Know Your Enemy: Buffalo Bills Defense
This offseason, the Bills moved on from Head Coach Chan Gailey after he posted a disappointing 33% win percentage over three seasons. His replacement is veteran position coach Doug Marrone. Marrone brought on his own set of coordinators, namely OC Nathiel Hackett and DC Mike Pettine.
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The resemblance of Pettine’s defenses to the Ravens style is no coincidence. He spent the years between 2002 and 2008 as a part of the Ravens defensive coaching faction (there is an incredible presentation of his defensive approach while with the Ravens posted here). Taking over the Bills defense presents Pettine with a formidable challenge, as their defense in 2012 was ranked 27th in the league in Defensive DVOA as measured by Football Outsiders. Pettine’s first step was to transition from the Bills 4-3 to his own style of 3-4.
Transitioning defensive schemes often translates into bringing in free agents or using draft picks to fill new positions of need rather than simply filling the holes the team already has (which presumably led to the change in coaching staff). The reality for this Buffalo defense, however, is that they were more prepared than most for this transition from a personnel standpoint. I dug into their defensive depth and watched film from their last two games to determine how they perform as a unit.
A true 3-4…sort of
With many teams using hybrid schemes with both 3-4 and 4-3 elements (Patriots, Ravens, Texans), there are few teams who still use a standard 3-4 approach. Pettine’s offense relies on old-school 3-4 principles, namely a 2-gapping front seven as a base. The following play gives me a good chance to talk about the Bill’s personnel and their general approach in base:
“Okie” Front against an unbalanced O-line
The Buffalo defense is aligned in their base 3-4 including 2-gapping studs Alan Branch and Kyle Williams to anchor the defensive front alongside outside rush specialist Mario Williams (whose true fit was never in a 4-3) and free agent acquisition Manny Lawson on the strong side. Occupying the inside backer roles are Arthur Moats and rookie Kiko Alonzo.
The Jets have RB Bilal Powell taking the direct snap in a Wildcat set. A WR is in “Jet” motion and Powell will fake the hand-off and look for inside daylight (this play can become a simple Inverted Veer but there was never any indication Powell would ever give the hand-off).
Powell starts to move forward (after the fake) and the Bills have all five men on the line of scrimmage two-gapping. The idea here is to control a blocker while reading the ball carrier and maintaining the ability to shed and make a tackle in either of your gap responsibilities. The Bills excel at doing this and it plugs up a lot of space in the middle.
I’ve highlighted rookie LB Kiko Alonzo because this single play is a microcosm of his approach to stopping the run. He plays with a very wide base and he often attempts to evade blocks rather than engage head-on. In the above image, he is reading the ball carrier while avoiding a Nick Mangold block.
The defensive front three have all begun to shed their blocks as Powell reaches the line of scrimmage. Kyle Williams is the closest to the runner and will squeeze down to make the tackle. Williams is a force in the middle with violent hands.
Alonzo, in this image, has successfully avoided Nick Mangold and will assist with the tackle as well. Patience and evasion are a risky tactical combination for a linebacker. Alonzo is impressively athletic but he too often takes himself out of plays after trying to run around a blocker rather than stacking and shedding.
I continue to praise the Bills run defense, yet they allowed 182 yards rushing against the Jets (with Bilal Powell gaining 149 of them). What leads to this discrepancy in tape study vs. rushing yards? I am not backing down on my assertion that the Bills have a fantastic defensive front. Where they run into trouble is with runs outside of the tackles. Last week vs. the Jets, the Buffalo defense allowed 55 yards rushing between the tackles on 15 attempts (3.6 YPC). That leaves 127 rushing yards on 13 attempts (9.8 YPC) on the outsides. The inability for this defense to contain outside runners absolutely showed up on tape.
As a group, the linebacker corps were terrible at maintaining edge contain. They too often slanted inside or took a poor pursuit angle and allowed the ball carrier to gain the edge. Moats and Lawson were the primary culprits against the Jets. Alonzo is a bit better at contain due to his range, but losing DE Alex Carrington for the year due to IR will not help. Although not a big name, losing Carrington is a big blow to this defense because he had the flexibility to transition the team from a 3-4 to 4-3 approach within a play. He had the ability to play both 3-4 DE and 4-3 DE and was the cog that allowed them to motion from an Okie front to playing in the gaps.
