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2021 Colts Opponent Scouting Report: Week 11 Bills Offense: How’d the Jags do it?

Buffalo Bills v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Overview

On November 21st, 2021 the Indianapolis Colts will hit the road to take on the Buffalo Bills. In this week 11 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Frank Reich and his family will always have a soft spot for Buffalo, New York after the Colts head coach spent 9 seasons playing for the Bills. This week Coach Reich’s kids might feel conflicted as their dad’s team hopes to stop the best quarterback the Bills have had since Jim Kelly. On the other side the Bills have been up and down of late but still have real Super Bowl aspirations. This will be a huge test for Indy, one that could define the rest of their season.

Let’s see what we can expect in week 11.


Offensive System and Quarterback

Normally I would try to take a dive into offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll’s offensive philosophy and how he implements it with the 2021 Bills. Then I would look at the quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses. Instead I’ll just tell you this: Daboll has done a really good job and the Bills offense ranks fifth in yards gained and second in points scored and Josh Allen is currently the odds-on favorite to win MVP of the league. The Bills offensive system is a good one but I want to focus on something else this week and rolling the system and quarterback sections together made sense. Today I’m going to focus on how the Jacksonville Jaguars limited Josh Allen and this offense to just six points in week 9 and I want to see if it’s possible for the Colts to keep this offense, at least somewhat, in check in week 11.

If you, like me, watched the Bills vs Jags game live, then you understand how ugly of a game it was. There were 20 (twenty) penalties called, zero (0) touchdowns scored and running backs for both teams combined for to rush for 2.9 yards per carry on 31 attempts.

This game offered nothing of value for the average football fan.

So let’s really examine what happened, because I hate to be entertained, apparently.

First Bills play of the game

At the snap quarterback Josh Allen immediately looks to the middle of the field to locate the linebacker who has dropped in coverage. Allen looks to his left, attempting to move the linebacker out of the middle of the field because the Bills called a Jim Kelly/Peyton Manning staple: Levels. In case you didn’t click that link, a levels concept will have two to three receiving options running in breaking routes from the same side of the field. It’s not complex, it doesn’t take a lot of time to develop and despite it’s simplicity, usually someone comes open.

Usually.

What prevented either of those in breaking receivers from getting open was the discipline of the linebacker. He didn’t let Allen move him out of the middle of the field when he looked left, instead he stayed home and when Allen looked back to his right he saw that linebacker in good position to make a play on either receiver. Allen started to feel some pressure and had to throw it away.

You’re going to notice it soon enough so I’ll just come out and say it: the Jaguars front seven looked really good against the Bills. And save for a few plays early in week 10 the Jags front seven looked really good against the Colts. They’ve looked really good against a few teams and even though the Jags are a bad team, they have a good front seven.

Play action not working

The Jags come out in a cover two defense and once again the Bills can’t find a completion because the Jags linebackers are in good position. After the snap Josh Allen fakes the hand off to the running back, normally this would draw the linebackers up to the line of scrimmage and create space for intermediate routes over the middle. Instead the Jags linebackers stood their ground and dropped to their spots once they were sure Allen was throwing the ball. The Jags weren’t afraid of the Bills run game at all.

The Jags used that “soft” cover 2 a lot

The Jags lived in zone coverage against the Bills and they were in a cover 2 most often. So much for the theory playing a lot of cover 2 can’t work. Every coverage has it’s weaknesses but execution is usually what’s most important.

Against the Jags cover 2 defense Josh Allen averaged 5.06 yards per attempt. On the season he’s averaging 7.5. The Jags were happy to sit back in coverage and allow the Bills to complete short passes, where they rallied to the ball and prevented yards after the catch.

No respect at all

The Jags practically begged the Bills to run the ball, before the snap they had eight or more men in the box just one time. 51 times Josh Allen dropped back to pass with six or fewer defenders in the box. The Bills only handed the ball off 9 times.

This play shows why. The Bills blockers should have a hat on a hat on this play- meaning the Bills should have had the advantage as everyone should have been blocked. Instead the left guard doesn’t give his tackle any help at all before releasing to the second level and the tackle isn’t able to reach the defensive tackle. The play side edge defender does a good job establishing the edge, forcing the back to the inside where the defensive tackle is flowing to the ball. The Bills couldn’t run the ball and everyone knew it.

