The Buffalo Bills finished the 2019 regular season at 10-6 after they dropped their final game against the New York Jets 13-6. The teams played what felt like a fourth preseason game in rainy conditions at New Era Field. Appropriately, most of the Bills’ starters only saw a drive or two and then were replaced by the reserves and a vanilla game plan with their ticket to the big dance already punched. Unfortunately, the team didn’t escape the game unscathed. Starting corner Levi Wallace appeared to injure his ankle after picking off Sam Darnold on the Jets’ third drive. Wallace was seen in a walking boot after the game, so his status leading into the first-round showdown with the Houston Texans is one to monitor. But he wasn’t the only one leaving the stadium in a boot. Right tackle Ty Nsekhe, who made his first appearance since week 11, also limped out of this game in a boot. The veteran needed these reps to get into game shape if the team planned on rotating him in with rookie Cody Ford. Instead, he only got 16 reps before being rolled up on and sent to the locker room.
While the focus of this game was to get out of it healthy, it was also an opportunity for many reserve players to show the staff how far they have come this year. “I thought it was a good opportunity to get the guys out there and get some quality reps from some of the guys that don’t get maybe as many line of scrimmage reps as they did today,” Head Coach McDermott stated after the game. So let’s examine some of the guys that stood out from this game.
Singletary sits, Gore and Yeldon carry the torch
Rookie running back was one of the mainstays that got the day off, so Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon got most of the burn on Sunday. But running the ball behind a makeshift line trying to block up Football Outsiders’ second-ranked rush defense proved to be very difficult. The Bills finished with only 20 carries for 73 yards, with 58 of those yards coming after contact. Fans have been screaming at the top of their lungs to activate Yeldon and sit Gore for much of this season. I understand why, but is it even the correct conversation to have?
When it came to the run game against the Jets, I do think in a limited sample, Gore outplayed Yeldon. Gore’s decisive, downhill running style has him third in NextGen Stats’ average time behind the line of scrimmage at 2.62 seconds. He finished with six carries for 26 yards and forced two missed tackles. His 4.3 yards per carry was more than Yeldon’s 2.6. The former Jaguars running back carried the ball seven times for 18 yards while forcing two missed tackles, as well. Yeldon doesn’t have enough carries to qualify him for NextGen analysis, but looking back at his 2018 numbers in Jacksonville, he was the third-slowest in average time behind the line of scrimmage at 2.74 seconds. That doesn’t sound like a big gap, all things considered, but when you have an offense led by Josh Allen, a credo to stay on schedule and an offensive line that is 28th in stuff percentage, per FO, you need a decisive runner. Processing defensive fronts and setting up blocks is a set of traits that Gore has perfected, which is part of the reason that he has gotten more playing time than Yeldon.
Where you would think Yeldon has the obvious upper-hand at this point in his career is running outside and in the passing game. Gore doesn’t have the legs to stretch a defensive horizontally and beat the flow of linebackers scraping over the top, but somehow Gore has shown he is able to hold his own on runs outside (bottom Yeldon line is in Jacksonville in 2018)
Yeldon does add another dimension as a pass-catcher compared to Gore, though. Here are the Bills’ running backs’ receiving statistics this year. As you will see, there isn’t much of a difference.
Most of Yeldon and Gore’s touches in the passing game this year came on screens, so let’s dive a tad deeper at both of their receiving statistics over the last three seasons on passes over five air yards. As you can see, Yeldon has a slight advantage.
Obviously, both backs bring completely different things to the table. But the discussion shouldn’t be Gore vs. Yeldon. Instead, it should be either of those players against Senorise Perry, who dresses only to play special teams. Gore and Yeldon were brought here for different reasons. They were brought in to play different roles, roles in the run and pass game, which surprisingly have been filled well by Singletary. Singletary’s versatility has taken away from Yeldon’s possible reps in 2019, but it is Perry’s contributions on special teams that have caused Yeldon to not make the game day roster on a consistent basis. Perry is on several special teams units and is second on the team on special teams tackles. That holds value to this organization.
