Unfortunately, the 2017 run by the Buffalo Bills has ended. The game was a chippy, tight-to-the-vest contest that came down to a lack of execution on offense by the Bills. The Bills’ offensive unit that has been under fire the entire season. At first in 2017, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison struggled to adapt the scheme to his personnel early on in 2017. But as the season progressed, and the staff meshed the zone run scheme with gap concepts, the stigma of not adapting wasn’t washed away. The game plan wasn’t a failure like many claim, but Dennison deserves just as much criticism as anyone. The calls for Dennison’s job are valid, but the game against Jacksonville wasn’t on him, the coach. It was more on the players.
After diving into the film, the offense’s inability to sustain drives, and ultimately capitalize on them, cost the Bills. Any time your defense only allows 10 points, you should win the game.
When you play against an attack style defense with the speed of the Jags, you have to use that against them. Dennison busted out some plays that were very successful in past seasons and were go-to plays versus certain schemes or styles of play.
One of these is the trap play. On this play, the Bills want to invite the up-the-field rush by the 3-technique defensive tackle, have Richie Incognito pick him up and allow Vladimir Ducasse and Jordan Mills to pick up the linebacker and safety. Ducasse doesn’t influence the 3-tech and Mills blocks the wrong defender.
One of the few traps called this season. Looks like there may have been a mixup on blocking assignments between Mills/Ducasse. Not much influence by Ducasse either. pic.twitter.com/sqIcedJhjt— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Dennison had plans in place to help the offensive linemen, as well. On this 3rd-and-long play, he has TE Charles Clay and WR Deonte Thompson chip the defensive ends before releasing into their routes. The play gives QB Tyrod Taylor time, and he is able to hit WR Zay Jones.
DT and Clay chip release and Zay is wide open on the flood concept. pic.twitter.com/5z52m1osns— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Buffalo converted on 38% of their third downs versus the Jaguars’ defense, which is really good. On this third down play, the Bills did exactly what every other offense did: they attacked with compressed sets, which is something that I talked about in my scouting report. The offense aligns in a compressed 2×2 set. They have the inside receivers chip before releasing into a man coverage beater concept called ‘Mesh’, while the outside receivers run speed outs. This is a smart idea, as it has man- and zone-beater concepts. The play is successful versus the Jags’ cover 3 defense; the flats defender is not a spot dropper, he doesn’t just scream to the flats post-snap. They distribute their coverage based on the routes and, as WR Thompson gets vertical, more of the onus to stop that receiver is placed on the cornerback. In essence, the depth of the route puts it in an overlap area between the corner and flats defender (LB Telvin Smith).
3rd and long and the #Bills attack with a compressed set and run a speed out to Thompson. The Titans did this frequently. Dennison also built in a mesh concept over the middle if the Jags were in man coverage. pic.twitter.com/uKDcWmuGHr— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Dennison drew up a lot of plays that the 49ers utilized to beat the Jaguars just a few weeks ago. The staff calls a play they used versus the Dolphins in week 17, but they also added the FB wheel route up the sideline.
But the defense gets paid, too, and they are all over the concept. The safety, who has the deep third, drops deep to take away the deep option to TE Nick O’Leary. The over route is eliminated by LB Paul Pozlusny, and the under route by Clay is wiped out by LB Myles Jack.
Play action pass. Not a fan of the route spacing between Jones and O'Leary, they sneak Dimarco out the back but no one really open. Bills had a hard time running these plays with TEs not WRs. Need some separation. 5 yard gain. pic.twitter.com/dR5M9wvjRf— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Towards the end of the 1st quarter, Taylor does a great job of recognizing the zone blitz and is able to hit TE O’Leary. This was good design by Dennison and execution by Taylor, as the Jaguars blitzed their slot corner a couple times early in this game.
Taylor was fooled by the Jaguars on several occasions. This caused him to lock on to specific targets rather than letting the coverage dictate where the ball goes. On this play, Taylor appears to think it is Tampa 2 coverage, but it is actually a coverage known as ‘Palms’ coverage.
Taylor locks on to Thomas, his first read, and it’s honestly a good decision versus a Tampa 2 coverage. But that isn’t the coverage. The cornerback and safety to the field are reading #2 WR to #1 WR.
So as Jones releases to the flats, the safety is responsible for the #1 receiver and the corner should be breaking on Jones, the #2 WR.
The corner squats briefly to drive on the route, but Taylor is so locked in on Thomas that he continues to gain depth, and the slot corner picks it off.
