All 22 Breakdowns
The first preseason game is in the books, and the Bills have been handed their first loss of the season, losing 17-10 to the Vikings Thursday night. But I am sure the coaches couldn’t care less about the score, as their priority is evaluating their players en route to finalizing their 53-man roster.
Notably, the starting units looked very organized, structured, and were effective.
The offense led by QB Tyrod Taylor was able to move the ball through the air. Taylor looked decisive and even showed off some field awareness, hopefully indicative of some long term growth.
Full field read, worked thru his progressions all the way to the check down. pic.twitter.com/4lhxQTxswx
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) August 12, 2017
The run game was the catalyst and focus, which should be no surprise. Running back Jonathan Williams got the start and ripped off a couple of nice runs. He finished with 39 yards on four carries, and he seemed to have a level of quickness and vision we haven’t seen since his junior year of college.
This play was called back because of the hold, but I just love the vision Williams exhibited on this iso play. This is a play that the Bills ran a lot of last season under OC Anthony Lynn. The second year running back reads the backside 3 technique defensive tackle really well, but the hold on LG Richie Incognito nullified the gain.
One of his longest runs came when Richie pulled and dropped linebacker Eric Kendricks. As I have mentioned before, Dennison will be keeping a good chunk of the playbook, including gap runs like this one.
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) August 11, 2017
The run game looked alive and healthy as the Bills averaged 5.3 yards per carry against one of the best defenses in the league. The ‘big uglies’ upfront dominated, and they did so with a concept that has become all the rage in the NFL. The play is called ‘Duo’; It is a play that I will break down in the near future, as I believe it will become the Bills’ bread-and-butter play in 2017.
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) August 11, 2017
DE Eddie Yarbrough
The 2017 darling of training camp at St. John Fisher, hands down, has been Eddie Yarbrough. The hard work and domination he has shown camp shined through on Thursday, as well. There wasn’t much film on him since entering the league, so I quickly went back and looked at some of his Wyoming film. What I saw there was no different than what I witnessed in his first game action of the season.
Really like his hand placement on contact, transforms his speed into power thru hands. pic.twitter.com/15DibS6PzM
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) August 10, 2017
Yarbrough isn’t super athletic; he doesn’t possess top end speed to beat a tackle and run the hoop. But he knows his strengths and weaknesses, and that self awareness makes him effective. He sets up tackles with slight shoulder movements and speed changes that often leave linemen guessing, unable to determine which line he is going to take to the quarterback. Once the two way go is set up, he then uses sound technique to win.
Really like his hand placement on contact, transforms his speed into power thru hands. pic.twitter.com/15DibS6PzM
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) August 10, 2017
The stutter rush causes the tackle to stop his kickslide. Yarbrough then diagnoses the spot that Bradford will settle on, then rushes wide for the sack.
He has a bevy of pass rush moves and counters, and he showcased them versus the Vikings. On 3rd-and-4 he puts together a double handed chop and transitions into a spin move. The spin move inside forces Bradford out of the pocket, which is where he typically struggles. It leads to an incompletion and forces the Vikings’ offense off of the field
Yarbrough was the highest-graded defender, per Pro Football Focus, grading out at a +4.6. He finished the game with one sack, one QB hit, one tackle, and two stops. It is fairly evident that he knows how to use his power and stoutness to disrupt the run, as well as the pass.
On to a player that has been in the news quite a bit, and one who will continue to be, considering the moves the Bills just made: Reggie Ragland. If you look at the box score, Ragland’s name certainly shows up. He finished with three tackles, two assists, and one stop. It was a solid game for the second year player, which is a relief for him, I’m sure, as he admitted he is struggling with the defense and isn’t quite 100%. The narrative right now is that he is not a fit for the defense, and I will not say it’s wrong. I just believe it’s too early to confidently assert that. But when you watch plays like this, you can see why some might disagree. Let me start off by saying that he carried out his job by leveraging his gap correctly. He executed it so well that it forced the back to enter the line of scrimmage one gap wider, which is good.
But his feet stall, and he doesn’t ‘fire his gun’ through the gap. He then is unable to continue to scrape and leverage the ball wide, which is a tough pill to swallow, as he is the only unblocked defender. Again, he did his job, but as a Mike linebacker in this defense, as I have mentioned on our podcast, the lack of burst or explosiveness needed to scrape and make plays outside the numbers could be an issue.
