into the end zone is in fact a tight end, but he’s almost never a receiving threat.
Ultimately this is just a mesh concept with the two crossers in the middle of the field. This blocking tight end started the down looking like he was going to help out with a defensive end before slipping out into the end zone wide open. Good play. Good execution.
Alright, but how do we stop them?
Bills Offense- Pats had some success rushing 3 with tight man coverage and disrupted timing at the line. pic.twitter.com/Y8Belv8mzj— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
There were some instances, like the one above, where the Patriots were able to have success playing tight man coverage and only rushing three defenders. The problem with this strategy is that the longer you ask a defensive back to cover a receiver, the less and less likely it becomes that he can actually cover said receiver.
This success was due more to taking away some of Josh Allen’s strengths and less to do with a schematic advantage.
I don’t know what else to call this play, so double Yankee it is.
Bills offense- Double Yankee? pic.twitter.com/XsUMDu0eWZ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
This play was just the Yankee concept from above with more steps. They ran it against zone coverage and once again after the play action, Josh Allen is able to stand in the pocket long enough to see a receiver come open and deliver a catchable ball.
Bills Offense- PA left to WR1, throw right to TE pic.twitter.com/bJtDLyYQUZ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
The Bills sold a zone run to the left after motioning their star wide receiver and faking the handoff to him. This created a Broncos defense who had started flowing to stop the run while the Bills flooded the right side of the field with receiving options.
This Bills offense isn’t super complex, it relies more on solid execution and the quarterback making good reads and accurate throws. And once again, unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard about the improvements Josh Allen has made as a passer.
When Josh Allen was drafted in the first round out of Wyoming, saying he was a projection is an understatement. In his rookie season he looked completely overwhelmed by the pro game. In his second season he looked like he had made serious strides but was probably always going to be someone who has to rely on his athleticism to win games.
Now in his third season Josh Allen has become a complete player. There has been a lot made about the work he did in the off season to improve his throwing motion and as a result his accuracy.
After watching 4-5 of his games in detail, I have to say, Josh Allen is deserving of MVP consideration. Allen throws with touch and timing. He can fit balls in small windows and he can flick his wrist and get the ball 60 yards in the air. Truly, there’s no throw Allen can’t make.
The most dangerous part of his game
Bills QB- beats CB blitz with his legs pic.twitter.com/A8YiclL1Ra— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
Allen’s arm and his ability to make good decisions is great. What makes Allen almost impossible to defend is his ability to run. If your secondary plays a down perfectly, your linebackers all cover who they should, the defensive line gets pressure, everything goes exactly according to plan for the defense and the next thing they know Josh Allen, all 6’5” of him escapes the pocket like Cam Newton in his prime.
Pick your poison
Bills QB- Great throw pic.twitter.com/Dy9JsfHCf3— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
Here Allen beats zone coverage throwing to his receiver, over the corner and away from the safety. This is such a tight window to throw the ball into and Allen does it with ease. This is nearly impossible to defend.
Did your job, huh?
Bills QB- How do you stop him? pic.twitter.com/3Mn4KLYwrw— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
What’s a defense supposed to do here? Sure it would have been great if that linebacker could have made that tackle but Josh Allen is good enough to make a lot of guys miss. He’s just such a dangerous player.
This might have been cover six
Bills QB- Fits it in a window 20 yards down field. Allen has a massive arm. pic.twitter.com/GTMpG28aJR— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
The fact that there were three deep defensive backs makes this play that much more impressive. When a defense runs a cover two one of the weak points is in the deep middle of the field.
When a defense runs a cover six (a mix of cover four and cover two), generally the deep middle of the field is covered as the two deep safeties don’t need to cover as much of the field as they would with a traditional cover two call. Instead, Josh Allen thinks he can fit this ball in between two deep safeties and he was right. If Philip Rivers tries to fit this ball in, it’s a turnover.
Seriously, how do you stop it?
Bills QB- Matt Eberflus has his hands full this weekend pic.twitter.com/4Ukw65HLZ3— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
Cover everyone, get pressure, he scores a touchdown anyway.
The way you defend Josh Allen is the way you defend someone like Deshaun Watson. You have to prevent him from getting outside the pocket and you have to hit him, a lot. It was easy to type that, it’s really hard to actually do it in a game.
I’m not going to spend much time on the Bills running backs for three reasons; 1. The Colts rush defense has been consistently good. 2. The Bills don’t need to run at all to win a game. 3. The Bills don’t have great backs.
Second year back, Devin Singletary led the Bills with 687 yards on 156 carries. The pride of FIU also caught 38 passes for 269 yards. Rookie Zach Moss out of Utah had 112 carries for 481 yards and led the running back room with four rushing touchdowns. Josh Allen’s 8 rushing touchdowns led the team.