The decision to throw it underneath to Thomas is smart if in Tampa 2, as that linebacker needs to gain depth, but that wasn’t the coverage.
Just a bad play by Taylor. Quick glance to the boundary coverage then forces it to Thomas, Jack gets his hand on it and its intercepted. Seems like the coverage fooled him, maybe he is thinking that Jack is going to gain more depth as if its a Tampa 2. Zay wide open to the field pic.twitter.com/710GIfkkUO— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Not only did Taylor struggle processing coverages, but when plays were open he or his teammates missed opportunities. Think about this play as the team approaches the red zone. The Jaguars again drop into cover 3 match, and the offense has a ‘Hoss’ concept variation called. A ‘Hoss’ concept is a single high coverage beater. The outside receivers are running hitch routes with the inside receivers running seam routes. It is a mirrored play call here, so Taylor chooses what side to attack and he starts his reads to the side of the field. He gets the expected coverage and matchup, but he fails to put the pass on O’Leary.
Great call v single high. Essentially a Hoss concept w the TEs running the seam routes, but more of a dino stem from both of them. They widen their stem, lean into the defender then head towards the post. Taylor completely misses it. Didn't TT miss this vs the NE last season? pic.twitter.com/WZPMiq434d— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
The Bills ran 74 plays and won the time of possession battle by possessing the ball for 32:37. This includes registering the longest drive of the season versus the Jaguars. While most fans didn’t like the play calling in the redzone, a drive that will be remembered for the 1st and goal from the 1 play call, I actually liked how they approached that area of the field. They gave Taylor the keys to the offense, allowed him to read the defense and make the decisions to run or pass, often referred to as run/pass options. On this play call, the offense has a Y-stick concept (O’Leary) out of an empty set paired with a QB draw. So, depending on the coverage the Jags show (i.e. man or zone), Taylor can throw it or keep it. The defense shows man coverage, so Taylor keeps it, but Mills is unable to seal off his inside gap, allowing DE Calais Campbell to trip up the QB. Would he have scored? Maybe, maybe not, but this mode of attack was smart.
Another RPO-Y stick/draw. Something the coaches talked about last night in the national championship game. pic.twitter.com/1GClVfe8gy— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Taylor also missed a very nice window on this dig route to WR Kelvin Benjamin.
Similar play that the #Bills scored on a couple weeks ago to Mccoy, but Taylor reads that it isnt there, moves to the backside. He bails out of the pocket when a window opened up for KB. Big target, behind the LB, between the S/CB. TT sees an escape route, but Ngakoue closes it. pic.twitter.com/kwrPYdPhjW— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
The offense settled for a field goal but got the ball back before half time. But again, they miss an opportunity. With two time outs in their pocket, after a long drive that tired out the Jags’ defense, and with 56 seconds on the clock, the Bills try to move the ball. Jacksonville also has two time outs left, so the offense needs to gain one first down to force the Jags to burn their timeouts. The offense tries to get something going like they did on the prior drive. They run the ‘Hoss’ concept again, but Thompson drops it.
Another play I didn't mind. Jags show Cover 3, the Bills have a high percentage Hoss concept called but its dropped. pic.twitter.com/fiZ5zZuXiM— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
The team ends up having to punt it, and the Jags drive down and get a field goal before half. Too aggressive for your taste? I get it, but given the totality of circumstances they were going to get the ball regardless if the Bills couldn’t run the ball. That’s why coordinators attempt to get one first down.
In the second half, the struggles continued. An important 3rd-and-short play call, the Bills get the coverage they want, but the Jaguars’ defender commits the hold. It was a smart play by LB Jack, but again shows that the intention of this play was there.
An aggressive play call on 3rd and 3 but they got the right look. O'Leary split out wide helps TT identify man coverage. The coverage also helps set up a rub but Jack commits the penalty. pic.twitter.com/MVAy6qoLk6— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Running back LeSean McCoy and the offense rushed it 32 times for 133 yards. It was tough sledding, but Dennison designed a nice wrinkle to his outside zone run game to help McCoy gain 25. The team came back to his play a couple more times in the second half.
Easily the best run of the day and it was due to design. The Y-release and split flow shown by the TEs helps Shady gain 25 yards on this play. But Benjamin's stalk blocking leaves a lot to be desired. pic.twitter.com/rKROth0spc— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
The ability to pass on 1st down versus a Jags defense that loves to play cover 3 on early downs was an important part of the game plan. This plan struggled in the first half, but gained some traction in the second. The Bills get the coverage, but O’Leary drops it.
