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TONY’S TAKE – FIVE THINGS TO KNOW FOR BILLS-TEXANS

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ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 29: Head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills on the sideline during a game against the New York Jets at New Era Field on December 29, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. Jets beat the Bills 13 to 6. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

Welcome to the 2019 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The first wild card game of the 2019 NFL playoffs will take place at NRG Stadium in Houston as the Texans will host the Buffalo Bills. Here’s what you should know:

TAMPA, FL – DECEMBER 21: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans passes the ball during the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 21, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Will Vragovic/Getty Images)

TEXANS’ OFFENSE SIMILAR TO BILLS’ OUTFIT

With a large contingent of ex-Patriots coaches littering Houston’s staff – notably head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell and special teams coach Brad Seely – there are bound to be some similarities to their work in New England.

Take their passing game. Typically one in which relies on matchups, option routes and the positioning of opposing defenders, it’s a system that has been proven to work time and again. The biggest beneficiary of the system has been wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who despite not being the fastest wideout in the league, has succeeded with good quickness, body control, route-running ability and excellent hands – akin to Hall of Famer Cris Carter. He’s also versatile, can line up all over the formation and is especially adept at going over the middle.

With the drafting of DeShaun Watson in 2017, O’Brien, rather than force-feeding him to a system that might not play to all of his strengths, decided to ease in his quarterback with misdirection concepts taken directly from his old playbook at Clemson. The results have been outstanding so far. O’Brien also likes to spread the field with empty set formations, having dialed up 144 dropbacks for Watson out of such looks (the second-highest number in football, according to Erik Turner of The Athletic.) They do this in order to spread out defenses and identify coverages.

One concept that Houston loves to use in their passing game is using post-dig combinations to conflict safeties on deep routes, and they will also use two posts from one side and a deep crossing route on the backside against two deep safeties. Even though Watson doesn’t have the strongest arm, he can execute these well-designed plays with anticipation and accuracy.

Beyond Hopkins, the Texans have some weapons who can do damage in the passing game. Deep threat Kenny Stills and injury-plagued speedster Will Fuller are the other starters at wide receiver and scatback Duke Johnson is one of the NFL’s best at collecting passes out of the backfield. Darren Fells, who tied for the team lead with seven receiving touchdowns, and Jordan Akins are the Texans’ tight ends.

While their passing game has been middle of the pack, the Texans’ running game was ninth in the league. A lot of it involves pulling guards, tackles and tight ends, and their zone-read game keeps defenses on edge. Executing these blocks are rookie Max Scharping, Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, Chris Clark (who is in for injured first-round pick Tytus Howard) and Laremy Tunsil, and running back Carlos Hyde has revived his career behind this line. Tunsil is athletic and aside from perhaps Washington’s Trent Williams, might be the league’s best offensive tackle in getting out on the perimeter to block on screens to wide receivers.

The preseason trade with Miami for Tunsil and Stills has left Houston with a dearth of draft picks. Since the team is clearly all-in on winning now, should the Texans falter against Buffalo there is a decent chance that O’Brien could be out of a job following Saturday’s game.

HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 27: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans screams as he is introduced before a game against the Oakland Raiders at NRG Stadium on October 27, 2019 in Houston, Texas. The Texans defeated the Raiders 27-24. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

HOUSTON’S DEFENSE, ALTHOUGH STRUGGLING, DIFFICULT TO PREPARE FOR

The Houston Texans, champions of the AFC South for the fourth time in the last five years, are looking to win a postseason game for just the fourth time in franchise history. However, not everything is going as well as normal for this organization.

Case in point – their defense. This unit, normally one of the NFL’s better ones, has floundered this year. Ranked just 28th in yards allowed (29th against the pass and 25th against the run), the Texans’ red zone defense has also struggled, allowing touchdowns at a rate of 71 percent. It has faltered due to the absence of numerous players who have helped the team in years past.

J.J. Watt, the only player in league history not named Lawrence Taylor to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press three times, is easily the best defensive end to play in a 3-4 scheme since Bruce Smith. But a torn pectoral for Watt sidelined him for eight games, severely compromising his team’s ability to rush the quarterback and stop the run. Watt will likely line up against rookie Cody Ford, and I would expect the Bills to give Ford some help in pass protection courtesy of a tight end or running back staying in to block.

Additionally, Houston used to have three extraordinary pass rushers who couldn’t be blocked one-on-one – Watt, linebacker Whitney Mercilus and former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. However, Mercilus has had a so-so season and the trade of Clowney during the summer to Seattle stunted the Texans’ usage of Crennel’s fabled “diamond” nickel front to generate tons of pressure in the pocket and stop the run. (For more on this type of defense, read former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit’s 2017 NFL preview at: https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/08/29/houston-texans-defense-new-england-patriots-nfl-preview).

At linebacker, beyond Mercilus Houston employs run stuffer Bernardick McKinney and speedster Zach Cunningham, but their presence and the return of Watt can’t quite make up for the holes in their secondary. A primarily quarters/Cover Four defense (two-deep matchup zones), the defection of safety Tyrann Mathieu to Kansas City last spring created a huge hole that veteran Tashaun Gipson attempted to fill, but he is now out for the season due to injury. 35-year old cornerback Jonathan Joseph hasn’t aged well and his lack of speed has hurt, while inconsistent former Denver Bronco Bradley Roby holds down the other starting spot. Former Oakland Raider Gareon Conley and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Vernon Hargreaves are the Texans’ reserves at cornerback, while Justin Reid and Jahleel Addae are the starters at safety.

