Welcome to Week Two 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’ second game of 2021 will take place at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida as they face the Miami Dolphins. Here’s what you should know:
MIAMI’S OFFENSE IS IN TRANSITION
Coming off a season where the roster lacked talent and their front office tanked for a better draft pick, the Miami Dolphins looked to take a step forward in 2020 and they did so by winning 10 games for just the third time since 2008. Owner Stephen Ross gave general manager Chris Grier – the brother of former Buffalo Sabres winger Mike Grier – the authority to build the team as he and head coach Brian Flores saw fit, and the acquisitions of some new blood have helped them.
Under Flores new faces have been a constant at one area for Miami – offensive coordinator. While the basis of Flores’ philosophy has stayed the same – the Erhardt-Perkins concepts that his former employer, the New England Patriots, have based their passing game around for more than 20 years – the man calling the plays has changed in all three of Flores’ years in South Beach. After trying out Chad O’Shea and Chan Gailey in 2019 and ’20, Flores decided to promote tight ends coach George Godsey (a former offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans) and running backs coach Eric Studesville to passing game and running game coordinator, respectively.
The issue of who would be the triggerman for Miami’s offense last year was a back-and-forth affair on a weekly basis between 38-year-old former Buffalo Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick and youngster Tua Tagovailoa. Whenever Tagovailoa would struggle in 2020, Flores would turn to Fitzpatrick for a spark off the bench. Since then, Tagovailoa, a rhythmic, precision passer and last year’s fifth-overall draft pick out of Alabama, has been given the starting job while former Patriot and Indianapolis Colt Jacoby Brissett was signed to be the new backup.
The Dolphins’ offense has become condensed and more basic to help ease Tagovailoa into life in the pros. Many of the routes that have been called for him by Godsey (and Gailey last year) have been short and intermediate to play to his strengths as an intelligent passer who can get the ball out on time, but not many shots down the field have been performed. Perhaps some of the power in his core has been taken away because of the horrific hip injury that he suffered while at Alabama in 2019, and Tagovailoa has been compensating for a lack of velocity.
Physical wide receiver DeVante Parker is Miami’s top target in the passing game and former Texan Will Fuller and rookie Jaylen Waddle were acquired in the spring to add a vertical element to Godsey’s play designs. Fuller, however, is out for Week Two, leaving backups Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant and Albert Wilson to pick up the slack.
6’6” tight end Mike Gesicki is a red zone threat and the running back position is led by third-year man Myles Gaskin. The Dolphin’s offensive line is made up of second-year pros Austin Jackson and Solomon Kindley, while veterans Michael Delter, Robert Hunt and Jesse Davis hold down the other three spots.
DOLPHINS’ DEFENSE ENJOYING A TURNAROUND
Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who worked together in New England, favor playing lots of Cover One – man coverage with a single-high safety over the top – and will occasionally mix in some Cover Three concepts (deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield). They also love to blitz, sending extra rushers at quarterbacks at the third-highest rate in the NFL last year (41.2 percent) out of multiple defensive fronts and will sometimes zone-blitz on third-down with a lot of disguise and late movement by their defensive backs at the snap.
Miami is led in their secondary by cornerbacks Xavien Howard (who led all NFL players in interceptions with 10 last year) and Byron Jones – who are one of the better outside corner pairs in the league – and nickel extraordinaire Justin Coleman and second-year pro Noah Igbinoghene man the slot. The team’s safeties are former Patriots Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty.
At linebacker the Dolphins employ former Patriot Elandon Roberts along with Andrew Van Ginkel, Jerome Baker and rookie Jaelan Phillips, and their best defensive linemen are journeyman Emmanuel Ogbah and former first-round pick Christian Wilkins.
These schemes and changes to their lineup allowed the Dolphins to be among the NFL’s leaders in takeaways and turnover margin in 2020. They’ve recorded a takeaway in each of their last 23 games – the longest streak in pro football – and Miami also went from dead-last in points allowed per game to among the best and were also among the league leaders in third-down and red zone defense.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN – AND GETTING REINFORCEMENTS
From 2018-19 the Bills’ defense became one of pro football’s elite outfits. Led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Levi Wallace and Jerry Hughes – and supplemented last year by the free agent signings of Mario Addison, Vernon Butler and A.J. Klein – 2019’s defense ranked third overall in the NFL. Additionally, they were 10th against the run, fourth against the pass, seventh-best on third down, 10th in sack percentage, 10th in interception rate, second in points allowed and 12th in sacks.
But at various times last season Buffalo’s defense struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole saw defensive play decline in 2020 but given the number of resources that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott poured into creating depth along the team’s front seven last offseason, it was jarring to see the Bills take too many penalties, create little in terms of a pass rush or be unable to fill gaps against the run.
Despite those issues, there was a turnaround on this side of the ball in the second half of the 2020 campaign. In their last 10 regular season games, Buffalo’s defense combined for 46 sacks and turnovers (27 quarterback takedowns and 19 takeaways) – contributing to the eighth-best takeaway total in the NFL. They also allowed just 18.3 points per game after the bye week and gave up just three points to Baltimore in the playoffs – the least they’ve allowed in a postseason game since 1992 against Pittsburgh.
