Welcome to Week Nine 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’ ninth game of the 2020 season will take place in Orchard Park as they face the Seattle Seahawks. Here’s what you should know:
SEAHAWKS’ OFFENSE HAS EXPANDED THEIR HORIZONS
After back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and winning a championship in 2013, the Seattle Seahawks began a slight decline that saw the team drop from the status of a Super Bowl contender to a mere playoff team. It was a time in which the Seahawks began to get away from their offensive identity a bit, which resulted in then-coordinator Darrell Bevell being shown the door following 2017. Head coach Pete Carroll came to the realization that quarterback Russell Wilson was more suited to operate an offense that can use rollouts, bootlegs and passing plays outside of the pocket – mostly due to his 5’11” frame, which limits Wilson inside the pocket. That explains the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer in 2018 to execute this vision, and Wilson has adapted accordingly.
Before landing in Seattle, Schottenheimer – like his father, former NFL head coach Marty – was known for leading conservative attacks with the Rams and New York Jets. But Schottenheimer, now in his third year with the Seahawks, has opened up his scheme more, resulting in this offense being one of the most pass-happy in the NFL. In addition to the aforementioned rollouts and bootlegs, this scheme is also characterized by deep vertical throws off of play-action, split-flow movement by the tight ends during said run-action to open up windows over the middle of the field and flood concepts that will attack the deep, intermediate and short levels of one side of the formation.
Wilson is among the game’s best deep ball throwers because of his arm strength, accuracy and impeccable mechanics. He feels pressure well within the pocket and can extend plays due to his quickness and second-reaction movement. Wilson, the frontrunner for the league’s MVP award so far, also has a habit of sometimes dropping his eyes away from his receivers to the pass rush in front of him, but also the rare ability to pick them back up and refocus on what is happening down the field.
Tyler Lockett possesses a ton of speed and quickness and has taken over the retired Doug Baldwin’s old slot duties in this scheme. Second-year man D.K. Metcalf can run slants, posts, “sluggos” (slant and gos) and go routes from a boundary ‘X’ position (the single receiver on the opposite side of a formation while others line up on another). Metcalf, while not especially quick, has excellent body control and can make contested catches along the sidelines, while Lockett and tight ends Greg Olsen and Luke Willson can work the middle of the field.
Seattle’s running game is typically zone-based and executed by the underrated Chris Carson and backups Rashad Penny and Carlos Hyde, who are currently 12th in the NFL in rushing yards. The problem is all three of those backs are out this week with injuries. Last year when the Seahawks had injuries at that position they brought back Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, who were both members of the Seahawks’ glory days and were still decently productive – especially Lynch in short-yardage situations. This time around those duties will likely be carried out by Travis Homer and Deejay Dallas.
The team’s offensive line is made up former Pro Bowlers Duane Brown and Mike Iupati, and team newcomers Ethan Pocic, Damien Lewis and Brandon Shell. Iupati will miss Sunday’s game with a back issue.
SEATTLE’S DEFENSE STRUGGLING, BUT HAS GOTTEN BACK TO THEIR ROOTS
The same scenario happened for their defense, as Kris Richard moved towards an approach based more off Cover-One – man coverage across the board with one deep safety and one in the box – and not on their traditional Cover Three (three-deep zone coverage). Carroll let Richard walk before 2018 and replaced him with former linebackers coach and Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and the Seahawks have gotten back to their zone-based fundamentals (Chris B. Brown of smartfootball.com wrote an excellent piece on Carroll’s defensive philosophy a number of years ago, check it out here: https://grantland.com/features/whos-laughing-now/).