Finally get a bootleg play versus cover 3 open and O'Leary drops it. pic.twitter.com/k0NGK2P1IS— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 9, 2018
Fast forward to the 4th quarter, and Dennison calls another screen versus the Jaguars’ defense. The design is perfect. The Bills run the #2 receiver on a wheel route up the sideline and, because the Jags are in cover 3, that defender must carry the route. It’s a design the Bills used on the screen to O’Leary earlier in the game. This leaves a nice alley for McCoy to operate. Wood releases and kicks out Jack, and Shady has room to take off. This was a good drive starter, but one that was stunted by the holding penalty on Thompson.
Another really good call similar to the O'Leary screen from earlier. The slot player again has to carry the wheel bc they are in cover 3. That gives Shady A LOT of green. Great job by Wood at getting into space and hitting LB Jack....SMH at the penalty. pic.twitter.com/NvsSddKTlP— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 10, 2018
Another first down play action call that is there, but Taylor fails to take what the defense gives him.
Taylor trying to push it downfield but misses by a few yards. Had the easy completion to Thomas.. pic.twitter.com/ZYbhohZ0fu— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 10, 2018
Defenses have definitely played more man coverage versus Taylor this season, and you can’t blame them for doing it. The Bills’ receiving group isn’t a group that scares many defensive coordinators, and the Jags certainly weren’t shaking in their boots. On several 3rd down calls, they manned up and forced Taylor to beat them with his arm. On this play, Jones gets some separation, but the ball isn’t thrown accurately enough for Jones to catch it. Instead, he has to wait on the ball and it allows the defender to make a play. Was the defender there early? Sure, but a better pass and that doesn’t even occur.
Flood concept vs what appears to be man coverage. Zay gets a little separation but the ball sails just a tad. Zay has to slow his pace down. Defender there a little early but gotta complete this. pic.twitter.com/EBN3Dy1J71— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 10, 2018
On the final drive and possibly Taylor’s last play as a Buffalo Bill, he again misses a pass to the flat versus the very same ‘Palms’ coverage the Jags played earlier in the game on the interception. I find it very difficult to stomach how the offense isn’t seeing the hand signals by the Jags. When the defenders show their palms to the sky it signaled ‘Palms’ coverage (the following play), and when they point to the sky it was Cover 3. The signals have been the same the entire season.
It’s on film, it’s seen in game, so if you don’t use that knowledge, then that is on you. Taylor looks to Clay on the ‘Follow’ concept, but the window is too small for Taylor’s comfort. He also misses #2 receiver Thompson to the top of the screen. He is open AGAIN in the flats. Instead, Taylor tries escaping and ends up in concussion protocol.
Here's the play that Taylor missed. 3rd and 5 and TT really has Clay on the follow concept but fails to pull the trigger. Fails to throw it to Thompson too.— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 10, 2018
Where are my Palms or 2 blue coverage guys? Watch LB Smith. Looks like they may be in Palms or 2 blue? Anyone know? pic.twitter.com/BNFuj1bIQk
As a fan and analyst of the team, watching this film was very disappointing. As McCoy stated, this was a winnable game. It was a game in which the offense had enough in the playbook to win. In fact, they had a lot of the concepts and personnel to do some damage. In my opinion, there were just too many plays left on the field to put the blame on the game plan. Taylor’s tendency to hold on to the ball and not pull the trigger left some easy yardage on the field. Taylor averaged 3.24 seconds from snap to throw in the Wild Card game, the highest of all of the QBs in that round. Don’t get me wrong, the drops didn’t help his cause, but Taylor’s decisions and shortcomings were all evident in the biggest game for the Bills in the last 17 years.
Taylor was the same player this season as he was in prior seasons, but with less talent at the receiver position to maximize his strengths. One could also argue that Dennison didn’t maximize Taylor’s strengths, and when it comes to utilizing him more in the run game, I would agree.
In the end, I would not be surprised if this was Taylor’s or Dennison’s last game. It’s up to the front office and Head Coach McDermott to determine if the offensive struggles were due, in large part, to the scheme or the man who was under center.
Regardless of the changes ahead, this was an incredible ride. Bills fans should be excited about the future. The team has taken the proverbial monkey off their back, and the team appears headed in the right direction.
Thanks for all of your support!