Ragland hasn’t played in a live game since the BCS National Championship dating back to 2015, so his play speed isn’t yet up to snuff. However, his mental awareness and ability to process what happened and what was about to happen popped. A few plays later, the Vikings run a similar play, and this time Ragland ‘fires his gun’, but is unable to make the tackle deep in the backfield. That’s alright, though. He completely blew up the timing of the zone run play and forced the back to make a decision before he wanted to.
As the game wore on, Ragland became more comfortable and began to trust his eyes. The Vikings run outside zone here, which is a play that could give Ragland issues.
But he diagnoses the concept and entry point of the back and quickly shoots the gap for the stop.
As you can see, he got his game legs under him and began to make plays against the run. He wasn’t really tested in the pass game, though, and it is tough to tell his drops or responsibilities. From what I saw, he appeared to take good depth on drops to his landmarks, and with how vanilla the game was called, not much can be concluded in that facet of Ragland’s game.
The rookie quarterback from the University of Pittsburgh had a lukewarm day. There were passes that sailed completely off target, but then there were passes that couldn’t be any more accurate. By the end of the game he compiled a 52% completion percentage for 112 yards and one beautiful touchdown in the back corner of the end zone to WR Dez Lewis.
— Morgan Peterman (@morganpeterman3) August 11, 2017
The Vikings didn’t ease him into the NFL by any means, as they blitzed him on 16 out of 28 drop backs. But I thought he handled it well, standing in there and taking some big shots, and also running the ball when the defense was in man coverage. Although the Bills’ drive stalled, he showed poise, anticipation, and trust in his receiver Daikiel Shorts on two straight plays late in the fourth quarter.
DL Marquavius Lewis
Finally, there is defensive lineman Marquavius Lewis, a very good defensive end in college known for his run stopping abilities. The Bills have been experimenting with him at defensive tackle, which really mystified me. Depending on how they plan on using him, though, it could work. He led the team in stops, showing that he has the quickness to be an effective disruptor and the ability to stack and disengage against the run.
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) August 12, 2017
It is good to have football back, but most of all it is good to have some more film to break down. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you all season.
After winning a national championship with the Alabama Crimson Tide, linebacker Reggie Ragland was set to enter the NFL. However, after being flagged for an enlarged aorta he fell from a projected mid-first round draft pick to an early second round pick. Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 2016 NFL draft to fill a need at inside linebacker, Ragland suffered a torn ACL early on during 2016 training camp, an injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the 2016-2017 season. Coming into 2017, the Bills have changed coaches and defensive schemes, moving from Rex Ryan’s multiple defense to Sean McDermott’s 4-3 over. Ryan’s defense included many four-linebacker fronts that would have allowed Ragland to play his natural role of 3-4 inside linebacker, whereas McDermott’s defense will ask Ragland to play as a 4-3 middle linebacker.
The range and coverage assignments asked of a 4-3 MLB are more taxing and require greater speed and quicker recognition than that of a 3-4 ILB. After getting a chance to look at the all-22 film of the Arkansas vs Alabama game in 2015, there are three plays we are going to examine in this article: one with Ragland as a pass rusher, one against the run, and one when he was asked to drop back into coverage.
Rushing the Passer
Nick Saban’s defense lines up in a 4-3 front with Alabama’s dime personnel on the field. This means that Alabama has 4 down linemen, with Ragland lined up as the weak side defensive end, and with one linebacker on the field and 6 defensive backs.
Coming from the 5 spot, Ragland exhibits excellent pass rushing technique to hit the quarterback and force a hurried throw. Going against Arkansas’s left tackle Denver Kirkland, Ragland takes advantage of some bad technique by the junior offensive lineman.
Kirkland doesn’t keep his base wide enough, which allows Ragland to land an initial blow as a bullrusher. Now that Ragland has his hands on the chest plate of Kirkland’s pads, he presses with his inside hand to turn the offensive lineman. The move works to perfection, and Kirkland opens his hips, allowing Ragland to gain leverage to the inside. Ragland getting inside means that he avoids the double team from the running back, who was the 6th man in pass protection, tasked with helping the left side. Ragland now has control of the situation. Because he forced Kirkland to open his inside leg, Ragland earns a free path to the quarterback. Ragland uses a swim move to shed the block and hits the passer, forcing a hurried throw and an incompletion.
