Welcome to Week Four 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’ fourth game of the 2020 season will take place at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas as they face the Raiders. Here’s what you should know:
“CHUCKY’S” OFFENSE A MODERN VERSION OF OLD IDEAS
In 2018 Jon Gruden returned to the NFL after nine seasons away from coaching to take over the Raiders, the franchise he led from 1998-2001 (and also defeated in Super Bowl XXXVII while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Questions abounded from analysts, and one of the biggest ones Gruden had to answer was how he would adapt his version of the West Coast offense to the modern game.
Those who openly wondered about Gruden’s willingness to change not just to counter modern defenses but to fit the players he had in place was former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit. He wrote, “Gruden is an advocate for traditional under-center quarterbacking, as that exchange synchronizes the timing and mechanics he preaches in his West Coast offense. But (Derek) Carr, like every twentysomething-year-old QB, has spent much of his life in shotgun.
“The rise in shotgun popularity was partly a response to the diverse nickel fronts that defenses started presenting right around the time Gruden left coaching for broadcasting. Now it’s a way to maximize quick-timing throws out of three-receiver sets – an approach, by the way, that plays to Carr’s physical attributes. You can run a lot of West Coast concepts out of shotgun, just with some procedural differences. How much will Gruden tweak his approach, and how much will he ask Carr to tweak his?”
The result ended up being more shotgun and spread looks than Gruden used in the past. His system, a ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, still features many of the shifts, motions and varied formations that were his calling card, but he has also expanded his usage of formation wrinkles, 3×1 trips receiver sets (usually with three wideouts on one side and a tight end on the other, often revealing if a defense is in man or zone coverage) and converging releases by wide receivers. Additionally, Gruden – like his brother Jay, currently the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive coordinator – is excellent at building plays involving pass routes that are run at the short, intermediate and deep levels simultaneously.
Carr, in his seventh years as the starting quarterback for the Silver and Black, is gifted but conservative. According to Benoit, “…..Carr is clearly the type of quarterback who needs strong weapons around him. He isn’t an assertive risk taker who will target tight windows snap after snap. His proclivity for getting the ball out quickly (especially when he’s uncomfortable) makes him dependent on unique presnap passing game tactics.”
To help prod Carr into taking more risks down the field, this past spring Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock drafted wideouts Henry Ruggs III out of Alabama in the first round and Bryan Edwards from South Carolina in the third round. Both are talented, especially Ruggs, whose explosive speed makes him a threat not just down the field, but also while in motion, on sweeps/end arounds/reverses and in the screen game.
Unfortunately for Carr neither Ruggs nor Edwards will likely suit up on Sunday due to injuries – and lanky receiver Tyrell Williams, a sage on seam routes at the intermediate levels, is out for the season with a torn labrum. This will force the Raiders to rely on tight ends Darren Waller and Jason Witten, former Bills bust Zay Jones, former Eagle Nelson Agholor and second-year target Hunter Renfrow in addition to multi-faceted running back Josh Jacobs in the passing game. Waller is a talented pass-catcher who can line up in various spots along the line of scrimmage while Witten, the former Dallas Cowboy who has slowed down considerably at 38 years old, has always been at his best running short option routes against zone coverage. Jones has questionable hands while Agholor and Renfrow work best out of the slot.
Paving the way for Jacobs in the running game is a big, physical but banged-up offensive line. Left tackle Kolton Miller, a first-round pick in 2018, is usually bookended by former Patriot Trent Brown, but Brown is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game with a calf injury. If he can’t go, former Bill Sam Young could take his place. Another former Bill, left guard Richie Incognito, is out with an Achilles injury and his replacement is John Simpson. Center Rodney Hudson and right guard Gabe Jackson are two of the best players at their positions in the league.
RAIDERS’ DEFENSE SIMILAR TO BUFFALO’S
Like counterparts Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier, Las Vegas defensive coordinator Paul Guenther usually prefers double-A-gap blitz looks at the line of scrimmage and zone coverages with two deep safeties. The difference between Buffalo and Las Vegas has been that the Bills have been mostly successful with this approach because of a consistent pass rush, while the Raiders have underwhelmed in getting to opposing quarterbacks with their front four.
Second-year defensive end Maxx Crosby occupies one defensive end spot while draft classmate Clelin Ferrell is the starter at the other. But Ferrell is better when he rushes up the middle and not from the outside, where offseason pickup Carl Nassib sometimes replaces him on first and second down. Seasoned veterans Jonathan Hankins and Maliek Collins provide beef and quickness, respectively, at defensive tackle.
The Raiders have overhauled their secondary in recent years, as they have invested draft capital (Damon Arnette, Trayvon Mullen and Jonathan Abram) and money via free agency (Lamarcus Joyner, Nevin Lawson, Jeff Heath) into that group. Arnette is out for Sunday’s game with wrist and thumb injuries and Abram is questionable with shoulder and thumb ailments. Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Nicholas Morrow are the team’s starting linebackers.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS STILL DOMINANT, BUT STRUGGLED LATELY
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.
But over the last two weeks, Buffalo’s defense has struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole has seen defensive play decline – as evidenced by 172 touchdowns being thrown through three weeks, a league record – but in order for the Bills to win, they will need to shut down the Raiders’ offense, especially the run, as they allowed 167 yards on the ground against the Rams and Jacobs is fifth in the NFL in rushing yards.
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).
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) 24 percent of the time and 11 personnel on 68.2 percent of their snaps.
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 has had 24 receiving touchdowns over the last three years. 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 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 expanded upon pre-snap motion and with their play-action and screen game greatly early this season.
- So far this year the Raiders have emphasized playing Cover Three, and not their usual Cover Two or Four – so much so that they’ve lined up in that coverage on 24.7 percent of their opponents’ pass plays, the fourth-most in the NFL. Will that trend continue on Sunday?
- Last week the New England Patriots shut down the Raiders’ passing game by doubling Waller on nearly every play. It resulted in little offensive production from Waller and a Patriots’ win. Will the Bills do something similar?
- Las Vegas’ defense is prone to giving up big plays on screens and misdirection concepts due to their aggressiveness. They also miss a lot of tackles. What will Daboll do to exploit this?
- Against the Rams, the Bills attacked Cover Four, which the Raiders like to use quite a bit, by occupying one linebacker with short outside routes by Beasley and throwing over the middle of the field that was voided by Beasley’s route. They also beat that coverage with post-wheel combinations, and an underneath route by a running back. Will they do it again?
- Allen could become the first Bills quarterback in franchise history to throw for 300 yards in four straight games. He is also the only quarterback in league history to throw for 10 scores and run for two through three weeks of a season.
- Allen is second in the league in passing yards behind Russell Wilson and is third in passer rating behind Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson. He also leads the AFC in fourth quarter passer rating and has thrown for 27 touchdowns and just four picks in his last 14 regular season games.
- According to Chris Brown of buffalobills.com, Allen could become the third passer all-time with 300 passing yards and two touchdowns in all of his team’s first four games. The others are Steve Young in 1998 and Peyton Manning in 2013.
- Buffalo is fourth in the league in scoring averaging 31 points a game. However they haven’t had a rushing touchdown by a running back since Week Nine of last season against Washington, and have had 234 carries by tailbacks since then. That might change this week, as the Raiders allowed 250 rushing yards last week to the Patriots and have given up about 164 yards per game on the ground.
- Tyler Bass is third in the NFL in touchbacks with 15.
- Sunday will be Buffalo’s first game of three on the west coast this season and will be their first game in Las Vegas.