The Buffalo Bills have a top-five defense, but there were times on Sunday against the Jaguars when it looked mediocre, primarily defending the run. Buffalo surrendered 173 rushing yards out of 203 total yards to the visiting team, including 13 carries for 83 yards for their star running back, Leonard Fournette. The 8.2 yards per carry versus defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s gameplan was a surprise. “How long can we stick to the plan before we get it turned around in what we thought was going to be effective?” stated Frazier. Luckily, as he stated in his Monday press conference, the offense “put them in a good position,” by getting an early lead, which gave the staff time to tweak some things late in the second quarter.
Surprisingly, even though the Bills ranked 2nd in the league on defense going into the game, they rank dead last in broken tackle percentage, per Football Outsiders (FO). According to their metrics, on 13.5 percent of their defensive plays a broken tackle is registered. That issue really hurt the defense early in the game, and the culprits were guys that have normally been sure tacklers in Taron Johnson and Jordan Poyer.
The double motion is meant to create confusion up to the snap, and although things look chaotic, the Bills’ defenders settle in. The Jags send a receiver in jet motion, but Taron Johnson is disciplined and in good shape to the weak side. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips takes on the combo block and Johnson has a good line of sight to the ball, so he shoots the gap but fails to secure the back.
It wasn’t that the gameplan was awful; the execution was just lacking at times. For example, the Jaguars send out 12 personnel and the Bills expect a run, so they bring Poyer down into the box and put him on the line of scrimmage to the strength. Frazier has enough defenders to cover every run gap if Jacksonville chooses to run it. They do, and Poyer is unblocked, but he takes a bad angle and Fournette makes him miss, then gets north and south. Milano boxes the runner in, but the right tackle sealed defensive end Trent Murphy off. Instead of losing yards, Fournette gains 16 on the play.
The Jaguars had a strong game plan to use Buffalo’s attacking style of defense against them. One of the more successful concepts they utilized was the split zone run. Split zone runs are runs that send a player across the formation in the opposite direction of the play. This adds a gap to the other side of the formation, but it also can disrupt the defense’s processing abilities. On this play, the defensive concept wasn’t the issue; it was Johnson’s shoddy tackling. He fights through the block and has Fournette dead to rights, but he doesn’t wrap up. Instead, he leads with his shoulder and the former LSU star plows through the lame tackle. It’s very possible that Johnson’s bum shoulder was the reason he didn’t wrap up, but either way, this was out of character for him.
Fournette was able to pick up 15 yards on the same play halfway through the second quarter because nose tackle Harrison Phillips doesn’t shoot the A-gap. He fires his hands out to stack the guard, which gives the guard that much more time to reach block him and eventually take Phillips where he wanted to go from the snap. Edmunds then comes downhill and inserts into his gap but is picked off, and the hole parts like the Red Sea.
Frazier stated that “sometimes, it is as simple as a mindset and an attitude change.” We saw that firsthand in the fourth quarter when the Jaguars attempted to run this again. Frazier and his staff helped shut down this concept by looking at how the scheme could help their players execute better. What they did was put defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in at nose and aligned him shaded outside the center in a tilt. Tilting the big defender makes the reach block the by guard incredibly difficult because he is unable to work to the play side shoulder. Lotulelei is typically one of the quickest guys off the ball, and that was certainly the case on this play. His read of the block and quickness make the block by the guard impossible.
Now look at Johnson and how he plays it this time. He again has a good line of sight at the mesh point, and once the ball is handed off, he fires his gun. He rotates his shoulder to shrink his surface area so that the receiver doesn’t blow him up again, then goes in with much better technique. That’s the fierce tackler we have come to love.
Blake Bortles’s legs were quite possibly the main reason the Bills lost to the Jags in the Wild Card Playoffs last season, and the Bills didn’t want that to happen again. Most of the damage Bortles did was on scrambles, but he is very capable of overtaking a game with designed QB runs. Now former offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett dialed up several zone-read concepts, but most were handed off to the running back. They had tremendous success in the first half with these concepts.