Defending the Run
Reggie Ragland is at his best when he’s playing against the run. On this play, both he and DT A’Shawn Robinson (now with the Detroit Lions) get a clean shot at the running back. Arkansas is in a heavy single-back set with an extra offensive tackle on the field lined up the right side and an H-back lined up offset to him. The call is for a dive up the middle that would be set up by the center and guard opening a lane for the running back to punch through
Alabama shows a 3-4 under front. This alignment worked perfectly against what the Razorbacks were trying to accomplish. Ragland is responsible for reading and filling the B gap when playing against the run. On this play, Ragland shows great football IQ in the path he takes. He sees that the B gap is closed due to the defensive end and defensive tackle pinching the right guard and two tackles on the right side. This opens up the A gap. Ragland shoots the gap and arrives at the same time as Robinson to tackle him in the backfield. This kind of assessment and decisiveness can help Ragland go a long way as a middle linebacker for the Buffalo Bills.
Dropping into Coverage
Arkansas shows the defense an I formation H-Twins, which essentially means that there are two wide receivers to the weak side and an in-line tight end dictating the strong side. Alabama responds with a 3-4 Okie front, which has the defensive line two gapping while the outside linebackers are responsible for the cutback lane and playing contain against the run, depending on which side the run goes to. Due to the formation of the defensive backfield, it is a safe bet that the Crimson Tide are playing either cover 3 or cover 1, based on the single deep safety look.
After the snap, Alabama is playing cover 3, which is a zone defense designed to keep everything in front of the 3 deep defenders (2 cornerbacks and a safety), while providing enough players in or near the box to effectively play the run. Cover 3 is predicated upon every defender being able to tackle well, which limits yards after the catch and means the cornerbacks can help with playing contain and countering the cutback. Ragland is tasked with playing the curl zone on the strong side as the middle linebacker.
From the I-Form H Twins alignment, Arkansas runs a “levels” route concept. This means that the weak side slot receiver runs a post route, the strong side tight end runs a ten yard out, and the outside receiver runs a delayed drag across the formation, acting as the shallow dump off option for his quarterback. This concept is effective at forcing the defense to cover all three levels of the field and means that there should be space within one of them for a receiver to come open. If all else fails, the drag route is there as a quick dump off.
Ragland does an excellent job of letting the play develop and not biting on the play action to the running back. He gets into his curl zone and reads the receiver coming across on the drag route. The ball is placed behind the receiver, as the quarterback thinks that he will sit the route down. Ragland does an excellent job of breaking on the ball as it is thrown and getting his hands inside the receiver’s hands to force an incompletion. Quick recognition and reaction like this will be key to Ragland’s success in the NFL.
Despite being drafted to play in Rex Ryan’s hybrid scheme featuring a large amount of 3-4 defensive looks, Ragland has all the skills necessary to play middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. The most apparent point of weakness for him going into 2017 will be his sideline-to-sideline speed when in coverage. At times, the task of processing information from the quarterback and covering a receiver seemed to be too much for Ragland, causing him to slow down as he was trying to make sense of all the information. As training camp starts, Ragland is second on the depth chart behind veteran linebacker Preston Brown. However, Ragland has been the subject of praise from the coaching staff and has a great shot at starting for the Bills. He has extremely high upside that is contingent upon the proper coaching and right attitude. Along with every other Bills fan, I’m truly excited to see Ragland on the field this season.
Alright, folks. Pop quiz: Who was the only offensive skill position player to appear in all 16 games for the Buffalo Bills last season?
A few guys hit 15, but missed a game due to injury (LeSean McCoy), contract issues (Tyrod Taylor), or the birth of their child (Charles Clay). The only non-lineman to play in every game for the offense last season was, of all people, Nick O’Leary.
The former sixth-round pick has been something of a fringe player for his time in Buffalo. He began his career on the practice squad before returning to the active roster at the end of his rookie year. He likely would have been cut last year, were it not for an unfortunate injury to Chris Gragg during the preseason that landed him on IR and required Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley to keep at least one more tight end who had experience on the team.
So how did O’Leary perform last year? On the stat sheet, he was entirely forgettable. He caught nine passes for 114 yards. For reference, there were 43 single-game performances last year in which those numbers were out-paced.
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) November 2, 2016
Looking beyond the stats, however, shows that O’Leary was a solid contributor on the field, and could remain so in 2017.
O’Leary finished second among tight ends in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. In 163 run block snaps, O’Leary’s grade of 83.1 was behind only Anthony Fasano of the Miami Dolphins. With the Bills’ offense being such a run-heavy operation over the last couple of seasons, O’Leary has certainly earned his keep in limited playing time.
