Welcome to the 2020 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 Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, as the Buffalo Bills will face the Baltimore Ravens. Here’s what you should know:

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – DECEMBER 20: Quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with head coach John Harbaugh following a touchdown drive during the third quarter of their game at M&T Bank Stadium on December 20, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

RAVENS WILL RUN, RUN AND RUN SOME MORE

Before the 2019 season began, longtime Ravens head coach John Harbaugh promoted former Bills and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman to replace the outgoing Marty Mornhinweg. Roman was charged with maximizing the talent at his disposal and he has more than done so by helping quarterback Lamar Jackson win the league’s Most Valuable Player award last year.

Jackson had a lot of questions going into last year’s draft but most of those concerns have been answered, and in a hurry. According to Bucky Brooks of nfl.com, “As a passer, Jackson has shown tremendous progress in his second season. He has significantly improved his completion rate and passer rating while displaying a better overall feel for the game from the pocket. He’s at his best throwing the ball down the seams or on in-breaking routes between the numbers on traditional dropbacks and play-action passes. Although he remains a work in progress on throws to the outside, the Ravens have built their offense around the strengths of his game and by allowing him to be himself.”

Although Baltimore’s offense is West Coast-based, Jackson isn’t quite at the level needed in order to execute some of the scheme’s more complicated pass designs just yet. Thus the Ravens have created defined reads for him through clever usage of offensive sets, play-action and simple route concepts in order to give him confidence right off the bat. Those passes are typically thrown to wide receivers like speedsters Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin, and veterans Willie Snead IV and Dez Bryant.

Used even more so than their receivers are tight ends Mark Andrews, Eric Tomlinson and Nick Boyle. Any combination of those three will be on the field at any given time, as the Ravens are one of the league leaders in usage of 12 (one back, two tight ends), 22 (two backs, two tight ends) and 13 (one back, three tight ends) personnel. But they aren’t just weapons in the passing game – they’re also utilized heavily on the ground as blockers for Jackson and running backs J.K. Dobbins, Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and Patrick Ricard. Boyle, however, was lost for the remainder of 2020-21 with multiple leg injuries.

Roman had experience working with mobile quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick and had previously installed successful concepts for both of his former signal-callers like jet sweeps, zone-read options, triple options, quarterback counters and RPOs. Jackson used those same ideas and took them to another level in 2019, as he shattered Michael Vick’s league record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback and became the first passer in NFL history to run for more than 1,000 yards and throw for 35 or more touchdowns.

The Ravens were also the first team to average 200 rushing and passing yards per game in one campaign and set a new standard for rushing yardage in a season with 3,296. 2020 saw many of the same results, as Jackson became the first signal caller to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive years and ran for 136 yards and a score last week against the Titans – just the second quarterback to do so in a playoff game (Kaepernick was the first). Baltimore also ran 3,071 yards this season – the first team ever to accumulate 3,000 yards in back-to-back years – and has totaled 889 yards on the ground in their last three games, including their playoff victory a week ago.

Baltimore’s offensive line is characterized by man-blocking, pulling guards and power runs, and its best players are stalwarts Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. Unfortunately for the Ravens Stanley won’t participate in the postseason as he deals with various ankle ailments, prompting the team to sign veteran D.J. Fluker.

The red-hot Ravens have won six games in a row and they also scored 468 points this season – the second-best figure in team history behind last year’s mark of 531.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – DECEMBER 27: Cornerback Marlon Humphrey #44 of the Baltimore Ravens breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Austin Mack #81 of the New York Giants during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 27, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE’S DEFENSE STILL A TOP-TEN UNIT

Traditionally the more-discussed unit on their team thanks to legendary coaches and players on that side of the ball, Baltimore’s defense is being overshadowed for once. Not to be outdone by their counterparts on offense, the Ravens’ defense continues to be one of the better ones in football as they finished the regular season second in the league in points allowed, sixth against the pass and eighth against the run. They also blitz at a league-high rate of 44 percent of their snaps and mostly do so on overload and fire zone rushes out of single-high coverage looks – helping them lead the NFL in forced fumbles (25) and fumbles returned for touchdowns (three) and finish second in fumbles recovered (12).