This game was won in the trenches

Besides all of the cover 2 and lack of an effective rushing attack, the thing that stood out most during the game for me was how often the Jags were in Josh Allen’s face. He was pressured consistently and that pressure coupled with giving the offense nothing open down field which resulted in frustration for Allen and that frustration turned into mistakes.

Making mistakes

Once again the Jags come out showing two high safeties. They match the Bills trips right bunch with two defenders near the line and a single safety over the top. They’ve been in cover 2 all day and they’re showing it again, this is obviously zone coverage.

Except it’s not.

The Jags gave a look which usually indicates cover 2, 4, 6 or man 2 and given the depth of the safety, zone coverage was most likely. At the snap the outside receiver runs inside, underneath only to be met by a linebacker who has dropped into his middle of the field zone that he’s responsible for in man cover 1. Allen sees that linebacker and assumes he will carry up the field with the crossing receiver as that’s what usually happens. That crosser is meant to open up the middle of the field. That linebacker isn’t supposed to be there. What made things worse is that receiver Cole Beasley (and maybe Josh Allen also) thought that Beasley could sit down in a hole in the zone coverage, but again there was no hole because there was no zone.

I believe that Josh Allen knew where he wanted to throw this ball before he received the snap. It was third down and he was going to his chain mover that is Cole Beasley. The problem was had Beasley kept running the only difference it would have made is the linebacker would have intercepted this pass, not the defensive back.

Another mistake

The Jags only blitzed eight times. Instead of blitzing a lot the Jags tried to time up their blitz against a favorable Bills play call. They timed it up well and Josh Allen did... whatever this is and threw his second interception of the day.

Allen against the zone with time

On this one Allen extended the play, kept his eyes down field and found a receiver sitting in a hole in the zone. If Josh Allen can get outside of the pocket regularly he’s going to make plays, he’s just that kind of a player, the guy just makes plays.

What does the Colts defense need to do to have similar success?

  1. Schematically, they don’t need to change a thing. It’s perfect.
  2. They have to generate pressure on Josh Allen.
  3. Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke have to stay home and avoid biting hard on play action and getting washed out in coverage by Josh Allen’s eyes and routes that have another receiver trailing them.
  4. Force turnovers

The system is the system, it’s not like the Colts defense was going to switch gears and go to a heavy man-blitz defense for any one game, but it’s important to note that the Jags beat the Bills doing exactly what the Colts defense is designed to do.

Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks probably isn’t something that you need a lot of explanation to understand its importance. With that said, if the Colts hope to repeat what the Jags did they have to get after Josh Allen and keep him uncomfortable in ways they haven’t been able to so far this season. There is some good news on this front:

Between Kwity Paye’s developing ability to harass opposing passers and Dayo Odeyingbo continuing to improve after playing in the first game of his career in week eight, there is reason to hold out some hope that the Colts defense might be able to have some success rushing Josh Allen on Sunday.

Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke have to stay home and that’s not something they’ve been very good at. On one hand I understand selling out to stop the run. It’s something the Colts have prided themselves on under Matt Eberflus, but this week it’s imperative that both linebackers focus first on coverage and rallying to stop the run, second. I’m going to talk about the Bills offensive line later in the article but the Colts should be able to succeed against the run even if the linebackers are a step late to react to the play.

Further both men have to fight against Josh Allen’s ability to move them out of position when in coverage. This is something the Jags were excellent at in week 9 and I’m just not sure it’s realistic to expect similar results from Leonard and Okereke. It’s just so difficult to do.

When talking about the Colts defense and forcing turnovers it’s an easy thing to feel confident about. Indianapolis has forced the second most turnovers in the league with 21. The team who has forced the most: The Buffalo Bills with 24. Both offenses have turned it over just 10 times on the season. So while this one is usually something to feel confident about, it’s not going to be easy to pull off.

So can the Colts defense do it?

Maybe.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.


Running Back

Names to know: Devin Singletary and Zack Moss

For their last five games this is how the number of carries has been divided:

37 carries- Zack Moss

31 carries- Devin Singletary

35 carries- Josh Allen

All three have played in each of the past five games and most of Josh Allen’s attempts are from escaping the pocket and scrambling- something I didn’t cover above but you should know is a very real threat on Sunday.