Touchdown Mike. Ola and O’Leary with a great block at the point of attack. pic.twitter.com/BGMk4CWNkR
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) October 18, 2016
His best performance by far came in the Bills’ 45-16 dismantling of the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6. Here’s one of the more memorable plays from that game: McCoy’s masterful 22-yard scamper to convert a 3rd-and-20.
O’Leary is in an in-line position, but flexed a couple yards wide. Post-snap, he recognizes the play is headed back in his direction. When Shady cuts toward him, he quickly engages Eli Harold (57) and prevents him from getting a hand on McCoy. Plenty of players made that run work, but O’Leary set the tone with his initial downfield block that allowed McCoy to keep cutting at full speed.
Later in the game, he also contributed a notable reception. This was late in the third quarter, with the Bills holding on to a 17-13 lead.
O’Leary, the lone tight end on this play, is in-line next to Jordan Mills. Post-snap, the 49ers play zone coverage, and safety Antoine Bethea (41) is more concerned with Robert Woods coming up the opposite side of the field than he is with O’Leary.
Taylor does a great job of reading the field and keeping the play alive. O’Leary keeps up his end of the bargain by recognizing the field boundary, slowing up, and making a great leaping reception away from the body, all while maintaining control as Bethea comes down to hit him.
O’Leary saw his most extensive action of the season in the game Clay missed, a Week 13 road loss to the Oakland Raiders. Here’s another look at him showing off his blocking chops, this one coming after the two-minute warning in the first half.
The Bills were pretty well-loaded to the right, as O’Leary and fullback Jerome Felton were out in front of McCoy for this one. After chipping Mills’s defender, O’Leary engages Perry Riley, Jr. (54) and forces him to reverse his field to make a play. By the time Riley does engage McCoy (along with cornerback David Amerson), Shady has already picked up nine yards on second-and-12. The drive ended with a punt, but O’Leary’s block gave the Bills a makeable third down situation.
Touchdown Mike. Ola and O’Leary with a great block at the point of attack. pic.twitter.com/BGMk4CWNkR
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) October 18, 2016
It’s clear that O’Leary is a positive contributor in his limited role, but does he have a future under the new coaching staff? To answer that question, one needs to look no further than Jeff Heuerman.
There are a few trivial similarities between O’Leary and Heuerman. They’re both 24-year-old native Floridians who won a national championship in college (O’Leary at Florida State, Heuerman at Ohio State). They both caught nine passes for fewer than 150 yards last season. They’re fairly similar physically, with Heuerman only two inches and about seven pounds larger than O’Leary.
Heuerman, as you might have guessed, is a depth tight end for the Denver Broncos and played last year under Bills’ offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. After missing his rookie year due to a preseason ACL tear, he appeared in 12 games for the Broncos last year.
Here’s a look at Heuerman making a big catch in a late drive during the Broncos’ Week 3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Broncos are running a standard I-formation, with Heuerman (82) lined up next to the right tackle. He runs a deep corner route across the middle of the field and manages to beat his coverage to make the play. It’s not exactly the same as the O’Leary catch I highlighted above, but it’s not hard to see O’Leary filling that same role in the offense.
Overall, I believe that O’Leary is a much better blocker than Heuerman. Heuerman doesn’t exhibit the physicality of O’Leary, and that mentality will be important, as the Bills will not be able to totally transition into a finesse game.
Here’s another example of some blocking from Heuerman on a nine-yard run during the Broncos’ Week 4 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The play is a weak-side run, with Heuerman lined up next to the right tackle. He doesn’t hold his position on the line, but pulls behind the guard while the line blocks down. He doesn’t engage anybody on the play, but the mobility required is something O’Leary is going to need to contribute if he wants to keep his playing time up next year.
It’s a fairly safe bet that O’Leary sticks with the team next season. He doesn’t have any real competition for the backup tight end role behind Clay, and even if he doesn’t hold on to that, he probably won’t get knocked off the roster unless he’s injured.
O’leary has gained confidence the last couple weeks. pic.twitter.com/Aks6Xbk5in
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) October 5, 2016
What’s more important on his end is that he’s entering the final year of his rookie deal. If he wants to earn a second contract, whether it’s with the Bills or someone else, then he’s going to need to continue to perform well as a blocker while contributing a bit more to the passing game. He should have every chance to do that under Dennison, but whether he takes advantage of the opportunity is largely on him.
