Your Buffalo Bills are firmly in the driver’s seat of the AFC wildcard spot after dominating the Denver Broncos at home 20-3. All three phases pitched in for the win, and one could say that for quite possibly the first time this season, the team played a “complete game.”
Here are some of my notes from the Bills’ eighth win of the 2019 season.
Matt Milano shines
While many national analysts will point to interchangeable safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, or even corner Tre’Davious White as the difference makers, anyone who watches the team regularly knows that linebacker Matt Milano is one of the most important pieces. Milano is the worker bee on the Bills’ third-ranked defense and we saw that firsthand against the Broncos. With 20-25 mph winds being a factor, the away team wanted to lean on their run game to move the ball.
“They squeezed our run game pretty good,” Broncos quarterback Brandon Allen said. “(We) couldn’t really get anything going.”
The man behind that choke hold was Milano. He finished the game with six solo tackles and five stops with four tackles and three stops being against the run. The Bills have built in several run blitzes in situations where the personnel scream run or in games where they just don’t fear the opposing quarterback, like yesterday. But it’s Milano’s aggressive yet fluid athleticism that puts him in position to disrupt run concepts. The Broncos attempted to duplicate split-back run concepts that worked for the Eagles and Redskins in prior weeks, but Milano showed that he learned from his prior mistakes. Milano is the epitome of the “free-style” of linebacker that Head Coach Sean McDermott looks for. He is becoming the type of player that opposing quarterbacks must find pre-snap because he is the catalyst and almost the indicator of what Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier is calling on any given play.
Milano played 100% of the defensive snaps and rushed the passer 14% of the time. It’s a skill set that has gone relatively under the radar since his days at Boston College, but a skill set that Frazier and the staff are relying on. Milano is the centerpiece of the Bills’ simulated and creeper pressure packages — plays where the Bills want to pressure the quarterback but not actually blitz. We saw that philosophy play out on 3rd-and-3 at the 5:59 mark of the second quarter. Frazier sent a boundary creeper pressure (four-man rush where a non-traditional rusher replaces a traditional rusher) with Milano blitzing from the short side of the field. Since Milano was rushing, defensive end Trent Murphy, the field-side end, dropped into the hook-curl area. The four-man creeper pressure attacked the Broncos’ slide protection and the left tackle picked up Milano, which left Shaq Lawson unblocked for the sack. The third-year linebacker was in the face of Allen all day as a rusher. Any time Milano rushed him, Allen’s internal clock sped up and his play struggled to the point that the timing of a simple screen could not be properly executed.
There are times where Milano will become fixated on what is going on in the backfield and his aggressive nature will get the best of him, but he was zoned in on Sunday. He stayed true to his keys so when the Broncos tried to slip the tight end across the formation on naked bootlegs and rollouts, Milano flashed his chase and tackle abilities to limit what have been explosive plays to tight end Noah Fant in recent weeks.
Sunday was one of Milano’s most complete games. He blew up the Broncos’ run game, disrupted the timing of the screen and short passing game in place on this windy day, and also got his hands on the ball at the catch point and at the line of scrimmage. I could’ve sworn there were several Milanos on the field on Sunday.
Controlling the line of scrimmage
Given the windy conditions at New Era Field, McDermott and his staff set the tone before the game. In order to win this game, the Bills needed to win upfront.
“That’s where the game starts,” McDermott said in his post-game press conference. “We talked before the game about how important it was going to be to control the line of scrimmage, especially with the conditions.”
The offensive line made it look pretty easy, which was a feat that was not expected against the ninth-ranked DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) defense, according to Football Outsiders.
The investments made by General Manager Brandon Beane were put to the test. Rookie right tackle Cody Ford — who has played 60% of the snaps this season — held his own. Ford used his strength and girth to reestablish the line of scrimmage in his team’s favor, but he also found work along the second level on runs to the left. He was seen climbing to cut the back-side linebacker on runs when he wasn’t at the point of attack. Props to the offensive staff for their game plan, as well, by understanding the talent Ford would be up against. They worked in several draws to fool the Broncos’ edge rushers upfield to naturally create running lanes for Frank Gore and Devin Singletary. This is a smart tactic because they weren’t going to let Von Miller use his quickness and technique to defeat Ford.
The draw plays also helped Dion Dawkins and Ford in the passing game because they couldn’t just pin their ears back and speed rush out wide. Draw plays were in the back of their minds and so were their contain responsibilities. That weighed on their minds even more when Josh Allen broke the pocket on a couple of third-down scrambles. That’s why when rushers used speed moves or tried ‘running the hoop’ wide, Ford used his double-handed punch to catapult rushers beyond Allen’s depth or spot in the pocket. Rushers were then forced to retrace back towards the line of scrimmage to get back even with Allen rather than worrying about attacking the quarterback. From there, it was all about Ford mirroring the rushers.
Allen, center Mitch Morse, and later Jon Feliciano, made sure to help the young right tackle. You could hear them calling out “Ram” or sliding the protection to Ford. Tight alignments from the tight ends and running backs to distort the pass rushers’ initial line to the quarterback also helped Ford stay in good ‘half-man relationship’ for most of the day. Not every rep was perfect, but he showed progress. And more importantly, he showed the confidence you want to go along with the nastiness and finish we have come to expect.
