After starting the season 0-2 and firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the Buffalo Bills have been able to re-vitalize their offense by running simpler concepts and reducing the playbook. Thus, Buffalo went on a four-game winning streak, which also included a 16-0 victory over the Patriots in week 4.
However, last Sunday, the team suffered its first defeat in over a month at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. The Bills lost 28-25 as the at-times high octane offense was unable to get into a consistent rhythm – and it started with slowing down quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
A look at the film shows us what the Dolphins did to minimize Taylor’s impact on the game and what New England has to do in order to beat Buffalo on the road in two days.
1) Set the edge to keep Taylor in the pocket.
Buffalo’s quarterback is one of the more athletic passers in the NFL. Consequently, limiting the impact he can have with his feet needs to be a priority for the Patriots’ defense. One way of doing that is trying to keep Taylor in the pocket, where he has to rely on his somewhat limited skill-set as a pure passer.
The following play illustrates how the Dolphins were able to do just that and get a positive play out of it. In a 3rd and 12 late in the first quarter, the Bills were in an obvious passing situation. As a result, the team put an 11-personnel formation on the field with Tyrod Taylor (#5) lining up in the shotgun and LeSean McCoy (#25) on his left:
Miami countered by playing a two-deep zone (cover 2) and dropping seven players into coverage. This left four players to rush the passer, creating a numbers advantage for Buffalo’s offensive line. The defensive line used two players – Cameron Wake (#91) and Andre Branch (#50) – in wide-9 alignments to isolate the tackles, while the two interior defenders Ndamukong Suh (#93) and Jordan Phillips (#97) used 4i- and 2i-techniques, respectively:
Due to the outside rush by Wake and Branch, Taylor’s ability to move laterally was limited severely – something that was not the case in a similar situation on an earlier drive and led to a long completion. With the quarterback "trapped" in the pocket, he was forced to make a play from there.
Taylor was unable to do that because of one of his major flaws: his ability to consistently make quick decisions. The quarterback’s eyes were glued to his initial reads on the left side but since none of his receiving options were able to gain separation – and Taylor simply did not recognize a wide-open McCoy underneath – the blind-side rush by Wake was able to get past tackle Jordan Mills (#79) for what ultimately resulted in a 5-yard sack:
Obviously, a sack is an ideal result and should not be expected every time Taylor has to make a play from the pocket. After all, the 27-year old has shown in the past that he surely is capable of doing that. However, with his decision-making inconsistent in speed and result, limiting his options to pass-only certainly makes the defense’s job easier. It all starts up front, with the edge defenders playing a disciplined game and not allowing the quarterback to escape the pocket.
Once that is accomplished, the quarterback’s technique tends to get sloppy at times: Taylor hastily tries to re-set his feet or tries to start scrambling. However, due to him having a tendency to zone in on his initial reads, his pocket awareness suffers as the following sack from the fourth quarter illustrates:
Taylor keeps his eyes on his initial targets far too long and once he realizes that he has to go elsewhere with the football it is already too late as Suh has beaten right guard John Miller (#67). Taylor never felt the pressure, however, and ran right into Suh as he tried to move around the pocket.
2) Mirror Taylor to limit his up-field running.
New England has used this strategy in the past to counter quarterbacks who are able to make plays with their feet. Typically, the team uses one of its linebackers to spy the passer, mirror his motions and go after him in case he is able to get to the second level.
However, at times, play-fakes can set the designated spy on the wrong track – similar to something Miami experienced in the following 2nd and 8-situation. The Bills aligned in a run-indicating 21-set with fullback Jerome Felton (#42) and tight end Charles Clay (#85) lining up on the right side of the formation:
Buffalo’s offense runs a misdirection play with the offensive line pulling to their left but Taylor – the ball carrier – and McCoy moving in the opposite direction. This movement led linebackers Kiko Alonso (#47) and Donald Butler (#56) – one of which would be the spy if the team used this tactic – to initially follow the blockers and defend the offense’s left side.
This would have created a favorable situation for Buffalo had defensive end Cameron Wake not played the situation perfectly. While there was what looked like a breakdown on the right side of the offensive line (one of the tight end, tackle or guard should probably not have pulled to the left), the focus here is on how Wake did what the Patriots defenders also need to be able to do: recognize the situation.
As soon as Wake saw Taylor reverse course, the veteran did the same, fighting off a blocking attempt by Felton in the process. This allowed him to mirror Taylor’s run to the right and cut off any possible running lane up the field. As a result, Taylor was forced to throw the ball incomplete:
New England’s edge defenders, in case similar misdirection play-designs are used by Buffalo, need to stay alert and be able to quickly change direction and move laterally and parallel the quarterback. At times, they have shown this in the first match-up between the two teams, so this is nothing new for Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long and company.
3) Keep the gap discipline.
Taylor is not afraid to tuck the ball in and start running with it, be it around the edge or right through the heart of the defensive line. Miami found this out in the fourth quarter. The Bills’ offense aligned with 12-personnel on the field and Taylor once again in the shotgun:
Miami countered in a base 4-3 set, playing cover 4 and rushing the four down linemen. The edge rushers once again aligned in a wide-9 position, with interior defenders Suh and Phillips playing 2i- and 4i-technique, respectively:
After the snap, the edge rushers isolated the offensive tackles, while Suh and Philipps tried a stunt in the middle. Unfortunately for Miami, Buffalo’s interior offensive line defended the play well and did not allow any of the two to get past the line into the backfield. This, in turn, created an overload on the strong side of the formation – and opened the weak-side B-gap for Taylor to exploit:
The quarterback once again unsuccessfully keyed in on his left side targets, but this time made a quicker decision to abandon his initial plan. The hole in front of him gave Taylor enough room to scramble as Suh and weak-side defensive end Mario Williams (#94) were unable to get off their blocks quickly enough. The result was a five-yard gain for the Bills.
The unsuccessful stunt in the middle of the defense allowed a hole to open for Taylor to scramble through. This is something New England’s defense needs to avoid as it is imperative that the rushers keep their gap discipline at all times possible. While this might not result in immediate pressure and look similar to last week’s attack against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it will – if successfully run – keep Taylor in the pocket. As the first two plays we have looked at show, this might be a recipe for success.
Tyrod Taylor certainly is a talented athlete but from a pure pocket-passer perspective has some flaws – decision making, awareness, technique – the Patriots need to exploit in order to slow him down. Limiting his ability to move around in- and outside the pocket certainly is the key aspect to doing that.