The November 12th matchup between the 5-4 Pittsburgh Panthers and the 9-0 Clemson Tigers was not supposed to be a 43-42 barn burner, but it turned out to be just that. There was a large disparity in talent so much so the Tigers were upwards of a 19 point favorite to win the game.
That’s because if you look up and down Clemson’s roster, you will see a plethora of possible future first round talents. Which is remarkable considering the talent they lost, but also lost was a ton of experience on the defensive side of the ball via the 2016 NFL draft. That included six defensive starters.
|ALL PLAYERS||ROUND||PK(OVR)||DRAFTED BY||POS||HT||WT||GRADE||POS RANK||OVR RANK|
|Shaq Lawson||1||19(19)||Buffalo Bills||DE||6’2⅝”||269||90||3||17|
|Kevin Dodd||2||2(33)||Tennessee Titans||DE||6’5″||277||87||4||33|
|Mackensie Alexander||2||23(54)||Minnesota Vikings||CB||5’10⅜”||190||81||7||48|
|T.J. Green||2||26(57)||Indianapolis Colts||S||6’2½”||209||70||8||99|
|B.J. Goodson||4||11(109)||NY Giants||ILB||6’0⅝”||242||69||4||106|
|Charone Peake||7||20(241)||NY Jets||WR||6’2⅜”||209||68||13||117|
|Jayron Kearse||7||23(244)||Minnesota Vikings||S||6’4″||216||61||16||141|
|D.J. Reader||5||27(166)||Houston Texans||DT||6’2⅝”||327||61||17||143|
|Zac Brooks||7||26(247)||Seattle Seahawks||RB||5’11½”||200||30||38|
|D J Reader||DT||0′”||340||0|
|T J Green||S||0′”||209||0|
Even with all of that experience and talent lost, they were a top ten defense in 2016 because they were coached well and their scheme allowed them to play fast. This is why Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme and game plan was such a thing of beauty.
Defensive coordinator Brett Venables had his unit prepared for certain plays and looks, but there was no way that their scout team could execute the ‘sleight of hand’ that the Pittsburgh offense brought that day.
Rather than try to match up mono y mono, something that the Pittsburgh offense couldn’t do on their best day, Canada used his scheme as the equalizer. He utilized a lot of shifts, motions, and exotic looks to force the Tigers’ defenders to think rather than react. The layers of ‘eye candy’ tested Clemson’s discipline from the time the Panthers’ offense ran onto the field until the final whistle.
On the first drive, Canada sends out 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) and aligns them in a goal line type set, but then shifts to 5 wide. The unorthodox set, shift and personnel was the ‘eye candy’ needed to attack corner Cordrea Tankersley.
Canada and his staff knew Tankersley’s strengths and technique. He’s a very aggressive press and bail corner, and the coaches put him in situations to take chances and create turnovers. So, when Cordrea saw the personnel — TE Jaymar Parrish and star running back James Conner into the boundary — he immediately keyed on Conner. Post-snap, the Tigers bring a six man pressure, so Tankersley knows that Peterman has to get rid of it quickly and that he LOVES throwing passes into the boundary. Peterman one-steps and points his shoulder to throw to Conner, so Tankersely jumps the out route, leaving Parrish wide open. Peterman shows off his poise and touch leading Parrish out front, which swings the field position for the Panthers.
On the very same drive, the Panthers utilize the same personnel grouping. This time, though, they attack inside linebacker Kendall Joseph. Joseph is a fast flow linebacker who only had 12 games under his belt at this point. At times, he leaves his keys, and that’s exactly why Canada attacked him. Pitt again aligns in a five wide set with 22 personnel in the game, motions a couple times, and uses RB Conner as the ‘eye candy’ with jet sweep action. Joseph loses his eye discipline and widens to the jet sweep action, even though that is not his responsibility.
The ‘eye candy’, paired with the power read shovel pass, caused Joseph to improperly react and ultimately took him out of position. This allowed the “less superior athlete” (FB Aston) the opportunity to break a tackle and get into the end zone. This play would be replicated on several occasions throughout the game, and the Tigers could not stop it.
At the 9:44 mark of the second quarter, the Panthers’ offense got another crack at the drive, after Clemson committed a pass interference penalty on 3rd and 1o. Canada calls a deep shot. Pre snap, the strength of the offense is into the boundary, but they motion the tight end and full back and settle in with the strength to the field.
