Welcome to Week Five 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’ fifth game of 2021 will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri as they 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. In Philadelphia his passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick became vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with 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 Demarcus Robinson 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. Additionally, Kansas City signed veteran vertical threat Josh Gordon recently to bolster their depth.
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 – 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.
Last season 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 Buffalo Bill LeSean McCoy. Edwards-Helaire is adept at hurting teams not just on the ground, but through the air as well.
Edwards-Helaire and Mahomes operate behind an offensive line that has undergone many changes since 2020. Injuries and underperformance, especially in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saw the Chiefs say goodbye to names like Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, Austin Reiter and Kelechi Osemele and hello to new faces like two-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr., former All-Pro Joe Thuney, second-year tackle Lucas Niang and rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. Veterans Mike Remmers, Nick Allegretti and Andrew Wylie – all starters in Super Bowl LV – have been relegated to bench duties, while Austin Blythe provides experienced depth after coming over from the Rams and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is back after opting out of 2020 because of the COVID-19 virus.
As has been the case over the last few years, this unit has been lethal. In addition to the many yards and points they’ve accumulated both through the air and on the ground, Kansas City is also deadly on third down – having converted on third and seven or shorter 24 times in 25 chances (they’re just two for 14 in third and eight or longer situations, however). Conversely the Bills’ third down offense is clicking at a rate of 50 percent, the third-best rate in the NFL.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE, ONCE RELIABLE, NOW SLUMPING
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, but between 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 One, Two, Zero and two-deep man with press technique by the cornerbacks and the safeties rotating before the snap.
After a two-year stretch which saw Kansas City finish the 2019 regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass and racking up 45 sacks (11th-best among all defenses), and a 2020 campaign that ended with the Chiefs being ranked 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions, the wheels have fallen off the team’s wagon. Through the first four weeks of the 2021 season Kansas City is near the bottom of the NFL in multiple defensive categories, including total yards allowed (31st), points allowed (31st), rushing yards allowed (30th), passing yards allowed (27th) and red zone defense (28th).
The biggest 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 many snaps at slot cornerback, box safety, nickel/dime linebacker, free safety and outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence are valuable to the Chiefs – so valuable to the point where he is mainly used as the team’s middle hole defender in Cover Two zone and not a linebacker.
Opposite Mathieu is a combination of versatile playmakers in Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorenson (who “Spags” likes to use in man coverage against tight ends). The Chiefs’ other defensive backs are veterans Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton, and they will be on the field a lot on Sunday – as evidenced by Kansas City using dime formations on 35 percent of their plays last season, the third-highest figure in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive lineman in the league and is the linchpin of this group thanks to his combination of burst and power off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness and Derrick Nnadi and Jarran Reed are the team’s other starters in their front four. At linebacker Kansas City employs former Dallas Cowboy Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann (Niemann is usually the second-level defender in their sub-packages and will blitz from that alignment, especially on second down).
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.
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 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 (their blitz rate through three weeks so far is around 26 percent – down from 37.4 a year ago). 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.
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 helped tremendously, as evidenced by the Bills currently ranked first in pro football in points allowed (44 – the second fewest they’ve surrendered through four games in team annals), first downs allowed, yards allowed, red zone defense and takeaways (11). They also haven’t allowed a quarterback to throw for 250 yards in a game yet this season and held Washington and the Houston Texans to a combined third down conversion rate of just 15 percent.
Buffalo has shut out two of their first four opponents – just the third team since 1972 to do so (Baltimore in 2000 and Washington in 1991 were the others – both went on to win the Super Bowl). Additionally, they allowed just -23 net passing yards last week against Houston, the lowest number anyone’s recorded since 1999.
BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE
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 explosive attacks in pro football.
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 four touchdowns in his last three games and could be key to this matchup with the Chiefs having given up 6.5 catches and 85 yards per game to tight ends this year.
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 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 (that trend has continued in 2021, only Tampa Bay has thrown the ball on first down more than the Bills).
The Bills’ offensive line isn’t made up of slouches either. Composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano (who was replaced by Ike Boettger for last week’s game after sustaining a concussion), Mitch Morse, Cody Ford, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown, this unit can hold their own in pass protection and mainly execute outside zone runs almost exclusively to the left side of the line, 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.
The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced last season in losses to Kansas City and Tennessee and in Week One against Pittsburgh – 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. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Chiefs attempt a similar gameplan against an attack that has scored at least 35 points in six of their last seven games?
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Should Allen throw for 300 yards and rush for 50 again in the same game, he would join Steve Young (eight), Michael Vick (four), Newton (three) and Russell Wilson (three) as the only quarterbacks in the last 70 years to have more than two such games in their careers (Allen did so twice in the 2020 season alone).
- Allen has compiled 19 games with a passer rating of 100 or better. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 18-1.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 33-3 when leading at halftime.
- Hughes can tie Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with 1.5 on Sunday.
- Like the last two weeks against Ron Rivera and David Culley, this week will also be a reunion between McDermott and a former colleague. McDermott has a 1-2 career record against Reid, his former boss in Philadelphia from 1999-2010.
- Going into Week Five the Bills have the best point differential in the NFL at +90. They’re also tied for tops in turnover differential with the Dallas Cowboys at +7.
- Buffalo has compiled at least 300 yards of total offense in 14 consecutive games – the second-longest streak in franchise history.
- After defeating Davis Mills III last week against Houston, McDermott’s record against rookie quarterbacks now stands at 4-1 and he’s held them to a passer rating of just 66.8.
- 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 and open up space downfield for Hill and Hardman. Conversely, great speed down the field on post and go routes can also influence two-deep safety looks to create opportunities underneath for Kelce.
- Kansas City also uses 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?
- Last week’s outing against his old team, the Eagles, saw Reid become the first coach to win 100 games with two different franchises. It was also just the fourth game in NFL history with no punts.
- For his efforts against the Texans, Edmunds was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week.
- Stefon Diggs has notched 153 catches in his first 20 games as a Bill – which broke the league record for most receptions by a player in their first 20 games with any team. The former record (151) was set by Lionel Taylor of Denver between 1960-61.
- Mahomes has won 40 of his first 50 career games, joining Hall of Famer Ken Stabler as just the second quarterback to do so. He also set a league record last week with the most passing touchdowns (125) and passing yards (15,110) through 50 games.
- According to Chris Brown of buffalobills.com, this will be the ninth time in the last 10 years that there will be a rematch of the AFC title game from the previous season. The winner of the last eight rematches has reached the Super Bowl five times and won it four times.
- The Bills have been known to use mesh concepts (two wideouts running shallow crossing routes towards each other) along with Beasley with a longer crossing route in front to take advantage of zone defenses while using double post concepts from one side and a crosser by Diggs to beat man. Could they do this again against Kansas City?