Welcome to Week Six 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’ sixth game of the 2020 season will take place in Orchard Park as they face the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s what you should know:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS EXPLOSIVE
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. While in Philadelphia with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick the passing game became vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Alex Smith in Kansas City it was more conservative and horizontal.
Now that Patrick Mahomes is under center, it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. His weapons in the passing game play to those strengths as well. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the slot and in the backfield. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins, who will miss Monday’s game against his former team, and burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone deep.
Tight end Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch formations – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers on many different pass patterns, especially corners and stick routes. Stopping him will be critical for the Bills to win on Monday, especially since they have given up 39 catches and 418 yards to tight ends in 2020, one of the worst marks in the league.
Back in April the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, significantly upgrading a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy. Williams’ opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 put the spotlight squarely on the young rookie, who got off to an encouraging start to his career but as time has gone on his impact on the field has been reduced.
Last week the Chiefs decided to lighten Edwards-Helaire’s load by signing former All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, who, like his younger counterpart, is a shifty and strong runner who also excels in running routes out of the backfield and while split out at wide receiver. Unlike the first-year tailback though, Bell is savvier and more patient at setting up his blockers to spring for big gains and is more experienced in pass protection. Bell won’t play on Monday due to coronavirus restrictions, but his impact on the Chiefs will be felt soon enough.
The two operate behind an offensive line that is made up of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz at left and right tackle, Andre Wylie at one guard spot and Austin Reiter at center, and fullback Anthony Sherman is one of football’s better lead blockers. But the other starting guard position has been a revolving door this season, as the rising Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of 2020 due to the virus. His replacement, former Baltimore Raven Kelechi Osemele, will miss the rest of the season after tearing tendons in both knees, and journeyman Mike Remmers is set to take over for now.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE RED HOT LAST YEAR, BUT FINDING ITS WAY IN 2020
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City, the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit. However, from 2016-18 it took a nosedive, bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his former assistants in Philadelphia, Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man blitzes and coverages involving mainly quarters/Cover Four schemes with safeties rotating before the snap. It took about half of 2019 for the Chiefs’ defenders to get used to Spagnuolo’s playbook, but they played lights-out after Week 11 – allowing just 11.5 points-per-game, notching 10 interceptions and finishing the regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass. They also racked up 45 sacks which was 11th-best among all defenses.
This year has been a bit different. Like the rest of the league, Kansas City’s defensive play hasn’t been great – as evidenced by them giving up 157 rushing yards a game and six plays of 40 yards or more this year – but luckily for the team they have the pieces to pick things back up again where they left off in 2019. The Chiefs’ defense was also sixth in the NFL in passing yardage allowed going into Week Six.
A big key to Kansas City’s turnaround was the importation of former Texans and Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his 1,080 snaps on the field last season – 483 at slot cornerback, 315 at box safety and nickel/dime linebacker, 173 at free safety, 82 near the defensive line and 27 at outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence are valuable to the Chiefs.
Opposite Mathieu is second-year man Juan Thornhill, who is also a multi-faceted playmaker. Backup Daniel Sorenson took his place in the postseason after Thornhill was sidelined due to injury and also contributes on special teams. The Chiefs’ other starting defensive backs are veteran Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive tackle in the league and is the linchpin to this defense thanks to his combination of burst and power off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness and Derrick Nnadi is an up-and-coming name to watch too. At linebacker Kansas City employs two former Dallas Cowboys in Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE UNCHARACTERISTICALLY STRUGGLING
Over the last two years the Bills’ defense had 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.
But at various times throughout this season, Buffalo’s defense has struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole has seen defensive play decline in 2020, but given the amount of resources that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott poured into creating more depth along the team’s front seven last offseason, it was jarring last week to see the Bills take too many penalties and create very little in terms of a pass rush or being able to fill gaps against the run (Buffalo allowed 139 yards on the ground to Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans).
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).
This unit is a bit banged up going into Week Six. Cornerback Levi Wallace will miss a second straight game after being placed on injured reserve with an ankle ailment and Milano is questionable with a pectoral problem. Additionally, White has been dealing with a nagging back and is also listed as questionable. These losses allowed the Titans to exploit the middle of the field last week and convert on third down 60 percent of the time – dropping Buffalo’s third down conversion rating to 51 percent, third-worst in the league.