Post snap, they run play action to Conner to the boundary, and Peterman half rolls to his left.
Peterman’s roll out action and eye manipulation of sophomore safety Van Smith (17 games played at this point) allow tight end Scott Orndoff to sneak out while matched up with Ben Boulware. Coverage is not Boulware’s forte. Rather, he’s an instinctive, downhill player. The play design got the Panthers’ most consistent receiver, Orndoff, one-on-one with Boulware.
Peterman stops his half roll, swings his hips around, and throws it deep and where only Orndoff can catch it. This was another multi-layered play with a dash of deception built into it, and topped of with very good mechanics by the senior QB.
Pittsburgh continuously attacked up the middle, as it is the quickest way to get upfield, stay ahead of the chains, and downright demoralize a defense. They consistently attacked the linebackers in the pass and run game. The power blocking concepts helped the less talented Panthers offensive line secure the Clemson front at the point of attack. The motion and play design forced mental mistakes by the defensive unit as a whole the whole day. For example, take the following play.
Pittsburgh again uses motion to confuse the Tigers’ defenders. The series of motions appears to be the ‘trick’ that caused a blown assignment by LB Joseph.
The play is made to look very similar to the shovel pass that was run earlier in the game. It shows the same read keys for Joseph, and he and safety Tanner Muse both key the FB Aston.
Peterman plays the part of the magician. He fakes the shovel, uses his eyes to hold Muse, remains calm, and throws an accurate pass off platform as LB Boulware closes in. It was a pretty design and excellent execution by Peterman.
As you may have noticed, Peterman played a huge part in Pittsburgh’s ability to use the ‘sleight of hand’ to beat an uber-talented Tigers defense. Of all the QBs that entered the 2017 draft, Peterman had some of the tightest mechanics, understood all of the nuances of playing the position and they were on full display during this game.
On the following play, the Panthers again motion two times and add the jet action into a simple inside zone run play. With so many layers to the play prior to the snap, the Tigers’ defenders were already questioning themselves.
This includes defensive end Christian Wilkins, the Nagurski finalist and Bednarik semifinalist. He is arguably one of Clemson’s best players, and surely the most versatile. Wilkins had several false keys thrown at him on this play. Post snap, the H-release by Aston, along with the jet action, cause Wilkins to second guess himself. Wilkins who is 6’4″, 310 pounds is is unblocked and that is an unusual position for a guy of his size to be in. Initially, he takes a good angle to Conner, but then changes direction as Peterman carries out the bootleg.
This leaves a massive cutback lane, and Conner hits it. This was another fine example of the offense utilizing everything in their arsenal to cause elite defenders to hesitate instead of play fast.
Pat Narduzzi’s Pittsburgh Panthers definitely threw a wrench in Clemson’s perfect season. However, the credit should go to the Panthers’ offense and offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Canada used an array of deception to cause the Tigers’ defenders to play at a much slower pace. He challenged their ability to mentally process plays at their typical game speed by using pre snap motions, shifts, and creative play designs. This game was an exercise in how a well coached and executed scheme can be the equalizer on gameday.
Players who stuck out on film:
Nathan Peterman-Displayed very good eye discipline, the ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes in order to get the ball to his primary wide receiver. Absolutely loved his decision making in the game. Pre-snap he was often asked to decipher the defensive coverages or alignments based on the myriad of motions, keep the play called or kill it. On the read shovel passes made the correct reads and decisions on whether to give, keep or shovel. Flashed his underrated athletic ability to extend plays or to get outside of the pocket and throw on the run. Displayed the ability to make accurate throws while under duress from inside the pocket and with defenders at his feet. Consistently kept his eyes downfield even when he had to slide in the pocket and or climb the pocket. His mechanics are top notch. Exhibits very good ball handling skills on hand offs and play action fakes, carries out ‘QB keepers’, and overall made every play look the same making it difficult on defenders. Lastly, he was always poised and in control. Late in the game he led the offense down the field with great decision making and two very accurate passes to Orndoff to put his kicker in position to win the game.
His throwing on the run was much worse in this game than other games viewed this season. His accuracy suffered, he failed to complete a few passes due to an improper amount of velocity on the throw.
James Conner-Conner was the catalyst for the Panthers offense and that was with the Tigers knowing he would be. Showed good balance and lateral agility especially immediately prior to contact. Conner exhibited very good patience, pressing the line of scrimmage on zone runs. His vision was top notch in this game, worked through front side reads and cut it back if needed. Consistently used his off-hand to stiff arm or to sift through garbage. In the passing game, he did a solid job of cutting defenders when he needed to and knowing when to check release into a route. He also did a great job of carrying out all play action fakes and displayed soft hands in the passing game.
