Welcome to Week 10 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’ ninth game of 2021 will take place at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey as they face the New York Jets. Here’s what you should know:
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 amount of 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 and Ashtyn Davis all either in their first or second year of playing pro football. The only starter in their secondary who has played in the NFL for at least three years is six-year veteran Sharrod Neasman, who was imported from the Atlanta Falcons.
Up front New York has some decent run-stuffing defensive linemen in former Bill Shaq Lawson, one-time New Orleans Saint Sheldon Rankins and Quinnen Williams, the third-overall selection out of Alabama in 2019. Carl Lawson – no relation to Shaq – 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 ex-Bill Del’Shawn Phillips 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 (29th) and run (27th).
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 he’s still adjusting to the NFL – his game has been very loose and undisciplined and in the process has turned the ball over quite a bit.
Due to injury Wilson won’t suit up for New York, clearing the way for backup Mike White to get the starting nod. In three games so far this season White has displayed more discipline within the pocket and has shown more of a willingness to take checkdowns but doesn’t have the same type of arm talent that Wilson has. He earned the Jets’ backup role this year after spending the past three seasons on the Dallas Cowboys and New York’s practice squads and threw for 405 yards in his first career start against Cincinnati a few weeks ago – the most by a Jets quarterback since Vinny Testaverde had 481 against Baltimore in 2000.
Wilson and White do have some decent weapons to throw to. The headliner is shifty slot receiver Jamison Crowder, who has put up big numbers in his three meetings against the Bills going back to 2019 (29 catches for 282 yards and two touchdowns). Crowder is joined by the talented but enigmatic Corey Davis, Keelan Cole and rookie Elijah Moore. Moore’s recent emergence (13 catches and two scores in his last two games) has prodded LaFleur into using more “10” personnel (one back, no tight end, four wideouts) recently and it’s been successful – they’ve utilized that personnel grouping the fourth-most of any team in pro football and have completed nearly 82 percent of their passes.
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 talented offensive tackle pairs.
They, along with backup George Fant, are joined by center Connor McGovern, right guard Greg Van Roten and rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. Ryan Griffin and former Bill Tyler Kroft (who won’t suit up on Sunday because of a lung laceration) are New York’s tight ends.
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, passing yards surrendered and second in takeaways. They’re also fourth against the run.
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.
With Edmunds set to miss Sunday’s contest with a calf injury, will the Bills use more dime personnel with an extra defensive back instead of their base nickel personnel? They’ve done it before when Milano has missed time, could McDermott and Frazier do so again?
BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE, BUT GROUNDED LAST WEEK
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 fourth-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 with five touchdowns in his last five games and will return after missing two games with a broken hand.
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 currently sit in that spot again in 2021 – 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 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 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 in 2021, as they have been below average in providing push in the running game (last week against Jacksonville saw Buffalo call just 14 running plays, the least they’ve had all season) and in pass protection. The Jaguars sacked Allen four times, hit him eight times and pressured him 17 times, tying his season high from Week One against Pittsburgh. In four games this year, Allen has faced a pressure rate of 26 percent or higher and has lost three of those four outings according to NFL Media’s Cynthia Frelund. This is an issue that offensive line coach Bobby Johnson needs to address quickly.
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 Jets attempt a similar gameplan? And could Daboll elect 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.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 22 games with a passer rating of 100 or better and had five straight games with such a rating before their game with the Jaguars. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 20-2.
- 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).
- Allen’s completion percentage has dropped a bit from last year (69.2 to 65.5 percent) and his yards per attempt have dropped from 7.9 to 7.0 – below the league average. Is this indicative of a lack of explosiveness and speed at wide receiver for Buffalo?
- Since 2017 the Bills are 34-4 when leading at halftime.
- Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
- Against Jacksonville Buffalo’s streak of scoring 25 points or more in six straight weeks ended.
- Another streak that ended last week was the Bills accumulating 20 or more first downs in 23 straight games going back to Week One of last season. According to Warren Sharp, no other team in the NFL had done so since the 2016-17 New England Patriots.
- Last week was the first time Buffalo had been held to single digits on the scoreboard since Week 17 of 2019 – a meaningless matchup with the Jets where McDermott rested starters before the postseason began.
- One streak that did continue was the Bills posting 300 yards of total offense for the 18th straight game – a franchise record. Only the Los Angeles Rams have had a longer active streak (20).
- McDermott’s squad racked up a season-high 12 penalties last week and haven’t had less than eight in each of their last four games (they had 18 penalties combined in their last two meetings with the Jets).
- The Bills have won 10 of their last 12 home games and eight straight games against AFC East opponents, the longest they’ve had since a 10-game streak from 1990-91.
- Buffalo has won five games by 15 points or more this year. Only the 1966, 1990 and 2004 teams had more (six).
- Five of the last seven 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 and have won their last three games in MetLife Stadium.
- In his career Allen has struggled a bit against the Jets. His record against them is just 3-2 and has accounted for more turnovers than touchdowns. Could his fortunes change this week?