One Play: How the Bills’ defense thwarted the Dolphins’ dynamic offense


The Buffalo Bills’ Week 4 tilt versus the Miami Dolphins was supposed to be the game of the year given all the build up leading into the match-up of the first-and-second ranked by DVOA. The first quarter looked like the game was going to be a back-and-forth race to 50 points, but from that point forward Sean McDermott’s defense began to force Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa into holding the ball longer than he had at any point in this young NFL season.

Cover 1’s Erik Turner pointed out that Tagovailoa averaged 2.59 seconds Time to Throw vs. the Bills and 2.38 seconds Snap to Attempt. In the three previous games, the Dolphins’ QB had averaged 2.24 Time to Throw and 2.2 Snap to Attempt. That amount of time might not sound like much, but it does indicate at least a degree of hesitation from Tagovailoa, and even that fraction of a second can be the difference between chalking up 70 points or struggling to score 20.

How did the Bills create that hesitation? Some of it was outstanding performances by players like Matt Milano and Micah Hyde. Some of it was from interior pressure created by Ed Oliver and DaQuan Jones. Most of the hesitation came from what the Bills did with disguise, rotation, and execution. One play, in particular, showcased all the moving parts and variables that forced longer processing for the Fins and their QB.

The Play


Miami has an 11-personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) on the field with Tagovailoa in shotgun with RB Raheem Mostert to his right. Tight end Durham Smythe is in line on the boundary side of the line making this formation strong right. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is the only other receiver on the boundary side, and he is lined up on the numbers. From the field sideline, fullback Alec Ingold is lined up as the number one WR outside the numbers, and Jaylen Waddle is the number two in the slot.

The Bills are in nickel with five defensive backs in a formation that presents as Cover 1 initially. Hyde is the deep safety, and Taylor Rapp is up close to the line of scrimmage to the strong side of the formation like he’ll have man coverage on the TE. Cornerbacks Tre White and Christian Benford are in off coverage over the No. 1 wideout on either side. Nickel cornerback Taron Johnson is in the slot on Waddle. Linebackers Milano and Terrel Bernard are on the hashes five yards off the line.

The Bills have four down linemen in an over front beginning with defensive end Leonard Floyd in a 6-technique, directly over the TE, on the defensive left. Oliver is in a 4i technique on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle, and Jones is lined in a 2i on the inside shoulder of the guard. DE Greg Rousseau is in a wide 9, beyond where a TE would be, on the defensive right.

Right before the snap, Hill goes into an orbit motion behind the QB and RB.

As Hill motions, you can watch Milano and Bernard’s eyes track him. When Hill goes behind the QB, confirming it’s not jet motion, Bernard takes a slide step right, as if he’s picking up Hill out of the backfield, but then shoots toward the LOS. Milano’s eyes lock on Hill and he begins to drop back and right.

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Post Snap

With Bernard rushing, this might be a blitz with five-plus rushers, but Floyd drops with the TE Smythe and jams him, turning what looked like a blitz into a creeper pressure. Tagovailoa’s eyes show Smythe might have been the first read, but that is gone now.

What looked like Cover 1 with Hyde alone high, has morphed into a two-high shell with White taking one of the deep sections with Hyde. It is difficult to tell exactly what type of coverage this has changed into, but it could be a version of Cover 2Cover 4, or Cover 6.

Mostert has leaked out of the backfield. Rapp has opened his hips to drop back while keeping his eyes on the QB.

Tagovailoa’s eyes never come across the field because he thinks Mostert will be open on the wheel route.

Tagovailoa double clutches twice as if he’s unsure of something, whether it’s his read of the coverage or wondering if Mostert will be able to get past Rapp, he hesitated. The appearance of pressure hastened him even though the pocked was relatively solid, and he makes an ill-advised throw into what becomes double coverage as White rotates over. Mostert rewards him with a remarkable catch, but it was a rare instance for Miami where individual effort was able to overcome the Bills’ scheme, disguise, and execution.

This one play was emblematic of the tools the Bills used to make Tagovailoa wait just a half beat longer. They created pressure with a creeper pressure, presented a late-changing coverage, used atypical formations, and trusted their players to perform at a high level. Miami has an excellent offense that is utilizing interesting formations, motions, and designs to accentuate their highly talented players. Unfortunately for them, the Bills’ defense did the same things at an elite level.

You can find Chris on Twitter (@lowbuffa), getting dirty in #MafiaGardens, or watching football. Go Bills!