Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s AFC Championship Game will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, as the Buffalo Bills will face the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s what you should know:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS DANGEROUS
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. While in Philadelphia the passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick became more vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith it was more conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. His weapons in the passing game play to those strengths as well. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins and burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone deep, and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid.
Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch formations – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers, and Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020.
Back in April the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, significantly upgrading a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy. Williams’ opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 put the spotlight squarely on the young rookie, who got off to an encouraging start to his career but his impact on the field was reduced as time has gone on.
To lighten the first-year back’s load, Kansas City signed former All-Pro Le’Veon Bell in October. Bell, like his younger counterpart, is a shifty and strong runner who also excels in running routes out of the backfield and while split out at wide receiver. Unlike Edwards-Helaire though, Bell is savvier and more patient at setting up his blockers to spring for big gains and is more experienced in pass protection.
The two operate behind an offensive line that is made up of Eric Fisher and Mike Remmers at left and right tackle (Remmers has filled in for Mitchell Schwartz since Schwartz injured his back against the Bills in Week Six), Andrew Wylie at one guard spot and Austin Reiter at center, and fullback Anthony Sherman is one of football’s better lead blockers. But the other starting guard position has been a revolving door this season, as Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of 2020 because of the virus. His replacement, former Baltimore Raven Kelechi Osemele, tore tendons in both knees, and Nick Allegretti has settled in there.
The Chiefs have recently made a habit of winning close games. Each of their last eight victories, including the postseason, have come by no more than six points, and the Week Six matchup between the Bills and Chiefs was decided by only 11 points. It was a game that saw Mahomes throw for only 225 yards (his third-lowest total of 2020) but Edwards-Helaire piled up a season-high 161 yards rushing.
One area of this unit that bears watching is in the red zone. In their last 24 trips inside the 20-yard line, Kansas City’s offense has had a downturn with just 10 touchdowns scored and 11 field goals converted – leading to the team being just the 26th-best offense (45.8 percent) in that area since Week 12. In that same timeframe, the Bills have had the best red zone defense in pro football.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE NOT SO BAD ITSELF
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit. However from 2016-18 it took a nosedive, bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his old assistants in Philadelphia, Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man overload blitzes and coverages involving mainly Cover Four, Cover Two and man-press with safeties rotating before the snap, especially out of dime packages.
It took about half of 2019 for the Chiefs’ defenders to get used to Spagnuolo’s playbook, but they played lights-out after Week 11 – allowing just 11.5 points-per-game, notching 10 interceptions and finishing the regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass. They also racked up 45 sacks which was 11th-best among all defenses.
This year has been a bit different. Like the rest of the league, Kansas City’s defensive play hasn’t been great – as evidenced by them finishing 21st against the run – but the Chiefs did end 2020 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions.
A big key to Kansas City’s turnaround was the importation of former Texans and Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his 1,080 snaps on the field last season – 483 at slot cornerback, 315 at box safety and nickel/dime linebacker, 173 at free safety, 82 near the defensive line and 27 at outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence are valuable to the Chiefs.
Opposite Mathieu is a combination of second-year man Juan Thornhill, who is also a versatile playmaker, and special teams ace Daniel Sorenson. The Chiefs’ other starting defensive backs are veteran Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton, and they hold up well in man and zone. These corners and safeties will be on the field a lot on Sunday – as evidenced by Kansas City having used dime formations on 35 percent of their plays, the third-highest figure in the NFL.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive tackle in the league and is the linchpin of this unit thanks to his combination of burst and power off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness and Derrick Nnadi is an up-and-coming name to watch too. At linebacker Kansas City employs two former Dallas Cowboys in Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN
Over the last two years the Bills’ defense became one of pro football’s elite outfits. Led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Levi Wallace and Jerry Hughes – and supplemented this year by the free agent signings of Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, A.J. Klein and Josh Norman – last year’s defense ranked third overall in the NFL. Additionally, they were 10th against the run, fourth against the pass, seventh-best on third down, 10th in sack percentage, 10th in interception rate, second in points allowed and 12th in sacks.
But at various times throughout this season Buffalo’s defense struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole saw defensive play decline in 2020 but given the amount of resources that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott poured into creating depth along the team’s front seven last offseason, it was jarring to see the Bills take too many penalties, create little in terms of a pass rush or be unable to fill gaps against the run.