Beane’s investment in versatility and depth were crucial to the win. Late in the first quarter with the Bills driving, the offense faced a third-and-6 red zone situation. Allen barked out the ‘mike’ as the Bills were set to pass. Center Morse set the protection and went to work. Morse was responsible for the linebacker, aligned in a ’20’ look head up over left guard Quinton Spain. So on the snap, he shot out his right hand — or drag hand — to protect the right A-gap while getting his eyes on the blitzing linebacker. The 2i defensive tackle (aligned inside the guard) dove hard into the A-gap, right into Morse’s right hand as the second-level linebacker twisted into the right B-gap. So right guard Feliciano passed the defensive tackle to Morse and picked up the linebacker. Unfortunately, Morse appeared to injure his thumb and didn’t return. This caused offensive line coach Bobby Johnson to shuffle the line. Feliciano settled in at center with Spencer Long occupying the right guard spot.
Long was quite shaky in the run game. There were times where he was seen chasing his assignment as that defender was making a tackle in the backfield. The run stunts that Denver activated to stop the Bills’ run game seemed to confuse Long. Many were worried about putting Long next to Ford, but I thought they held up rather well in the passing game. Long and Ford sensed twists and games quickly and passed rushers off to each other without a hitch. When Long was uncovered, he made sure to seal off Ford’s inner edge. His help technique was strong, and defenders’ heads were on a swivel when attempting inside moves because they knew Long would be looking for work.
On the other hand, Feliciano took control up front and played a big role in the home team’s ability to rush for 244 yards. The first-year Bill latched onto the Broncos’ stack and shed interior defenders and walled them off for the running backs. While he wasn’t able to consistently stay engaged, he covered them up long enough for Gore and Singletary to pick their lanes and go. Feliciano and Spain worked combinations well and got movement for the Bills’ run game. Nine of the Bills’ rush attempts, most of the inside zone variety, attacked downhill and ‘hit’ in between the two mammoth offensive linemen for a total of 47 yards.
“We didn’t really miss a step there, you know, great communication,” Allen told the media after the game. “I think up front we played our tails off and shout out to those guys.”
That’s a testament to Beane and his front office for their scouting, but also to Feliciano’s skills. He led the road graders in the run game, but his greatest contribution may have been the communication pre-snap — bridging the gap between the offensive line and quarterback.
The effects of the no-huddle
Of the 73 plays run by the Bills’ offense, 27 came in the no-huddle. That means 37% of the plays run, including penalties, were when the Bills went to the no-huddle. When we talk about the Bills’ offensive identity, it’s pretty clear that it starts with tempo. After the game, Allen stated that he thinks the tempo situations “gives us a step up.” The tactic allows Allen to get a longer look at the defensive shell and listen to Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll’s audible suggestions or overall coaching points of the play.
Going into the game, the Bills were ranked 13th in seconds per play at 27.71 seconds. Increasing the pace of the game by gaining yardage in the no-huddle puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio stated that they practiced for it all week and “felt like we knew what we were in all the time.” Some of this may be true, but the pace of the Bills’ offense seemed to have the biggest impact in the run game. The Bills helped Gore get to third on the all-time rushing list while compiling 44 rushes for 244 yards as a team, including a 7:02 drive that consisted of all runs. You can’t convince me that tempo didn’t play into that production. The Broncos’ sixth-ranked DVOA rush defense did not put up much of a fight for most of the game.
After passing Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing yards list, Frank Gore was emotional. pic.twitter.com/or8rQbmt7e— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) November 24, 2019
The no-huddle approach has narrowed down the volume of play concepts run in each game, but I don’t think that has hurt the Bills. It has allowed the offense to play faster and make in-game adjustments even easier. The staff and players are able to focus in on one or two adjustments to be made in order to hit home runs on later drives.
Communication between the players and staff is crucial. Players have to know what they are seeing and why. Then relay it to the staff so that they can put them in the best position to succeed. https://t.co/WuOf1gpUD0— Cover 1 (@Cover1) November 25, 2019
We saw that at work on the 34-yard touchdown to John Brown. While the play wasn’t in the no-huddle, the open lines of communication between the players and staff can be traced back to it. According to Broncos corner Chris Harris, the Bills had that play or concept “10 times,” which is probably an exaggeration but something that has some truth to it.
For most of the day, the Bills’ offense had receivers in all three quadrants of the field. They ran concepts that stressed the defense in the short, medium, and deep areas. So the limited play calls because of the no-huddle and specific concepts used to stress those areas likely looked the same.
Brown got a good baseline on how Harris was reacting to those concepts. Brown said that Harris was “jumping inside, preparing for the slant or curl route.” Brown is referring to two route combinations the Bills run a lot of. First — the Patriots’ staple — the D-slant (3-step slant-flat combination) or the D-Fast combination, which is the same combination with the slant converting to a 5-step slant.
The second combination is commonly referred to as the “Hank concept,” which is a curl-flat combination. In Daboll’s scheme, it’s likely called a D-Pivot.
The double move suggested by Brown preyed on Harris’s ability to read route combinations and his play-making ability. Harris reacted to the double move and Brown blew by him for the touchdown.
McDermott has to be encouraged with the communication and execution by the offense with Daboll in the booth.
“I thought overall, we adjusted well throughout the game,” McDermott said. “The communication amongst the staffs on different sides of the ball, some really good communication going on and the players again executed.”
Sounds like the offense is hitting their stride at the right time.