Welcome to Week Six 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’ sixth game of 2021 will take place at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, as they face the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what you should know:
THERE IS A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
Titans coach Mike Vrabel has taken bits and pieces from his former coaches as a player (Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Dean Pees and Jim Haslett) and his current and former colleagues (Haslett, Pees and Crennel) to build his own sound defensive scheme. The difference between Vrabel and most of the Belichick coaching tree, however, is that the former likes to blitz a bit more than the latter.
With stalwarts like Bud Dupree, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry and Jeffery Simmons at his disposal, Vrabel typically wants to turn his pass rushers loose and have defensive backs who can hold up in man and zone coverage long enough for his front-seven to get to quarterbacks. But after a downturn in their pass defense a year ago, Vrabel and company decided to revamp their secondary. Out went guys like Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, Desmond King and Kenny Vaccaro, and their replacements include rookie Caleb Farley, gambling ballhawk Janoris Jenkins (who is susceptible to getting beat on double moves) and internal options like Kristian Fulton and Dane Cruikshank. The linchpin of the Titans’ back end is the multi-faceted Kevin Byard, who can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz.
Despite all the changes on this side of the ball, the Titans have continued to give up lots of yardage both on the ground and through the air. They finished the 2020 regular season allowing the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL, accumulated just 19 sacks (the third-worst mark in the league), gave up a shade over 27 points a game and were just 19th against the run. 2021 hasn’t been much better, as Tennessee ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in points allowed (24th) and against the pass (21st) and is in the middle of the pack against the run (16th).
The Titans utilize a lot of dime personnel and zone blitzes with cornerbacks rushing from the boundary, and they especially like to pair those blitzes with Cover Two principles and coverage rotations (with cornerbacks dropping to safety depth and safeties dropping down to replace corners underneath). Tennessee also loves using man coverage with a single high safety (Cover One) in the red zone – where they have struggled mightily the last two seasons. Will Vrabel change things up or will they remain true to themselves?
THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Todd Downing, who previously served as tight ends coach while Arthur Smith (now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons) called the team’s plays. Ironically, before Smith was promoted to Tennessee’s play-caller he also coached the team’s tight ends while Matt LaFleur- now the head coach in Green Bay – ran Vrabel’s offense. Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur was Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. 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, Downing 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.
Two years ago former Miami Dolphin Ryan Tannehill replaced the inconsistent Marcus Mariota as the Titans’ man under center and promptly responded with career-highs in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards-per-attempt (9.6), touchdown to interception ratio (22 to six) and quarterback rating (117.5). After signing a contract extension Tannehill’s results were more of the same in 2020, completing 65.5 percent of his passes with 33 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 106.5. Those numbers have seen a dip so far in 2021, however, as Tannehill has thrown for just six scores in his first five games.
Tannehill has some good weapons to work with. Even though he lacks great quickness, running back Derrick Henry boasts an abundance of speed, power and strength in his game – allowing him to become just the eighth tailback ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a season last year. Third-year standout A.J. Brown and five-time All-Pro Julio Jones (acquired in a trade with Atlanta in the summer) give Tennessee perhaps the most physical one-two punch at wideout in pro football, and tight end has become a revolving door in recent years as the combination of Geoff Swaim and Anthony Firkser currently man the position once held down by Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith. But the Titans haven’t had much continuity among their pass catchers in 2021, as Brown and Jones have each dealt with various ailments and missed playing time. Brown is questionable for Monday’s game with an illness.
Tennessee’s offensive line is made up of three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan, former Ram Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and David Quessenberry. The group – and the offense as a whole – has come under fire a bit this year for their downturn in pass protection, as they’ve given up 20 sacks through five games (the most in the NFL) and they’ve struggled in the red zone (26th in touchdown percentage) and on third down (20th).
The Titans usually align in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) to give the opposition the threat of a run on every play, and one of their staple concepts out of that grouping is a play-action pass with a slant on the backside of the play (usually executed by Brown) and an option route being run on the other by Jones. Depending on the type of coverage he might see in front of him, Jones will execute either an out or a corner pattern. The read by Tannehill is an outside linebacker – if he reacts hard to the illusion of a run, Tannehill will throw to Brown, if not he’ll throw to Jones. Will we see this more given the aggressive nature of Buffalo’s defense?
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 (although they didn’t blitz Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs once last week on 56 dropbacks and leaned on man coverage with two deep safeties). 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 first in pro football in points allowed, yards allowed, red zone defense and takeaways. They’re also second against the pass, third against the run, fifth in third down defense and fifth in sacks, and the extra depth has helped the Bills come at the opposition in waves and stay fresh – Buffalo had nine defensive linemen account for at least 20 snaps last week.