Coordinated by Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens have never been lacking in talent among their front seven and this year has been no exception. Defensive linemen Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe are solid run-stuffers and former Pro Bowler Yannick Ngakoue, Pernell McPhee, Matthew Judon and Jaylon Ferguson are the team’s best pass rushers. Rookie Patrick Queen and L.J. Fort are their inside linebackers and can cover and stop the run with ease. These were the main catalysts behind the team holding All-Pro running back Derrick Henry to just 40 yards on the ground last week against Tennessee.

Baltimore’s secondary is as talented as ever, especially at cornerback. Gambling ballhawk Marcus Peters’ presence has given Martindale options on how to deploy Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Tramon Williams (lately Humphrey has been used in the slot while Peters and Smith line up outside). All can execute man and zone coverages well, and Humphrey led the team in stripped balls with eight – the second-most any defensive back has had in the last 30 years (Charles Tillman had 10 in 2012). Safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are moved around often in pre-snap disguises.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – JANUARY 09: Matt Milano #58 of the Buffalo Bills during a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Bills Stadium on January 9, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN

Over the last two years, the Bills’ defense became one of pro football’s elite units. Led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Ed Oliver and Jerry Hughes – and supplemented this year by the free agent signings of Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, A.J. Klein and Josh Norman – last year’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 throughout this 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 amount 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 and create little in terms of a pass rush or be unable to fill gaps against the run. The underachievers mostly were Buffalo’s defensive tackles – namely Oliver. Oliver had a slow start to 2020 and struggled to win matchups at the line of scrimmage against the run, allowing players like Edmunds to get blocked too often.

Despite those issues, there has been a turnaround on this side of the ball lately. 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.

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 – for more info on McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s unit, please read: https://fromthe300level.com/2018/08/pressure-package-how-the-late-buddy-ryan-has-influenced-the-buffalo-bills-defenses-for-over-20-years/?fbclid=IwAR3iYcnJ5qvl8shWHkZJVNO50VJXPeaEx8k0-Rk1VWV_Qx2OEfsAn2NY_ys).

The Bills’ defense is 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). They mainly utilize nickel personnel – they’ve 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 – the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL.

However, Baltimore will present an entirely different challenge. Given how often they hand the ball off, in their Week 14 matchup last year Buffalo went away from their base nickel package to a 4-3 “stack” alignment with their linebackers playing inside of the defensive line and kept their safeties near the line of scrimmage. Jackson was rarely allowed to escape outside the pocket and was held to just 40 yards on the ground.

Buffalo’s defense will also need to turn their game up a notch against a Ravens offense that loves using tight ends. Against Indy last week the Colts’ tight ends (Jack Doyle, Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox) combined for 14 catches for 136 yards and one score, and Edmunds, Milano and company weren’t effective in man coverage against them. Will the Bills use a similar scheme this week, or will they go back to what made them successful against Baltimore last year?

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 09: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills signals during the fourth quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at Bills Stadium on January 09, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)

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. Diggs’ arrival along with physical rookie Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting deep threat John Brown and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Their importation initially resulted in the Bills scoring 27 points or more in four consecutive games – the first time they accomplished that feat since 2004.

Weeks Five and Six were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings of 2020. 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 has been efficient and productive and has 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 have allowed Buffalo to become the second-best scoring offense in the league and the team has averaged nearly 37 points a game since their bye week.

Additionally, they scored 24 points or more in nine straight 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 have also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly this season – 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 throwing 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.

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 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 the last four weeks as the Bills combined for 486 yards on the ground along with seven rushing touchdowns against Denver, New England, Miami and Indianapolis.