BILLS’ OFFENSE MOSTLY EXPLOSIVE, BUT SLOWED LAST WEEK
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 as evidenced by the team 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 by using 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers) more often, but staying with 11 personnel as their base grouping.
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 from Minnesota, who is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. Those acquisitions resulted in the Bills scoring 30 points or more in three straight contests in 2020, the first time they had done that since 2011, and 27 points or more in four consecutive games – the first time they accomplished that feat since 2004.
But last week against Tennessee was perhaps Buffalo’s worst outing of 2020. Allen made some poor choices in turning the ball over twice – most of his struggles seemed to come when the Titans would rotate their zone coverages and change the depth of their safeties at the snap, muddying what Allen was seeing from the pocket – and no consistent running game could be established either. One positive though is that the Bills’ third-down conversion rate against Tennessee was 76 percent, the third-highest rate in one game in team history, and also boosted their season rate to 58 percent – best in the NFL.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system that’s built upon concepts involving option and crossing 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 have also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly early this season.
Not to be outdone by their defensive counterparts, the Bills also have some players on offense who are dinged up going into their outing with Kansas City. Tight end Dawson Knox is out with a calf injury and Brown and guard Quinton Spain are questionable for Monday’s game with various health conditions.
- In Mahomes’ matchups against teams who utilize much more zone coverage than man like the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers, he wasn’t quite himself. According to ESPN NFL Matchup’s Matt Bowen, Mahomes “struggled to throw with consistent rhythm and find clean windows. That’s forced him to bail and leave the pocket, and lean too much on his second-reaction ability.”
- If that’s the case, will Buffalo use Cover Two and Four more often in this game? And will they copy the Raiders’ gameplan by using a three-man rush with a spy underneath and seven in coverage?
- One of Spagnuolo’s favorite types of blitzes is a “Mike-Star” blitz where the middle linebacker and slot cornerback both rush the passer. This can be defeated via three-by-one trips formations, which the Bills use a decent amount – will “Spags” move away from this type of scheme on Monday?
- Will the Bills use more dime personnel (six defensive backs) to counter the Chiefs’ speed?
- Kansas City likes to have their receivers run curl routes underneath to influence mid-level defenders to open up space downfield for Hill and Hardman. Conversely, great speed down the field can also influence two-deep safety looks to open up opportunities underneath.
- Could the Chiefs also use post-wheel combinations against Buffalo? They’re good routes to use against Cover Three and quarters coverage because it sends two receivers through a zone.
- Speaking of wheel routes, the Chiefs have a concept in their playbook called All-Go Special Halfback Seam, where Hill goes in motion across the formation, Kelce works the middle, Watkins runs downfield on a go route and a running back comes out of the backfield on a wheel route. This could probably work against the Bills’ favored defensive coverages.
- Not only is Kelce great on corner routes, but he can execute those extremely well out of flood concepts with potential targets attacking the deep, intermediate and short areas of the field. The corner route, which normally goes towards the intermediate area out of floods, can beat Cover Three because the coverage is naturally geared towards stopping deep and short pass patterns, but not intermediate.
- Like the Bills, the Chiefs also use plenty of presnap motion. One such play of their that is used frequently is called “Weezy Right Lollipop” in an ode to rapper Lil’ Wayne. Hill motions across the formation three times to misdirect defenders before Mahomes will dump the ball off to a running back in the opposite side of the third motion. Could we see this utilized on Monday?
- Allen has matched the team record set by Jim Kelly in 1991 for most touchdown passes (14) through five games.
- Allen and Mahomes were second and third, respectively, in the NFL in touchdowns heading into Week Six. According to NFL Media Research, no two quarterbacks have accounted for that many touchdowns going into Week Six since the merger in 1970.
- Diggs could become the fourth Bill to have three straight 100-yard receiving games should he get the job done against Kansas City. The last wideout to do so for Buffalo was Eric Moulds in 2000.
- Should McDermott beat his mentor Reid (they worked together from 1999-2010), he will surpass Wade Phillips for fourth in team history in career victories with his next win. Ahead of Phillips are Chuck Knox (37), Lou Saban (68) and Marv Levy (112).