The Buffalo Bills are set to make a long-anticipated return to the playoffs on Sunday when they travel to Jacksonville to take on the formidable Jaguars. Bills fans, thrilled to see their team in the postseason again, are in the process of flooding the city and exploding the ticket prices for this game, making it closer to a home game than the Bills may anticipate. Buffalo will need all the support they can muster heading into this one, as the Jaguars are one of the most talented teams in the conference. The Bills and Jaguars are similar in many respects, which will make this game feel very familiar to Bills fans.
Offensive scheme: Run-heavy Air Coryell
Doug Marrone is an old school head coach, through and through. If you ask him for his offensive mentality, he’ll tell you he wants “to punch them in the mouth and run the football.” No team in the NFL ran the ball more than the Jaguars this year, and only one team had a higher ratio of runs to passes: the Buffalo Bills.
Schematically, Marrone builds his offense around the running game. He uses both gap (man) blocking and zone blocking concepts in his playbook, and he leans heavily on rookie running back Leonard Fournette, last year’s fourth overall pick. Fournette has 1040 rushing yards this season, but he’s played hot and cold all season. Fournette has only finished three games with more than four yards per carry this year. In two of them, he rushed a combined 49 times for 311 yards, 6.35 yards per carry. He also has five games where he failed to reach three yards per carry, and he missed a few games this season between an ankle injury and some disciplinary concerns.
Tight ends and fullbacks, especially effective blockers, are also key to this ground-and-pound style. Outside of the quarterback and offensive line, no offensive player has more snaps this year than Marcedes Lewis. The 33-year-old tight end is still an effective blocker and receiver, and while he doesn’t take over games these days, he still leads the Jaguars in touchdown receptions. The Jaguars average 1.61 tight ends and fullbacks on the field on any given play, and they’ve handed 691 combined snaps to Tommy Bohanon and Ben Koyack, who’ve combined for 11 receptions and five carries.
The passing offense is built to stress the field vertically. Marqise Lee, rookie Keelan Cole, and Allen Hurns all have the speed to get open deep, as does rookie Dede Westbrook. With Blake Bortles under center, Marrone has deliberately tried to make the running game the focal point of the offense while using Bortles to stretch the field and open up plays in the box. Bortles has the arm strength to hit those throws, and is a mobile pocket passer. His weakness is his lack of attention to detail; his throwing mechanics will break down when he’s taken out of his comfort zone, killing his accuracy. He also has a tendency to misread zone defenders and coverage rotations postsnap.
Marqise Lee – sprained ankle
Lee was the Jaguars’ leading receiver until he sprained his ankle in week 15. He hasn’t played since then. During the two weeks that Lee has been absent, Bortles has crashed, with only two touchdowns against five interceptions during that span.
Cam Robinson – abdomen
Robinson was the second part of Jacksonville’s two-pronged NFL Draft strategy to establish their ground-and-pound rushing offense, and the mauling left tackle has stepped in from day one to make it reality. He missed the final game of the season with an abdominal injury, and the Jaguars only rushed for 83 yards on 24 attempts (3.46 yards per carry) in that one.
Plan of attack:
The first step for Buffalo is to prevent Jacksonville from establishing the run. Rickey Hatley, the 6-4 320 pound rookie nose tackle promoted from Buffalo’s practice squad last week, is going to be a key factor here. Hatley played 35 percent of snaps against Miami in the first action of his career. Kyle Williams, Ryan Davis, and Jerry Hughes also need to win their individual matchups and allow Matt Milano and Preston Brown to play cleanup duty. The Jaguars average 33 rushing attempts per game, and if those runs are only going for 2 or 3 yards, then Saint Doug will feel that much more incentivized to punt the ball away.
With the Jaguars forced to lean more on the passing game, the second step is to make Bortles uncomfortable. Buffalo doesn’t have much success finishing sacks, but Hughes and company do a fine job of pressuring the quarterback. With A gap sugar, rotating coverage, and zone blitzes, McDermott’s defensive scheme is set up well to force mistakes from Bortles. It helps that the Jaguars don’t have a receiver who can dominate a game the way A.J. Green or Rob Gronkowski could. Each member of Buffalo’s secondary is a skilled playmaker, and the recipe for a Bills victory calls for at least one turnover in Jaguars territory.
Defensive scheme: 4-3 Under, Cover 3
Although Gus Bradley is gone, defensive coordinator Todd Wash remains, and the roots of Jacksonville’s defense lies in the Seattle-style system used by Pete Carroll’s coaching tree. In the last two seasons, Jacksonville’s philosophy could be summed up as “if it isn’t working, throw more money at it.” Following high-priced signings like Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, and A.J. Bouye, the defensive depth chart is under contract for an astonishing $250 million of cash commitments. This year, those investments returned dividends. On a per-drive basis, no defense in the NFL performed better than the Jaguars, and they rank in the top four in points allowed, yards allowed, turnovers, and pretty much every pass defense metric. The rushing defense was a major problem, one of the reasons Jacksonville traded for Marcell Dareus midseason. The Jaguars haven’t had any 179- or 256-yard rushing performances against their defense since then, but they didn’t transform into a top-5 rushing defense, either.