Both Singletary and Moss flashed at times but the Bills attack had very little to do with either man and I don’t expect them to suddenly become a focal point this weekend.
Moss at his best
Bills RB- Zach Moss pic.twitter.com/QUeCJfcGCv— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
Here Moss makes a great cut and shows how difficult he is to tackle while picking up 17 yards against the Steelers. It’s entirely possible he could do this on Saturday, I just don’t know if it’s likely.
Now from Singletary
Bills RB- a rare long run pic.twitter.com/om60XBxw1D— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
Toward the end of the Steelers game, the Bills suddenly found a lot more room to run. Both Singletary and Moss took full advantage.
As I said, neither Moss nor Singletary are bad players. They’re fine backs, but the Bills most often lean on other playmakers to win games. Josh Allen is the first and Stefon Diggs is the other.
I’ll get to Diggs in a second but first, let’s go over the other names you’ll see and hear on Saturday;
Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, John Brown, and tight end Dawson Knox.
Beasley mostly works out of the slot and has amassed 82 catches, 967 yards, and four touchdowns. Beasley is a real threat underneath.
Davis is a rookie out of UCF. The 6’2” 216 pounder had 599 yards on just 35 catches. That’s 17.1 yards per catch. Davis is a legitimate deep threat.
Brown is another receiver known for his ability deep downfield. Brown has tremendous speed and can destroy angles if given the chance.
Finally, we’ll talk about Stefon Diggs. After watching he and Josh Allen work together, I’m not sure there’s a more dominant combo in the NFL. Diggs has amazing speed, great hands, is a very good route runner, and can eat up yards after the catch. Not only did Diggs lead the league with 127 catches and 1,535 yards, but his physical ability alone should also firmly place him into debates over who the best wide receiver in the NFL is. Diggs might not be the best, but he belongs in the conversation and the Colts have to try to cover him this weekend.
Have to wrap up
Bills WR- Diggs has elite speed and great hands, if he learns how to run through contact consistently the rest of the NFL might as well give up. pic.twitter.com/eG2fy7liqq— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
If you give him the opportunity Diggs will take everything you give him and try to create more. Obviously, you have to wrap him up, that’s a given, but this isn’t the only time Diggs was able to take a hit and maintain his balance.
When will we learn?
Bills WR- Sure nobody wanted to tackle him here, but Diggs is really good even when people try to bring him down. pic.twitter.com/2uNKJyWuJn— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 4, 2021
Part of me wants to know what Bill Belichick said after breaking down this play. Part of me is glad I don’t have to listen to another person be eviscerated while I’m in the room with them.
I could give you more clips but this entire article was starting to feel like a Stefon Diggs highlight tape, I guess to be fair, most of the Bills 2020 season has just been a Stefon Diggs highlight tape.
Based on what I saw this offensive line is a better pass blocking than run blocking unit. That’s probably not surprising given what I’ve already told you about how the Bills win games, but the point stands.
From left to right: Dion Dawkins, Ike Boettger, Mitch Morse, Jon Feliciano, and Daryl Williams
If the Colts defensive ends can effectively keep containment on Josh Allen in the pocket, I believe that they should be able to get pressure up the middle with Deforest Buckner and anyone else they line up next to him. If they work their matchups inside they should be able to get some favorable downs against eitherBoettger or Feliciano. Morse is a quality center who I expect will double team Buckner most of the day.
A lot of zone runs
Bills OL- late game run blocking pic.twitter.com/lrt09KcFfO— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
This offense relies on a lot of zone runs and this line does a good job moving together. Ultimately the back makes a nice cut but the line was able to clear a lane that picked up a nice gain on the ground.
Another area the Colts should explore
Bills OL- stunt-blitz combo pic.twitter.com/VV1Uqd9mpR— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) January 5, 2021
The weakpoints of this offensive line are at either guard spot. If the Colts effectively use stunts and blitz linebackers and defensive backs behind those stunting defensive linemen, I believe they could have a lot of success getting to Allen on Saturday.
Getting to him and bringing him down are two totally separate things, but you have to do one if there’s any hope to do the other.
This Bills offense is very good. The scheme works perfectly with what Josh Allen can do as a passer, the offensive line is good enough to protect for him while he throws to maybe the most well-rounded receiver in the game in Stefon Diggs.
Having said that, they aren’t balanced. They’re not a good rushing team but I don’t really think they need to be.
I believe the Colts can win this game. Philip Rivers is far more experienced than Josh Allen and if one of them were going to lay an egg based on the magnitude of a wildcard playoff game, I’d bet on it being Allen.
Having said that, relying on a very, very good young quarterback to choke in a game with such a talented supporting cast, isn’t a very good stragety. So even if Allen plays well, the Colts can still win. The defense just needs to be perfect, not for 50 minutes, not 55 or 58, the defense needs to be completely perfect for 60 minutes and if they can do that, the Colts should stop this offense.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.