The Bills’ defense was among the top 10 units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and are also in blitz rate (37.4 percent – although that number increased against Baltimore to 41.5 percent, resulting in four sacks and a pick-six by Taron Johnson). They mainly utilize nickel personnel – Buffalo used five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays, the most in the league – and held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 86.9 in the regular season, the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL.
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).
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 will inject a shot of youth behind the aging Hughes and Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is back to clog gaps against the run after opting out of 2020.
Buffalo’s defense will also need to turn their game up a notch against tight ends. Against Indy, Baltimore and Kansas City in the playoffs, the Colts’ tight ends (Jack Doyle, Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox), Mark Andrews of the Ravens and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce combined for 31 catches, 282 yards and three scores.
BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE
In 2019, the Bills’ inability to score points consistently – they averaged just 19.6 points per game – caught up to them in the playoffs against the Houston Texans. To address that problem, they went out and traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings.
Diggs is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His arrival 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, and their importation initially resulted in the Bills scoring 27 points or more in four consecutive games in 2020 – the first time they accomplished that feat since 2004.
Weeks Five and Six against Tennessee and Kansas City were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings last year. Third-year quarterback Josh Allen made some poor choices in the passing game – most of his struggles seemed to come when defenses would rotate their zone coverages and change the depth of their safeties at the snap, muddying what Allen was seeing from the pocket. He also stayed on his first read for too long sometimes and would often run if his first receiver in the progression wasn’t open.
Since then Allen became efficient and set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in one season. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become the second-best scoring offense in the league and the team averaged nearly 37 points a game after their bye week.
Additionally they scored 24 points or more in nine straight regular season games, which is tied for the longest active streak in pro football with the Green Bay Packers, equaled an NFL record with 13 players catching a touchdown and recorded at least 20 first downs in every game in 2020 – just the second team ever to do so in a full season (2012 New England Patriots). In fact, Buffalo tied Kansas City for the league lead in first downs with 397 – all while playing more than half of their games against defenses who finished in the top 10 in total yards allowed, passing yards given up and points surrendered.
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.
Though the ball was flying through the air with ease, the same couldn’t be said about the ground game. Due to Jon Feliciano and Mitch Morse being in and out of the lineup because of injuries and a lack of consistency along their front five, Buffalo’s starting offensive line was compromised for the first half of 2020 and they struggled to create any sort of consistent push along the line of scrimmage – hence Daboll and McDermott’s preference to rotate offensive linemen until a consistent front five is found. That rotation will likely continue after an opening game performance against Pittsburgh which saw the team convert just once on four trips to the red zone and the front five allowed three sacks and take six holding calls.
Those problems, plus a recent trend of utilizing outside zone runs almost exclusively to the left side of the line, resulted in one of the NFL’s most inconsistent rushing attacks. The offensive line and backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss racked up 172 yards against the Chargers via runs on zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts and draw plays, but didn’t have the same success on the ground against San Francisco or Pittsburgh. The running game did pick up steam over a four-week stretch as the Bills combined for 486 yards on the ground and seven rushing touchdowns against Denver, New England, Miami and Indianapolis, but was non-existent against Baltimore and Kansas City.
Last week the Steelers changed their tactics from what they tried a year ago against Buffalo. In 2020, Pittsburgh threw multiple blitzes at Allen and mainly used man coverage – and were shredded in the process. On Sunday they blitzed just once and leaned on zone coverage with a lot of stunts from their defensive line with mixed fronts and late movement in their secondary. This approach held Allen in check as he completed just 58 percent of his passes and compiled a passer rating of just 79.7. Could Miami take a page out of Pittsburgh’s playbook? And if so, how will the Bills respond?
STATS AND MUSINGS
- McDermott has 38 regular season wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and moved past Chuck Knox into third place in franchise history. Only Marv Levy and Lou Saban have more.
- The Bills like to use a passing concept called “Jalapeno”, which is a two-by-two set with a pair of post patterns on one side and a deep dig route on the other. Will they continue to use it against Miami?
- Could the Dolphins use post-wheel combinations against Buffalo? They’re good routes to use against Cover Three and quarters coverage because it sends two receivers through a zone.
- Allen has thrown for 43 touchdowns and no interceptions in his career near the end zone.
- 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).
- Since 2017 the Bills are 30-2 when leading at halftime.
- Hughes can tie Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with 1.5 on Sunday.
- The Bills’ 56 points in Week 17 against Miami last year were the second-most in a game in team history, behind the 58 they scored against Miami in Week Three of 1966. They’ve also won their last five matchups with the Dolphins.
- The last team that didn’t turn the ball over against Miami was Buffalo in a matchup against them in November 2019. The Bills won that game 37-20.
- Allen is 5-1 in his career against Miami having thrown 17 touchdowns and just four picks.
- Look for the Bills to use multiple crossing routes on Sunday along with reduced splits along the formation to beat the Dolphins’ patented man coverage.