Dexter Lawrence-I thought Dexter was almost un-blockable in the run game. The Pitt offensive line could not block him one on one. Versus the run he did a great job of keying the ball, maintaining gap integrity then bench pressing the offensive players en route to the running back. Overall was hit or miss as a pass rusher. Exhibited good burst off the ball early in drives along with solid lateral agility on stunts and twists. Displayed a nice arm over move and bull rush but at times looked gassed after a series of 4-5plays.
Dexter Lawrence 6’5″ 340 pound FRESHMAN didn’t disappoint in ’16 or in this game. pic.twitter.com/gcrRApY3i1
— Cover 1 (@Cover1Bills) June 21, 2017
As everyone knows, the NFL is a passing league. That’s why there aren’t many fullbacks left in today’s game. According to Football Outsiders (FO), only six fullbacks played over 25% of their teams’ offensive snaps in 2016. Former lead back for Buffalo, Jerome Felton, was one of those six, having participated in 30.5% of the team’s offensive snaps. He truly made a difference for Buffalo’s #1 rushing attack and really seized his opportunity after being cut early in the season.
— Cover 1 (@Cover1Bills) December 7, 2016
The problem with Felton was that he is cut from the same cloth as fullbacks of yore: downhill thumpers who use power and contact to clear holes for backs. But the role of fullbacks in today’s game has advanced. Enter Patrick DiMarco.
Buffalo signed the talented fullback early on in free agency, and it was a sign that Buffalo was not going to change their offensive philosophy. Rather, they were just going to tweak it. As much as Felton brought in the run game, he was not a player that could be relied upon to block moving defenders in the open field or make a difference in the passing game like DiMarco.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he was the fourth highest graded fullback overall, first in run blocking, and the third highest graded receiver out of the backfield (FBs with over 100 receiving snaps). DiMarco is one of the best fullbacks in the game, and it’s because he offers more athleticism and versatility than what we’re used to.
Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is used to having fullbacks who bring that style of play. In Dennison’s zone blocking scheme, the fullback isn’t asked to just get downhill and put a helmet on a helmet. DiMarco, who played in the same exact system in Atlanta, is asked to move a lot pre-snap to outflank defenses and use angles to seal off defenders.
In zone blocking, simply put, the lineman are working combo blocks to the second level in the direction of the run. This moves gaps horizontally, in turn testing defenders’ run gap integrity.
This is a far cry from a power run game where the tailback has a specific landmark to aim for (e.g. the 4 or 6 hole). DiMarco is asked to lead, read the flow of the linebackers, and use angles to block defenders, all while keeping options open for the running back. This is something that he is very adept at doing.
As you will see in the following clips, DiMarco utilized his athleticism to get out into the open and cut defenders down, which opened up creases for Devonta Freeman. The one cut ability of Freeman and Tevin Coleman, paired with DiMarco’s ability to create lanes for backs at the second level, led to the league’s 5th best rushing attack.
Did you notice anything in the prior two clips? They were runs to the weak side. Why is that important? It’s the cornerstone to the play action passing game that has made this system famous. Matt Ryan ran play action 27.6% (#1) of his passing snaps in 2016, and a lot of those passes were off of run actions like these. The zone run game helped Ryan increase his yards per attempt by +2.8 yards on play action vs. normal drop back passes. The defense is going to have one hell of a time defending these zone runs with Shady and Tyrod Taylor at the helm . . . but that’s an analysis for another day.
Let’s get back on track. As I mentioned earlier, Dennison is used to having a fullback with similar skills to DiMarco. Here’s a clip from Rico’s tenure in Baltimore when he had FB Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk uses angles to take Kuechly where he wants to go, giving RB Justin Forsett the ability to cut it back. How important is the role of DiMarco and Juszczyk? Juszczyk hit the jackpot by signing a 21 million dollar deal in San Francisco with new Head Coach Kyle Shanahan . . .
I don’t want to sell DiMarco short. Yes, he uses his speed, angles, and ability to target, but can he lead with power at the point of attack? Absolutely. He can dominate safeties and linebackers, which is often a difficult task to carry out, due to those types of players’ athletic prowess.