While not the feared Legion of Boom unit from earlier this decade, Seattle has a youthful defense that is near the bottom of the NFL in most categories – especially against the pass – but still has some talent, resulting in being tied for the league lead in takeaways with 14. Their best pass rushers are former first round draft pick L.J. Collier and ex-Cincinnati Bengal Carlos Dunlap, who each have an abundance of power in their game and utilize strength and technique to get to opposing quarterbacks rather than speed. Defensive tackles Jarran Reed and Poona Ford are good at clogging gaps against the run, and sometimes Carroll and Norton will ask one side of their front-four to control two gaps while the other will be responsible for one – getting the best of both worlds in run support (additionally, this team also likes to overload one side of the line in passing situations and bring stunts and twists to create pressure).
Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain among the best in the NFL in coverage responsibilities (Wagner is also a quietly good blitzer) and the drafting of speedy rookie Jordyn Brooks allows Seattle to use their base defense at a higher rate than other teams. They rarely utilize extra defensive backs.
The Seahawks’ secondary is headlined by young cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar and safeties Quandre Diggs and the versatile and rangy Jamal Adams, who was acquired via trade with the Jets over the summer.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE NOT YET BACK UP TO PAR
Over the last two years the Bills’ defense became 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 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. Those problems reared their ugly head once again last week, as the team allowed 188 yards on the ground to the New England Patriots.
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 Nine. Cornerback Josh Norman is out for a third straight week with a hamstring issue and Butler is questionable with a groin injury. Milano’s pectoral muscle problem flared up again last week, leading to the team placing him on injured reserve and knocking him out of the lineup for at least the next two or three weeks (Milano and Norman could be replaced by recent signees Darron Lee and Daryl Worley).
BILLS’ OFFENSE SLOWED AFTER HOT START
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 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.
But Weeks Five and Six were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings of 2020. 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.
There was also some upheaval on the Bills’ offensive line. With Cody Ford and Brian Winters having replaced now ex-Bill Quinton Spain and the previously-injured Jon Feliciano, Buffalo struggled to create any sort of push along the line of scrimmage – culminating into one of the NFL’s least effective rushing attacks. The results did change somewhat over the last two weeks with the ground game producing 316 rushing yards on 65 attempts (it also helped that New England lined up with six or more defensive backs on 54 of 55 snaps – essentially daring the Bills to run at them rather than pass).
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.
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 the Seahawks. Tight end Dawson Knox is questionable with a calf injury but has been removed from the COVID-19 list. Ford is nursing an aching knee and center Mitch Morse is out with a concussion.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen could surpass Jack Kemp’s team mark of 13 career games with both a passing and rushing score. He has also accounted for 20 touchdowns through eight games, the best such mark in franchise annals (Jim Kelly had 19 through eight games in 1991).
- Diggs has had five straight games with six catches or more, joining Eric Moulds as the only Bills receivers to do so. He’s also third in the league in catches and second in receiving yards.
- Against the Patriots last Sunday, Hughes moved past Kyle Williams for fifth in team history with 49.5 sacks.
- Should 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 31 wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and is just seven wins away from moving past Chuck Knox for third in franchise history.
- Last week Moss became just the fourth rookie running back to have at least 80 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the same game against New England since 2000 – Clinton Portis, Maurice Jones-Drew and Arian Foster were the others.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 23-1 when leading at halftime.
- Buffalo leads the league in third-down conversion rate (51.6 percent) and is 4-0 against divisional opponents for the first time in nearly 30 years (1991).
- 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 the mid-90s (Week 13 of 1996). They are also 6-2 in consecutive years for the first time since a six-year stretch from 1988-93.
- Recently the Bills have been eschewing their traditional zone coverages in favor of more man tactics. Will they go back to zone more often knowing how good of a runner Wilson can be?
- This will be Seattle’s first game in Buffalo since 2008 (the last time the Bills hosted the Seahawks, in 2012, the game was played in Toronto).
- The last time the Bills played in a game where both they and their opponent had a winning percentage of .750 or better was in December 1990 when they faced off in what proved to be a Super Bowl XXV preview against the New York Giants. That streak will end this Sunday.
- Wilson has thrown for 26 touchdowns this year, the most by a quarterback through seven games since Tom Brady had 27 in 2007.