The Buffalo Bills have essentially been in playoff mode for the last several weeks, but their Week 18 quasi-playoff game with the Miami Dolphins has a lot riding on the line. The playoffs, the second seed in the AFC, and a home playoff game are at stake. With that much on the line, I wanted to give our subscribers the premium content you expect from us. So today, I am going to be unloading the clip with some of the notes and nuggets I have uncovered after grinding the film and scouring the stats.
Personnel Groupings to Exploit
The Dolphins’ base defense is a 3-4, meaning three defensive linemen and four linebackers. They have run that front 17.6% of the time this season, which is 10th highest in the league. They also mix it up and play some other base looks; they have had the ability to shift into a 4-3 base defense with four down linemen and three backers, but that’s something they have only done 2.6% of the time this season, good for 23rd overall. In Week 4 against the Bills, the Dolphins mixed it up between their base defenses. They ran their 3-4 defense on 14.6% of snaps and their 4-3 defense 8.9%, so they actually played with three linebackers on the field at a higher rate than their season average (2.6%) but those five plays were with the Bills running the clock out and include three kneel-downs. In that matchup, the Bills chose to run 11 personnel (1RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) 51.8%, 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) 25%, 21 personnel (2, RBs, 1 TE) 10.7% and 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) 7.1%.
In Week 4, when the Bills trotted out 12 personnel, the Dolphins matched with Nickel on all of the plays except three. Those three plays were when Diggs was off the field, and all three of those were unsuccessful run plays. As is the case on the season, the Bills passed pretty well out of 12 personnel in that game…They were 10 for 10 for 206 yards and two touchdowns, including five explosive plays. This is the personnel grouping the Bills need to exploit via the passing game once again, On the season, the Dolphins surrender 8.8 yards per attempt to 12 personnel groupings when they match with Nickel, which is the fifth highest in the NFL. This includes five passing touchdowns allowed, which is second most in the league.
The conundrum for the away team is that the Bills only mustered up seven yards rushing on four attempts out of 12 personnel regardless of defensive personnel. On the season, the Bills average only four yards per rush (13th) when in 12 personnel, but that number bumps up to 4.6 (8th) when they are in shotgun. They are even able to run out of this personnel grouping from gun when the defense stacks the box with eight defenders, in those situations, they average 5.3 yards per rush, that’s fifth highest in the league. The Bills have 32 rushes of five yards or more out of 12 personnel this season, and 27 of them have come when they are in gun. Over 46% of their rushes from 12 personnel out of gun have resulted in runs of five yards or more. I think the Bills will be able to run better out of this grouping at this stage in the season because of their willingness to dial up zone-read looks with Josh Allen and because of their bread-and-butter run concept, Dart or Tackle Pull.
Those plays should get the Bills on the perimeter of the defense and out into space versus the Dolphins’ defensive backs, especially if defensive coordinator Vic Fangio attempts to use Dime instead of Nickel against the Bills’ 12 personnel plays.
Remember this Counter Bash TD by Cook vs Fins last year in the playoffs?— Erik Turner Cover 1 Jefe (@ErikJTurner) October 3, 2023
Bills run a similar concept, but only pull the Tackle (Dart). This was an Alert by Josh so I dont truly know if he's reading the edge defender like the Cook TD. pic.twitter.com/JF4nmCxHRp
The Dolphins have tweaked their scheme over the last four games when talking about 12 personnel. On the season, the Dolphins have played Dime (six defensive backs) 7.4% of the time, typically against offenses with multiple talented TEs. Over the last four games, they have matched up with Dime 5.9% when the offense sends out 12 personnel. Will they stay in Nickel vs. the Bills’ two TE sets and play zero dime like the last matchup, or will they choose to utilize more defensive backs to slow down the Bills’ passing game from that personnel because it has KILLED them? If they pivot to more Dime, that could invite the run and may allow the Bills to punish the lighter defenders with backs James Cook, Ty Johnson, Latavius Murray, or Leonard Fournette.
Let James Cook (Some more)
While I do think the Bills can get Cook on the perimeter in the run game, I think Joe Brady’s primary plan of attack with the back should be in the passing game, which has typically been his strength as a coordinator. Leading into this Week 18 matchup against the Dolphins, the Bills rank first in Success Rate percentage in the passing game on targets to running backs. They are number one in EPA/Target at .27, second in yards per reception at 9.2, and fourth in Touchdowns with five. The Bills running backs create an explosive play in the passing game on 16% of their targets, which is first overall because they have racked up 13 explosive plays. Nine of those explosive plays have come from Cook all ranging from being an outlet or check down to the primary option on a vertical concept. All of which have given the Dolphins’ defense issues.
Cook currently has 41 receptions for 429 yards and four touchdowns, a cool 10.5 yards per reception. Getting him the ball in the run and passing game has been the identity of the Brady offense; Cook has recorded 207 yards and three touchdowns in the passing game since Brady has taken over. This game against the Dolphins’ defense bodes well for Cook and even the other depth running backs because the Dolphins surrender the second-highest yards per reception to running backs at 6.9, and it appears like opponents know it because they have attempted to exploit that weakness the sixth most in the league with 78 attempts and they have completed 60 (third). Cook should be able to pad his stats even more this week because the Fangio-led defense surrenders a first down or touchdown on 40% of the receptions reeled in from a running back, third worst in the league.
Now let’s dive into what has worked against the Dolphins’ defense when it comes to concepts or routes to the running backs.
One breakdown that has routinely occurred is when the offense runs Mesh with their running back from a backfield alignment. If it’s man coverage, the running back typically has the advantage just because they are more talented than Dolphins linebackers Duke Riley, David Long, or Andrew Van Ginkel. If it is Zone, the off-the-ball linebackers tend to carry receivers too far and give leverage to backs.
Brady has this play, often referred to as Mesh Traffic or Slither, in his bag, and he has since his days in Carolina. Cook has scored on similar plays and has even left meat on the bone, if we are being honest. It’s a play they have typically run in the Red Zone under Brady. On the first play, you see Khalil Shakir and Gabe Davis create a rub or traffic in an attempt to free up Cook with the Cowboys in Man coverage. Cook gets leverage but then drops it. We first saw the play against the Jets in Brady’s first game as a coordinator for the Bills. The coordinator isn’t afraid to dial up plays with Cook as the primary option and that could go a long way against the Dolphins’ defense.
Another play that could help the Bills against the Dolphins is Wheel or Rail routes. The Titans hit on this vertical route from the running back as recently as four games ago. On this play, the safety drops down as the ball is snapped. RB Tyaje Spears throttles down as if he is about to make a break but then accelerates up the seam for the big play.
The Bills attempted to sneak Cook up the seam on a similar play in Week 1 against the Jets, but Allen slightly underthrew him.
But Cook was able to hit pay dirt on a similar route in this All Verticals concept against the Chiefs. Beautiful design and execution.
Last week the Ravens utilized Justice Hill on a vertical route down the sideline for a touchdown against the Dolphins.
The Bills have run this EXACT concept in just about every game this year, including this game against the Chiefs.
All signs point to opposing teams attacking the Dolphins’ defense by utilizing their running backs in the passing game. Whether Allen has his running backs as primary options in the passing game or as an outlet, he has to make a concerted effort to get the ball in their hands, especially Cook. Whether the Dolphins are in Man or Zone coverage, they will have an advantage from a talent perspective or from a scheme perspective. If the Bills want to sweep the Dolphins this season and steal the AFC East back along with the second seed in the playoffs, Cook and the Bills running backs will need to be a major part of the game plan.