Welcome to Week 11 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’ 10th game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Indianapolis Colts. Here’s what you should know:
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN – AND GOT REINFORCEMENTS
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 – is off to a strong start and closely resembles 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 points allowed, total yards allowed and takeaways and are second against the pass. They’re also third against the run.
Buffalo’s success in creating turnovers was burnished by each of the Bills’ five starting defensive backs (White, Hyde, Poyer, Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson) recording one last week against the New York Jets. In fact, their 24 takeaways in nine games are the most they’ve had since notching 29 through the same amount of games in 1993, and should that number plus their success in allowing passing touchdowns (first in the league) continue to hold up, the Bills would become the first team since the 2003 New England Patriots and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both Super Bowl champions – to accomplish it.
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 are also 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.
BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE
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 around 31 points a game, the second-best best mark in the NFL.
His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs is an exceptional route runner (much like the rest of his teammates), 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.
The Bills’ offensive line isn’t made up of slouches either. Composed of Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams, Jon Feliciano (who is on injured reserve with a back injury) 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 and Zack Moss.
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 last week against New York, 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.
The proof was in the pudding. Not only did Buffalo set a season-high in points scored, but according to Next Gen Stats Allen used play-action on 57 percent of his dropbacks – the most of any quarterback in a game this season. He also threw for 305 yards off play fakes, the second-most of any signal caller since 2016 and Daboll directed his offense to score four rushing touchdowns from four different players – a first in team history.
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 (so far that number is close to 60 percent in 2021).
The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced in their three 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 Colts 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.
INDY’S DEFENSE GOOD IN SOME AREAS BUT NOT SO IN OTHERS
Colts head coach Frank Reich – the former backup to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly – spent the early part of his coaching career working for Indianapolis as Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach. During that period his boss was another Hall of Famer in Tony Dungy, who believed in a straightforward Cover Two zone defensive scheme that allowed his guys to play fast and rely on execution rather than outsmarting the opposition. Reich has returned the Colts to that mindset, bringing in staff members who have ties to the Dungy coaching tree in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and defensive backs coach Alan Williams.
Indy’s defense is led by their defensive line. Two-time All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is the team’s lynchpin here, as he is adept at both stuffing the run and rushing the quarterback. He’s also starting to get some help as the Colts invested resources into getting younger and better along their front four by drafting Kwity Paye from Michigan and Dayo Odeyingbo from Vanderbilt (much like what the Bills have done with Rousseau and Basham). Paye can play both defensive end spots and bases his game off strength, hand usage and leverage while Odeyingbo is long and athletic who can also play nickel defensive tackle. Grover Stewart is a good one-technique run defender and Al-Quadin Muhammad has shown flashes, but nothing consistent. Three-time All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard is the team’s anchor at the second level and is flanked by Zaire Franklin and Bobby Okereke.
The Colts have little depth in their secondary as former All-Pro Xavier Rhodes and the inconsistent Rock Ya-Sin have been part of a unit that have allowed more passing touchdowns than any team in the NFL and are getting lit up by the deep ball. Their normal starting safeties are Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon, but both are injured – leading Indy to lean on veteran Andrew Sendejo (who is typically the safety they use when they attempt single-high safety coverages) and special teamer George Odum. Their best defensive back is one of the NFL’s better slot defenders in Kenny Moore, who can blitz and cover at a high level.
Despite ranking second in the league in turnovers Indy’s pass defense issues have been a mirror image of their problems from last year. They gave up a shade over 311 yards through the air in their last five games (31st in in the league), allowed a completion percentage of 69.9 to quarterbacks in that same timeframe (the fifth-worst figure league-wide) and the Colts also had a penchant for allowing deep passes to be completed on them – just like in 2021.
COLTS’ OFFENSE EFFICIENT
Reich has been in one of pro football’s most unenviable positions for four years now. After the surprise retirement of one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in Andrew Luck following their first season together in 2018, the Colts soldiered through 2019 with backup Jacoby Brissett as their starter but mediocre production forced general manager Chris Ballard to sign future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers. Having held down the fort in 2020, age and declining arm strength became the deciding factors in Rivers retiring.
