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

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MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 20: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a pass against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Welcome to Week Three of the 2020 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’ third game of the 2020 season will take place at New Era Field as they face the Los Angeles Rams. Here’s what you should know:

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 13: Jalen Ramsey #20 of the Los Angeles Rams reacts during the second half against the Dallas Cowboys at SoFi Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

RAMS’ DEFENSE, WHILE TALENTED, IS INCONSISTENT

Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit over the last three years was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who has appeared to keep the system in place.

Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, the underrated Michael Brockers and former Bear Leonard Floyd  – who are all solid pass rushers – the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven. The rise of talented third-year linebacker Micah Kiser could change the conversation about this group, as he has had a good start through two weeks of the season.

Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last two years, out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions (and sometimes get burned in the process). In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage, and former backup Troy Hill, who shifts to the slot when the Rams go to their subpackages. John Johnson III, Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller are the team’s primary safeties.

This scheme, when executed properly, can be excellent but it has a crucial weakness – Los Angeles’ coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations, and most of the Rams’ defensive snaps have utilized zone coverage. Additionally, the Rams like to use what is known as a “Tite/Mint” front, which is a 3-3-5 defense based out of nickel personnel. Will Staley mix it up more against Buffalo?

PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 20: Los Angeles Rams Head Coach Sean McVay celebrates a touchdown with Quarterback Jared Goff (16) in the second half during the game between the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles on September 20, 2020 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO

Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago, the team didn’t have anything remotely close to fielding a good offense for a long time. That has changed ever since Sean McVay took over in 2017 and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.

Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.

The McVay-Shanahan 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. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – including former Rams back Todd Gurley, who was also dangerous in the screen game and on routes to the flats.

But Gurley, who helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII in 2018, was released by Los Angeles this spring after a knee injury compromised his production and his contract became an albatross to the team’s salary cap. In have stepped former backups Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson and rookie Cam Akers from Florida State, and they have performed well through two weeks. In front of them are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Joe Noteboom, Austin Blythe, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).

One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly in order to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages. It will likely continue on Sunday.

Passing-wise, the Rams are 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 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.

Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is very good when it comes to the timing and rhythm portion of the passing game. He gets the ball out on time, has good synchronicity with his receivers, is accurate, intelligent and throws a better deep ball than people realize. However, when under pressure Goff’s footwork can get a bit sloppy and he isn’t always at ease when bodies are flying around him.

Goff is also sometimes a tad late when it comes to exploiting coverages. According to USA Today’s Doug Farrar, “(Goff) throws with anticipation to a degree, but he’s often throwing guys open when they’re already open, meaning that he’s throwing them closed and allowing defensive backs to jump and pick routes. The problem gets worse when his receivers are challenged.”

The weapons that Goff has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. Woods has emerged as a very good possession receiver since leaving the Buffalo Bills four years ago and Higbee and Everett have been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts).

Kupp in particular is great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and Woods in what are known as “high/low” concepts – Woods being the low man on hitch routes to influence safeties to cheat down low and take away his route, while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 20: Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Miami Dolphins is sacked by Ed Oliver #91 of the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS STILL DOMINANT

Over the last two years, the Bills’ defense has become one of pro football’s elite units. Led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Ed Oliver and Jerry Hughes – and supplemented this year by the free agent signings of Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, A.J. Klein and Josh Norman – last year’s defense ranked third overall in the NFL. Additionally, they were 10th against the run, fourth against the pass, seventh-best on third down, 10th in sack percentage, 10th in interception rate, second in points allowed and 12th in sacks.

Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap (mainly Cover Two and Four) 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).

Because of a hamstring injury suffered recently, Norman will not suit up against the Rams and Edmunds and Milano are also questionable due to injury. Levi Wallace, last year’s starter at cornerback opposite White, will likely take Norman’s place, and Klein and Tyrell Dodson will probably do the same at linebacker. They will need to step up and play well, given that they allowed Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki to pick them apart last week and will face another good tight end in Higbee this week.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 20: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills makes a catch against Noah Igbinoghene #23 of the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE SO FAR

Going into Week 11 last year, 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 moved from the field up to the press box 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 paid off for the most part, as Buffalo got significant contributions from players like Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, John Brown and Cole Beasley over the last seven weeks of the season. The Bills also increased their usage of 11 personnel, 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 was 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 increased to 81 percent, the most in the league. This year, Buffalo has changed that approach slightly, using 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers) on 25 percent of their offensive snaps through two games.

However, the Bills’ inability to score points consistently – they averaged just 19.6 points per game – caught up to them in the playoffs against the Houston Texans. To address that problem, they went out and drafted running back Zack Moss – a solid back who runs with power – and traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who is tied for fifth in the league in receiving touchdowns over the last three years with 23. Diggs is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations.

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/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They also expanded upon their play-action game greatly last week against the Dolphins – so much so that 35 percent of their passing plays have come from play-action, the third-highest figure in the NFL.

Moss and tight end Dawson Knox will miss Sunday’s game due to injuries, likely leading to an increased role for Singletary and backup tight ends Tyler Kroft and Levi Smith.

MUSINGS

  • Last week was Josh Allen’s first 400-yard passing game of his career, and the first by a Buffalo Bill since Drew Bledsoe in 2002. He is leading the league in passing yards, is third in passer rating behind Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson, and is just the fourth quarterback with 700 yards, six touchdowns and no picks through two games in league history (Patrick Mahomes in 2019, Tom Brady in ’15 and Peyton Manning in ’13 all accomplished the feat).
  • Allen’s 739 yards through two games is second in team history to Jim Kelly’s 744 in 1991.
  • Stefon Diggs is tied for the league lead in receiving yards with 239 with Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley. He’s also third in the NFL in catches with 16, and is the first Bills wideout to record eight catches or more in his first two games since Peerless Price and Eric Moulds did so in 2002, with 20 and 16 catches, respectively.
  • Buffalo averaged 8.9 yards per play on Sunday, their highest in a game since 2000 against the Seattle Seahawks (9.3) and had eight plays of 20 yards or more.
  • Not to be outdone, the Bills’ defense is third in the NFL against the run, having allowed 75 yards per game on the ground.
  • Could the Bills attack the Rams’ Cover Three concepts with two post routes on one side and one on another? The Dallas Cowboys had success with this in Week One, but with a wideout on the backside of the formation flattening his route to get between the cornerback and the single-high safety.
  • Look for the Bills to liberally use press coverage in order to disrupt the timing in the Rams’ passing game, and not just by their defensive backs. McDermott and Frazier could conceivably use their linebackers to also chip on wideouts while they are near the line of scrimmage before passing them off to cornerbacks.
  • If the Bills commit to setting the edge against outside-zone running plays, McVay might use more man-blocking runs with pulling guards and power concepts.
  • Watch for Buffalo to blitz in the interior gaps against the Rams, which is a good way to eliminate cutback lanes for running backs in zone-based schemes.
  • The Detroit Lions, who have a defense engineered by a former Bill Belichick assistant in Matt Patricia, had success against the Rams in Week 13 of 2018 by using Cover Four – a matchup-zone coverage that divides the field into quarters. Given that the New England Patriots used a similar scheme to defeat Los Angeles in the Super Bowl that same year and Cover Four is one of McDermott and Frazier’s preferred coverages, Buffalo could attempt to mimic that approach.

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