My appearance on the Numb Bills Fan Podcast
Week six matches the 3-2 Buffalo Bills up against the 1-4 San Francisco 49ers. Bills fans are happy to see that, on paper, the Bills have more talent and are playing with more confidence than the 49ers. San Francisco has the 21st-ranked defense overall, but they are even worse defending the run, coming in at 31st in the NFL. One would probably think that the Bills and their 3rd-ranked rushing offense should be able to control the game and coast past the Niners. But the game isn’t decided on paper. The game is decided on the field, and it’s outcome often reflects several key matchups. Let’s see where the Bills have the advantage on the field:
I don’t think it’s a secret that the Bills are going to attack the Niners’ defense on the ground. Four out of the five teams that have played San Francisco this season attempted 31 rushes or more — accounting for all four of San Francisco’s losses this season.
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The 49ers’ defense leads the league in 20+ yard runs surrendered, so you know the Bills offensive line and LeSean McCoy are licking their chops. To boot, the Bills have the most 20+ yard runs in the league with seven, and two rushes of 40+ yards.
Overall, opposing offenses have been able to run the ball at will against San Francisco. The 49ers’ defense has given up big runs to just about every team they have played. They have really struggled, especially lately, matching up with teams that employ “12 personnel” (1 RB, 2 TEs). The Cowboys and Cardinals ran a lot of zone runs out of these sets. The problem is that the 49ers front seven, and especially their inside linebackers — a unit that is depleted without Navarro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong — have trouble shedding blocks.
Here, the Cardinals run an outside zone play. The defensive line moves well laterally, but they are unable to keep the inside backers clean, and Johnson carves them up for 18 yards.
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On this play, the Niners have three safeties on the field against the Cowboys’ 12 personnel. Eight men are crowded into the box, including two safeties. The Cowboys run an outside zone play. Elliot presses the line of scrimmage, then plants his foot and gets up field for a 26-yard gain. Look at how well the Cowboys’ vaunted offensive linemen get to the second level. The 49ers’ best defensive lineman is 2016 first round pick Deforest Buckner (#99). His length could be an issue for the Bills’ offensive linemen. If he can be handled one-on-one, then the run game should be able to get linemen to the second level, and the RBs into favorable matchups against the 49ers’ secondary. Buckner has been dealing with an injury, but he is expected to play this weekend.
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Anthony Lynn has mixed up the run concepts from week to week. Lately, it has been a lot of misdirection but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sprinkle in more pin and pull runs from last year. It will get Shady to the edge and show the Niners a different look than what teams have been using against them. Check out the concept:
What bodes well for the Bills’ passing game is that the Niners know that the Bills are going to feature LeSean McCoy. Much like the Rams did last week, Anthony Lynn should expect the Niners to stack the box by dropping down a safety.
According to Pro Football Focus, the two starting safeties for the Niners lead the league in snaps in the box (within 8 yds of the LOS). Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea have a combined total of 32 tackles, 2 assists, and 15 run stops against the run this season. Reid has the most run snaps in the box for NFL safeties with 60, and Bethea is #2, with 44. I don’t expect the Niners to change up that philosophy against the Bills’ run-heavy offense. Their defense, missing two stellar linebackers in Bowman and Armstrong, have had to compensate by inserting a safety in an attempt at stopping the run.
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Again, this could bode well for the Bills’ style of offense. It should lead to a lot of 1-on-1 matchups for the Bills’ beleaguered receivers. When the Bills get their 1-on-1s, they should definitely look to attack 49ers CB Tramaine Brock. In the last two games, Brock has given up four touchdowns. In their matchup with the 49ers, the Cardinals targeted Brock’s primary assignment nine times. Brock fared relatively well, only giving up two completions, but crucially, both completions went for touchdowns.
The 49ers bring a safety into the box and leave Brock on an island against Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzy hits Brock with a double move and makes the play look easy. According to Football Outsiders, the Niners give up the most yards to opposing #1 WRs, compared to the NFL average. Specifically, they give up an average of 91.5 yards/game to opposing #1 WRs (league average is 72.6).
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Brock has been beaten a couple of times this season by double moves. Against the Cowboys, he was beaten for a touchdown by Terrance Williams. He gets left on an island, gets completely turned around, and fails to make a play on the ball.
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The Bills under Anthony Lynn have run double move routes every single week. Last week, they ran double move routes quite a lot. On one play, Tyrod Taylor had Robert Woods on a double move, but they failed to connect. Against the Patriots in week 4, Lynn utilized a double move by Robert Woods to get the ball deep and to the sideline. If the Niners bring their safeties down as much as I anticipate, expect a lot of deep shots and deep comeback routes to Robert Woods to be a recurring theme this week. Here, see a 1st-and-10 roll out. Woods turns Ryan around. Good anticipation and throw. pic.twitter.com/2QBKZSXREa
— Cover 1 (@Cover1Bills) October 5, 2016
The 49ers defense, as a whole, is terrible defending the deep pass. According to Football Outsiders, they are the worst team defending passes over 15 yards. Deep-middle and deep-right quadrants of the field are their areas of weakness.
Through five games, Tramaine Brock has been targeted 31 times, allowing 14 receptions for 270 yards and 4 touchdowns. Of those 31 targets, Brock has only deflected 2 passes. The eye-popping statistic to be found here is that Brock gives up 19.3 yards per reception. He has gotten beaten deep several times in each game. Here are the longest receptions that Brock has given up each week: 22, 52, 59, 20 and 29 yards. You can see why the 49ers are poor defending the deep pass to the right, as that side of the field is typically where Brock lines up.
On this play, the Niners are in quarters coverage. The #2 WR runs a vertical route, so the coverage changes to man. Brock lets Baldwin run right by him for 59 yards, right down the middle of the field.
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Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn will look at the statistics, study the film, and he will realize that the Bills have several avenues for attack this Sunday. There are many holes in the Niners’ defense that the Bills can exploit. They can exploit it from a play design perspective, but also from a matchup angle. I think that Taylor will do very well this weekend for this reason: I expect the Niners to play a lot of single high safety, zone looks. With how bad the 49ers’ defense is defending the run, I expect them to load the box. However, they can’t play a lot of man-to-man coverage, because Taylor could then just torch them with his legs. They don’t have the speed along their defensive line or linebacking corps to spy Taylor. They could use a third safety as a spy, but that would leave them even more vulnerable to the run game.
It seems likely that the Niners will be forced to play a lot of cover 3, which Taylor is well-versed at reading. Teams played a ton of cover 3 against him last year, and he knows where to go with the ball when facing that coverage. Here’s Taylor converting against a cover 3 look:
Cover 3 defense by the Jets, Goodwin races to the end zone.
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Against the Ravens, Taylor diagnoses the coverage. He is trying to get the ball to Woods, so he has to find the flats defender. He does just that, and hits Woods for the first down.
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Based on what the Bills have done well offensively and the weaknesses of the Niners defense, this matchup looks promising for Buffalo. There is no doubt that the Bills should win this game. They should look to run the ball not only with Shady, but also with their other backs. If the Bills’ defense plays well against a shaky offense, the Bills’ offense should have their fair share of possessions. This foretells a solid outing for the league’s third-best rushing attack. Look for Tyrod and co. to wear the 49ers’ defense down with plenty of runs, and to take shots when they are available. The run game should easily set up the passing game and give Goodwin, Clay, and Woods opportunities on the outside, especially against CB Tramaine Brock.
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