Welcome to Week 17 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’ 16th game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Atlanta Falcons. Here’s what you should know:

ATLANTA, GA – DECEMBER 26: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons hands off to Cordarrelle Patterson #84 against the Detroit Lions at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

ATLANTA TRYING TO RECREATE THE PAST OFFENSIVELY

New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith comes from the Tennessee Titans, where he called plays for one of the NFL’s better offenses over the last two years. Smith, a long-time assistant in the Music City, had replaced Matt LaFleur- now the head coach in Green Bay – as the Titans’ play-caller. Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams and McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.

Like his former colleagues, Smith has used a playbook that 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-style of offense 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.

It’s the same system that propelled quarterback Matt Ryan to his best season in 2016. Ryan, who played for Kyle Shanahan for two years, was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player that year while completing 69.9 percent of his passes, posting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 38:7 and leading Atlanta to a berth in Super Bowl LI. Now in his 14th season, the 36-year-old Ryan still has the talent to succeed at pro football’s highest level but unfortunately he doesn’t have the supporting cast he once had.

With new general manager Terry Fontenot having traded Ryan’s longtime running mate Julio Jones (one of the game’s most physical wideouts when healthy) to the Titans in the offseason, Atlanta’s top two targets in the passing game were expected to be Calvin Ridley and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. Ridley, a slightly smaller version of Jones, has become one of the better receivers in the NFL but played just five games in 2021 before taking time off to address his mental health. Pitts, one of the most talented tight ends to enter pro football in years, currently ranks second among all players at that position in receiving yards and can align anywhere in the formation (Hayden Hurst and former Bill Lee Smith are Pitts’ backups). Pitts’ versatility has also allowed him to become just the second rookie tight end with 900 or more receiving yards along with Mike Ditka.

After those two and veteran Russell Gage, the cupboard containing the Falcons’ skill position players is pretty bare – except at running back, where Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson are a compelling one-two punch. While Davis brings power and short-yardage ability to the table, Patterson has become a Swiss Army knife. A six-time All-Pro kick returner (and currently tied with Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington for the most kick returns for touchdowns in NFL history), Patterson has adjusted to a new role in the backfield and compiled over 1,500 all-purpose yards in 2021.

Beyond former Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Matthews and third-year right guard Chris Lindstrom the Falcons have an underwhelming offensive line, as they have allowed Ryan to be one of the most-sacked and hit quarterbacks in the NFL.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 03: Foyesade Oluokun #54 of the Atlanta Falcons tackles Taylor Heinicke #4 of the Washington Football Team in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

FALCONS’ DEFENSE MAKING ADJUSTMENTS TO NEW SCHEME

Coaching in the NFL is sort of like being in the mafia. As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather Part III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Such is the case with Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Having retired twice from coaching (first from the Baltimore Ravens and again from Tennessee), the well-traveled Pees has reunited with Smith in the Dirty South and brought his blitz-intensive 3-4 scheme to the ATL.

The problem, however, is the Falcons haven’t utilized the 3-4 since Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips were in town back in 2003. So predictably, there have been growing pains in getting used to the new playbook – as evidenced by Atlanta currently sitting 23rd in the NFL against the pass, 22nd against the run and dead-last in sacks – but there have been signs of growth with the team recording a takeaway in 11 straight games, the longest active streak in the league.

They do have some gifted players on that side of the ball though. Grady Jarrett has been one of the league’s most underrated defensive linemen for years and is a good run stuffer while Dante Fowler, while inconsistent, has flashed the ability to get after the quarterback as he posted 11.5 sacks as a member of the Los Angeles Rams two years ago.

The same goes for their second and third-level defenders. Deion Jones is one of the fastest linebackers in pro football and running mate Foye Oluokun is second in the NFL in tackles. Cornerback A.J. Terrell is a former first-round draft pick and former Patriot Duron Harmon possesses talent but has never quite put it together to be a consistent starting safety.

Foxborough, MA – December 26: New England Patriots Buffalo Bills Micah Hyde intercepts a tipped ball thrown by New England Patriots Mac Jones during second quarter NFL action. The New England Patriots host the Buffalo Bills in an NFL game on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via 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 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 total yards allowed, first in passing yards allowed, third in points allowed, third in takeaways and third in interceptions.

In fact, their 29 takeaways in 15 games are the most they’ve had since notching 29 through nine contests in 1993 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.

But a disturbing pattern has emerged on Buffalo’s defense, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills have gotten gashed by power running teams. That weakness was exposed yet again last Sunday when they allowed 149 yards on the ground to the Patriots. 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, and 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 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.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 26: Quarterback Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills looks over the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter of the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE BUT NOT PERFECT

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 third-best best mark in the NFL and Allen is third and seventh in the league in passing touchdowns and yards going into Week 17 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 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 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. This unit 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 (who brings shiftiness to the table), Zack Moss (power) and Matt Breida (speed and route running).

But the story has been different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they have been iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection (they’ve allowed sacks on nearly 14 percent of their dropbacks, one of the worst marks in the NFL). 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 – the third time all year they had run more than passed, a stark contrast to their heavy pass to run ratio in 2021 – but the ground game once again sputtered against New England 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.

Like their outings against the Saints and Jets, Buffalo tried to establish some semblance of a running game against Carolina and got one after recording 119 yards on 27 carries, with Singletary getting a season-high 86 yards on 22 carries. Ditto against New England a week ago with 114 total yards on the ground. A lack of success on the ground has been a recurring theme in the McDermott era – in fact, Allen has had just two running backs record 100 rushing yards or more in a game in his entire career (Singletary in 2019 against the Denver Broncos and Frank Gore the same year against the Pats).

As a result of the front five’s problems, Allen has thrown nine picks in his last six 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 last Sunday). But two 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 seven games, one of the best marks in pro football.

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 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.

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. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Falcons attempt a similar gameplan? And could Daboll continue 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.

Foxborough, MA – December 26: Bills Isaiah McKenzie celebrates with teammate Stefon Diggs after his touchdown in the first quarter. The New England Patriots host the Buffalo Bills in an NFL game on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via 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 13 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 23-2.
  • Allen’s also tied for fifth in franchise history in rushing touchdowns with Wray Carlton (29) and will tie Fred Jackson for fourth with his next one.
  • 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 season (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 nine 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 16 victories dating back to last year have been by 10 points or more – the longest streak in the NFL since the 1998-99 Rams.
  • Buffalo’s first in the NFL in point differential at +163. They’re also the only team in the NFL to rank in the top three 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 and company have won two in a row since Weeks Four and Five. He also has a chance of becoming the 22nd coach in league history with a .600 winning percentage through 80 games should he defeat Atlanta, according to the Niagara Gazette’s Jerry Sullivan.
  • A Buffalo victory will bolster their chances to win the AFC East should they run the table with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets on the docket.
  • This is the first time the Atlanta Falcons will travel to play in Highmark Stadium since 2005. The last time they were the road team against Buffalo was in 2013 – a game the Bills hosted in Toronto.
  • Davis has had four touchdowns in his last three games and in the four games where he’s played at least half of the offensive snaps Davis has either found the end zone or compiled 100 yards receiving.
  • 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.
  • Last Sunday was the first time the Bills had won in New England in back-to-back years since 1999 and 2000. No team had accomplished that feat since the 2005-06 Indianapolis Colts.
  • It was the first time in Bill Belichick’s career as a head coach, dating back to 1991, that his defense didn’t force an opposing team to punt. It was also the fifth time in Bills history that they didn’t punt in a game, and the outing gave Buffalo 400 points scored in back-to-back years for the second time ever (they had 428 and 458 in 1990 and ’91).

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, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. 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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