Duke brought the energy
Everyone in the stadium and at home saw what wide receiver Duke Williams brings to the table. His grit, toughness, and energy were felt by everyone. “It is infectious what he does and how he plays,” quarterback Josh Allen told the media after the game. But the fans weren’t the only ones to feel the physicality that Duke brings to the table. The starting Jets defense did, as well. Williams hangs his hat on doing the little things, and what better way to show the staff how hungry you are than dominating in the run game? The staff knows what they have in Williams, which is why they game-planned to have him at the point of attack on those tough runs. The Bills ran a counter lead play out of 11 personnel, but rather than have a fullback or even a tight end lead the play, it was Williams leading on the inside run, similar to this play.
Not too bad of an insert block by Duke on this iso play. Unfortunately the running back cut back into the defender. But not bad for a WR. pic.twitter.com/wh2nifg74W
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 1, 2019
On 1st and 10, Williams came across the formation, got his helmet on the inside, and kicked out safety Jamal Adams. Yeldon cut it back and scampered for a 12-yard gain.
This is a new wrinkle that Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll added against the Patriots in week 16 with WR Andre Roberts, but he doesn’t bring the same traits to the field like Williams does.
“It’s only so long you can keep a dog on a leash,” Williams stated in the Bills’ locker room, and he showed what he can do when unleashed.
Williams came out and “set the tempo” with his blocking and physicality. On one specific play, the corner over him blitzed, but Williams didn’t blink. He crept down into the box to find work, lined up LB Neville Hewitt and, as Yeldon hit the hole to bounce it wide, Williams and Ike Boettger blew up the Jets’ defender. The hole was sealed, the block sent Hewitt to the ground, and Yeldon bounced it wide for a 12-yard gain.
Later on, the Bills ran a pin-and-pull run to the far sideline, Duke executed his stalk block to the corner by slowly moving to inside leverage to cut off the defender. Well, that defender unexpectedly shot out wide, so Duke was forced to adjust. He quickly cut back out wide, got his hands on the corner, and rode him wide of the run play.
Williams is the best blocking receiver the Bills have. He can be an asset in the run game on inside or outside runs. He can collapse a linebacker in the hole or beat down the edge when you want to get the ball on the perimeter, but Williams also balled out in the passing game.
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— Cover 1 (@Cover1) December 28, 2019
Duke was targeted 12 times and caught six for 108 yards. While he was matched up against no-name corners, there were times where the Bills force-fed Williams and the Jets couldn’t stop him. Daboll and his staff scripted specific plays for Williams at all levels, and the young receiver produced.
When the defense played soft Cover 2 zone, he stayed true to his route stem and broke flat to the boundary on a high/low passing concept and showed off his soft hand and boundary awareness to gain 13 yards. When the Jets wanted to get physical with him, Duke was proactive. He understood when the corner was going to shoot his hands to disrupt him, and he immediately ripped upwards with his right hand to clear his frame at the exact moment he burst towards the middle of the field, which maximized his separation. Barkley put the pass on him, and Williams broke a tackle to gain another 8-9 yards after contact, which got the fans up on their feet.
The former Edmonton Eskimos receiver did have a couple of drops, one that was worse than the other, which is a little worrisome, given who his starting QB is. Williams dropped an easy, catchable pass from Barkely due to bad catch mechanics. After running a nice whip route and with the ball just about eye-level, Williams didn’t properly frame the pass with his palms facing the ball. Instead, he executed more of a basket-catch with his palms up, which led to a drop that otherwise could have possibly led to a first down. But even with that lapse in fundamentals, I love how he was utilized in the slot (30.8% of his routes), in tight splits, and over the middle.