Defensive Weakness: Secondary
The Ravens are no strangers to dominant front sevens in 2013. Denver’s is currently the weakest one they’ve faced and they are in the top half of the league in my opinion. While compiling a 2-1 W/L record, the Ravens have still struggled to move the ball through the air. The Buffalo defense should help the Ravens woeful aerial attack as the Bills’ secondary depth is being challenged by injury. After losing Jairus Byrd’s elite range at FS and the young but supremely talented CB Stephon Gilmore to injury, Buffalo has leaned on the athletic but undersized Leodis McKelvin at Corner and a rotation of Jim Leonard, Da’Norris Searcy and Aaron Williams at Safety. However, Leodis McKelvin left the Jets game with an injury, which leaves the Bills playing Justin Rogers and Nickell Robey at CB.
In instances of injury-plagued secondaries, defenses generally try to maintain simplicity and give the replacement players a lot of help via scheme. This is not the case in Buffalo.
For one, the Bills blitz a lot. They have blitzed QBs at a 60% clip this season and they have no signs of letting up (71% blitz vs. the Jets last week). The blitzes, from a tactical standpoint at least, are extremely interesting. This one has Kyle Williams and the massive Marcel Dareus lined up on the OTs and slanting to the B gaps. This will occupy the guards and open up the A gaps for OLBs Carrington and Manny Lawson to “long scoop” and rush from the outside in. As a bonus, the Bills are putting pressure on the two running backs in pass protection by blitzing Kiko Alonzo (LB) and Jim Leonard (SS in the slot) from the edges.
This equates to a 6-man rush but OLB Mario Williams (aligned over the Center above) drops back into a Spy/Robber and is not a useful part of the coverage because of the depth of the routes. Therefore, the Bills leave their back-end with four cover-men to take away three receivers.
The Bills are playing man-coverage underneath a single-high safety (Cover-1). The Jets route combination has the slot receiver run a skinny post to occupy the single safety while Santonio Holmes runs a “post-corner” on the outside vs. CB Justin Rogers. Rogers is a career slot-corner without a great deal of outside experience. This inexperience showed against the veteran Holmes.
Before Image #1, Holmes takes a jab step to his outside and quickly shifts back inside. Roger’s reaction is shown in Image #1. Rogers, although a bit off balance, recovers and is only slightly behind Holmes in Image#2. This is good positioning assuming Safety help. The key part of Image #2 is that Rogers peeks into the backfield. A six-man blitz was called and Rogers should know the ball would be coming out soon. He should have never looked back to the Quarterback. Holmes makes his Corner cut at Image #3 and Rogers never recovers. An attempt at grabbing Holmes’s jersey helped Rogers minimally. He was beat for a big gain downfield.
Piling on Justin Rogers is cruel, but his statline from the Jets game is worth noting:
- Targeted 8x (33% of targets)
- Allowed 6 receptions (38% of receptions)
- Gave up 247 yards in the air (75% of the Jets passing yards)
Needless to say, Rogers is a liability in coverage.
Quick notes on the Ravens Strategy
- The Bills like to play man coverage way too much for their personnel to handle. One-on-one match-ups will favor the Ravens on the outside.
- The linebackers play a lot of zone coverage, even when the outside corners are playing man. This leaves the flats open for swing passes to RBs. Man-beating route combinations (e.g. Mesh and Slant/Flat) will also be successful.
- The Bills respond to 3- and 4-WR sets by playing Dime. FS Da’Norris Searcy often plays as a linebacker in Dime. The Ravens will likely be able to run from passing formations vs. lighter personnel.
- Former Raven Jim Leonard is a liability in coverage when he is a safety and a cover corner. He takes poor angles and does not have above-average range. Deep throws can be open when he is playing as a single-high.
- The Bills defense shifts their defensive front before the snap often. Flacco’s control of the offensive playcall can minimize the impact this will have on protection schemes on the fly.
- The Bills complexity/deception-based blitz packages will be an issue for the Offensive Line. The Ravens RBs are poor in protection and will be challenged by the blitz. Flacco no longer has receivers that can come down with contested catches. Floaters in the secondary may spell turnovers for the Ravens offense.
- Both CBs Justin Rogers and Nickell Robey can be beat over the top. When they struggled, Pettine finally called Cover-3 to allow them to bail and stay on top of their assignments. They were still beat over the top. This is a poor group.
- Cam Newton and the Panthers struggled against the Bills defense because they refused to open up the field by throwing deep. The Buffalo linebackers and cover-men relied on driving short routes. Opening up the field is a good strategy on many levels vs. this defense.
Dan played high school football at Wilde Lake and graduated from McDaniel College with a degree in Psychology. Dan is currently a Maryland Terp working on his PhD degree in Neuroscience. He has experience writing published scientific material as well as blogging for SBNation via Baltimore Beatdown. Beginning in the 2012 season, Dan has been writing about the Ravens focusing on the X’s and O’s of the game of football with heavy use of overhead (All-22) film analysis. The Columbia, MD native currently lives in Silver Spring.