Welcome to Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The Bills’ 13th game of 2021 will take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida as they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s what you should know:

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – DECEMBER 05: (EDITOR’S NOTE: Alternate crop) Rob Gronkowski #87 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates his touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons with teammate Tom Brady #12 during the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 05, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

BUCS’ OFFENSE IS LOADED WITH TALENT

Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has played in many types of offenses in his career. From operating on a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to being the quarterback of a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and orchestrating an attack that revolved around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.

For 20 years the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was the triggerman for this attack with the New England Patriots. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed last year to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has adjusted to head coach Bruce Arians’ downfield, vertical passing scheme quite well. Brady, even at age 44, has shown little signs of slowing down – in 2020 he accumulated 4,633 passing yards (the fifth-most of his 21-year career) and 40 touchdowns, the second-most he has had as a pro behind his 50 in 2007, and led the Bucs to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.

2021 has been more of the same for Brady as he paces the NFL in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns and passing first downs. He still has zip and velocity in his throws and is exceptional on intermediate throws. That ageless talent, plus his long history of winning, has allowed him to compile a record of 32-3 against Buffalo in his career.

Helping Brady out is a plethora of dangerous options in the passing game. Before he signed in Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – a pair of fast and big-bodied red zone targets – were productive, but it seemed as if they had potential to do more damage in the NFL than they had shown with former signal caller Jameis Winston. Evans responded with a career-high 13 touchdowns last year and has double-digit scores this year, while Godwin was on pace to tie his career-bests in receptions and touchdowns despite playing in only 12 games in 2020. He’s already bettered that total in both catches and yardage.

Evans and Godwin are used in multiple ways by Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, but especially in three-by-one trips formations (with Evans the backside receiver) and in bunch with Godwin as the point man. Tampa likes to use these to defeat split-safety zone coverage – which the Bills employ on many of their defensive snaps – along with high-low pass concepts out of play-action and will also attack the void in between those split safeties with Godwin on a vertical route down the seam and a combination of shorter routes to attract the middle defenders and deep pass patterns on the outside to widen the other safety. They also like play-action out of the shotgun in the red zone to influence linebackers’ run-pass keys

Bolstering the depth of this high-flying offense besides deep threats Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard were a pair of veteran imports – Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Brown, the enigmatic former All-Pro, is still as dangerous of a route-runner as ever when playing (he has missed time this season due to injury and suspensions).

Gronkowski – one of the league’s best to ever play tight end – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can execute almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. The wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries, forced him to take a year off in 2019 after winning a third Super Bowl with the Patriots, but came out of retirement to team up with his former quarterback again. “Gronk” got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 while trying to get reacclimated to pro football, but ended the season tied for second on the team in touchdowns and has been his usual productive self this year when healthy.

The Bucs also boast many options at running back. Leonard Fournette has enjoyed a career rebirth in the Bay while showing off his power and improved receiving skills. He is backed up by Ronald Jones, who had a career-high 1,143 yards from scrimmage in 2020 and ex-Bengal Giovani Bernard. They run behind an underrated offensive line composed of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and Tristan Wirfs.

Tampa Bay’s offense leads the league in scoring offense and is second in total yards per game.

TAMPA, FL – OCTOBER 10: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cornerback Richard Sherman (5) looks into the offensive backfield during the regular season game between the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 10, 2021 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TAMPA’S DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE AND COMPLEX

Coordinator Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers disguised coverages defined by Cover Four and man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.

Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven up front. Veterans Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Vita Vea and Steve McClendon are the team’s main defensive linemen. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are a scary one-two punch at outside linebacker and have had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers, and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football (David is the better of the two in pass coverage though).

While the Bucs were the best defense in the league against the run and fourth in sacks in 2020, they were just 21st against the pass. It’s been more of the same this year as they’re second in rushing yards allowed but 20th against the pass. Beyond promising safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, their cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Ross Cockrell – leave a bit to be desired, hence Arians and general manager Jason Licht signing veteran Pierre Desir and 33-year-old five-time All-Pro Richard Sherman, whose leadership, intelligence, length and ability to excel in press coverage has made him the prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 06: Rhamondre Stevenson #38 of the New England Patriots is tackled by Tremaine Edmunds #49 of the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium on December 06, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN BUT STRUGGLING AGAINST RUN

After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Jerry Hughes – has closely resembled the defenses from 2018-19 that were considered elite.

In 2021 the Bills decided to heavily invest in upgrading their pass rush. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, along with second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa and free agent signing Efe Obada have injected a shot of youth behind the aging Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is back to clog gaps against the run after opting out of 2020. These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo currently ranked first in pro football in total yards allowed, passing yards allowed and points allowed, and are second in takeaways and interceptions (Poyer has five, most on the team and tied with Tennessee’s Kevin Byard for most among all safeties).

In fact, their 26 takeaways in 12 games are the most they’ve had since notching 29 through nine contests in 1993 and should that number plus their success in allowing passing touchdowns (first in the league) continue to improve, the Bills could become the first team since the 2003 New England Patriots and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both Super Bowl champions – to lead the league in both categories.

But a disturbing pattern has emerged on Buffalo’s defense, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots the Bills have gotten gashed by power running teams. That weakness was exposed on Monday night by the Pats rushing for 222 yards, the second-most Buffalo’s defenders have given up this season (264 against the Colts). The biggest issue there has been poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity (especially by Edmunds) and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line. This is an issue that will need to be addressed quickly.

Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s calling cards (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks). The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and in blitz rate. They mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays in 2020, the most in the league and nearly 100 percent of their snaps since Week Six against Tennessee.

A seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup occurred with White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, tearing his ACL against the New Orleans Saints and ending his season. His replacement is second-year man Dane Jackson, who has flashed some ability when given the chance but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage gone, will McDermott and Frazier lean on zone more from Jackson, Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 06: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills signals to teammates in the fourth quarter of the game against the New England Patriotsat Highmark Stadium on December 06, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE BUT NOT PERFECT

Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of talented wide receivers, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s elite offenses for the first time since the K-Gun was running roughshod over the league 30 years ago.

Allen – last season’s runner-up for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player – set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become one of the most feared attacks in pro football, and that success has continued into 2021 as the Bills have averaged nearly 30 points a game, the second-best best mark in the NFL and Allen is fourth and seventh in the league in passing touchdowns and yards going into Week 14, respectively.

His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards a year ago (and is 10th in both categories this year along with the fourth-most touchdowns) is an exceptional route runner who excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Emmanuel Sanders and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with seven touchdowns, which is tied with Henry for the most among all tight ends and surpassing Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano (who may be activated off injured reserve this week), Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams, and rookie Spencer Brown. This unit has held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts, draw plays and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary (who brings shiftiness to the table), Zack Moss (power) and Matt Breida (speed and route running).

But the story has been different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they have been iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection. Against Jacksonville in Week Nine the Jaguars sacked Allen four times, hit him eight times and pressured him 17 times, tying his season high from Week One against Pittsburgh while Buffalo called for just 14 running plays. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set out to change that three weeks ago against the Jets and it worked – Allen lined up under center more with fullback Reggie Gilliam on the field for 15 offensive snaps and tight ends Knox and Tommy Sweeney saw more action too, which resulted in more play-action used and running plays.

After having similar issues against the Colts, the approach against New York carried over into New Orleans. The Bills had 32 rushing attempts to 28 passes – the third time all year they’ve run more than passed, a stark contrast to their 61-39 pass to run ratio in 2021 – but the ground game once again sputtered against New England with their running backs averaging just 3.14 yards a carry. In fact, Allen has had just two running backs record 100 rushing yards or more in a game in his entire career (Singletary in 2019 against the Denver Broncos and Frank Gore the same year against the Pats).

Additionally Allen has thrown seven picks in his last five outings. Turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only once since then have they had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween).

Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).

In fact, the Bills used multi-receiver sets so often last year that they lined up in “11” personnel on 71 percent of their offensive snaps and “10” personnel on 14 percent of their plays in the regular season. In 2020 they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL at the time – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Daboll also called for a passing play on 64 percent of their first downs, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more often than Buffalo.

The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced in their five losses – has been to rarely blitz, lean on zone coverage with a lot of stunts from defensive lines with mixed fronts and late movement in secondaries before the snap. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Bucs attempt a similar gameplan? And could Daboll continue to use less shotgun and more offensive snaps under center with play-action and bootlegs to help both Allen and his beleaguered line? This bears watching.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 06: Gabriel Davis #13 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates his touchdown reception with teammates during the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Highmark Stadium on December 06, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Allen has compiled 24 career games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in seven of his last 10 outings. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 22-2.
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 36-4 when leading at halftime.
  • Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
  • The Bills posted 300 yards of total offense for 21 straight games – a franchise record and the longest active streak in the NFL, which ended against Tampa.
  • Buffalo’s loss to New England also ended Buffalo’s nine-game AFC East winning streak (the team record is 10 set from 1990-91). They are now behind the Patriots in their division by 1.5 games and they suffered their fifth conference loss of the season (5-5).
  • Buffalo has won seven games by 15 points or more this year, breaking a four-way tie with the 1966, 1990 and 2004 teams for the most in franchise history.
  • Each of the Bills’ last 14 victories have been by 10 points or more – the longest streak in the NFL since the 1998-99 Rams.
  • With their win over New Orleans Buffalo’s record following a loss since 2019 is now 10-2. The resulting winning percentage (.833) is second in the NFL in that span to only the Green Bay Packers.
  • McDermott and company haven’t lost back-to-back games this year but haven’t won two in a row since a four-game winning streak from Week Two through Week Five.
  • Buffalo’s second in the NFL in point differential at +140 behind New England at +150.
  • The Bills have won seven games this year and their margins of victory have been by 35, 22, 40, 18, 15, 28 and 25 points. According to Stats by STATS, only two other teams have had their first seven victories come by 15 points or more – the 1999 St. Louis Rams and the 2007 Patriots.
  • Some quirks to come out of Monday’s game – the Patriots had the fourth-fewest passing yards in a win since 1980, their three pass attempts were the lowest in one game in franchise history and tied the 1968 Chiefs for the second-least amount of passes in a game since 1966 (Buffalo had two against the New York Jets in 1974).
  • Could the Bills use post-wheel combinations against Tampa? They’re good routes to use against the Bucs’ preferred quarters coverage because it sends two receivers through a zone.
  • From Week Nine through the Super Bowl the Bucs’ offense saw a notable uptick in usage of “12” personnel (one running back and two tight end packages) play-action and more pre-snap motion. This year they have using more “11” personnel – will that continue Sunday?
  • Brady is one of just two athletes among the four major North American sports to make 10 championship appearances since 1990 (LeBron James is the other), has joined Peyton Manning as the second signal caller to lead two different teams to a Super Bowl championship and is the first quarterback to win championships in both the AFC and NFC.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics and From the 300 Level. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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