Welcome to Week 18 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’ 17th game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the New York Jets. Here’s what you should know:

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 19: Head coach Robert Saleh of the New York Jets looks on from the sideline during the third quarter of the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

GANG GREEN’S DEFENSE TRYING TO BECOME SEATTLE-LITE

New Jets head coach Robert Saleh has arrived in the Big Apple from San Francisco where he oversaw a defense that was among the NFL’s better outfits over the past four years. Saleh was one of the original architects, along with Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn, of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three scheme (featuring deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield) which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14. Saleh himself used those same tactics to help the 49ers make an appearance in Super Bowl LIV in 2019.

In addition to his favored pass coverages, Saleh will – like his predecessors – use one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates the potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. He also has his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations. Unfortunately for Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets don’t have the talent on this side of the ball that Seattle and San Francisco did.

New York has shaky depth among their defensive backs. Beyond versatile and rangy safeties Marcus Maye and Lamarcus Joyner – both of whom are out for the season with torn Achilles and triceps tendons, respectively – the Jets are fairly green with Bryce Hall, Brandin Echols, Michael Carter II, Elijah Riley and Ashtyn Davis all either in their first or second year of playing pro football.

Up front New York has some decent run-stuffing defensive linemen in former New Orleans Saint Sheldon Rankins and Quinnen Williams, the third-overall selection out of Alabama in 2019. Carl Lawson was signed in the spring from the Cincinnati Bengals to give the Jets’ pass rush a boost, but like Maye and Joyner he is also done for 2021 after tearing his Achilles tendon during training camp. Ditto former Eagle Vinny Curry, who hasn’t played this season after being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder.

One bright spot has been former Baltimore Raven C.J. Mosley, who – after missing the last two seasons due to injury and COVID-19 – has been good in his return, displaying his high football IQ, athleticism and good technique. He along with former Detroit Lion Jarrad Davis and Quincy Williams are New York’s starters at linebacker.

The Jets’ defense hasn’t been producing much this year. They’re currently ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed and total yards surrendered and have been among the league’s bottom feeders against the pass and run (29th).

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – JANUARY 02: New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) during the National Football League game between the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on January 2, 2022 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LAFLEUR’S OFFENSIVE SYSTEM JUST LIKE HIS BROTHER’S

Saleh’s offensive coordinator is Mike LaFleur, the brother of Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. Mike’s system is identical to that of his brother’s and his former 49ers boss Kyle Shanahan’s – it emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast philosophy that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field.

To make this unit go, Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas sent former third-overall draft pick Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers (his elongated release and penchant for throwing interceptions would have hindered the offense’s effectiveness) and drafted his replacement in rookie Zack Wilson. The first-year signal caller from Brigham Young University boasts a strong arm and good mobility, but it was evident that adjusting to life in the NFL would be a process as a lack of discipline and turnovers marred Wilson’s game early in 2021. However things have been slowing down for him recently as he has become more decisive and less hesitant in his throws, especially when he has defined reads and doesn’t have pressure in his face.

Wilson has some decent weapons to throw to. The headliner is shifty slot receiver Jamison Crowder, who has put up big numbers in his four meetings against the Bills going back to 2019 (32 catches for 302 yards and two touchdowns). Crowder is joined by the talented but enigmatic Corey Davis (who is injured), Keelan Cole, Denzel Mims and rookie Elijah Moore. Moore’s recent emergence has prodded LaFleur into using more “10” personnel (one back, no tight end, four wideouts) and it’s been successful – they’ve utilized those personnel among the most of any team in pro football.

Michael Carter, another rookie whose role in the passing game has expanded as the year has gone on, and speedy veteran Tevin Coleman (who understands the offensive system having played in it with Atlanta and San Francisco) are the Jets’ running backs. They operate behind an offensive line missing left tackle Mekhi Becton – a mountain of a man at 6’7” and 364 pounds – because of injury, but when healthy he and right tackle Morgan Moses make up one of the NFL’s more gifted offensive tackle pairs.

Becton, backup George Fant and center Connor McGovern won’t play on Sunday due to various ailments – leaving the Jets to suit up Moses, rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and veterans Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Conor McDermott and Dan Feeney on their starting front-five. Ryan Griffin (who is also out for Sunday’s contest because of a knee injury) and former Bill Tyler Kroft are New York’s tight ends.

Like their defensive counterparts the Jets are near the bottom of the NFL in most offensive categories. Also not working in their favor (and especially Wilson’s) is rookie quarterbacks have struggled against Buffalo’s defenses – since 2017 they have accumulated a 3-6 record with just four touchdowns and 15 interceptions. However New York has been competitive recently, as five of their last seven matchups have been decided by a touchdown or less.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 02: Harrison Phillips #99 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates recovering a fumble by Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter of the game at Highmark Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/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 (who is out for Sunday with an injury) 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. Ditto Harrison Phillips having a breakout season two years after tearing a knee ligament.

These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo currently ranked first in pro football in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed, second in points allowed, third in takeaways and interceptions and fourth in third-down defense. In fact, they have just four less turnovers than league-leader Dallas 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.

