Welcome to Week Five of the NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, 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’ fifth game of the 2018 season will take place in Buffalo as they take on the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what to watch for:
DABOLL NEEDS TO GET CREATIVE
After having a field day against the Minnesota Vikings in Week Three, the Bills’ offense came crashing down to earth against Green Bay seven days later. Every one of Buffalo’s 12 offensive drives ended in a punt, except for three turnovers by rookie quarterback Josh Allen (two interceptions, one fumble) and one that ended when time ran out.
The Bills also converted just three times on 16 third-down attempts, averaged only 2.6 yards-per-play, and allowed seven sacks. While it’s debatable what the main cause of Buffalo’s struggles were – shoddy offensive line play, underachieving wide receivers or rookie mistakes by Allen – what isn’t debatable is that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll should get back to using some of the passing game concepts he concocted to defeat Minnesota.
He did just that by using college concepts – sending the Bills’ receivers and backs in jet and orbit motion to create misdirection and to aid Allen in identifying mismatches in the passing game. As mentioned previously, shifting formations and sending more players in motion – like Daboll’s old team, the Patriots, are wont to do – can not only help said players create more space from defenders, but can also determine the coverage for Allen and create matchup problems for the opposition.
The Bills also need to get the aging LeSean McCoy going as well. McCoy has averaged just seven carries per game so far, and hasn’t had much room to run – likely a result of teams stacking the box against Buffalo and daring Allen to beat them with his arm.
BILLS’ DEFENSE GETTING BETTER
While the Bills’ defense ranks in the middle of the pack in most statistical categories – especially in both passing and rushing yards allowed – they have become adept in creating big plays. So far, through four games Buffalo is 12th in the league in sacks and ninth in turnovers created.
To confuse Marcus Mariota and his offensive line, the Bills will align linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano opposite each shoulder of the center to show a blitz. The Titans’ offensive line will then have to adjust their pass protection scheme in order to accommodate the mere threat of them coming.
Whether or not the Bills actually blitz one – or both – of those linebackers, only they will know. The point is to create confusion at the line of scrimmage and to get the opposing offense to tip their hand. Then Buffalo can attack accordingly, by either rushing those linebackers or dropping them into coverage. (For more info on the Bills’ defensive approach, please read http://fromthe300level.com/2018/08/pressure-package-how-the-late-buddy-ryan-has-influenced-the-buffalo-bills-defenses-for-over-20-years/.)
A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
First-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees go back to their time in New England, where Vrabel played for Bill Belichick’s former defensive shot-caller as a starting linebacker. The difference between Pees and Belichick, however, is that the former likes to blitz more than the latter.
With stalwarts like Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan at his disposal, Pees can afford to turn his pass rushers loose while knowing he has the defensive backs to hold up in man coverage long enough for them to get to quarterbacks. Former Patriots cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, plus Adoree’ Jackson, are good in that regard, and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are solid as well.
Boasting such talent has helped the Titans’ defense to allow only six touchdowns this season – second fewest in the league – and two touchdowns on 10 trips inside the red zone, best in the NFL.
THE SHANAHAN OFFENSE RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Matt LaFleur, who last season served Sean McVay in the same position for the Los Angeles Rams. Prior to that, he spent time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
The Shanahan system – one that former Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison leaned on as well – relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it.
But the Titans’ running game has been struggling so far, with Mariota as the team’s leading rusher and Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis both scuffling along. Both of the Titans’ offensive tackles, Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin have been very good, but their interior line has been iffy.
Passing-wise, the Titans 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, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate.
So far Mariota has been a stud, especially in crunch time. Entering Week Five, Mariota ranked fourth in the league – and first in the AFC – in fourth quarter passer rating, and has a completion percentage of 93.3 percent in the fourth stanza of play.
The only problem is, Mariota lacks weapons to throw to. With the release of Rishard Matthews and a season-ending injury to tight end Delanie Walker, Tennessee’s lone standout target is second-year man Corey Davis. That dearth of talent and speed means LaFleur must get creative in his passes, and will likely use more play fakes to open up holes in coverages.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Tennessee has created just eight plays of 20 yards or more – worst in the league (the Bills have only 10). The Titans have also been strong starters, as they have outscored their opponents 23-0 in the first quarter this season, but have been shut out in the second quarter 27-0.
SPECIAL TEAMS STANDOUTS AND BUFFALO CONNECTIONS
The decision by the Bills’ brass to part ways with Colton Schmidt and replace him with rookie Corey Bojorquez has paid off so far. As of this writing, Bojorquez, who was claimed off waivers from New England at the end of the preseason, leads the NFL in punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
The Bills currently have the fifth-best kick return unit in the league so far, and that should bode well for them going into this matchup. The Titans are ranked second-last in kickoff coverage, allowing about 29 yards per return. (Interestingly enough, Titans special teams coach Craig Auckerman also oversaw some struggling special teams with the Chargers before moving on to Tennessee.)
The first four games of the season have been especially close for the Titans. Each of them have been decided by seven points or less, and the margin of victory in their three wins have all been by a field goal apiece.
Tennessee boasts a couple of connections to the Bills on their coaching staff too. Wide receivers coach Rob Moore held down the same position on Doug Marrone’s staff for two seasons (2013 and ’14), and offensive assistant Luke Steckel’s father, Les – a former Titans offensive coordinator – served as Gregg Williams’ running backs coach in Buffalo in 2003.