The job of an offensive staff is to devise ways to expose a defenses’ weaknesses and right now the Bills have a ton of those. They currently surrender 119.9 yards per game on the ground which is the 8th most and that trend doesn’t appear to be on the upswing. Versus the pass, they are allowing 242 yards a game which is 9th in the NFL which rounds out to their 24th ranked defense. So right now, finding chinks in Buffalo’s armor is quite easy.
When you have a team like Buffalo that likes to play a lot of zone offensive coordinators have to find ways to isolate players within their zones or assignments in order to get advantageous matchups. One player that has been isolated and attacked is linebacker Preston Brown.
Teams are continuously attacking Brown in coverage and the staff has tried their best to combat it. Brown has given up 32 receptions for 356 yards (5th most) with 0 TDs, 0 INTs. LB Zach Brown has given up the most yards (421) and TDs (6). Interesting pic.twitter.com/QzrF9khLTj— Cover 1 (@Cover1) November 22, 2017
Brown is a solid player overall, but he isn’t the type of linebacker Sean McDermott or even Leslie Frasier are accustomed to working with. Preston is not a twitchy athlete who can be relied upon to cover wide receivers, tight ends or running backs in man coverage consistently.
Now in his fourth year, Brown has surrendered 150 receptions, 1,517 yards but only four touchdowns. According to Sports Info Solutions, of the 32 receptions and 356 yards given up by Brown through the air in 2017, 8 receptions and 82 yards have been on third down.
Teams are usually attacking the Bills defense out of 3×1 or 3×2 formations (empty) in an attempt to isolate Brown. Versus these formations, Brown is to the passing strength with CB Leonard Johnson. In week three versus the Broncos, Denver sends a dig (#3 receiver) route behind Brown and an underneath crossing route (#2 receiver) in front of him. Now, Brown is coached to defend high to low so he takes away the dig/the bigger play. So he surrenders the shorter pass and the first down is given up. Just a little context that shows you sometimes the scheme lends to Brown getting ‘beat’ in coverage.
In week four, the Falcons send out a 3×1 formation to the field and Johnson and Brown are basically playing a matchup zone on the #2 and #3 WRs. As the #3 breaks outside, Johnson takes him but as the #2 breaks inside on the dig route, Brown loses track of him and the Falcons complete the pass over the middle. Brown is reading the #3 and that receiver goes out, so he should have screamed out, passed the WR on and expected a route to come back at him, gained depth and helped protect versus the dig.
Brown is not good at reading route combinations something that McDermott looks for in his linebackers.
This happened again a couple weeks later versus the Bengals and Brown recognizes it, takes away the bigger play and you can tell Dalton was surprised he didn’t bite on the shorter route. Very good recognition and fluidity shown by the former Louisville Cardinal.
But later in crunch time, Cincinnati aligns in an empty set and the Bills ask Brown to cut off or wall off the tight end on third down in what appears to be man coverage. Kroft is able to avoid any contact, catches the ball and gains the critical first down.
Combo coverages or matchup zones are one way to minimize his exposure when the team wants to be in man coverage. Much like on this play, where everyone is in man coverage except Brown. If the slot WR Justin Hardy runs any sort of quick in breaking route, Brown will have him. If he breaks outside, which he does, Brown passes the receiver to an adjacent defender such as a corner or safety. In this case it’s Hyde and he recognized it a click late and QB Matt Ryan threads it for the touchdown.
Pattern matching coverage is nothing new to Brown, here is a clip from 2014. Jim Schwartz ran a 3 on 2 coverage to minimize Brown’s exposure in pass coverage. Again, he takes away any short crossing route that comes over the middle, Robey-Coleman would have any out breaking route and Searcy would take any deep route past the LB level. The Dolphins attempt a follow concept in behind Brown but Robey-Coleman and Da’Norris Searcy take away all options leading to a sack by Kyle Williams.
Now onto week 7 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Winston attacks Brown out of an empty set and the Bills again use a 1/4, 1/4, 1/2 combo coverage. Listen to Pitt HC teach vs. the Y stick concept.
Brown takes inside leverage and opens his hips (to wall off) or protect the middle of the field. This is their defensive philosophy as a whole. That’s why you see CB Johnson squeezing the stick route by the tight end rather than just see him scream to the flats. They protect inside out by squeezing the route by the tight end and can live with Winston throwing the flat route outside the numbers from the right hash if he had chosen to. That is a much more difficult throw. It’s a five yard completion charged to Brown. This kind of coverage is a staple and it prevents Brown from having to cover a ton of ground but as simple a coverage as it is, it will give up some easy passes.
But the Bucs did a great job of eventually finding a way to really stretch his limited athletic ability in week 7. The Bucs come out in a 2×2 formation and run two vertical routes to the field. With the slot WR running the wheel down the sideline, the CB Johnson is forced to carry him, which forces Brown to cover not only the hook/curl but the flats also. He is slow to recognize the RB leaking to the flats and RB Doug Martin gains 14 yards. Although this started out as a 2×2 formation, the third option/receiver (RB) becomes a threat in the passing concept after his play fake.
