Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Divisional Round 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.
One of the AFC’s divisional round games 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. 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.”
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 vertically, and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid along with red zone threat Byron Pringle and veteran Josh Gordon.
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 defensive backs and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers. Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020 and was his usual elite self in 2021.
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 and backups Darrell Williams and Jerick McKinnon are adept at hurting teams not just on the ground (mostly via run-pass options) but through the air as well, especially on screen passes.
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 three-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.
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. Early in the 2021 season Mahomes was still feeling the effects of a deteriorated front-five as he showed too much unnecessary movement both in and outside the pocket (due to anticipating pressure that wasn’t there), sloppy footwork and not playing within the timing and structure of Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy’s attack. He also wasn’t taking what defenses were giving him coverage-wise and was forcing plays down the field that didn’t need to be.
As the year has gone on though, Mahomes has settled down. His mechanics have improved and his coaches have incorporated more short and intermediate concepts like “smash” and “flood” – resulting in him being more decisive and his offense becoming more timing and rhythm-based and less vertical.
Kansas City has won five playoff games in a row at home and averaged 37.6 points per game in that stretch. Additionally, this Sunday will be the fifth playoff meeting where the all-time leader in passing yards per game will face the NFL’s best pass defense – the defense’s record is 3-1 in those games. Yet Mahomes is 15-1 in his career (including playoffs) against teams who are ranked in the top five in total defense, scoring defense or pass defense, and that lone loss was to Buffalo in Week Five.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE ON THE REBOUND
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.
The biggest key to Kansas City’s defense is former Arizona Cardinal and Houston Texan 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 duo 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, Rashad Fenton and DeAndre Baker, 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 unit thanks to his combination of burst and hand usage off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boasts elite quickness as well as former Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram, and Derrick Nnadi and Jarran Reed (who uses good power and leverage) 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).
Unlike their elite offensive counterparts, the results from this unit over the last three years have been uneven. 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 ranked 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions, Spagnuolo’s defense saw a downturn in 2021 – ending the year 27th against the pass, 21st against the run and fourth-last in sacks. However they were tied for 12th in interceptions and since Week Five Kansas City has cut their points-per-game average down from 32.6 to 17.1 – helping them win nine of their last 10 games.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE 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 among the league’s best.
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. 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 ranking first in pro football in total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, points allowed and third-down defense and third in takeaways and interceptions. It was the first time they had ever led the NFL in points allowed and the first time since 1999 they paced the league in total and passing yards given up. Their sack numbers, while not elite over the full season, have also picked up as they have notched 22 in their last five games (including playoffs), the most in the league.
A disturbing pattern 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 were gashed on the ground by power running teams. The biggest issue there was 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 more zone from Jackson, Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson than they ever have? Or will they use more man coverages against Kansas City as they did in Week Five? That remains to be seen.
What also bears watching is how they will pressure Mahomes. Twice in their last three matchups they haven’t blitzed him – no other team has played a full contest without sending an extra rusher once since 2016. In those games Mahomes didn’t fare as well, conversely he also performed better when blitzed.
BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT
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 2021 (and broke his own completion record this year along with the attempts mark).
Allen’s 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 continued into 2021 as the Bills averaged 28.4 points a game, the third-best best mark in the NFL. Allen was also seventh and eighth in the league in passing touchdowns and yards, respectively.
In last week’s game against the Patriots Allen took his game to new heights. He helped his offense become the first in league history to not punt, kick a field goal or commit a turnover in a single game while scoring touchdowns on every drive. Allen also set career-highs in passing touchdowns (five – the first quarterback to throw that many against Bill Belichick in the playoffs and the most ever by a Bill) and completion percentage (84) while helping the Bills score 47 points, the second-most they’ve ever had in a playoff game (51 in the 1990 AFC title game). He also had more passing touchdowns than incompletions – the first signal caller to do so since Kurt Warner in 2009.
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 and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with nine touchdowns, which tied him 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, Ryan Bates, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown (Ike Boettger, now out with a torn Achilles tendon, Jon Feliciano and Cody Ford 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 five 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 four 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). With 170 yards against the Jets and 174 last week, the Bills have had the second-best running game in football over the last month.
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 10 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.
But they also haven’t been perfect. Allen has thrown 12 picks in his last nine outings and turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only four times since then have the Bills had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween, at New England, Week 18 vs. New York and last week against the Patriots).
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 – will the Chiefs use a similar gameplan?
Another development to keep an eye on is that all five of Allen’s touchdowns last week came off play-action. The Chiefs’ defense has allowed the third-most passing yards from play-action, will the Bills take advantage of that?
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 25 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in eight of his last 15 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 23-2.
- With two rushing scores against Atlanta 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 regular season 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 35 or more passing scores and 4,000 passing yards in consecutive seasons (along with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes) and he became the first player ever with 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns and 750 rushing yards in a season, according to Stathead.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 40-4 when leading at halftime.
- Hughes moved past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks. He’s also had a sack in three straight playoff games, the second-longest streak in team annals behind Bruce Smith’s five.
- Including playoffs, all of Buffalo’s 12 wins in 2021 have been by 12 points or more, the most in franchise history and the first team to accomplish that feat since the 1999 Rams and 2007 Patriots. It’s also the first time they’ve had three straight winning seasons since 1991-93.
- Each of the Bills’ last 19 victories (postseason included) dating back to last year have been by 10 points or more – an NFL record.
- Buffalo was first in the NFL in point differential at +194. 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 were 0-5 in 2021 (only the 1985 San Francisco 49ers have also made the postseason with such a record, according to ESPN Stats & Info).
- Buffalo clinched the AFC East for the second straight year and secured a playoff berth for the fourth time in five years. It’s the first time since 1990-91 they’ve won the AFC East in consecutive years.
- 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 100 or more catches in consecutive years and surpassed Wes Welker (2007-08) for the most receptions in a player’s first two years with a team. He also scored his 10th touchdown, the second-most in a season in Bills annals (Bill Brooks had 11 in 1995).
- The Bills have punted in just one of their last four games.
- Buffalo was second in the NFL in sacks allowed but Allen was pressured 246 times in 2021, the most in the league.
- Saturday’s playoff game was the second-coldest game in franchise history as the temperature at kickoff was seven degrees with a minus-five windchill (Bills-Raiders in January of 1994 holds the record with zero at kickoff).
- Buffalo set multiple team records this year including highest point differential (+194), most first downs (398), most total yards (6,493) and average margin of victory (22.1 – the fourth highest since the merger).
- McDermott has a 2-2 career record against Reid, his former boss in Philadelphia from 1999-2010. Sunday will also be the fourth time in the last two years the two have squared off.
- 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 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?
- Buffalo is 13-3 all time at home in the playoffs (and have lost just once at Highmark Stadium – in 1996) while they are only 3-14 on the road. They also haven’t won a road playoff contest since the 1992 AFC Championship Game in Miami, since then they’ve lost their last six outings.