Williams was used in a lot of tight alignments in this game, especially when Daboll wanted to throw the ball over the middle off of play action. Given his run blocking ability, this could be an asset to the team. Having a receiver in a tight split who can insert in the run game, but who also has the size and physicality to catch passes over the middle, is an area that could help Allen in the playoffs. On one of Williams’s receptions, the Jets corner who was in man coverage was simply unable to make a play on the ball because Williams’s body shielded him. Williams then broke the tackle and continued running down the field. Pairing a big-bodied guy who can excel in the intermediate area with Allen, a QB that is one of the best in that 10-19 yard range, could be the boost the Bills’ offense sorely needs.
Going back through the game and given Duke's performance along with the bad blocking and ineffectiveness of Foster in the passing game…
I wouldn't be surprised if Duke stans got their way next week….
He made the best case he could, I'm happy for him!
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) December 30, 2019
Defensive system shines
The Bills proved on Sunday that their starting talent on defense isn’t the only reason for their success this year. The system can still give opposing offenses problems. The Bills’ reserve players held Le’Veon Bell to 41 yards on 16 carries and 3.2 yards per rush for the entire Jets offense on the day. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who was signed in the first week of November, flashed a ton on tape. Not only did Liuget play his normal nose tackle role, but he also lined up at defensive end on a handful of snaps. This happened on first down plays when the Bills expected run, and when the Jets did hand it off, Liuget was seen setting the edge or chasing down the line of scrimmage to make the tackle.
When at his normal home as a shade or 2i defensive tackle, typically aligned to the weak side of the formation, he made plays in the backfield. What we are seeing teams consistently do is get the Bills lined up in their over front with DT Ed Oliver aligned to the tight end side but then shift the tight end to the other side of the formation. This changes the strength of the formation as they look to attack the ‘bubble’ between the nose tackle and 5-technique defensive end. This strategy puts the nose tackle right at the point of attack, and Liuget’s savvy has allowed him to make some plays when the offense has the numbers and combination blocks on him to execute an array of inside runs. The former first-round pick showed fans this against the Jets early in the third quarter. He blew up two run plays and put the Jets in 3rd-and-12, which the away team failed to convert. For only playing 27.5% of the available snaps this season, he has made the splash plays you want to see. In that limited showing he has amassed a sack, a QB hit, a hurry, 15 total tackles, and 13 stops. With Jordan Phillips likely heading to free agency and Harrison Phillips working back from a serious injury, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bills try to bring Liuget back next season. His production, versatility at both defensive tackle positions, and experience are exactly what the Bills need.
Defensive end Trent Murphy also stood out, but mainly as a pass rusher. Murphy sacked QB Sam Darnold on two occasions yesterday. His first came late in the second quarter, which forced the Jets to kick a field goal before halftime. Murphy used a speed rush from a two-point stance, which threatened right tackle Brandon Shell’s kick-slide. As Shell shot his hands, Murphy executed a double-handed swat to win the corner and then chased Darnold back up into the pocket for the sack.
Murphy registered his fifth sack of the season on a four-man creeper pressure. Defensive end Darryl Johnson dropped into coverage while linebacker Julian Stanford replaced him as a rusher. The Jets’ right tackle, Shell, had to pick up Stanford, so it put Murphy one-on-one with a tight end, Daniel Brown. Murphy brought his hands up to engage, so the tight end followed suit. As Brown shot his hands, naturally, his weight shifted forward, and that’s when Murphy quickly chopped down his hands and slightly tugged on Brown’s jersey to get him completely off-balance before ripping through and finally using Brown’s outside arm to slingshot himself to Darnold. This is Murphy’s best move, and when executed properly, it is smooth as silk. Murphy added three QB hurries, two total tackles, and three stops. He ended his regular season campaign with five sacks (4th on the team), five QB hits, and 26 QB hurries (2nd), to go along with his 28 total tackles and 17 stops.
The Bills now shift their “Playoff Caliber” mantra to “Championship Caliber” as they travel to Houston to take on a battle-tested Texans team. We will have scouting reports for you later in the week. Stay tuned!