Despite those issues, there has been a turnaround on this side of the ball lately. In their last 10 regular season games, Buffalo’s defense combined for 46 sacks and turnovers (27 quarterback takedowns and 19 takeaways) – contributing to the eighth-best takeaway total in the NFL. They also allowed just 18.3 points per game after the bye week and gave up just three points to the Baltimore Ravens last week – the least they’ve allowed in a postseason game since 1992 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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’s calling card (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers – for more info on the history of McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s unit, please read: https://fromthe300level.com/2018/08/pressure-package-how-the-late-buddy-ryan-has-influenced-the-buffalo-bills-defenses-for-over-20-years/?fbclid=IwAR3iYcnJ5qvl8shWHkZJVNO50VJXPeaEx8k0-Rk1VWV_Qx2OEfsAn2NY_ys).
The Bills’ defense is among the top 10 units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and are also in blitz rate (37.4 percent – although that number increased against Baltimore to 41.5 percent, resulting in four sacks and a pick-six by Taron Johnson). They mainly utilize nickel personnel – they’ve used five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays, the most in the league – and held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 86.9 in the regular season, the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL. A third linebacker was used more often last week against Baltimore because of the Ravens’ preference for the run game, resulting in the Bills allowing Johnson to step on the field for just 59 percent of their defensive plays, their lowest usage of nickel all season.
Buffalo’s defense will need to turn their game up a notch against Kelce. Against Indy and Baltimore over the last two weeks the Colts’ tight ends (Jack Doyle, Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox) and Mark Andrews of the Ravens combined for 18 catches for 164 yards and one score. Kelce was impactful against the Bills in Week Six to the tune of five catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns – mainly against Cover Two (and Mahomes was also lethal against the Bills’ quarters coverage). Could Buffalo use more man this time around?
BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE
In 2019, the Bills’ inability to score points consistently – they averaged just 19.6 points per game – caught up to them in the playoffs against the Houston Texans. To address that problem, they went out and traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings.
Diggs is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His arrival along with physical rookie Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting deep threat John Brown and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley, and their importation initially resulted in the Bills scoring 27 points or more in four consecutive games – the first time they accomplished that feat since 2004.
Weeks Five and Six against Tennessee and Kansas City were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings of 2020. Third-year quarterback Josh Allen made some poor choices in the passing game – most of his struggles seemed to come when defenses would rotate their zone coverages and change the depth of their safeties at the snap, muddying what Allen was seeing from the pocket. He also stayed on his first read for too long sometimes and would often run if his first receiver in the progression wasn’t open.
Since then Allen has been efficient and set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in one season. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become the second-best scoring offense in the league and the team averaged nearly 37 points a game after their bye week.
Additionally they scored 24 points or more in nine straight regular season games, which is tied for the longest active streak in pro football with the Green Bay Packers, equaled an NFL record with 13 players catching a touchdown and recorded at least 20 first downs in every game in 2020 – just the second team ever to do so in a full season (2012 New England Patriots). In fact, Buffalo tied Kansas City for the league lead in first downs with 397 – all while playing more than half of their games against defenses who finished in the top 10 in total yards allowed, passing yards given up and points surrendered.
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 have also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly this season – 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 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 – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll also called for a passing play on first down 64 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more often than Buffalo.
Though the ball was flying through the air with ease, the same couldn’t be said about the ground game. Due to Jon Feliciano and Mitch Morse being in and out of the lineup because of injuries and a lack of consistency along their front five, Buffalo’s starting offensive line was compromised for the first half of 2020 and they struggled to create any sort of consistent push along the line of scrimmage.
Those problems, plus a recent trend of utilizing outside zone runs almost exclusively to the left side of the line, resulted in one of the NFL’s most inconsistent rushing attacks. The offensive line racked up 172 yards against the Chargers via runs on zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts and draw plays, but didn’t have the same success on the ground against San Francisco or Pittsburgh. The running game did pick up steam over a four-week stretch as the Bills combined for 486 yards on the ground and seven rushing touchdowns against Denver, New England, Miami and Indianapolis, but was non-existent against Baltimore.
Like the Chiefs, an area where one should take note of with Buffalo’s offense is in the red zone. Kansas City’s defense inside the 20-yard line has been porous in 2020 – allowing a touchdown more than 76 percent of the time – and Allen has thrown for 43 touchdowns and no interceptions in his career near the end zone.
Kansas City also comes to town with a blitz-intensive scheme and luckily for the Bills, they have experience in handling defenses who have a high-blitz rate. In the Week Six matchup between these two clubs the Chiefs had five or more rushers attack Allen on 52 percent of his snaps, and Allen was the most-blitzed quarterback in the NFL this season.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Diggs became the first Bills wide receiver to lead the league in catches and yards over a full season and was the first Buffalo wideout to be named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press. His 127 receptions were the sixth-most all time. Allen, Beasley, White and Andre Roberts were named second team All-Pro.