The Ravens come to town with an aggressive defense and luckily for the Bills, they have experience in handling defenses who have a high-blitz rate. Last year against Baltimore they had five or more rushers attack Allen on 69 percent of his snaps, and Allen was the most-blitzed quarterback in the NFL this season.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 09: Andre Roberts #18, Stefon Diggs #14, Josh Allen #17, and Dion Dawkins #73 of the Buffalo Bills celebrate after Stefon Diggs scored a touchdown during the fourth quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at Bills Stadium on January 09, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • 1. Diggs became the first Bills wide receiver ever to lead the league in catches and yards over a full season and was the first Bills wideout to be named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press. His 127 receptions were the sixth-most all time. Allen, Beasley, White and Andre Roberts were named second team All-Pro.
  • 2. Diggs recorded six receptions for 128 yards and a touchdown last week against Indianapolis, becoming just the second wideout to have at least 125 yards and one or more score in a playoff game with two teams (Jerry Rice). Diggs posted similar numbers in 2017 with Minnesota.
  • 3. Allen is now the only quarterback in league history with at least 4,500 passing yards, 35 or more passing touchdowns and eight rushing scores. He also became the only signal caller to pass for 300 or more yards, rush for 50-plus yards and complete 70 percent of his passes in a playoff game.
  • 4. Buffalo ended the season with 501 points and surpassed the 1991 squad (458 points) as the highest-scoring team in franchise history. They also accumulated 6,343 yards, breaking the ’91 team’s franchise standard (6,252).
  • 5. McDermott has 38 wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and has moved past Chuck Knox into third place in franchise history. Only Marv Levy and Lou Saban have more.
  • 6. The Bills won 13 games (6-2 on the road, 7-1 at home) for the first time since 1991 and tied the team record for wins in a season set by the 1990 and ’91 squads. Including playoffs, the Bills have now won seven in a row.
  • 7. Buffalo punted the football just 41 times in the regular season, which is a team record (the old franchise standard for a 16-game season is 54 in 1991) and became just the third team ever to punt less than 42 times in a season (1990 Houston Oilers, 2019 Baltimore Ravens). However, they punted four times last week against the Colts – likely due to poor starting field position (their average was their own 15-yard line – their worst mark this season).
  • 8. Helping keep that punt number low was Buffalo’s third-down conversion rate – 49.7 percent – which was the best figure in the league. Meanwhile, Baltimore has the second-best third down defense in football, allowing teams to convert just 34 percent of the time.
  • 9. Tyler Bass’s 141 points in 2020 surpassed Steve Christie’s team mark for points in a season (140) set back in 1998. He also tied the team record last week for the longest field goal in postseason history – set by Christie in Super Bowl XXVIII – and it was the longest field goal by a rookie in league playoff history.
  • 10. Roberts led the NFL in kick return average and helped the Bills lead the league in team kick return average (27.6 yards per return). Fellow special teamer Corey Bojorquez paced all punters in gross punting average with a mark of 50.8 and was fifth in net punting average.
  • 11. Buffalo capped off a 96-yard drive near the end of the first half against Indianapolis with a touchdown run by Allen – the longest postseason touchdown drive in franchise history.
  • 12. At one point Allen completed 12 passes in a row – also a team playoff record. The previous standard was nine, set by Jim Kelly in Super Bowl XXVIII.
  • 13. Buffalo won their first postseason contest since 1995 and is looking to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1993. That last playoff win came against the Dolphins, where the Bills set a playoff record for rushing yards (341 yards) and was Don Shula’s last game as Miami’s head coach before he retired.
  • 14. Tonight will be the 12th time two quarterbacks from the same draft class will play against each other in the postseason, and it’s also the fourth time in league history that two signal callers under the age of 25 will face off in the Divisional Round (1985, Cleveland at Miami – Bernie Kosar vs. Dan Marino – 2000, New Orleans at Minnesota – Aaron Brooks vs. Daunte Culpepper – 2019, Houston at Kansas City – Deshaun Watson vs. Patrick Mahomes). Additionally, this will be the first primetime playoff game the Bills will host in their history.
  • 15. 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 Baltimore?

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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