Can the Bills’ offense exploit the Texans’ weaknesses?

01/04/2020
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Now that the Bills are in the tournament, it’s time for the offense to come out firing on all cylinders. The defense has carried the offense for most of the year, but now that the team is in a one-and-done scenario, it’s time for the offense to hold up their end of the bargain.

Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll’s play script for second-year quarterback Josh Allen is crucial to getting the playoff jitters out of his system. He needs to get Allen and the offense on-track and in a rhythm early.

The Bills enter this contest 28th in three-and-outs, but luckily, they are up against a Houston Texans team that also struggles in this area. The Texans are 32nd in defensive three-and-outs and 31st in 3rd down conversion rates, allowing a first down on 48.51% of third downs.

The Bill O’Brien-led squad sat several star players in their final game of the regular season, so I studied the Texans’ games from weeks 13-16. Those games were against the Buccanneers, Titans, Broncos, and Patriots. Much like pro scouts, I charted those games to get an idea of some of their tendencies and areas to exploit. Even though the Bills are 24th in third-down conversions, they have the play-makers to move the ball on the Texans’ defense.

Third-and-medium (3-6 yards)

The Bills’ offense has their hands full on critical downs this week because the Texans’ defensive personnel and groupings are challenging to track. In this particular down and distance, I counted six different personnel groupings across the four games studied. For the record, I counted two of their better pass rushers, OLB Whitney Mercilus and OLB Jacob Martin, as defensive linemen because they do not drop into coverage very often. With J.J. Watt’s return to the lineup, you can probably expect him to take Martin’s place on most of these third down calls.

On the season, Mercilus has rushed the passer just over 62% and dropped into coverage on only 4.6% of the snaps. His teammate, Jacob Martin, rushes at a higher rate, attacking the quarterback 80% of the time and dropping into coverage on 3.6% of his snaps. On a plurality of the snaps they used a 3-2-6 defense, so three “defensive linemen,” two linebackers, and six defensive backs.

  • 3-2-6 -50%
  • 4-2-5 (Nickel) – 23%
  • 4-1-6 – 14%
  • 3-3-5 – 9%
  • 3-4 (base defense) – 5%

This 3-2-6 grouping was utilized 50% of the 3rd and medium situations in this four-game sample. Generally, the three defensive linemen were OLB Mercilus, DT Charles Omenihu, and OLB Martin, long, athletic linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham along the second level, and various combinations of six defensive backs to round out the defense. That’s where things may open up even more for the Bills — the Texans are banged up in the secondary, which could give them the upper hand.

Over the last four games, teams have attacked the Texans with 11 personnel ( 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) 73% of the time and have done it with a lot of 3×1 sets (55%).

But Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel has done a good job of mixing up his looks to avoid revealing any tendencies, which can make things difficult post-snap. Over the last four games on 3rd-and-medium, he has executed these coverages:

  • 3-man rush – 25%
  • 4-man rush zone coverage (1 sack) – 15%
  • 4-man rush man coverage – 30%
  • 5 + man rush – 20%

With the abundance of 3-2-6 calls, the fourth man rushing is typically LB McKinney. The 6-foot-5, 257-pounder will generally align over a guard and run some sort of stunt with DT Omenihu that usually loops him over the top to the field. Even though he has racked up two sacks, two QB hits, and 11 hurries, he isn’t a natural pass rusher, and if stymied early, he will look to get in the passing lane and use his 33-inch arms to bat down the throw. Securing Omenihu and McKinney on stunts will be up to the three interior offensive linemen to carry out, which means the tackles will likely be 1-on-1 with some tactically sound pass rushers in Mercilus, Martin or Watt

Third-and-long (7+ yards)

Third-and-long is a situation that any offense does not want to be in, especially when you play against a team like the Texans, who have the type of athleticism that can stress pass protection. In these situations, Crennel sends out some of the most diverse personnel groupings and alignments, puts them all near the line of scrimmage, and makes a quarterback and offensive line sweat. Over the last four games, their 3-2-6 grouping was the most popular, but they have also used seven defensive backs at times. How much they run that, given their injury situation, is unknown and something the staff will have to monitor early in the game.

  • 2-2-7 – 9%
  • 3-1-7 – 9%
  • 3-2-6 – 61%
  • 4-1-6 – 22%

At times, it is dizzying watching their defense because most of the defenders are in two-point stances and are constantly changing their stems up until the snap. However, generally, they will only send four rushers, but which four changes frequently. Their simulated and creeper pressures are prevalent in these situations, and Crennel used them on several occasions, typically with a safety inserting as a rusher and an outside linebacker dropping into coverage. Allen will need to key in on a safety if he is in the box and covering the running back. If that safety is capped (a defender a few yards behind him) by a deeper safety, there’s a good chance a creeper pressure or blitz is coming.

  • 3-man rush – 13%
  • 4-man rush zone coverage – 26%
  • 4-man rush man coverage – 44%
  • 5 + man rush – 17%

Over the last four games on 3rd-and-long, teams have stuck with 11 personnel 87% of the time (only other personnel was 12 at 13%) but balanced out their sets a little more.

  • 3×1 – 48%
  • 3×2 – 17%
  • 2×2 – 36%

How to attack

With some of the Texans’ tendencies scouted, how should the Bills attack them?