Having a guy like DiMarco on the field also helps dictate matchups. Yes, I said it; a fullback helps dictate matchups. This occurs in the run and the pass game. In the run game, DiMarco’s movement often helps the offense outflank a defense or gives blockers angles to execute.
For example, on the following play, DiMarco aligns in the backfield. In this 21 personnel set, the defense will have eight to nine people in or around the line of scrimmage, but more importantly, they will have a sound defensive structure.
As he motions out wide, the defenders bump out, which lightens the box to around seven/eight, but more importantly, the defense loses a linebacker in the tackle box. This is because by motioning wide, the offense is creating another run gap that the defense must account for.
This creates a HUGE bubble for the offense, and Shanahan attacks with inside zone.
This was all set up from a little movement by DiMarco. When used correctly, it is like poetry in motion. Watch it unfold.
Atlanta used him EVERYWHERE. There were times where he was split wide in empty sets, in the slot in 3×1 sets, and even as the lone back in the backfield with check release responsibilities.
A staple of this offense is by aligning the fullback out wide then motioning him to the backfield. The Falcons do just that to help Ryan decipher that it is zone coverage, so he puts them in the correct play. Post snap, he sells the run, which holds the second level defenders. He finds the single high safety, alerting him that it is zone coverage, and he is able complete the dig to Jones. That motion by DiMarco seems minor, but it makes plays like this much easier on a QB. Deciphering coverages is more than half the battle with Tyrod Taylor.
Fullbacks like Juszczyk and DiMarco are legitimate receiving threats because they are able to release into routes from the backfield. DiMarco was in a passing route 34% of his snaps in 2016, compared to Felton’s 15.5%. The ability to catch and run by a fullback allows coaches to devise ways to not only get them the ball . . .
But it can also open up passing windows for others. On the following play, the Steelers are in a cover three defense, and Juszczyk runs the wheel up the sideline. This forces Polamalu to carry him deep. This leaves a nice window for WR Steve Smith to run a pivot route. So coordinators can devise ways to get 2-3 guys into a route, all while being in 21 personnel (which will keep defenses in base personnel).
Flashback to 2016. Ryan carries out the play fake that forces the cover 2 middle defender to come screaming towards the line of scrimmage. DiMarco releases into the flat, and that widens the hook/curl defender just enough to open a gaping window for the receiver to hook up his route. This is another example of the Falcons running a three man route from 21 personnel.
DiMarco’s presence will allow the offense to maintain it’s run first philosophy, but ultimately, he will augment the passing game. Dennison will move DiMarco around and use a lot of pre snap motion to outflank defensive run fits, but also to dictate coverages.
Dennison’s wide zone runs to Shady, in addition to play action and getting Taylor on the perimeter versus zone coverage, will be tough to stop. Taylor will have not only his physical skills to rely on, but also a scheme that puts him and others in position to be more efficient. This isn’t just a boom or bust offense, but rather an offense that can stretch zone coverage horizontally, not just vertically.
So, for as much flak as the Bills took for signing fullbacks Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert, their skills will be crucial to what Dennison can do in his first year coordinating an offense.
Don’t forget to tune into Cover 1 | Live Sunday May 21, 2017
One of Micah Hyde’s Many Roles
Offenses in today’s NFL are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) a majority of the game, so defenses have had to adjust. This means that defenses now have to play more nickel. But due to offensive alignments when in 11 personnel, this often causes defenses to be at a disadvantage versus the run. The amount of defenders in the box will now typically be even with the offense, and that means the offense can get a hat on a hat, which usually equates to considerable gains. That is not even taking into account the many ways that offenses can get a +1 on the defense when running plays like zone reads. So defensive coordinators have to scheme ways to combat those offensive advantages.
One way that coaches do that is with run blitzes. These are in every playbook and are often called in early down situations. Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier are well versed in this concept and strategy. That’s why they went out and got versatile safety Micah Hyde. Hyde was one of the better pass blitzers in 2016. According to Pro Football Focus, he blitzed the 2nd most in all of the league from the slot corner position, blitzing on 7.4% of his pass snaps. One can only imagine how many times he was sent as a blitzer during a run down.
There is no doubt that he will be aligned in the slot in nickel situations and asked to be the force defender, often asked to blitz on run and pass downs. It’s something that he is good at, as he displays very good key and diagnose skills. He certainly shows the ability to read run/pass quickly, take great angles on the ball, and make the tackle.
So, let’s take a look at how McDermott utilized this strategy in Carolina last season.