But otherwise these Bills running backs are averaging 7.4 and 6.2 attempts per game over the last five weeks. The longest rush in that span was a 34 yard Josh Allen scramble. Their longest rush of the season came in week two against the Dolphins:

Singletary is a fast back with some really fun change of direction skills:

Singletary provides the lightning while Zack Moss brings all of the thunder he can:

Together they form a formidable backfield but neither man is as concerning as the other Bills playmakers. Singletary is capable of breaking off a long run and if the Colts keep trotting out Isaac Rochell and he keeps not preventing runs from getting outside, it’s possible we see one on Sunday.

That said, Josh Allen’s legs and his ability to move the chains on third down are the most concerning aspects of this Bills rushing attack.


Pass Catchers

Names to know: Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, Isaiah McKenzie, Gabriel Davis and tight end Dawson Knox

Diggs leads the Bills in every receiving category except touchdowns. Diggs has four to Dawson Knox’s five. Knox’s five touchdowns are more impressive once you realize he missed two games and has only been targeted 28 times this season. Meaning he’s scoring a touchdown once every 5.6 targets.

Beasley is second on the team in targets and catches with 69 and 53 respectively but his 8.7 yards per reception is telling of how the Bills use the undersized slot receiver. In their week 10 slaughter of the New York Jets, he was targeted twice for two catches and 15 yards. In week 9 he was targeted 11 times catching eight passes for 33 yards. Beasley’s targets and production seem to run hot and cold and at its hottest he’s a high volume receiver without many game breaking plays.

If it feels like Emmanuel Sanders has played NFL football for decades you would be partially correct. If it feels like he’s played for every team not in the AFC South, you’re incorrect but I get it. If it feels like a nearly 35 year old receiver shouldn’t have 30 receptions for 505 yards and four touchdowns, you are 100% correct, but that’s the reality we’re living in. Sanders was a rookie for the Pittsburgh Steelers way back in 2010. He was productive in Pittsburgh but once paired with Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos, Sanders became a star. His 56.1 yards per game is fourth highest of any of his 12 seasons, while his 3.3 receptions per game is the lowest he’s had since 2012. If you hadn’t guessed his 16.8 yards per reception is the highest of his career. At 34 years old Sanders is currently fifth in the league in YPR (after removing everyone who has killed someone while driving drunk this year. Sixth if you leave that guy in). Of the four guys in front of him, his former San Francisco 49ers teammate, Deebo Samuel is the oldest at 25. I hope Sanders plays terrible this week but before digging into the Bills this week I didn’t appreciate what he’s been able to do for as long as he’s done it. I’ll be rooting for Sanders starting in week 12.

Davis was an interesting prospect last season out of UCF. The 6’2” second year receiver has statistically taken a step back from a rookie season that saw him catch 35 passes for 599 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s on pace for significantly fewer catches, yards and touchdowns but week 10 saw Davis catch three passes for 105 yards. It’s difficult to say if he will continue to produce at a higher level over the back half of the season as everyone reading this article would have a chance to have more than 100 receiving yards against the 2021 Jets. Either way the talent seems to be there but the Bills seem to have given the touches that might have come his way to Emmanuel Sanders.

Isaiah McKenzie made this list due to the work he’s received in his last two games. In weeks 9 and 10 he had a total of five targets and two rushes. Statistically he has produced almost nothing of value but the uptick in opportunity compared to the first seven games of the season was worth noting.

Diggs is very good

Last season Diggs led the NFL in both catches and yards receiving with 127 and 1,535. He also hauled in 8 touchdowns. This season his numbers are down, but he’s still on pace for more than 1,400 receiving yards, so lets not get crazy. He is Josh Allen’s favorite target for a good reason.

Cole Beasley’s longest reception of 2021

When I think of rapper Cole Beasley, I don’t think of him fondly just because I cringe every time an athlete tries to launch a music career. This isn’t one of those “stick to sports” complaints, I don’t care what any athlete does in his spare time but if you’re releasing something into the public domain I get to judge it and I’ve yet to hear any athlete-born music be decent.

Anyway, back to football. As cringeworthy as I find Beasley he is a good route runner and possession receiver underneath. The play above had nothing to do with Beasley being a deep threat and it had everything to do with Beasley knowing how to work the scramble drill with his quarterback on the move outside the pocket.

Here’s a breakdown of a long Emmanuel Sanders touchdown.

WARNING: This breakdown might not be safe for work and you might not want to play it if your kids are in the room but I thought it was hilarious and you’ve made it through 2,800 words up to this point, you deserve a chuckle.

