Welcome to Week 12 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’ 11th game of the 2019 season will take place at New Era Field as they face the Denver Broncos. Here’s what you should know:
DENVER’S DEFENSE, WHILE STILL GOOD, IS GETTING ACCUSTOMED TO NEW SYSTEM
Vic Fangio, a onetime protégé of Dom Capers and Jim Mora, is one of the NFL’s best defensive minds. Having built dominating units in San Francisco and Chicago in recent years, Fangio finally got his long-awaited shot at being a head coach in Denver, but it hasn’t gone quite as planned. Since the Broncos started the season 0-4, they have gone 3-3 in their last six outings – including last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings where they blew a 20-0 lead, the fourth time this year that Denver has blown a fourth quarter lead.
While Fangio doesn’t like to blitz much – relying on a four-man pass rush and two-deep safety looks most of the time – he heavily employs well-disguised hybrid coverages that feature man and zone concepts. The system is at its best when it gets elite play from its linebackers, but beyond the NFL’s modern-day version of Derrick Thomas (Von Miller), the Broncos don’t have much in that department. Rising second-year pass rusher Bradley Chubb is out for the season due to injury and Denver’s inside linebackers are mediocre.
The matchup of Miller against Bills rookie right tackle Cody Ford bears watching. Ford has had ups and downs this year while trying to get acclimated to the NFL and Miller typically rushes from an opponent’s right side. Veteran Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris – who is having a breakout season – are the standouts on Denver’s defensive line and will also get attention from Buffalo’s offensive line.
Despite the loss of slot extraordinaire Bryce Callahan for the season, the Broncos still have depth at defensive back. Chris Harris excels at playing both outside cornerback and at the nickel position and he is followed on the depth chart by Devontae Harris and Duke Dawson. Veterans Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are Denver’s starters at safety.
BRONCOS’ OFFENSE STRUGGLING
Denver’s offensive system has returned to the style that won them back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 90’s with the hiring of Rich Scangarello as offensive coordinator. Scangarello spent the last two years as quarterbacks coach in San Francisco, working under Kyle Shanahan – the son of former longtime Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.
The Broncos’ scheme 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 Broncos 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.
Unfortunately for Denver, they don’t have the man under center who can pull the trigger on these concepts. With former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco out for the season with a neck injury and rookie second-round pick Drew Lock dealing with a thumb problem, Brandon Allen – a sixth-round draft pick by Jacksonville three years ago – will start just the third game of his career this Sunday. Allen has been a mixed bag thus far with a decent showing against Cleveland in his first start and an underwhelming performance last week against Minnesota.
Running back Phillip Lindsay is underrated by most across the NFL. A short, sturdy running back who has good balance and vision, Lindsay can take a pounding between the tackles and can also make plays in the passing game. Not helping his cause going forward though is the loss of fullback Andy Janovich – one of the NFL’s best at his position – who is out for the season with an elbow injury and the lack of weapons at Allen’s disposal beyond the talented Courtland Sutton and athletic tight end Noah Fant.
With not much to distract opposing defensive coordinators beyond Lindsay, Sutton and Fant, the Broncos’ offensive line will likely see more guys to block at the line of scrimmage and one single-high safety from the Bills. That starting five is made up of Garett Boles – who has been victimized by multiple holding penalties throughout his young career – the aging Ronald Leary, center Connor McGovern, rookie Dalton Risner and Ja’Waun James, who is below-average in pass-protection.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE REGAINED FORM LAST WEEK
Against the Dolphins last week, Buffalo ended their recent trend of letting running backs do well against them on the ground by allowing Miami running backs to gain just 23 yards on 13 carries. Most of the damage had previously been done on inside zone runs, where the Bills’ defensive linemen and especially linebacker Tremaine Edmunds struggled at filling gaps and diagnosing blocking schemes up front. That was put to a halt, as evidenced by the Dolphins failing to gain positive yardage on eight of their first 13 plays from scrimmage. Buffalo also had seven sacks on the afternoon, a season-high.
With the recent struggles of cornerback Levi Wallace becoming more and more apparent, the Bills also decided to rotate snaps between Wallace and Kevin Johnson (much like how Ty Nsekhe and Cody Ford split reps at right tackle). Each played much better as a result.
Schematically, the Bills’ defense 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 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).
BILLS’ OFFENSE LOOKS TO CONTINUE STRONG SHOWING
Going into Week 11 the Bills’ offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every major offensive category. To address this lack of production, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll decided to move from the field to the press box in order to call plays and get a bird’s eye view of what was happening on the field.
The decisions to go upstairs and to use more of an up-tempo attack paid off, as Buffalo scored on five of their first six drives and saw significant contributions from players like Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, John Brown and Dawson Knox. The Bills also increased their usage of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) throughout the afternoon – a change from weeks prior where the team heavily utilized 12 and 22 personnel.
Granted their well-executed drives were against a terrible Miami Dolphins outfit. But the performance does give hope that it can continue in the future against better squads.
The Bills’ offense is a Patriots-style system that’s built upon concepts involving option 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 motion, sweeps and end arounds with Isaiah McKenzie).
- Josh Allen has now thrown 163 straight passes without an interception – the second-best active streak in the NFL behind Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins – and hasn’t turned the ball over in the Bills’ last five games – marks of a young quarterback making some progress.
- According to Chris Brown of buffalobills.com, Buffalo currently leads the NFL in kick return average with a mark of 30.4 yards per return. They also lead the league in average starting field position and five of their 15 returns have gone for 30 yards or more – which bodes well against a Denver kickoff unit ranked second-last in the league.
- Brown is one game away from tying Eric Moulds’ team record of 11 straight games with at least 50 yards receiving and has moved past Bill Miller for most receiving yards in their first 10 games with the franchise (Brown has 817 yards).
- Buffalo is tied for the league lead with New Orleans in fewest giveaways since Week Five. Having turned the ball over just twice in that span, it’s a complete 180-degree turnaround since the first four weeks of the season where the Bills gave the ball away 10 times.
- The Bills’ defense has allowed less than 400 yards of offense in 22 consecutive games dating to last year – the longest such streak in the NFL.