Crennel and Seely – whose special teams have been traditionally strong – each have had tremendous success while in the NFL. Each coach started their careers in the league more than 30 years ago, and have combined for 16 appearances in conference championship games, 11 Super Bowl appearances and eight Lombardi trophies.

MIAMI, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 17: Jerry Hughes #55 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with Lorenzo Alexander #57 after a tackle against the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE STILL DOMINANT

In their last seven games, Buffalo piled up 26 sacks (they had 44 all season) and took the ball away 11 times in their last six games, increasing their total number of turnovers to 23 on the year. With that being said, they have done quite well lately in terms of creating big plays.

Schematically, the Bills’ third-ranked defense mostly 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, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap 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 unit, 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).

Staying disciplined in their assigned gaps and the usage of stunts and twists by their defensive linemen and a spy – perhaps Micah Hyde, as he did against Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson earlier in the year – may be a formula for the Bills’ defense to stop Watson and keep him in the pocket. Buffalo might also have their outside pass rushers get upfield but not run past the quarterback. This would be in order to stay level with Watson and not let him escape to the outside.

Another great way to defend Watson is by blurring a defense’s coverage looks. For example, showing a single-high safety coverage and rolling into a two-deep shell can confuse him, and the Bills, as previously mentioned, are excellent at rotating their safeties before the snap.

Due to an ankle injury suffered last week against the New York Jets, cornerback Levi Wallace may not suit up. His replacement would be former Texan Kevin Johnson, who has split snaps with Wallace throughout the year, and I would expect O’Brien to target Johnson in the passing game – especially if Tre’Davious White shadows Hopkins all game long.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 29: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills passes the ball during the first quarter against the New York Jets at New Era Field on December 29, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. New York defeats Buffalo 13-6. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE NOT GREAT, BUT GETTING TIMELY SCORING

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 use more of an up-tempo attack have paid off for the most part, as Buffalo has gotten significant contributions from players like Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, John Brown and Beasley over the last seven weeks. The Bills also increased their usage of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), resulting in better production both through the air and on the ground as evidenced by the Bills employing the NFL’s eighth-best rushing offense.

The proof is in the pudding. According to Warren Sharp, before week 11 Buffalo had utilized 11 personnel on 63 percent of their snaps. From then on, that number has increased to 81 percent, the most in the league.

Buffalo’s 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 and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie).

The Bills closed their season against five top-10 defenses, the hardest stretch of any offense in football this year. Against a Texans defense that was just 28th in yards given up, the team has an opportunity to make some hay (the Bills, by the way, have scored 30 points just twice this year – both times against Miami).

STATS AND FACTS

  • The Bills’ defense has given up less than 400 yards of offense in 26 out of their last 28 games dating to last year, the best such mark in the NFL. Their defense also allowed only 259 points this season, the organization’s least since 1999 (229, the franchise record) and the 10th-fewest in team history.
  • Allen totaled 29 touchdowns this year, the second most in one season by a Bills quarterback (Jim Kelly had 34 in 1991).
  • Additionally, Allen led the NFL in rushing touchdowns for a quarterback with nine, while Watson tied Jackson for second with seven.
  • White tied for the league lead in interceptions along with the Patriots’ Stephon Gilmore and the Vikings’ Anthony Harris, and is the first Bills defensive back to record six picks in a season since Jairus Byrd 10 years ago. He also didn’t allow a touchdown pass all season long.
  • Buffalo has won just one game in their history on a Saturday afternoon that wasn’t a 12:30 or 1:00 kickoff – December 23, 2000 at the Seattle Seahawks. They are 14-16 all-time in the playoffs and haven’t won a playoff game since defeating Miami in the 1995 wild card round.
  • This is the third straight playoff game in which Buffalo will face a team from the AFC South. Buffalo took on Tennessee in 1999 and Jacksonville two years ago.
  • This is also the fourth straight road playoff game for the Bills – the first being at the Miami Dolphins in 1998. Buffalo hasn’t hosted a postseason contest since 1996 against the Jaguars in what was Jim Kelly’s final game of his career.
  • NRG Stadium’s roof will be closed for Saturday’s matchup, and it hasn’t been opened for a Texans game since November 30, 2014 against the Titans.
  • According to ESPN, Saturday will be Houston’s fourth playoff game against a top-three scoring defense from the regular season. They lost their first three matchups.
  • According to NFL Research, the Bills allowed 25 points or more just once this year, the best mark in the league. It tied the league record for fewest such games in a season, and one of the teams who held that record was the 1964 AFL champion Bills.
  • Nine of Buffalo’s 16 games were decided by seven points or less.
  • The Bills led the NFL in field goal defense this year, with opposing kickers converting just 63 percent of their chances against Buffalo. Speaking of special teams, punter Corey Bojorquez downed 34 punts inside the opposition’s 20-yard line this year, breaking the team record of 33 set by John Kidd in 1985 and tied by Brian Moorman in 2006.

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