Later in the game, the Bucs are in a 3×1 formation and again they send the #1 and #2 WRs deep. With the Bills appearing to be in cover 3 buzz, CB Johnson has to carry the vertical up the sideline so that takes away him playing the flats. This now makes Brown the hook/curl/flats defender which means he has a lot of ground to cover. It is made even more difficult as the RB releases which holds Brown a split second. Winston ends up throwing to TE O.J. Howard in the flats for a good gain.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frasier has played a lot of zone coverage and that lends to some easy pitch and catches that are charged to Brown. On this third and long the Bills drop into a Tampa 2 look and Winston hits TE Cameron Brate for the first down. You would like to see Brown break on this ball seeing as how Brate took an extended amount of time to throttle down.
Fast forward to week eight when the Oakland Raiders came to town. In this game, Brown surrendered five passes for 56 yards (3rd most all season) and had two pass deflections. But this was arguably his best game in coverage and he graded out rather well. It was his second highest graded game in coverage per PFF, that’s why context matters. Early in the game the Raiders spread the Bills out with a 12 personnel empty set (3×2) with FB Jamize Olawale, blocking tight end Lee Smith and TE Jared Cook in the game. So instead of being in nickel, the Bills are in their base defense and it’s Milano and Brown to the passing strength. Buffalo again plays their 1/4, 1/4, 1/2 combo coverage with a bracket coverage on WR Amari Cooper who is to the weak side of the formation. David Carr throws the quick pass on the Y-stick concept for an easy gain on first down. It’s a quick set pass so Brown is unable to plant and accelerate quick enough to stop the completion.
But credit needs to be given for the role he played in getting safety Micah Hyde an interception in this game. The Raiders send out a 3×1 formation and attempt to get the ball to WR Michael Crabtree down the center of the field. Buffalo drops into a ‘Tampa 2’ look. Crabtree crosses Brown’s face and attempts to sneak behind him to attack the soft spot between the two deep safeties. That soft spot is technically Brown’s area of responsibility as a deep middle defender. Carr doesn’t get enough air under it and Brown is able to tip it then Hyde dives for the interception.
At the end of the first half, they attack Brown with a stick-nod route with TE Cook. The Bills play a similar 1/4, 1/4, 1/2 combo coverage concept as they did earlier in the game but Cook fakes the stick route and then works back over the middle to give the Raiders offense some breathing room. As you can see, Brown didn’t have the athleticism to make up for the incorrect read of the route.
Another week another Y-stick concept from a 3×1 set. Brown has good coverage but is unable to make a play on the ball.
From the same game with the Jets in the red zone, they make him the ‘rat’ defender while everyone is in man coverage. Which means that he is just supposed to roam the middle of the field and read the quarterback. The Jets run a mesh concept and Brown loses sight of QB Josh Mccown, gets caught in no mans land and Mccown trots into the end zone.
What makes defending 3×1 formations difficult for the Bills this season, is that they are sort of limited in how they cover the #3 receiver because of Brown. They have to be very selective in situations where they want to play man coverage because teams will attack him. So if they want to go to man coverage vs. a 3×1 formation that typically means that they will have to bring down one of their safeties and that leaves the defense susceptible to deep passes. Here in the 1st quarter the Bills do not want Brown matched up vs. TE Hunter Henry, so they bring down safety Micah Hyde to run man coverage. So Rivers goes deep to WR Mike Williams who is matched up vs. CB Johnson. The ball goes incomplete, but Rivers makes a mental note.
In the 2nd quarter the Chargers spread the Bills out and get WR Allen matched up with Brown out of an empty set (3×2). On the snap, Allen appears to be running an option route and Brown does a good job of taking away the middle of the field by disrupting at the top of the route. So Allen pivots back outside and Rivers reads it and gets the ball to him for 12 yard gain.
Later in the game, the Chargers show a similar 3×1 look to the deep shot to WR Williams. This time the tight end is Antonio Gates and WR Keenan Allen is in the slot. Rivers sees the inside press leverage by CB Tre’Davious White and CB Johnson, safety Hyde hanging low and all signs point to the very same coverage played earlier in the game on the deep shot to WR Williams. So, Rivers audibles and hits Allen for the TD.
So while Brown is considered one of the worse graded linebackers in pass coverage there are times where the play and or scheme make him susceptible to easy catches. But teams know his physical limitations in coverage and they are finding ways to isolate him with 3×1 and 3×2 formations. These formations typically force Brown to have to cover the 2nd or 3rd option to the passing strength whether in man or zone coverage. Teams have even been able to get Brown matched up versus running backs out of the backfield (3rd option) from 2×2 formations.
The Bills defensive staff is very limited in what they can do when they want to play man coverage because he simply doesn’t match up well with tight ends, receivers or running backs. So when they want to play man coverage, they usually have to bring one of their safeties down and that makes it difficult to disguise and more recognizable to the quarterback. This can cause trouble especially because the Bills have had issues getting pressure on the quarterback.
Brown is in the final year of his contract and his overall career numbers are very good, but I would be surprised if this organization brings him back considering his physical traits and what they need from that position from a scheme perspective.