It’s no secret that the NFL is a passing league; in order to win consistently, you must be able to pass the ball. With the rise of spread offenses and quick passing games, defensive coordinators need to devise ways to disrupt opposing quarterbacks’ rhythms. The obvious answer had always been to blitz, to send an extra rusher to put pressure on the quarterback, to speed up his processing and delivery. But the problem with sending blitzes is that coverage is sacrificed. By sending an extra rusher, you are putting a lot of stress on the linebackers and secondary to cover up the vacated area on the field.
Lockdown corners are rarer by the day, and forget finding five or six who could match up one-on-one with opposing receivers, running backs, and tight ends. It’s just not feasible.
The Leslie Frazier-led defense is a zone-heavy scheme. Per SportsInfo Solutions, the Bills played zone coverage 61-percent of the time in both 2017 and 2018. They are also a team that doesn’t typically blitz a whole lot; they like to rely on disguise and their four pass rushers to create pressure. Per Football Outsiders, in 2018, the Bills were fourth in pressure rate, creating pressure on one-third of snaps, which is incredible, considering they only blitzed 20.7-percent of the time, which was ranked 22nd in the NFL.
The Bills were able to affect the quarterback and create pressure without sacrificing their zone coverage-heavy scheme with creep and simulated pressures.
A large portion of their pressures over the last two seasons wasn’t a defender simply winning his one-on-one battle; it was Frazier scheming creep and simulated pressures. These pressures want to assault the pass protection scheme structure and/or a specific player within it without sending five or six rushers to create voids in the secondary.
Simulated and creep pressures only send four rushers at the QB, leaving seven defenders to drop into coverage, but it’s the illusion of pressure that separates the two, which will be discussed later. Creeper pressures typically resemble fire zone blitzes, but remember that only four are rushing the QB vs. at least five on a zone blitz. Take a look at this diagram from XandOLabs.com.
In the creeper diagram, the Joker is dropping into the curl/flats area of the Cover 3 zone call. So the defense is sending a non-traditional pass rusher, the Star ($), and dropping a non-traditional dropper into coverage, the Joker. That’s why creepers are also referred to as ‘replace’ pressures. The Joker and Star are essentially replacing each other.
When the Bills run their creeper pressures, it typically involves their linebackers. They ran several of these pressures with success against the Vikings in week three.
In order for simulated pressures and creepers to work, the defense must have defenders that are actual pass rush threats. Buffalo has three stud linebackers in Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, and Lorenzo Alexander, who are all able to rush the QB. The Bills also have a secondary in slot corner Taron Johnson, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde, who at any given moment have the ability to put heat on the QB. Any of these players can rush from depth or from near the line of scrimmage and therefore must be accounted for when the offensive line is sorting out the protection. That’s what creeper and simulated pressures do; they dictate certain protections and allow a defensive coordinator to exploit it.
The Bills’ favorite creeper pressure involves linebacker Matt Milano. Milano finished his abbreviated season with one QB sack, two QB hits, and nine QB pressures while rushing the QB 11.5% of the time. Frazier generally liked to send Milano after the quarterback on these creeper pressures from the boundary and then play Cover 3 behind it. Louisiana State University Defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda, a person with whom McDermott has close ties, calls this Cover 3 creeper Brady 3.
It’s 3rd-and-6, and the Bills’ defense shows a two-high safety set pre-snap.
On the snap, Milano blitzes from his linebacker spot (non-traditional pass rusher) and DE Trent Murphy drops into the hook-to-curl zone (non-traditional dropper) as the Bills drop into their Cover 3. The slant inside by defensive tackle Kyle Williams occupies two offensive linemen initially, but then it turns to three as Alexander loops out wide to become the contain player. This forces the rookie running back, Mike Boone, to have to come all the way across the formation to pick up Milano.
The protection is also under stress because it puts the Bills’ best pass rusher, Jerry Hughes, one-on-one with LT Reilly Reiff. Milano is able to avoid the block and bring Cousins down for the sack.
Later in the quarter, the Vikings are faced with a 2nd-and-7 situation, and the Bills bring the same pressure. The home team tweaked their protection by putting their running back into the boundary, making it easier to pick up Milano. But LT Riley Reiff is no match for the speed of DE Jerry Hughes.
Hughes dips under Reiff’s hands to force QB Kirk Cousins off the ‘spot’, and it forces an errant pass that is almost picked off by the spot dropper, DE Murphy.
The Bills ran more creepers in the game against Minnesota than any game in 2018, but it makes sense why they did. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is a rhythm passer with some premier weapons alongside him in wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and some solid supporting players. Disrupting his tempo and processing, and shrinking passing windows without shorting a cover guy in the secondary was needed to win this game. They did all of the above.
Here, they run the same creeper pressure, and Hughes is able to make the throw much more difficult than it really should be.
Against the Jets, Frazier dialed up this pressure on 3rd-and-3. Milano shows the pressure stem a little too early, so veteran QB Josh McCown sees it coming. The right guard and right tackle pick up the most dangerous threats, Alexander and Milano, which leaves DE Shaq Lawson unblocked because the running back is releasing into a route. Creeper rushes can also force offenses to keep running backs in to block, as you saw in previous clips. When they don’t, the quarterback has to be aware because there could be an unblocked defender coming right at him.
As Poyer is buzzing to the flats, McCown throws it hot to the running back. Cornerback Tre’Davious White recognizes the route coming at him, releases his deep third responsibilities, and makes the tackle just past the sticks.
Creeper pressures are just one type of play that McDermott and Co. utilize to create pressure. They are able to do it because of the talent they have brought on board since coming to Buffalo. The traits that the linebackers and secondary players possess afford the staff the ability to scheme pressures that send them at the quarterback. But in order to execute these types of pressures, defensive linemen, specifically their defensive ends, must understand coverage schemes as they are often asked to drop into underneath zones. So teaching those techniques and responsibilities is crucial to the success of these calls.
In part two of this series, we will examine simulated pressures. Coach Alexander (@The_Coach_A) says simulated pressures are different than creepers because they create the illusion of blitz pre-snap. Stay tuned for part two.