Welcome to Week Five 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’ fifth game of the 2020 season will take place at Nissan Stadium in Nashville as they face the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what you should know:
THERE IS A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
Titans coach Mike Vrabel has taken bits and pieces from his former coaches as a player (Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Dean Pees and Jim Haslett) and his current and former colleagues (Haslett, Pees and Crennel) to build his own sound defensive scheme. The difference between Vrabel and Belichick, however, is that the former likes to blitz a bit more than the latter.
With stalwarts like Jadeveon Clowney, Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, Vic Beasley and Jeffery Simmons at his disposal, Vrabel can afford to turn his pass rushers loose while knowing he has the defensive backs to hold up in man and zone coverage long enough for his front-seven to get to quarterbacks. Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, Jonathan Joseph and Kristian Fulton are savvy and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are versatile, especially Byard. Byard can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz.
Despite all the talent on this side of the ball, the Titans have struggled recently by giving up lots of yardage both on the ground and through the air. They’ve especially struggled to stop the run, as they’ve allowed 498 yards through three games – an average of 166 yards per game – but luckily for them they’ve allowed just a shade more than 24 points per outing.
THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Arthur Smith, who previously served as tight ends coach while Matt LaFleur- now the head coach in Green Bay – was the Titans’ play-caller. Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
Like his former colleagues, Smith has used a playbook that emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field.
Last year former longtime Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill replaced the inconsistent Marcus Mariota as the Titans’ man under center and promptly responded with career-highs in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards-per-attempt (9.6), touchdown to interception ratio (22 to six) and quarterback rating (117.5). After signing a contract extension in the offseason, Tannehill has gotten off to a good start in 2020 with a touchdown to interception ratio of six to one, a completion percentage of 67.3 percent, 7.8 yards-per-attempt and a passer rating of 105.8.
Tannehill has some good weapons to work with. Even though he lacks great speed and quickness, running back Derrick Henry has been productive on the ground because of an abundance of power and strength in his game. Second-year standout A.J. Brown, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Adam Humphries, talented but enigmatic Corey Davis and Kalif Raymond make up Tennessee’s wide receivers, and 14-year veteran tight end Delanie Walker was released in the spring and replaced in the lineup by Jonnu Smith.
Tennessee’s offensive line is made up of three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan, former Ram Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE COMING BACK AROUND AFTER SLOW START
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 in Weeks Two and Three, Buffalo’s defense struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole has seen defensive play decline in 2020, but in order for the Bills to win in Week Four they needed to shut down the Raiders’ offense, especially the run, as they allowed 167 yards on the ground against the Rams and Las Vegas tailback Josh Jacobs was fifth in the NFL in rushing yards going into the matchup.
Which they did. Buffalo allowed just 383 yards of total offense and shut down Jacobs to the tune of just 48 yards on 15 carries. They also forced a pair of turnovers.
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 Five. Cornerback Levi Wallace will miss at least three games after being placed on injured reserve with an ankle ailment and Milano is out with a pectoral problem. Additionally, White has been dealing with a nagging back and is listed as questionable.
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 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 have resulted in the Bills scoring 30 points or more in three straight contests in 2020, the first time they’ve done that since 2011, and 27 points or more in four consecutive games – the first time they’ve accomplished that feat since 2004.
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 Tennessee. Brown, Moss and guards Cody Ford and Brian Winters are all questionable for Tuesday’s game with various health conditions.
- The Titans utilize a lot of dime personnel and zone blitzes with cornerbacks rushing from the boundary, and they especially like to pair those blitzes with Cover Two principles and coverage rotations (with cornerbacks dropping to safety depth and safeties dropping down to replace corners underneath). Tennessee also loves using man coverage in the red zone – where they struggled mightily last season. Will Vrabel change things up or will they remain true to themselves?
- The Bills have a chance to start 5-0 for the first time since 1991 and to claim a five-game winning streak for the first time since 2004.
- Sean McDermott is 2-0 so far against Tennessee as head coach of the Bills and 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).
- Allen is the second quarterback in league history to have at least two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown three times in his team’s first four games. The other to do it was Steve Grogan in 1976.
- Allen also became the second-fastest signal caller to record 20 rushing scores in NFL history behind Cam Newton.
- Singletary’s rushing score last week against the Raiders was the team’s first by a tailback since Week Nine of last season against Washington.
- According to Chris Brown of buffalobills.com, the last five meetings between the Bills and Titans were decided by just 3.2 points a game, and three of their last four outings have been decided by just one point.
- Allen could set a new team record of five straight games with a passer rating of 100 or higher.
- All three of Tennessee’s wins in 2020 have been by three points or less.
- Tuesday’s game will be the first NFL game played on that day since the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings squared off on December 28, 2010. Before that the last NFL game held on a Tuesday was staged back in 1946.