Here, they lined up in a trips set with their tight end in-line. The Bills are in their Nickel Over front, which means the three-technique defensive tackle, Kyle Williams, is aligned to the strength. On the snap, the tight end will release, which pulls corner Tre’Davious White out of the box. The defense is in a tough spot. Typically, there is a defender assigned to crash on the running back and a defender to take the QB. Murphy would generally crash on the RB and the linebacker would take the QB if he kept it. But the defensive front forces Milano to insert into a gap, making Poyer the only defender who could take Bortles. Murphy is caught in no man’s land; he doesn’t crash, he doesn’t stick with the QB, so Bortles hands it off and RB Carlos Hyde gains 11 yards.
Halfway through the second quarter, Fournette gets in on the action as the Jaguars run it with split-zone action mixed in. You can see the extremely wide splits by the linemen, which are meant to widen the defenders and thereby widen the holes. The action by the tight end forces DE Eddie Yarbrough to ‘box’ the play in. All this means is that he is going to take on the apparent kick out block with his left shoulder to contain the run. But the tight end releases beyond him to block the safety if Bortles keeps it. Now Yarbrough is too deep and doesn’t have the angle to crash on the running back. This leaves a gaping hole and the Jaguars gain 11.
At the 6:12-minute mark of the third quarter, Jacksonville aligns in a trips bunch but motions to a 2×2 set. On the snap, they release the tight end hoping to pull a defender out of the box, but the defense isn’t outflanked this time because of the defensive alignment. Yarbrough crashes, so Bortles keeps it, but Milano is situated better to take the QB. Good adjustment by the staff.
They give the zone read with split flow action another shot, but this time the staff really has a plan to thwart it. Instead of aligning in their over front, they are in an under front, so the three-technique, technically a 4i on this play, just inside the tackle, is to the weak side. The shade nose tackle is DT Jordan Phillips, and he is tasked with reading the blocking concept on the snap. As soon as he sees zone blocking he executes a gap exchange, and it completely disrupts the blocking scheme. As the entire offensive line is moving to their left, typical of zone blocking, Phillips is going against the grain into the backside gap. This was the gap Milano was responsible for on the first attempt. Defensive end Shaq Lawson is slow to squeeze on the running back, so Bortles hands it off. Phillips has Fournette dead to rights, so he snatches a leg and Johnson helps clean up.
Trips Run Pass Option
Jacksonville attempted to run this RPO a few times. They love to run outside zone runs paired with pop passes or WR screens. The biggest gain on this concept came in the second quarter when the stadium thought Fournette had gotten into the end zone. The Jaguars align in a trips bunch set and run what looks like a predetermined run-pass option. I say predetermined because Bortles must have liked the defensive look, because he moved the running back and ran the play into the boundary rather than reading a defender. The receivers run a wide receiver screen, but Bortles is simply going to hand it off. Fournette gained six yards but did not break the plane. Outside zone blocking is meant to stretch the defensive front horizontally, as well as test gap integrity and the discipline of the defense as the gaps move. The Bills did not move with the gaps well horizontally, so a large crease was left open for Fournette.
Later in the game, Bortles and the offense use the same line of thinking. They align in a different trips formation, but this one is a true run-pass option. Bortles is reading LB Edmunds (conflict defender). The rookie hangs back as he has the dual responsibility of covering the tight end and inserting into the run game. Based on Edmunds’s actions, Bortles hands it off. Unfortunately for the Jags, the Bills broke out their under front again, so they can easily defend any weak side run. The defensive alignment allows DE Yarbrough to slant into the C-gap to chase the runner down, but the front also keeps Milano free to scrape over the top on a play he knew was coming from the start.
The Bills’ defensive staff did a great job of understanding how the Jaguars were gashing them with the run in the first half, and they rectified the issues as soon as they could. They tweaked personnel, alignment, techniques, and defensive fronts to put a stop to the Jaguars’ running game. Some believe that the success the Bills had with shutting down the Jags’ rushing game in the second half had a lot to do with Fournette being ejected, but I don’t totally believe that. Fournette carried it five times in the third quarter for a total of 12 yards.
Credit needs to be given to Frazier and the staff. As he stated, “sometimes, it is as simple as a mindset and an attitude change. Yesterday [Sunday], it was a combination of the two, just making sure we got the right frame of mind, but also taking a look at what we were doing schematically to see if we could help ourselves in that way, as well. So a combination of the two.” The Bills adjusted and overcame their first half struggles by limiting the Jaguars to 53 yards after halftime, most of which came off of Bortles’s scrambles. They simply put their players in better positions to succeed in the second half.