To finally end their quarterback carousel and bring in a long-term answer, Reich and Ballard acquired their fourth signal caller in as many years in Carson Wentz. Wentz, who won a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles along with Reich, had fallen out of favor in the City of Brotherly Love after injuries and declining talent around him saw his game go south. Now, with better weapons at his disposal, Wentz is looking like a solid option for Indy.
Wentz is very much like Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. He can extend plays inside and outside of the pocket, he’s intelligent, strong-armed and accurate. But also like a young Roethlisberger, Wentz is not a consistent, precision quarterback – he’s more apt to look for the big play rather than string together drives. Helping his game is Reich’s decision to use more play-action while Wentz is under center rather than in the shotgun, as it helps him in rhythm with his dropback and in turn Wentz has been getting rid of the ball quicker and more accurately.
Wentz’s best offensive teammate is running back Jonathan Taylor. After racking up 1,169 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, Taylor now leads the NFL in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage and his patience, vision and agility make him an ideal fit on inside zone runs and screens. His backups are Nyheim Hines, who can line up out wide or in the slot and power runner Marlon Mack.
The Colts’ most reliable target in the passing game over the last several years has been wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton is reminiscent of former Bills wideout Lee Evans in that he is a one-trick pony, but he is one of the NFL’s best at that one trick – getting open on deep routes. The problem for Hilton is that he struggles against press coverage due to his smallish frame, so the Colts send him in motion frequently to create more space between him and defenders.
Hilton, however, has dealt with injuries recently – leading to the emergence of Michael Pittman Jr. A former second-round draft pick, the son of former NFL running back Michael Pittman has had a breakout year and compliments Hilton with his size and physicality (and the Colts like to use Pittman on short routes to maximize his ability to create yards after the catch). Beyond those two Indy has fellow wideouts Zach Pascal and the injury-prone Parris Campbell. Indy also uses two or three tight end sets on a high number of their plays and Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox get most of the snaps there.
The leaders of the Colts’ offensive line are guard Quinton Nelson – one of pro football’s best at his position – and center Ryan Kelly. They are joined by right tackle Braden Smith, right guard Mark Glowinski and former Kansas City Chief Eric Fisher, who has replaced the retiring Anthony Costanzo at left tackle.
Indianapolis started 2021 1-4 while some of their better players nursed injuries, but as they’ve gotten healthier they’ve turned their season around – they’ve won four of five since.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 23 career games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in six of his last seven outings. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 21-2.
- Buffalo’s quarterback has also had the third-longest streak without throwing an interception in the red zone since 1991 (only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning had longer stretches of play with 242 and 217, respectively).
- Since 2017 the Bills are 35-4 when leading at halftime.
- Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
- The Bills have posted 300 yards of total offense for the 19th straight game – a franchise record and the longest active streak in the NFL.
- The Bills have won 10 of their last 12 home games and nine straight games against AFC East opponents, the longest they’ve had since a 10-game streak from 1990-91. They’ve also won six straight home games in November, going back to Week 12 of 2018 (a 24-21 victory over Jacksonville).
- McDermott’s career record at Highmark Stadium is 24-12.
- Buffalo has won six games by 15 points or more this year, tying the 1966, 1990 and 2004 teams for the most in franchise history.
- The Bills’ point differential currently stands at +145, the best in the NFL and tied with the 1964 team for the best mark through nine games in team history. They’ve also score 280 points in nine games, also breaking the ’64 team’s record.
- Each of the Bills’ last 13 victories have been by 10 points or more – the longest streak in the NFL since the 1998-99 Rams.
- Buffalo’s record following a loss since 2019 is 9-2. The resulting winning percentage (.818) is second in the NFL in that span to only the Green Bay Packers (8-0).
- The Bills averaged 9.1 yards per play on offense last week against the Jets, their highest in a game since averaging 9.3 against the Seattle Seahawks on December 23, 2000.