The Buffalo Bills concluded the first quarter of the NFL season with a tremendous 23-17 win on the road against the Atlanta Falcons. For someone who was expecting this team to struggle due to the roster turnover, I would consider their 3-1 record to be quite miraculous.
Roster turnover notwithstanding, one thing the fans could hang their hat on was that, even though he was a rookie head coach, Sean McDermott managed to put together an experienced staff. McDermott’s staff has a ton of game experience, but also head coaching experience. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, former HC of the Minnesota Vikings, must be given credit for the job he has done in his short tenure in Buffalo.
Frazier and his defensive staff have put their players in the best positions to succeed, and he has them ranked as the number one scoring defense in the NFL, which, considering their defensive output the last two seasons, is another miracle entirely. The staff has shown the ability to adjust not just half-to-half, but also drive-to-drive.
For example, Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian used motion on Sunday to create an extra gap to the weak side of the formation. LB Lorenzo Alexander properly adjusted to the extra gap that was just created, but inside linebacker Preston Brown didn’t. The failure to bump down a gap leaves a massive ‘bubble’ for the Falcons to attack. Luckily, RB Devonta Freeman runs into offensive lineman Andy Levitre and is knocked to the turf.
On the second drive the Falcons went back to their game plan of using motion to create ‘bubbles’ in the run game. They trot out 21 personnel and run the very same play, but to the right side. The tight end motions, but this time the linebackers all adjust to the extra gap that is created to the boundary. On this play, Frazier has DT Marcell Dareus in the game playing as the shade defensive tackle, and even though he isn’t 100%, he is still a handful for the ‘Ace’ block between the center and guard. He occupies both, and it allows the linebackers to get downhill to fill their run gaps. The linebackers show very good run gap integrity this go ’round, and Freeman has nowhere to go.
But Atlanta is a very good team, and the Bills didn’t stop them on the ground completely. Rather, they counter-punched. Atlanta brings out 21 personnel and motions the tight end into an off-line position, so instead of crossing the entire formation to make an extra gap to the field, they keep the TE into the boundary and run an outside zone run. This puts Yarbrough heads up with the tight end instead of outside the tackle, which forces the RB to typically bang or bend it back. On the snap, with no one on the line of scrimmage outside of the tight end, it is an automatic bounce read. Yarbrough takes on the combo block and spills the play, but Milano gets caught in traffic. Poyer, who is the force player, peeks at the push crack block coming from the WR, and it allows Coleman to find an alley for a 29-yard gain.
It was apparent that the Falcons wanted to get the ball in the hands of their two talented running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in as many ways as possible. In the run game, they wanted to work from the tackles out, because they are primarily a zone run blocking team, and their offensive linemen are prototypical zone blockers. They are lighter, athletic, and very good in space. Offensive coordinator Sarkisian didn’t want anything to do with the Bills up the middle. Instead, he wanted to attack the perimeter, and force the Bills linebackers, who are not known for their speed, into chase mode with Freeman and Coleman. So he called several crack tosses to get the backs outside. Here, he used the jet sweep action to hold the linebackers, while allowing the linemen to climb to the second level.
They had success getting to the perimeter, but when the Bills needed to tighten up and contain the running backs in order to keep the clock running, they were able to shut them down. In fact, of the 149 yards registered on the ground by Atlanta, only 56 were gained in the second half.
This play sticks out to me as a major turning point and it never stood a chance from jump. FB attacks near leg, misses. Zo and PB over top. pic.twitter.com/J9Uny6XU8c— Cover 1 (@Cover1) October 4, 2017
Two plays after the seven yard loss by Freeman, the Falcons surrendered their third turnover, as Hyde picked off QB Ryan for the second time that afternoon.
Freemans run then incomplete pass=3rd and long=Ryan reading high to low vs Cover 2 man. Great play by Johnson, Hyde gets his second INT. pic.twitter.com/1GL9sIHgPm— Cover 1 (@Cover1) October 4, 2017
The staff adjusted to the Falcons’ game plan, but they also did a phenomenal job of dictating. Knowing that receivers Julio Jones and Mohammed Sanu were out for the game, DC Frazier became more aggressive. Frazier blitzed Matt Ryan only nine times on 44 drop backs, but did so at timely points in the game. Specifically, his blitzes were largely concentrated on third downs. Partially as a result of this, Atlanta finished the game 5/13 on third downs. The pressure forced Ryan to finish with a 38.5% completion percentage, including 52 yards and one interception. Check out this odd man pressure that looks like something out of Rex Ryan’s playbook. The secondary plays cover 1, while linebackers Brown and Humber blitz. The TE in the backfield blows the protection, and it sets Humber free. Ryan looks to dump it down to the RB, but Hughes peels off and eliminates RB Coleman swinging out of the backfield. Ryan lastly looks to slot WR Sanu, but CB Johnson disrupts his route and Ryan is forced to throw it away.
Creating pressures that still accounted for Freeman and Coleman in coverage were part of the game plan, but blitzing them often also forced the backs to stay into block, preventing them from releasing into routes. Sound familiar? After the intermission, OC Sarkisian attempts to adjust by putting both Freeman and Coleman on the field field at the same time on 3rd-and-9. Coleman is split wide into the boundary and is matched up against safety Jordan Poyer. Freeman is to the right of Ryan in the shotgun. Leslie Frazier sends linebackers Brown and Milano on the blitz, forcing Freeman to stay in and block. Coleman runs the crossing route and appears to be the primary target, but Hughes gets to the QB too quickly. Jerry uses a straight arm to the chest of offensive tackle Jake Matthews, then quickly transitions to a swat and rip, and then runs the hoop to the QB for the strip sack. The refs do not blow the whistle, and CB Tre’Davious White scoops and scores. After a review, the touchdown stood, and the Bills’ strategy paid off.
The Bills may not have the top-heavy roster that they did under GM Doug Whaley and HC Rex Ryan, but they sure as hell have a team. They have players who are doing their jobs, playing fast, and caring for one another. They have a staff that has a wealth of experience, and they put together some solid game plans to defeat three very good teams so far this season, including the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.