First of all, the team has to protect Allen; when he doesn’t have pressure, he completes 63.9% of his passes for 15 touchdowns. Protecting the young QB will be difficult because the Texans do have some very talented pass rushers and their skill-sets should challenge the Bills’ offensive line. The Texans will throw the ‘Diamond’ front at the Bills, much like the Ravens and Patriots did, and they have the talent to win multiple one-on-ones on any given play. But they also time their two- and three-man stunts well, and they can close on the QB quickly.

But if the Bills can protect Allen, they should have some advantageous matchups in the secondary.

Wide Receivers

Even when the Texans’ secondary is healthy, they are suspect. They are ranked 26th in Football Outsiders’ pass defensive DVOA and are susceptible to surrendering passes in the short area.

This bodes well for WR Cole Beasley, a guy who was only targeted three times in his last meeting with the Texans. In that 2018 game, Beasley only registered one reception for eight yards. Allen and Beasley have to see the same coverage post-snap, which will be difficult, considering all of the moving parts in the Texans’ defense. So Daboll has to set them up for success early in the game and on early downs because it could go a long way on money downs. As I mentioned earlier, the Texans have struggled mightily on third downs. Over their last four games, here are their statistics, including on 3rd-and-medium (3-6 yards) and 3rd-and-long (7+ yards).

  • Third downs – WRs have a 53% success rate (29th), 10.6 YPA (30th) 
    • Last four games– WRs have a 60% success rate (30th), 8.6 YPA (18th)
    • Last four games 3rd and medium (3-6 yards) (WRs 85% target rate) – WRs have a 54% success rate (14th), 5.5 YPA (13th)
    • Last four games 3rd and long (7+ yards)– WRs have a 71% success rate (32nd), 14.3 YPA (30th)

Corner Bradley Roby is dealing with a hamstring injury and has been limited all week but is expected to play. If he can’t, then Vernon Hargreaves III will likely have to bump outside. Hargreaves III has surrendered 865 yards and five touchdowns this season, most of which came as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. His play has been much better in the Texans’ defense, and part of that is his change in role. He has played the most snaps in the slot for the Texans. From the slot, he has surrendered 20 receptions for 212 yards, of which seven for 106 yards and one touchdown came on third-and-medium. Over the last four games, he has surrendered 7.8 yards per attempt to slot wide receivers on 3rd-and-medium. Hargreaves III will have trouble staying with the shifty Beasley, and the Bills should be able to move the chains on third-and-medium situations.

Even when the Bills are faced with third-and-long, there should be no panic. Allen has weapons who can separate in the intermediate and deep levels. Beasley leads all receivers with three receptions for 53 yards on third-and-long over the last four games, but his teammate, John Brown, has been clutch all season in third-down situations. Brown converted 78.6% of his third-and-long receptions into first downs in 2019, whereas Beasley has converted 53.8%. Seeing as how opposing teams have converted 71% and averaged 14.3 over the last four games, and soft-tissue injuries to Roby and Johnathan Joseph, these two could eat on Saturday.

3rd and long (7+ yards) per SportsInfo Solutions

Tight Ends

Things also set up well overall for tight ends Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, and Lee Smith because opposing tight ends have a 58% success rate against the Texans, which is 31st in the NFL, and the Texans surrender 10.5 yards per attempt on third downs, which is dead last. Specifically, here are their statistics in the previous four games and on third-and-medium (3-6 yards) and third-and-long (7+ yards) in those games:

  • Third downs – TEs have a 58% success rate (31st), 10.5 YPA (32nd)
    • Last four games – TEs have a 71% success rate (31st), 11.4 YPA (31st) 
    • Last four games 3rd and medium (3-6 yards) – TEs have a 67% success rate (18th), 10.3 YPA (23rd)
    • Last four games 3rd and long (7+ yards) – TEs have a 75% success rate (30th), 12.3 YPA (29th)

The Texans have surrendered the most yards to tight ends this year, giving up 346 yards to go along with three touchdowns on third down. Over the last four games, not much has changed, and again, injuries could work in the Bills’ favor. Starting safety Tashaun Gipson was recently sent to injured reserve, and Jahleel Addae, a crucial chess piece on defense, has an Achilles injury and has been limited all week. Addae will likely play, but guys like Knox and Kroft will test Addae and others because of their size and athleticism. Knox averages 13.9 yards per reception, which is the third-most among tight ends with 50 targets, and has reeled in five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown on third-and-long situations. I think that Knox, and even Kroft, to a lesser extent, could have a big game against the Texans — maybe not strictly based on volume, but I think one of their numbers will be called on a “gotta have it” play, and they will deliver a chunk play for the Daboll-led offense.

The Bills’ offense has a real chance to break out against the Texans. What’s good about this matchup is that it’s not one that will likely be decided on early downs because of how bad the Texans’ secondary is on later downs. According to Football Outsiders, the Texans are a top-five DVOA team against the run and pass but are bottom-five against the run and pass on second and third down. They rank dead last in DVOA overall on both of those downs. This may allow Daboll to loosen the reins a little bit, even on earlier downs, because, in a sense, it’s like playing with house money. If the Bills get caught behind the chains, then they have the arsenal of weapons to overcome it, especially on third downs, as the Texans have been abysmal in that area. In those situations, the options are limitless. Daboll can dial up what he wants on third down, and if nothing is open, he can give Allen the green light to take off. The Texans surrender the second-most yards per rush (5.6 yards) to opposing quarterbacks, and a lot of that has to do with how often they run stunts and games. This game is set up perfectly for the young quarterback playing in his first playoff game.

“I want to do everything in my power to help us win a football game,” Allen told the media earlier in the week. “We’re going to try and do everything in our power to extend our season.”

 

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