Congratulations, Bills fans. We did it. Sean McDermott and his staff have led the Bills into the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. It’s been a long road, but just making it into the dance isn’t the goal; winning it all is. Since clinching a spot in the playoffs the coaches and scouting personnel have been knee deep in analytics and film to determine ways to attack the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 4th-ranked DVOA defense (Per Football Outsiders).
If you had a chance to catch HC McDermott’s Wednesday press conference, you heard him say:
“Yeah, you look at every statistical category of their defense – and I went through the different rows of it – trying to find an area of weakness, and there isn’t one. They’re very talented, multiple first-round picks on that defense. They’re well coached. We’re going to have a big challenge in front of us in a lot of ways, but starting with their defense.”
Coach isn’t lying; the Jags’ defense is talented and they don’t have many chinks in their armor. They play a simple, Seattle-esque Cover 3 defense, and they play FAST!
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 3, 2018
There is a lot of talent invested on that side of the ball, and they have the ability to play coverage or stop the run almost at will. When you have that much speed and talent on that side of the ball, as a play caller, you need to start your game plan with how you plan on attacking the schematic makeup of their defense.
You turn on the film and figure out how they line up versus certain alignments and personnel groupings. Then you build a script and, ultimately, a game plan. The typical 15-25 play script is something that offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has just about mastered. It is an area in which the Bills will need to once again flourish, BUT will need to score touchdowns to force the Jaguars’ offense and QB Blake Bortles to work from behind.
Over the last month of the season, offenses have attacked the Jaguars’ front in several ways: first, by establishing their quarterbacks as threats, both in the running game and in the passing game. I think this is really where Dennison needs to start his game plan. Regardless of running back LeSean McCoy’s status, Taylor HAS to be established early.
The Seahawks did it with Russell Wilson in week 14. On their first drive, they sent out 11 personnel and the Jags align in an over front. Seattle motions Graham across the formation, the safety follows, and they run what appears to be outside zone, but Wilson keeps it. It’s an advantageous matchup, as the backside contain player, Calais Campbell, and linebacker Paul Posluzny are no match for Wilson (or Taylor, for that matter).
The Hawks ran this exact play two times and gained 31 yards. Wilson finished the game with three designed runs for 31 yards, but five total attempts for 50 yards.
Here’s a similar play call from the Jets game:
In week 17, the Titans designed some QB runs within the structure of their offense. They sent out 11 personnel with tight end Jonnu Smith on the line of scrimmage, but in a two point stance. Mariota takes the snap and puts the ball in RB Derrick Henry’s belly, DE Campbell crashes on the back, and Mariota keeps it, which means that linebacker Telvin Smith is responsible for him. But Smith is unable to stop the QB run because TE Smith seals him while WR Eric Decker leads the play wide.
The play gained eight yards. The Titans ran this exact play 3 times and gained 22 yards. It is a concept that Buffalo ran with Taylor against the Jags last season. Dennison should incorporate similar concepts and run these designed keepers early and often. Make them respect Taylor as a runner.
Here’s Jacksonville in their over front with the Bills in 11 personnel — an easy 8 yard gain for Taylor.
So why establish the quarterback early? To set up the ground game. With or without Shady, the Bills are going to have trouble running against the Jags. There is too much beef up the middle to get consistent movement, and they are so fast that the outside zone scheme will have its troubles. Remember what HC McDermott said about this offense: every play looks the same. By running the designed keeper similar to what QB Wilson did earlier, those keepers hold defenders on the backside, and sometimes it is the difference maker. Watch how Wilson’s action holds the backside defensive end AND linebacker. Also take a mental note of the Y-motion; this is another wrinkle that teams have utilized versus the Jags’ defense. The initial alignment puts the Jags in an over front. As Graham motions they shift the safety with him, but now the Seahawks can attack the bubble. The bubble front side is the massive gap from the guard to outside the tackle.
But you have also created one on the backside from the center to just outside the guard, and that ‘bend’ cut is readily available on this play.