- Allen is the only quarterback in league history with at least 4,500 passing yards, 35 or more passing touchdowns and eight rushing scores. He was also named Most Improved Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, and Beane and Daboll were named Executive of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year by the PFWA – the first individuals from Buffalo to have the honors bestowed upon them since the awards were originally given out in 1993.
- Buffalo ended the season with 501 points and surpassed the 1991 squad (458 points) as the highest-scoring team in franchise history. They also accumulated 6,343 yards, breaking the ’91 team’s franchise standard (6,252).
- McDermott has 38 regular season wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and moved past Chuck Knox into third place in franchise history. Only Marv Levy and Lou Saban have more.
- The Bills won 13 games (6-2 on the road, 7-1 at home) for the first time since 1991 and tied the team record for wins in a season set by the 1990 and ’91 squads. Including playoffs, they have now won eight in a row.
- Buffalo punted the football just 41 times in the regular season, which is a team record (the old franchise standard for a 16-game season is 54 in 1991) and became just the third team to punt less than 42 times in a season (1990 Houston Oilers, 2019 Baltimore Ravens). However, they punted four times in each of their playoff matchups against the Colts and Ravens.
- Helping keep that punt number low was Buffalo’s third-down conversion rate – 49.7 percent – which was the best figure in the league.
- Tyler Bass’s 141 points in 2020 surpassed Steve Christie’s team mark for points in a season (140) set back in 1998. He also tied the team record against Indianapolis for the longest field goal in postseason history – set by Christie in Super Bowl XXVIII – and it was the longest field goal by a rookie in league playoff history.
- Roberts led the NFL in kick return average and helped the Bills lead the league in team kick return average (27.6 yards per return). Fellow special teamer Corey Bojorquez paced all punters in gross punting average with a mark of 50.8 and was fifth in net punting average.
- Buffalo is looking to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993 and for the fifth time in franchise history.
- The Bills like to use a passing concept called “Jalapeno”, which is a two-by-two set with a pair of post patterns on one side and a deep dig route on the other. Will they continue to use it against Kansas City?
- One of Spagnuolo’s favorite types of blitzes is a “Mike-Star” blitz where the middle linebacker and slot cornerback both rush the passer. This can be defeated via three-by-one trips formations, which the Bills use a decent amount – will “Spags” move away from this type of scheme on Sunday?
- Kansas City likes to have their receivers run curl routes underneath to influence mid-level defenders to open up space downfield for Hill and Hardman. Conversely, great speed down the field can also influence two-deep safety looks to open up opportunities underneath.
- Could the Chiefs also use post-wheel combinations against Buffalo? They’re good routes to use against Cover Three and quarters coverage because it sends two receivers through a zone.
- Speaking of wheel routes, the Chiefs have a concept in their playbook called All-Go Special Halfback Seam, where Hill goes in motion across the formation, Kelce works the middle, Watkins runs downfield on a go route and a running back comes out of the backfield on said wheel route. This could probably work against the Bills’ favored defensive coverages.
- Like the Bills, the Chiefs also use plenty of presnap motion. One such play of theirs that is used frequently is called “Weezy Right Lollipop” in an ode to rapper Lil’ Wayne. Hill motions across the formation three times to misdirect defenders before Mahomes will dump the ball off to a running back in the opposite side of the third motion. Could we see this utilized on Sunday?
- Kansas City has become just the second team to host three straight conference title games – Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles also did the deed between 2002-04.
- According to former ESPN anchor Trey Wingo, this is only the second time since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970 that the four quarterbacks playing on Championship Sunday were among the top five in touchdown passes during the regular season (1992 was the previous year – the signal callers that year were Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Dan Marino).
- Johnson’s interception return for a touchdown last week against Baltimore tied the NFL record for the longest pick-six in league history.
- Hughes’ two sacks against the Ravens gave him five career sacks in the postseason with Buffalo – only the fourth Bill to do so, joining Bruce Smith (14.5), Jeff Wright (nine) and Darryl Talley (6.5).
- Last week the Bills became the fourth team in league annals to rush for less than 40 yards in a playoff win. Two of the squads to do so won the Super Bowl (1999 St. Louis Rams, 2014 New England Patriots).
- Buffalo was able to defeat disguised Cover Two zones against Indianapolis with a three-by-one formation involving Diggs and Davis each running post patterns (Diggs’ route converted to a seam to beat the split-safety coverage down the middle of the field) and tight end Dawson Knox executing a corner route. Allen pump-faked to Knox to create more room for Diggs to get open, could he do this again to beat the Chiefs’ Cover Two?