A disturbing pattern has emerged on Buffalo’s defense in 2021, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills have gotten gashed on the ground by power running teams. The biggest issue there has been poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line. That 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. 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 – although they did use a third linebacker on 28 snaps against New England a few weeks ago.

A seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup occurred when White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, tore 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, NY – JANUARY 02: Devin Singletary #26 of the Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills celebrate a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons at Highmark Stadium on January 2, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE BUT NOT PERFECT

Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of gifted 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 28.5 points a game, the third-best best mark in the NFL. Allen is also seventh and eighth in the league in passing touchdowns and yards going into Week 18 respectively.

His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards a year ago, 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 (who will likely miss his third game of the season with a knee problem) and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with nine touchdowns, which is tied for first among all tight ends with Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews and Hunter Henry and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown (Ike Boettger, now out with a torn Achilles tendon, Cody Ford and Ryan Bates have also gotten playing time this year). This unit held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-read and run-pass options, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters 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 was different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they were 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. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set out to change that a week later 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 and running plays, thus putting less stress on the line.

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, but the ground game once again sputtered against New England on December 6 with their running backs averaging just 3.14 yards a carry. The ground game was ignored again against Tampa as Singletary and Breida combined for just seven carries.

In their last three games Buffalo has tried to establish some resemblance of a running game and have gotten good results. After recording 119 yards on 27 carries against Carolina, the Bills continued to have success against New England two weeks ago with 114 yards on the ground and compiled a season-high 233 rushing yards on 44 attempts versus Atlanta. With Singletary notching a career-high 110 yards on 23 carries, it was just the third time Allen had a running back put up 100 rushing yards or more in a game in his career (Singletary also did it in 2019 against the Denver Broncos and Frank Gore the same year against the Pats).

Allen has also thrown 12 picks in his last seven outings. Turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only twice since then have the Bills had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween and at New England). But in addition to their newfound running success, other recent bright spots have been their red zone efficiency – after starting the season near the bottom of the NFL in that category, they’ve scored on nearly two-thirds of their trips inside the 20-yard line in their last eight games, one of the best marks in pro football – and in protecting Allen, as he hasn’t been sacked since their matchup against the Panthers.

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).

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 than Buffalo – and that rate has continued in 2021.

The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced in their six 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 – where the Jets’ defense has a similar profile.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – JANUARY 02: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball after a catch against the Atlanta Falcons at Highmark Stadium on January 2, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Allen has compiled 25 career games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in eight of his last 14 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 23-2.
  • With two rushing scores last week Allen is now tied for third in franchise history in rushing touchdowns with Cookie Gilchrist (31) and surpassed both Fred Jackson and Wray Carlton. He’s behind only Thurman Thomas (65) and O.J. Simpson (57).
  • Only Steve Young has had more career games (eight) with 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards than Allen (five).
  • More accolades for Allen – he became just the fifth signal caller ever to have 34 or more passing scores and 4,000 passing yards in consecutive seasons (along with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers) and he became the first player ever with 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns and 600 rushing yards in a season, according to Stathead.
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 38-4 when leading at halftime.
  • Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
  • All of Buffalo’s 10 wins in 2021 have been by 15 points or more, the most in franchise history. It’s also the first time they’ve had three straight winning seasons since 1991-93.
  • Each of the Bills’ last 17 victories dating back to last year have been by 10 points or more – an NFL record.
  • Buffalo’s first in the NFL in point differential at +177. They’re also the only team in the NFL to rank in the top four in both points scored and allowed.
  • The Bills have had some bad luck in one-score games. They went 5-0 in one-score outings last year and are 0-5 so far in 2021 (only the 1985 San Francisco 49ers have made the postseason with such a record, according to ESPN Stats & Info).
  • McDermott has become the 22nd coach in league history with a .600 winning percentage through 80 games. His next victory will clinch the AFC East for the second straight year should they defeat the New York Jets and Buffalo has secured a playoff berth for the fourth time in five years.
  • The Bills’ head coach is also one of three coaches with 10 wins in each of the last three seasons (Andy Reid has had seven straight campaigns with 10 victories and Matt LaFleur also has three straight years with 10 wins).
  • Diggs and Knox have become just the second pair of teammates in team annals (Eric Moulds and Peerless Price being the others in 2002) to each have nine or more touchdowns in a season.
  • Additionally, Diggs became the first Bills receiver with 90 or more catches in consecutive years and will surpass Wes Welker (2007-08) for the most receptions in a player’s first two years with a team should he record three catches this Sunday.
  • Last week was the sixth time in Bills history that they didn’t punt in a game, and they became the first team since the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers to not punt in consecutive outings.
  • Five of the last eight games between the Bills and Jets have come down to just single digits on the scoreboard. Last season Buffalo swept the Jets for the first time in five years (Buffalo’s record within the AFC East since 2020 is 10-1) and will aim for a second straight sweep this Sunday. It would also be their fourth straight win over Gang Green.

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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