Welcome to Week Four 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’ fourth game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Houston Texans. Here’s what you should know:
TEXANS’ OFFENSE REBUILDING WITHOUT WATSON
The Houston Texans are a much different squad now compared to the last time the Bills faced them in the 2019 playoffs. Gone is head coach Bill O’Brien, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and multiple other players – in fact, just five starters remain from the Texans roster that defeated the Bills in overtime of that wildcard game.
No position, however, has seen as much change in Houston than quarterback. Once led by one of the NFL’s best young signal callers in Deshaun Watson, that is no longer the case after multiple sexual assault charges were levied against Watson this past offseason. The combination of his legal problems plus his trade request from the dysfunctional Texans has resulted in Watson being deactivated every week, forcing new head coach David Culley – the Bills’ former quarterbacks coach from 2017-18 – to turn to his former Buffalo protégé in Tyrod Taylor to hold down the fort in the meantime.
Unfortunately for Taylor, he won’t get the chance to play against the team he led for three years as he will miss a second straight game with a hamstring injury. His understudy is rookie Davis Mills III, a third-round draft pick out of Stanford who will be making just the second start of his career, and – like Taylor Heinicke a week ago – will be starting in his first road game in the NFL in Buffalo.
Mills does have some upside to his game. A poised pocket quarterback with a solid arm whose game is based off rhythm and timing, he displayed some good vision last week against the Carolina Panthers despite limited playing experience. Which makes him a fit in offensive coordinator Tim Kelly’s system, which over the last several years was based on the New England Patriots’ scheme (one that relies on matchups, option routes and wideouts working against the positioning of opposing defenders).
One concept that Houston loves to use in their passing game is using post-dig combinations to conflict safeties on deep routes, and they will also use two posts from one side and a deep crossing route on the backside against two deep safeties. Even though Mills – and Taylor and Watson before them – doesn’t have the strongest arm, he can execute these well-designed plays with anticipation and accuracy.
The Texans have multiple veterans at running back in Mark Ingram II, David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay in particular is underrated. A short, sturdy back who has good balance and vision, he can take a pounding between the tackles and is also capable of making plays in the passing game.
These backs operate behind a running game which involves pulling guards, tackles and tight ends, and Houston’s zone-read game keeps defenses on edge. Executing blocks on the offensive line are Max Scharping, Justin Britt, former first-round pick Tytus Howard, ex-Patriot Marcus Cannon and Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil is athletic and – aside from perhaps the 49ers’ Trent Williams – might be the league’s best offensive tackle in getting out to the perimeter to block for screens.
Mills’ targets in the passing game are the speedy but injury-prone Brandin Cooks and journeymen Danny Amendola, Chris Conley, Anthony Miller and former Bill Andre Roberts (Amendola is out for Sunday’s game with a thigh injury). Pharaoh Brown and Jordan Akins are Houston’s tight ends.
Given all the changes to their offense, one would expect Houston to struggle mightily. Which they have, especially in the second half of games, as they have scored just 20 points in three games (29th in the NFL) and converted just once on nine third-down chances last week. Yet in the first half the Texans have compiled 47 points – the seventh-best mark of anyone, which is just four points less than Buffalo has scored.
HOUSTON’S DEFENSE ALSO UNDERGOING CHANGES
Like their counterparts on offense, the Texans’ defense is also missing numerous players and coaches who have helped the team in years past. Among others, J.J. Watt – one of three players in league history (Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald are the others) to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press three times – is now an Arizona Cardinal and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is now an advisor to general manager Nick Caserio.
The man calling the shots on defense now is Lovie Smith, who spent the last five years guiding the University of Illinois after a combined 11 years as head coach of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Smith, a longtime proponent of the fabled Cover Two-zone, has stuck to his guns in Houston and has employed that coverage enough in 2021 to the point where his team leads the NFL in usage in Cover Two.
Smith’s pass rush is spearheaded by end Whitney Mercilus, a 10-year veteran who is the team’s longest tenured player. He, along with Ross Blacklock, Maliek Collins and Charles Omenihu, make up the Texans’ defensive line.
At linebacker Houston employs speedster Zach Cunningham, who, along with Blacklock, is out for Sunday’s game after being placed on the team’s COVID-19 list. He along with the well-traveled Christian Kirksey and Kamu Grugler-Hill typically anchor this defense’s second level. On the back end, inconsistent cornerback Bradley Roby was traded to the New Orleans Saints before the start of the season – leaving former Buccaneer Vernon Hargreaves, Desmond King II and Terrance Mitchell on the perimeter while Justin Reid and Eric Murray are the starters at safety.
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 fourth in pro football in points and yards allowed. They also haven’t allowed a quarterback to throw for 250 yards in a game yet this season, are third in takeaways with six, surrendered just 78 yards rushing last week and held Washington to a third down conversion rate of just 18 percent.
What bears watching is how reserve safety Jaquan Johnson will perform in the absence of Poyer, who will sit due to an ankle injury. Will McDermott and Frazier use as many pre-snap coverage disguises as they normally do? If so, they’ll feel as if Johnson can handle it.
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.
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 will be replaced by Ike Boettger for Sunday’s game after sustaining a concussion), Mitch Morse, Cody Ford and Daryl Williams, 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. They also incorporated some trap plays last week against Washington.
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 Houston attempt a similar gameplan against an attack that has scored at least 35 points in five of their last six 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 became the Bills’ all-time leader in rushing touchdowns amongst quarterbacks, breaking a tie with Jack Kemp with the 27th of his career last week. He also accounted for his 100th total career touchdown in just his 47th game in the NFL – only Patrick Mahomes (39), Dan Marino (43), Watson (44) and Kurt Warner (46) accomplished the feat in less games.
- It was the fifth game of Allen’s career in which he threw for at least 300 yards and four scores – surpassing Jim Kelly for the most in Bills history. Additionally, he became just the fourth passer with multiple games of 300 yards, four passing scores and one rushing touchdown, joining Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
- For those efforts Allen was named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week for the seventh time in his four years in Buffalo.
- Milano is tied for the league lead in tackles for a loss (six) with Denver’s Von Miller and paces the NFL in fumble recoveries with two.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 32-3 when leading at halftime.
- Hughes can tie Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with 1.5 on Sunday.
- Since the Bills lost to Washington in Super Bowl XXVI back in January of 1992, they have owned them by winning eight of their last nine meetings, including last Sunday. In fact, Washington hasn’t won in Orchard Park since Week Eight of the 1987 season, and their last six games in Buffalo – all losses – have been by double digits.
- Like last week against Ron Rivera, this week will also be a reunion between McDermott and a former colleague. Culley, who is the oldest first-time head coach in league history at 66, worked with McDermott not just in Buffalo, but also with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2010 under Andy Reid.
- Going into Week Four the Bills are tied with the Denver Broncos for the NFL’s best point differential at +50. They’ve outscored their opponents 94-44.
- Beasley is tied for the AFC lead and is third in the league in catches with 23.
- Buffalo has compiled at least 300 yards of total offense in 13 consecutive games – the second-longest streak in franchise history.