The action by Wilson holds the backside and gives the right guard enough time to climb to block the linebacker.
The 49ers laid a blueprint of how to attack the Jaguars with zone runs. Utilize a lot of motion, misdirection, and split flow. Get horizontal movement along the defensive line, draw the speedy linebackers eyes in with motion and ‘eye candy’. This will create creases.
The #49ers did a great job of using designed cutbacks & 'eye candy' to get some yardage up the middle. #Jags in their over front w/ the run flow going left Campbell slants into the C gap, TE washes him down. The FB bends back to kick out the CB while the orbit motion holds the S. pic.twitter.com/F1NBq69a8K
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 3, 2018
These are principles the Bills utilized in week 17 against the Dolphins. Watch the backside defensive end and linebacker. Clay coming across the formation paired with the ‘orbit’ motion holds the defensive end and linebacker.
The Bills haven’t been as successful with the outside zone run game, but there are ways to get the same production by combining gap and zone schemes. The pin and pull has been successful over the last three years, and it is something that can be used in place of pure outside zone runs.
Fans have to be patient though, especially early on. Only gaining a few yards isn’t a total fail. Sometimes the play call serves a purpose.
For example, 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan used an array of formations to set up their passing game, including this 21 personnel grouping with the FB on the line of scrimmage. They run outside zone weak and are only able to gain 1 yard.
But the personnel grouping and alignment were shown to set up this play. On 1st down the 49ers send out the same personnel, but align the fullback in the off-line tight end position. It’s first down, the personnel screams run, so the Jags (as is often the case) call cover 3. On the snap, Garoppolo fakes the outside zone to the field. The play looks exactly the same as the prior run, so the flats defender safety, Tashaun Gipson, crashes to shut down the cutback. But this time the fullback comes across the formation and is wide open.
Maybe Buffalo doesn’t run it out of 21 personnel because fullback Pat DiMarco isn’t a big receiving threat, but they could switch it up and use 13 personnel and have Tate run the ‘under’ route like they did in week 15. Taylor has played very well versus Cover 3. According to Sports Info Solutions, versus Cover 3 Taylor is 64-of-90 for (71.1%), 725 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 102.3 QBRating.
The first down bootleg passing game has been the bread and butter of Buffalo all season. It’s almost the barometer for the the entire passing game; if it’s working, then the offense is in good shape. It will be even more important this weekend. In the week 16 matchup against the 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo utilized play action 34.4% of his snaps.
#Bills ran play action 23.5% in week 17, ended the season at 23.2% (12th highest).
This number has to be high vs the #Jags to offset their pass rush..
Jimmy G's play action % vs Jax=34.4% (3rd highest week 16)
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) January 2, 2018
The wide zone action, and play action in general, slows down the pass rush, but also helps receivers get open. Another first down play, another loaded box with what appears to be Cover 3 on the back end. The 49ers run wide zone action to the field and sneak the tight end back across the field right behind the safety. It’s a tough assignment for the safety, as he must choose between the QB breaking contain or the tight end.
These kinds of plays are in the Bills’ playbook because Dennison comes from the Shanahan-Kubiak tree. How effective Buffalo disguises it will be particularly important. In the week 15 game against the Dolphins, Dennison sent out 22 personnel and ran play action bootleg against the Dolphins’ cover 3 defense. Three level passing concepts such as Flood are fantastic cover 3 beaters and are something that Taylor and the offense have been incredibly successful with. According to Sports Info Solutions Taylor is 64-of-90 for (71.1%), 725 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 102.3 QBRating. O’Leary sneaks behind the corner who should have the deep third. And yes, it was a 1st down play call.
Besides the play action game, the drop back game is going to be tested. But I do think that Taylor matches up well against the Jags’ defense. He has always played well versus cover 3 teams, which include the Dolphins, Seahawks, and even the Falcons this season. The coverage allows him to keep the ball outside on take off routes and deep comebacks, or even levels concepts. But the Jaguars have two of the best corners in the league outside, and the Bills don’t have the vertical threats they had in years past. So once again, Dennison’s game plan will have a major affect on Taylor’s efficiency in this game.
