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 2019 season will take place at Nissan Stadium in Nashville as they face the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what you should know:
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE PROVEN AS A DOMINANT FORCE
The Bills’ defensive unit is more or less the same as last year’s group, except for rookie defensive tackle Ed Oliver stepping in for the now-retired Kyle Williams. Schematically, they rely on basic zone coverages after the snap, but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage are Sean McDermott’s calling card (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers – for more info on McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s defense, please read: https://fromthe300level.com/2018/08/pressure-package-how-the-late-buddy-ryan-has-influenced-the-buffalo-bills-defenses-for-over-20-years/?fbclid=IwAR3iYcnJ5qvl8shWHkZJVNO50VJXPeaEx8k0-Rk1VWV_Qx2OEfsAn2NY_ys).
One area where the Bills usually mix it up is in their nickel personnel. Slot cornerback Taron Johnson could miss his fourth straight game with a hamstring injury, and his duties have been split up between Kevin Johnson, Siran Neal and the now-concussed Dean Marlowe depending on the opposition’s skill players and the down and distance. McDermott and Frazier also use a variety of 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 fronts at the line of scrimmage.
Last week was perhaps the Bills’ best outing on defense this season. Limiting Tom Brady to just 18 completions on 39 pass attempts for only 150 yards and an interception is an excellent day at the office for anyone, and Buffalo proved that their defensive unit is indeed elite.
BILLS’ OFFENSE COMING OFF OF A SETBACK
Buffalo’s investment in adding help for Josh Allen along the offensive line and at the skill positions were on full display over the first three weeks. The offensive line – once viewed as potentially the worst in football – had become a strength, providing good movement at the line of scrimmage and opening holes for running backs Devin Singletary and Frank Gore.
While success on the ground still came for the Bills last week in the form of 135 rushing yards, good results in the passing game were hard to come by. Buffalo’s quarterbacks – Josh Allen and Matt Barkley – were sacked five times, intercepted four times and were under siege all day long against New England’s top-ranked defense.
John Brown has brought speed and downfield playmaking ability to Western New York, rookie tight end Dawson Knox has been a revelation and Cole Beasley is a reliable security blanket while playing the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman role that is emphasized in Brian Daboll’s Patriots-style system. In an offense that is built upon concepts involving option routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet motion, sweeps and end arounds with Isaiah McKenzie), the Bills have much more to work with than they did at this time last year.
Singletary might miss a third straight game against Tennessee with a hamstring injury and T.J. Yeldon, the former Jacksonville Jaguar, would be expected to fill his role. Which he is capable of doing, especially in the passing game – Yeldon had two 50+ catch seasons in his four years in Jacksonville.
Allen was knocked out of last week’s game with a concussion and should he be forced to miss this week’s matchup with the Titans, veteran backup Matt Barkley could get the nod – likely forcing Daboll to get even more creative with his offense without the services of his best passer.
A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
Second-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, Rashaan Evans, Wesley Woodyard and Jayon Brown at his disposal, Pees can afford to turn his pass rushers loose while knowing he has the defensive backs to hold up in man and zone coverage long enough for his front-seven to get to quarterbacks. Former Patriots cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, plus Adoree’ Jackson, are good and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are versatile, especially Byard. Byard can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz.
THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Arthur Smith, who last season served as tight ends coach while Matt LaFleur- now the head coach in Green Bay – was the Titans’ play-caller. Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense 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.
Tennessee’s offensive system 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. Countless tailbacks have had success in it, and most of the runs are executed out of “11” personnel (one tight end, one back). The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses.
Passing-wise, the Titans are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline 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 and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
Marcus Mariota, their beleaguered fifth-year starter, has had a rough start to the season. Despite not throwing an interception yet, Mariota has taken a lot of sacks behind an offensive line that was missing left tackle Taylor Lewan (who will return from a four-game suspension this week). Mariota throughout his career has been inconsistent and has operated with sloppy mechanics. Should his struggles continue, it would be no surprise to see him benched for backup and former Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill.
Mariota doesn’t lack weapons though. Even though he lacks speed and quickness, running back Derrick Henry has been productive on the ground because of an abundance of power and strength in his game. Scatback Dion Lewis is a threat in the passing game, and the ascending Corey Davis, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Adam Humphries and rookie A.J. Brown are the top three receivers in Tennessee. Veteran tight end Delanie Walker returns for his 14th season.
- In addition to the greatest comeback in NFL history in the early 90’s and the Music City Miracle in January 2000, the Bills and Titans have had some very close games as of late. Their last three matchups have each been decided by one point, including last year’s 13-12 win in Orchard Park.
- The Bills have held each of their first four opponents this season to under 20 points. They can become the first team in team history to do it in five straight games this Sunday.