Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, as the Buffalo Bills will face the Indianapolis Colts. Here’s what you should know:
INDY’S DEFENSE IS SNEAKY GOOD, BUT TOP-HEAVY
Colts head coach Frank Reich – the former backup to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly – spent the early part of his coaching career working for Indy as Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach. During that time period, his boss was another Hall of Famer in Tony Dungy, who believed in a straightforward Cover Two zone defensive scheme that allowed his guys to play fast and rely on execution rather than outsmarting the opposition.
Reich has returned the Colts to that mindset, bringing in staff members who have ties to the Dungy coaching tree in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and defensive backs coach Alan Williams. The problem is they have little depth on that side of the ball, which limits their creativity.
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner had 9.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss in 2020 – a major factor in Indianapolis ranking in the top five in run defense for the first time in nearly 50 years. Beyond Buckner and 10-year veteran Justin Houston, however, there’s a drop-off in defensive line talent. Grover Stewart is mainly a one-dimensional run defender and Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad have shown flashes, but nothing consistent.
Indianapolis’ defense is anchored by their secondary. The Colts’ cornerbacks are the strength of this unit, led by former All-Pro Xavier Rhodes, rising second-year man Rock Ya-Sin (who is out for this weekend’s game) and one of the NFL’s best slot defenders in Kenny Moore, who can blitz and cover at a high level. Their safeties are Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon, who is filling in for the injured Malik Hooker. Hooker, who was compared by some to Ed Reed when coming out from Ohio State three years ago, has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career.
Three-time All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard is the team’s anchor at the second level and is flanked by Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke. Given the team’s penchant for playing zone coverage, watch for the opposition to attack this group with play-action – which could potentially open holes in the coverage should they bite on fake handoffs.
While Indy’s pass defense started off strong this season – allowing the sixth-least amount of yards per game in the NFL through 11 games – they have struggled ever since, giving up a shade over 311 yards through the air over their last five games (31st in in the league). They’ve allowed a completion percentage of 69.9 to quarterbacks in that same timeframe (the fifth-worst figure league-wide), and the Colts also have a knack for allowing deep passes to be completed on them.
COLTS’ OFFENSE EFFICIENT
Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirriani – a Jamestown, New York native and graduate of Southwestern High School – had a tough task on their hands coming into this season. After the retirement of one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, the Colts soldiered through 2019 with backup Jacoby Brissett as their starter, but mediocre production from him forced the question – should they draft a successor or sign a veteran free agent?
They went with the latter option, signing eight-time Pro Bowler Philip Rivers away from the Chargers to a one-year contract worth $25 million. Rivers, now in his 17th NFL season, still has an accurate arm and makes wise decisions with the football, but his arm strength has been in decline for several years now.
Indianapolis has recently increased the amount of called running plays to preserve Rivers’ aging arm. Rookie Jonathan Taylor – filling in for the injured Marlon Mack – has averaged nearly 124 yards a game since Week 11, and only Tennessee’s Derrick Henry has had more. Taylor racked up 1,169 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2020, tying Washington’s Antonio Gibson for the most among rookie tailbacks and did most of the damage on inside zone runs.
Indy also relies on their screen game to running backs and tight ends quite a bit. Nyheim Hines led the team in catches with 63 and can line up out wide or in the slot. They also use two or three tight end sets on 27.6 percent of their plays, a high number, and Jack Doyle, Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox get most of the snaps there.
Rivers’ best target is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton is reminiscent of former Bills wideout Lee Evans in that he is a one-trick pony, but he is one of the NFL’s best at that one trick – getting open on deep routes. The problem for Hilton is that he struggles against press coverage due to his smallish frame, so the Colts send him in motion frequently to create more space between him and defenders. Beyond Hilton, Indy has fellow wideouts Zach Pascal and rookie Michael Pittman Jr.
The leaders of the Colts’ offensive line are guard Quinton Nelson – one of pro football’s best at his position – and center Ryan Kelly. They are joined by right tackle Braden Smith, right guard Mark Glowinski and left tackle Jared Veldheer, who stepped in after regular starter Anthony Costanzo underwent ankle surgery.
Indianapolis was ninth in scoring this year while putting up 28.2 points a game and 11th in both passing and rushing yards. Like the Bills, they have had 24 points or more in all of their last eight games, and the Colts are very good on opening drives thanks to Reich’s opening scripts. They have scored 107 points in the first quarter, the second-best figure in football behind Baltimore.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS ELITE AGAIN
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 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 mostly were Buffalo’s defensive tackles – namely Oliver. Oliver had a slow start to 2020 and struggled to win matchups at the line of scrimmage against the run, allowing players like Edmunds to get blocked too often.
Despite those issues, there has been a turnaround on this side of the ball lately. In their last 10 games, Buffalo’s defense has combined for 46 sacks and turnovers (27 quarterback takedowns and 19 takeaways) – one of the best marks in the league in that timeframe. They also allowed just 18.3 points per game after the bye week.
Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap 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).
The Bills’ defense is among the top 10 teams in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and are also in blitz rate (around 35 percent). They mainly utilize nickel personnel and have held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 86.9 – the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL.
BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE
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 along with physical rookie Gabriel Davis, has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting deep threat John Brown and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Their importation 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 often run if his first receiver in the progression wasn’t open.
Since then, Allen has been efficient and productive and has set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in one season. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes have allowed Buffalo to become the second-best scoring offense in the league, and they have outscored their opponents 222-97 after Week 11.
Additionally, they scored 24 points or more in nine straight games, which is tied for the longest active streak in pro football with the Green Bay Packers, tied an NFL record with 13 players catching a touchdown and recorded at least 20 first downs in every game in 2020 – just the second team ever to do so in a full season (2012 New England Patriots). In fact, Buffalo tied Kansas City for the league lead in first downs with 397 – all while playing more than half of their games against defenses who finished in the top 10 in total yards allowed, passing yards given up and points surrendered.
Though the ball was flying through the air with ease, the same couldn’t be said about the ground game. Due to the release of Quinton Spain, Jon Feliciano and Mitch Morse being in and out of the lineup because of injuries and Cody Ford out for the season with knee troubles, Buffalo’s starting offensive line was compromised for the first half of 2020 and they struggled to create any sort of consistent 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, resulted in one of the NFL’s most inconsistent rushing attacks. The offensive line racked up 172 yards against the Chargers via runs on zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts and draw plays, but didn’t have the same success on the ground against San Francisco or Pittsburgh. The running game has picked up steam over the last three weeks as the Bills combined for 390 yards on the ground along with six rushing touchdowns against Denver, New England and Miami.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system 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).
In fact, the Bills have used multi-receiver sets so often that they have lined up in 11 personnel on 71 percent of their offensive snaps and 10 personnel on 14 percent of their plays. In 2020, they have used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL – and they use someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time – a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has also called for a throwing play on first down 64 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years has done it more often than Buffalo has.
Beasley’s status for the Wild Card playoff round is up in the air because of a leg injury, as is Diggs’ with a flareup of his oblique. Luckily for the Bills, veteran vertical threat Kenny Stills was signed by the team as insurance in case the second pair of Bills wideouts to each have 80 or more catches in a season (Eric Moulds and Peerless Price was the first duo to do it) cannot play.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Josh Allen was named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Month for the second time this season, joining Thurman Thomas in 1991 and Bruce Smith in 1996 as the only Bills players to be named Player of the Month twice in one year. Allen, Beasley, White and Andre Roberts were named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
- Diggs became the first Bills wide receiver ever to lead the league in catches and yards over a full season, and was the first Bills wideout to be named first team All-Pro. His 127 receptions were the sixth-most all time.
- Allen is now the only quarterback in league history with at least 4,500 passing yards, 35 or more passing touchdowns and eight rushing scores.
- Buffalo ended the season with 501 points and surpassed the 1991 squad (458 points) as the highest-scoring team in franchise history. They also accumulated 6,343 yards, breaking the ’91 team’s franchise standard (6,252).
- McDermott has 38 wins as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and has moved past Chuck Knox into third place in franchise history. Only Marv Levy and Lou Saban have more.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 30-2 when leading at halftime.
- The Bills won their sixth straight contest last week, which equaled their longest winning streak since 2004 (six). They also won 13 games (6-2 on the road, 7-1 at home) for the first time since 1991 and tied the team record for wins in a season set by the 1990 and ’91 squads.
- All six of their wins were by double digits – the first team to enter the playoffs on a streak like that since the 2014 Seattle Seahawks.
- Buffalo punted the football just 41 times all season, which is a team record (the old franchise standard for a 16-game season was 54 in 1991) and became just the third team ever to punt less than 42 times in a season (1990 Houston Oilers, 2019 Baltimore Ravens).
- Helping keep that punt number low was Buffalo’s third-down conversion rate – 49.7 percent – which was the best figure in the league.
- The Bills’ 56 points last week against Miami were the second-most in a game in team history, behind the 58 they scored against Miami in Week Three of 1966.
- Tyler Bass’s 141 points in 2020 surpassed Steve Christie’s team mark for points in a season (140) set back in 1998.
- Last week Buffalo swept the AFC East for the first time in team history.
- Roberts led the NFL in kick return average and helped the Bills lead the league in team kick return average (27.6 yards per return). Fellow special teamer Corey Bojorquez paced all punters in gross punting average with a mark of 50.8 and was fifth in net punting average.
- Buffalo is hosting a playoff game for the first time since 1996 and will look to win their first postseason contest since 1995. That last playoff win came against the Dolphins, where the Bills set a playoff record for rushing yards (341 yards) and was Don Shula’s last game as Miami’s head coach before he retired. This will also be the fifth time in the Bills’ last six playoff games (and fourth straight postseason contest) that they will face an AFC South opponent.