This Bills receiving corps is talented. They have loaded up on weapons for their young quarterback and Josh Allen is obviously enjoying the opportunity to spread the ball around to these guys.

The Indy defensive backs can’t cover this unit. Rock Ya-Sin is having his best season as a pro and Isiah Rodgers is emerging as a good starting corner but the Bills just have too much talent for the Colts to hope to stop without the help of a strong pass rush. The question becomes, does the Indy defensive line have a chance to beat up on the Bills front five?


Offensive Line

Starting from left to right:

Dion Dawkins, Ike Boettger, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and Spencer Brown.

It wouldn’t be surprising to also see guard Cody Ford get some snaps in short yardage situations on Sunday.

I’m going to cut straight to the chase with this offensive line and their performance against the Jaguars: they stunk. But they were also without tackle Spencer Brown and it was their first game without starting left guard Jon Feliciano, who was placed on IR before week 9. Right guard Daryl Williams kicked out to right tackle, Ike Boettger filled in at left guard and Cody Ford filled in at right guard.

The results were terrible.

Last Sunday against a terrible Jets front seven the Bills got Spencer Brown back from injury, Williams slid back inside and Ford’s playing time was reduced to just four snaps. Those results were, predictably, much better.

All in all this is an average to slightly above average offensive line. Dion Dawkins is their best player up front and while he isn’t perfect as a player he is a very good left tackle. Ike Boettger has filled in well at left guard but is without a doubt the weak link. Morse has always been a better pass blocker than people mover and that’s held true this season, he’s an above average center. Williams is an interesting player, he struggled early on but has played better at right guard of late. His time at tackle wasn’t awful but he seems more comfortable on the inside. Which leaves us with our final player up front: rookie Spencer Brown.

Bills fans love this kid and I understand why. He’s an extremely athletic 6’8” rookie tackle and every now and then he makes plays like these:

There’s a lot to like and a lot to be hopeful for with Brown. If he was a Colt I would probably feel the same way about him Bills fans do. As someone who is impartial (I don’t have strong feelings about the Bills at all, if anything I pull for them from the periphery because they were so bad for so long) I feel comfortable telling you that Spencer Brown is a talented athlete who needs more time to develop into a skilled NFL offensive linemen.

Brown might be a really good in the future but he isn’t all the way there yet. As of right now he’s better in the run game than against pass rushers but like all rookies he will have ups and downs. Some weeks he might look like a future all-pro, some weeks he will struggle. Hopefully for the Colts this is a down week for the athletic rookie.

Struggles against Josh Allen

This one was fun for me. Josh Allen sacked Josh Allen or should I have said that Josh Allen was sacked by Josh Allen. I’m pretty sure Jacoby Brissett sacked himself a time or two but this one feels different somehow.

Also that is Dion Dawkins that Allen (Jags) beat around the edge. Like I said Dawkins is good but he isn’t as good as several of the left tackles the Colts have seen already this season.

Maybe I should have given Mitch Morse more credit

Mitch Morse is the only Bills offensive linemen that had an obvious assignment and didn’t lose the down. The other three pass rushers all got free.

Spencer Brown is a talented rookie who is going to continue to improve as he gains experience. Even though he’s not a star right tackle yet, with him in the lineup it allows the Bills to play their most talented (and healthy) five, in the positions they’re most comfortable in. So in a way, Spencer Brown’s return to the lineup was the key to improving the play of the entire Bills offensive line.


Final Thoughts

This Bills offense is really good. They gain a lot of yards and they score a lot of points. The Jags were able to shut them down mostly due to zone coverage that prevented long plays and an injured and outclassed offensive line.

Can the Colts repeat what the Jags did? They can call the same coverages but the results will be different. Kwity Paye has gotten a lot of pressure as of late but he’s probably not taking over this game. The Colts can’t rush the passer the same way the Jags did against these Bills in week 9, so I believe the Bills are going to score many more points than the Jags allowed.

I do think this is as good of a matchup (against a Super Bowl contender) as possible for the Colts defense, however. I think this game will be closer than Vegas seems to believe it will be, but I don’t know if a decent schematic matchup without a pass rush will result in anything more than Josh Allen throwing for a lot of yards and scoring a lot of points, without ever hitting a deep ball.

But we can all hope.