Welcome to Week 12 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’ 11th game of the 2020 season will take place in Orchard Park as they face the Los Angeles Chargers. Here’s what you should know:
BOLTS’ OFFENSE PUSHES FORWARD WITH CHANGING CAST
During his time as an assistant coach with the Bills from 2015-16, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn preferred a running game predicated on man-blocking schemes and gap/power principles with guards and tackles pulling around the edge. He and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen have brought that approach, plus a vertical passing game based on Coryell system concepts to Los Angeles, and it has worked well even though L.A. has gone through a bit of a makeover during the last two years.
Gone are longtime stalwarts like Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon, and in their place has been an influx of youth. Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, while slightly overlooked coming out of Oregon in the spring and stuck in the shadows of Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, has shown that the NFL isn’t too big for him. A mobile signal-caller with a strong arm and improved ball placement, it has been widely believed that the Ducks’ conservative system held Herbert back a bit and more creative minds – like the Chargers’ – could bring out the best in him, and so far that has been the case.
Herbert has a plethora of options as his disposal. Tight end Hunter Henry is in his third full season taking over for Gates and is adept as a receiver and blocker in the running game. The consistently overlooked Keenan Allen is one of the league’s best route runners when healthy (he excels on slants and pivot/whip routes) and understands how to play off opposing cornerbacks’ leverage. Counterpart Mike Williams is a solid downfield threat and physical red zone target, Tyron Johnson is a burner who can beat defenders deep and Donald Parham is a threat inside the five-yard line.
Running back Austin Ekeler, an elusive ballcarrier and a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and split out wide, has missed most of the season with a torn hamstring but could return against the Bills this week. His replacement, Kalen Ballage, has touched the ball 63 times over his last three games and is listed as questionable with an ankle ailment, so Ekeler may step back in along with backup Joshua Kelley.
They operate behind an offensive line made up of Sam Tevi, Forrest Lamp, Dan Feeney, Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga. Feeney has replaced former Pro Bowler Mike Pouncey – who is out for the season with a hip injury – and Bulaga has been dealing with a knee ailment. Swingman Ryan Groy, a former Bill, is on the Chargers’ COVID-19 list.
DESPITE INJURIES, CHARGERS’ DEFENSE STAYS TRUE TO ITS SYSTEM
Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s defensive philosophy originated with the Seattle Seahawks, where he and Pete Carroll popularized the Cover Three zone. The scheme typically aligns one safety deep in the center of the field and another playing close to the line of scrimmage in run support while the front four defensive linemen rush the quarterback, and blitzes are rarely used. Cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Chris Harris, one of the best duos in the league, play deep zone coverage while dividing the field in thirds.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, safety Derwin James – who is versatile enough to line up as a deep centerfielder and as a box safety – suffered a torn knee meniscus in early September and has missed all of 2020. Hayward is out for Sunday’s game with a nagging groin, but Harris (a corner who is excellent both on the outside and inside as a nickel back) might come back after being out with an injured foot. Filling in for them have been Rayshawn Jenkins (another multi-faceted safety that can defend deep or short), Nasir Adderly (who recently has been playing the role of free safety) and Michael Davis. Tevaughn Campbell is the team’s new slot cornerback, having replaced the now-traded Desmond King.
Up front the Bolts are anchored by three stalwarts on their defensive line. Linval Joseph, a former Minnesota Viking and New York Giant, is an excellent gap-shooter and a good run stuffer at defensive tackle, and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram make up one of pro football’s best pass-rusher combinations at defensive end (Justin Jones is the other starter at tackle). Ingram is out for Sunday’s contest after a knee issue forced him to miss practice this week.
L.A.’s linebackers are made up of rookie first-round pick Kenneth Murray, Denzel Perryman and Nick Vigil. Murray is an A-plus athlete whose recognition of formations is up-and-down and Perryman is a nice run defender, but isn’t normally used in nickel packages. The latter could be utilized more often in that role with Kyzir White being placed on the team’s COVID-19 list.
The Chargers have lost 16 of their last 19 games in one-score contests, and all seven of their losses this season have been by eight points or less.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE MADE SOME PLAYS AGAINST ARIZONA
The Bills’ defense became one of pro football’s elite units over the last two years. 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 to see the Bills take too many penalties and create little in terms of a pass rush or be unable to fill gaps against the run. The underachievers have mostly been Buffalo’s defensive tackles – namely Oliver. Oliver has had a sophomore slump in 2020 and has struggled to win matchups at the line of scrimmage against the run, allowing players like Edmunds to get blocked too much.
Despite those issues, there may be a turnaround coming on this side of the ball soon. Even though the team allowed 30-plus points against two of the NFL’s best offenses in Seattle and Arizona in their last two games – and a game-winning Hail Mary from Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins – Buffalo’s defense mostly rattled Murray and Russell Wilson with aggressive, blitz-happy game plans and racked up eight sacks and six turnovers – resulting in the Bills being ranked sixth in the league in quarterback takedowns.
