TONY’S TAKE – PLAYOFF MUSINGS 17 YEARS IN THE MAKING
“The one thing I would not do is kick (the ball) short.”
“I’d kick it deep. I’d make them use as much of the clock (as possible) and take my chances on a return as opposed to squib-kicking (the ball) and letting them get the ball with 12 seconds to go and the possibility for a play.”
Those words, which were spoken by Paul Maguire and Joe Theismann respectively on January 8, 2000, came moments before former Buffalo Bills kicker Steve Christie pooched the ensuing kickoff short – leading to the infamous Music City Miracle and kick-starting a stretch in which the Bills wouldn’t reach the postseason again for the next 17 years.
Now, nearly 18 years to the day those sayings were uttered, the Bills have snapped their playoff drought and will face the Jacksonville Jaguars today at 1 p.m. on CBS. Neither team was expected to reach the postseason – as a matter of fact, both franchises have been mired in mediocrity for the better part of this century. Today, each team has a chance of reaching the second round for the first time in many years – the Bills since 1995, the Jaguars since 2007.
Let’s get the obvious storyline out of the way here – Sean McDermott and his veteran coaching staff against former Bills coach Doug Marrone and his cadre of former Bills assistants, including Nate Hackett, Tyrone Wheatley, Tony Sparano Jr., Perry Fewell and Jason Rebrovich. Some Bills fans may look at it as a way of measuring their former coaching staff against their current one, but it’s hard to compare when each team has differing personnel. The old saying still holds true – you’re only as good as the players you have.
There are some similarities between the staffs, of course. Especially on defense, which will – in all likelihood – decide this game. McDermott, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash all believe in getting after the quarterback through a four-man pass rush, albeit under different types of zone coverages (Wash is a disciple of Gus Bradley’s Seattle-style Cover 3, while McDermott and Frazier prefer Cover Two and Cover 4).
Each are also different in their willingness to blitz. McDermott and Frazier will sometimes bring a safety off the edge or threaten to rush their linebackers up the middle, aka the A gaps, while Wash rarely sends extra rushers beyond his four defensive linemen.
Jacksonville has had a very good season defensively – ranking in the top five in nearly every category except against the run, in which they rank 21st. Many teams have attempted to imitate the Seahawks’ scheme, with the ability to rush four and play a single-high safety with zone coverage behind it along with lanky, physical cornerbacks and speed at linebacker – Atlanta, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Chargers come to mind in particular. But the Jaguars are so similar to Seattle that they could be mistaken for an identical twin.
Buffalo, meanwhile, hasn’t shown much in terms of statistics on defense, except for one major category – turnovers. The Bills have ranked in the upper-echelon of the league in that category all season long, despite not having quite the type of personnel the Bills want in the future.
The biggest keys to their success on that side of the ball have been their discipline, communication and ability to be opportunistic by feasting on other teams’ mistakes. No players have been more important on that side of the ball than Tre’ White, E.J. Gaines, Leonard Johnson, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Without them, the Bills’ defense will fall apart.
The best way for the Bills’ defense to stop Blake Bortles, Leonard Fournette and company should be to play with eight men in the box on early running downs to counter the Jags’ ground game, and force Jacksonville into third-and-long situations. Once in those scenarios, the Bills can retreat into looks with two-deep safeties, which Bortles has struggled against this year – particularly against Cover 2 zone defenses.
Conversely, against Tyrod Taylor the Jaguars need to be able to keep an extra set of eyes on him in case he wants to run, force him to stay within the pocket and be sound in their coverage assignments.
The main contrariety between the two ball clubs is on offense. Marrone, Hackett and offensive line coach Pat Flaherty prefer to use a variety of power running plays and inside zones to capitalize on the Jag’s lack of athleticism up front with play action and vertical pass routes accompanying them, while Rick Dennison, Juan Castillo and company would normally want to operate with athletic offensive linemen who can execute outside zone stretch plays.
This type of approach by Dennison has also been used by coaches like Mike and Kyle Shanahan, and Gary Kubiak. Smaller, quicker lineman who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in these systems.
However, when Dennison got to Buffalo, he quickly realized after a few games that the Bills’ offensive line was still more suited to their predecessor’s schemes, so he decided to adapt. Rather than attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole, he went back to what made them successful, and it’s worked. Dion Dawkins, Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, Vladimir Ducasse and Jordan Mills have looked much more comfortable under Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn’s old blocking schemes, and it’s helped LeSean McCoy play better as well.
In terms of passing philosophy, the Bills are more aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, and Dennison’s version also features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action.
The problem in Buffalo is that, despite his good statistics, Taylor isn’t a full-field progression reader, nor is he a quarterback who can anticipate players getting open against certain coverages. He’s a “see it, throw it” type of guy, and Dennison has helped him by getting him on the move and cutting the field in half for him. The less room and progressions for Taylor to read, the better, and the Bills have done a good job of that as of late.
More than anything, the Bills need to put up points via an old-school method – establishing the run on early downs against the Jaguars and continue to utilize bootlegs and rollouts and put the speed of Jacksonville’s linebackers to the test versus Taylor. A healthy McCoy could do wonders here for the Bills, if he’s not available then Dennison will have to get creative.
Rebrovich and Jaguars general manager David Caldwell are both Buffalo natives.
The Jags’ executive vice president of football operations, Tom Coughlin, was the Jaguars’ head coach when the team won the first playoff game in franchise history – in Buffalo, of course, in the final playoff game for Marv Levy and Jim Kelly in 1996. A game that also featured future Bills coach Dick Jauron, then the Jags’ defensive coordinator.
Former Bills Marcell Dareus and Paul Posluszny will also face off against their former team. Dareus was a two-time Pro Bowler while in Buffalo while Posluszny was drafted by the Bills