Buffalo shut out two of their first four opponents – just the third team since 1972 to do so (Baltimore in 2000 and Washington in 1991 were the others – both went on to win the Super Bowl). Additionally, they allowed just -23 net passing yards against Houston, the lowest number anyone’s recorded since 1999.
This week’s matchup against Tennessee will be vastly different from other teams they’ve squared off against. Given how often the Titans run the ball compared to their past opponents, could the Bills use more base packages with an extra linebacker or “big” nickel with an extra safety on the field instead of a cornerback? This bears watching.
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, and that success has continued into 2021 as the Bills have scored a franchise-record 172 points through five games (breaking the old mark of 165 in 1964).
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. Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with five touchdowns in his last four games and could be key to this matchup with the Titans’ pass defense struggling.
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. Yet the Bills did a complete 180 degree turn last week as they relied on 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) on 19 snaps against the Chiefs, the fifth-most of any team this season.
The Bills’ offensive line isn’t made up of slouches either. Composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown, 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.
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 before the snap. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Titans attempt a similar gameplan against an attack that has scored at least 35 points in seven of their last eight games?
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Last week Allen joined Steve Young (eight), Michael Vick (four), Cam Newton (three) and Russell Wilson (three) as the only quarterbacks in the last 70 years to have more than two such games of 300 passing yards and 50 rushing yards in their careers (Allen did so twice in 2020 alone). Allen’s also only one rushing score behind Newton (28) for the most by a quarterback in his first 50 games.
- Allen has compiled 20 games with a passer rating of 100 or better. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 19-1. He’s also 578 yards away from passing Ryan Fitzpatrick for fourth in team history in passing yards.
- Buffalo’s quarterback is the only one to ever have 11,000 passing yards, 1,700 rushing yards and 100 or more scores on the ground and through the air. He’s also had 194 straight trips to the red zone without throwing an interception – the third-longest streak since 1991 (only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning had longer stretches of play with 242 and 217, respectively)
- Since 2017 the Bills are 34-3 when leading at halftime. They’ve also had a lead at halftime in 14 straight games, a league record.
- Hughes can tie Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Monday.
- Last week was just the third time in 51 career games that Mahomes was held to scoring 20 points or less.
- Going into Week Six the Bills have the best point differential in the NFL at +108, the sixth highest through five games since 1970. They can become the fifth team in the Super Bowl era to score 200 points and allow less than 100 through six games (the 2007 New England Patriots, 1999 St. Louis Rams, 1996 Green Bay Packers and 1968 Dallas Cowboys also accomplished the feat).
- Speaking of the ’96 Packers, no team has finished a season leading the league in scoring offense and defense since they did the deed. The Bills currently are tops in the NFL in both categories.
- For his efforts against the Chiefs Rousseau was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week – the second straight week a Bill received the honor (Edmunds won it the week before) and the first time a Bills rookie took home the award since Bennett in 1987.
- Buffalo has scored 35 points or more in four straight games – tied for the franchise record (2004). If they achieve the feat again, they will join the 2013 Denver Broncos (six), 2000 Rams (six) and the 1949 Philadelphia Eagles (five) as they only teams to do so in five straight outings in NFL history.
- According to Chris Brown of buffalobills.com, Henry is tied with Joe Morris and Adrian Peterson with five games of at least 100 rushing yards and three touchdowns for the third-most by a player in his first six seasons. The only two backs to have more are LaDanian Tomlinson (nine) and Shaun Alexander (six). He’s also accumulated 4,792 yards and 40 scores in his last 40 games – the most ever by a tailback in a 40-game stretch – and is on pace for 482 carries this year.
- Yet Henry has never eclipsed 80 yards on the ground in his three games against Buffalo. He’s also averaged just 3.82 yards-per-carry.
- This is the fourth year in a row the Bills and Titans will meet and the second straight year the two teams will face each other in primetime.
- Titans punter and Grand Island native Brett Kern will not play on Monday night after landing on the team’s COVID-19 list. He will be replaced by Johnny Townsend, who will try and direct a Titans punt team that is allowing a league-worst 14 yards per return. On the flip side, return man Chester Rogers leads the league in yards per return with 13.3.
- Knox became the first Bills tight end with 100 receiving yards and a touchdown in a game since Pete Metzelaars in week two of the 1992 season.