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 has been a bit banged up recently, but they’ve got some good news going into Week 12. Cornerback Josh Norman is back after missing four straight weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 and dealing with a nagging hamstring issue, and fellow defensive backs Levi Wallace and Dean Marlowe are also returning after being activated off the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Milano’s pectoral muscle problem flared up again against New England, leading to the team placing him on injured reserve and will miss a second straight outing this Sunday.
BILLS’ OFFENSE PRODUCTIVE, BUT NOT WITHOUT WARTS
In 2019, 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 is a good compliment to the shifty Devin Singletary – and traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings.
Diggs is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. Those acquisitions – especially Diggs, whose arrival has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps along with deep threat John Brown and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley – initially 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.
Weeks Five and Six were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings of 2020. Third-year quarterback Josh Allen made some poor choices in the passing game – most of his struggles seemed to come when defenses would rotate their zone coverages and change the depth of their safeties at the snap, muddying what Allen was seeing from the pocket. He also stayed on his first read for too long sometimes and would sometimes run if his first receiver in the progression wasn’t open. Since then, Allen has been efficient and productive – he is on pace to break the Bills’ team records for completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns in one season, and has become the only signal caller ever with 2,800 yards, 21 passing scores and five-plus rushing touchdowns through 10 games of a season.
While the ball has been flying through the air with ease, the same cannot be said about the ground game. Due to the release of Quinton Spain and injuries to Jon Feliciano, who missed the first seven games with a torn pectoral muscle, Mitch Morse (who sustained a concussion a few weeks ago) and Cody Ford – now out for the season with knee troubles – Buffalo’s starting offensive line has been compromised for most of 2020 and they have struggled to create any sort of push along the line of scrimmage.
Those problems, plus a recent trend of utilizing outside zone runs almost exclusively to the left side of the line, have culminated into one of the NFL’s least effective rushing attacks. The opposition has noticed these flaws too, resulting in Allen being blitzed at the ninth-highest rate among starting quarterbacks in the league.
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 this season – mostly out of 11 personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).
Not to be outdone by their defensive counterparts, the Bills also have some players on offense who are returning from various aches and pains. The good news is that tight end Tyler Kroft is back after being taken off the COVID-19 list and Morse will start after recovering from his head injuries. The bad news is that Brown was placed on injured reserve due to a high ankle sprain, so he will miss a minimum of three games.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Diggs is second in the league in catches and third in receiving yards, and is on pace to break Eric Moulds’ single-season team records in both categories. Keenan Allen, meanwhile, is not only first in the NFL is receptions, but has also reached the end zone in each of his last four games.
- Should Josh Allen throw for 300 yards and rush for 50 again in the same game, he would join Steve Young (eight), Michael Vick (four), Newton (three) and Russell Wilson (three) as the only quarterbacks in the last 70 years to have more than two such games in their careers (Allen has done so twice in the 2020 season alone).
- McDermott has 32 wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and is just six wins away from moving past Chuck Knox for third in franchise history. He is also 3-0 coming off a bye week.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 24-2 when leading at halftime.
- The Bills are in first place in the AFC East, and it’s the first time they are in the top spot in the division this late in the season since Week 13 of 1996.
- Buffalo leads the league in pass percentage on first down (60.4 percent). That number has led the Bills to 10 straight games with 20 first downs or more – the last two teams to accomplish that feat (2017 Patriots and 2018 Los Angeles Rams) reached the Super Bowl, and that streak has tied the longest in the history of the franchise (1992).
- Diggs and Beasley each had over 10 receptions against the Cardinals – the first time in team history that two wideouts reached double digits in catches in one contest.
- Hughes can tie Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history with two sacks on Sunday.
- Corey Bojorquez is the AFC’s leader in gross punting average (49.1 yards-per-punt) and is fourth in the league in that category.
- Tyler Bass connected on the second-longest field goal in Bills history against Arizona with a 58-yarder (Steve Christie holds the record with a 59-yard kick in Super Bowl XXVIII) and also got into the record books in other ways. His boots from 54, 55 and 58 yards away made him only the second kicker in NFL annals to convert three field goals in a game that were all 54 yards or longer (Kris Brown of Houston accomplished that in 2007), the first kicker in Buffalo’s history to make three 50-yard field goals in a game and just the second kicker in team annals to boot multiple 50-yarders in a game (Mike Hollis at Minnesota on 9/15/02 and Stephen Hauschka in 2017 against Denver and Atlanta).
- Speaking of special teams, the Chargers demoted kicking unit coach George Stewart following last week’s outing against the New York Jets. According to ESPN, “Punter Ty Long was supposed to run out the clock before taking an intentional safety but went down with one second left in the fourth quarter. The Chargers were able to cover the ensuing kick and hold on for the 34-28 win. Long also had a punt blocked for the third time in four games….. they are 28th in punt returns, 30th in punt coverage, 31st in kick coverage and 16th in kick returns.”