One thing I noticed on film was the initial depth of their linebackers. This is usually determined by defensive scheme, talent of the player, or it’s game-plan specific. Coaches have their linebackers align anywhere from 4.5-5.5 yards deep. The Jags’ linebackers have their heels at about 6 yards.
It gets even more interesting post-snap. They drop incredibly deep when in cover 3. While cover 3 typically deters throws to the middle of the field, the depth of the linebackers’ drops in this scheme allows teams to steal yards on check downs.
The Jaguars’ 2nd-level defenders gain their depth, which allows Garoppolo to quickly check it down to Hyde for nearly a 10-yard gain.
Unlike the Bills’ version of cover 3, Jacksonville does not disguise it. The Bills will rotate a safety down post-snap, whereas the Jags show it to you and invite you to beat it. In week 17, the Titans had success against the three high shell by utilizing three tight ends. It’s a personnel grouping they utilize a lot, but they found ways to steal yards just by compressing alignments and throwing it underneath to their big tight ends. Tight ends Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith, and Luke Stocker were targeted 9 times, catching 7, which is quite high when you consider Mariota threw the ball 20 times.
The Jaguars defended the personnel by putting their safety Barry Church at cornerback and CB Ramsey at safety to combat any runs to the three tight end side. Mariota was able to take advantage of the run heavy look by targeting tight end Delanie Walker on the speed out from a compressed set. The compressed 2×2 set vs. cover 3 forces the flats defender to clear the #2 receiver before dropping to the flats. In this case, it’s linebacker Myles Jack. He is slow to expand, and Jack is unable to see or cover the speed out by the #1 receiver, Walker.
Later in the game, the Titans come back to the very same play. This time, Jack expands immediately. But because LB Smith and LB Posluzny gain a ton of ground in their drops, the underneath throw is an easy one for Mariota. It appears that when Poz points to the sky, they are in their base defense 4-3 cover 3..
The Buffalo Bills’ offense may not match up well against the Jaguars’ defense, but there are ways to outmaneuver it. That will be up to Dennison. His first few plays of his script should look to establish Taylor as a threat. Rico must establish Taylor as a dual threat guy. Design some QB keepers to get the backside defenders thinking and to get Taylor in the minds of defenders. Slowing the linebackers’ key and diagnose skills down will help the Bills get the running game going.
The QB ‘keepers’ will help the Bills get a hat on a hat on the frontside of zone runs and help open some creases. Even if the backs gain 1-2 yards on those zone runs early on, it will go a long way toward setting up the play action game. The 49ers utilized play action at a high rate, and the misdirection of the wide zone action, getting the QB on the perimeter, and sneaking receivers behind the Jaguars’ cover 3 zone will put Taylor in the driver’s seat.
Three level passing concept off playaction
In the drop back game, Taylor has to be efficient. The windows will be tight, therefore the reads must be quick and throws on time. Dennison can help Taylor by utilizing their patented cover 3 beaters like Levels or Flood concepts, but Dennison should also mix in personnel that will keep the Jags in their base defense.
The offensive staff should utilize compressed sets that force the defense to expand horizontally post-snap. If the usual speed outs or comebacks aren’t there outside, Taylor should take what the defense gives them and attack the middle of the field in the short and intermediate areas.
The Jaguars have talented linebackers, so they love to align their linebackers at about six yards. They force teams to throw it short and then rally to the ball. But six yards is incredibly deep, and when they drop to their cover 3 landmarks they are even deeper, so it invites underneath passes. Nick O’Leary, Eric Lee, and hopefully Logan Thomas, along with any of the running backs, should be able to gain some easy yardage underneath vs. their version of cover 3.
The 17-year playoff drought was brutal, but now that they are in the tournament they have a chance. Taylor has historically played well versus cover 3 teams, and even more against teams that don’t disguise their coverages. He may not have McCoy at 100%, but in the end (as is often the case), how the offensive staff attacks cover 3 through the lens of their quarterback will be the true difference maker.