Practically every member of Jacksonville’s front seven has had a tremendous season. Calais Campbell is the star, a potential DPoY candidate who leads the team with 14.5 sacks. LEO edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue developed into a stud in his second season, with twelve sacks and six forced fumbles. Even Dante Fowler, who looked like a bust before this season, has played 44 percent of snaps and delivered eight sacks. Malik Jackson is still here as well, with eight sacks of his own. Remember the Jim Schwartz defense that featured an in-their-prime Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams? Yeah, this is the next level of that production. Disruption and aggression is the philosophy behind this defense.
Practically every member of this unit is extremely athletic, and you see that carry over to the linebackers, headed with Myles Jack and Telvin Smith. Smith is the biggest X-factor against the Bills, as a rare player with the speed to cover sideline-to-sideline, the ball skills to generate a handful of turnovers, and the eyes and intelligence to break on a quarterback’s throw before it’s delivered. In a way, this matchup will feel similar to Buffalo’s game against the Panthers this season, when athletic linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly smothered Buffalo’s running game and made Tyrod Taylor a nonfactor. Thirty three-year-old Paul Posluszny still plays significant snaps on this defense, mostly against heavier personnel packages.
We’ve come this far and we still haven’t covered the secondary, which is also outstanding. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are one of the best cornerback tandems in the league, and they’re very comfortable playing zone coverage with Tashaun Gipson in the middle. It is extremely hard to get separation against these players. Buffalo’s best hope might be Kelvin Benjamin, who has the size to win contested catches on anyone in the league.
Abry Jones – back
Jones is Jacksonville’s primary nose tackle. If he isn’t able to play, then the Jaguars will use more Marcell Dareus on Sunday. Other than Jones, the Jaguars’ defense, especially its starting eleven, is healthy.
Plan of attack:
I mentioned above that the Jaguars have an aggressive philosophy. They swarm to the play, but that also exposes them to mistakes. Jacksonville’s scheme is fairly simple, and Buffalo has a blueprint for beating them: San Francisco’s 44-point outburst from two weeks ago. The 49ers, coached by Kyle Shanahan, use an offensive scheme with the same roots as Rick Dennison’s West Coast Offense. Using pre-snap motion, they were able to move defenders out of gaps, force the entire front seven to swap sides, and pull linebackers out of the box. That’s step one. Use motion to prevent the Jaguars from being set at the snap and to force desirable matchups.
The second step, demonstrated by the 49ers, is to dial up a whole lot of bootleg and misdirection action. The 49ers would run outside zone to one side of the field, swing Jimmy Garoppolo to the other side, and he’d have a barren field in front of him and his tight end, as the whole defense committed to stopping the run. They’d add a jet action to a running play, bringing a receiver across the formation and faking the handoff. Jacksonville’s linebackers are aggressive because they feed off the energy of crushing a play. But that has its drawbacks, as well. The Bills would do well to pick on one player in particular, Posluszny, who doesn’t have the athleticism to run with Charles Clay or Nick O’Leary anymore. The Bills can come out with a 2 TE set, fake that outside zone, and give Taylor an easy completion for 10 yards.
Step three is for Buffalo to use their tendency breakers. With a full season of playcalling, Rick Dennison has begun pulling on some strings he set two or three weeks prior. When Buffalo was calling Flood concepts, now they’re having the backside receiver break back to the sideline. They’ll turn the frontside go route of a Sail concept into a post route that crosses up the defenders. We’re seeing these plays pay off with big gains to Nick O’Leary and Deonte Thompson in recent weeks. Against the Jaguars, it can be especially effective because their players have a tendency to bite hard on their initial guess. These plays will come up three or four times in Jacksonville, and it’s important for Buffalo to execute when they happen, because Buffalo doesn’t have the athleticism on their roster to win individual matchups against this defense.
The Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars have very similar mentalities. They’re run heavy teams that force mistakes and capitalize on their opponents’ weaknesses. They aren’t good at playing from behind on the scoreboard, and neither team has an especially explosive offense. That’s what will keep this game closer than it otherwise could be.
Make no mistake, though. The Jaguars’ defense is an extremely challenging unit to face, and the Bills are still an underdog traveling to their first playoff game in 17 years. The game projects to be a low-scoring match, and it will take every ounce of creative energy from Dennison, Tyrod Taylor, and the injured LeSean McCoy to make up the difference.