The Buffalo Bills were supposed to be done for the year after starting out 0-2 and firing their offensive coordinator. They had two games against the Cardinals and Patriots and an 0-4 start was a distinct possibility.
Instead, the Cardinals came out to Orchard Park, New York and fell flat on their faces. The Bills won 33-18, with Cardinals QB Carson Palmer throwing an astonishing four (4!!!!!) interceptions in the final 6:30 of the game. Arizona started out with five straight 3-and-outs in the first half and then turned the ball over five times in the second half, including a botched snap on a field goal attempt that the Bills returned for a touchdown.
So what did the Bills do differently to so soundly beat a supposedly good Cardinals team? How did Buffalo change their entire mentality in one week, while missing their top two wide receivers (Sammy Watkins and Greg Salas) and arguably their top cornerback (Ronald Darby)?
CHANGES ON OFFENSE
The Bills entered the week prepared to “get the ball in the playmakers hands,” but without Watkins, RB LeSean McCoy was the only active “playmaker” (we could argue about TE Charles Clay, but the dude picked up 0 yards on the day). McCoy racked up 116 total yards and 2 touchdowns on 20 touches, but he wasn’t the only offense- QB Tyrod Taylor entered the game.
Taylor, one of the two or three most mobile quarterbacks in the entire league, had been locked in the pocket over the first two weeks, picking up just 36 yards on 7 carries over first two weeks. This week, Taylor earned 76 yards and a touchdown on 9 carries.
“Tyrod- one of the best things he can do, is he can run the ball,” McCoy said after the game. “I mean he’s like a running back at quarterback, so why wouldn’t you not have him using his legs? That’s something that we’re big on.”
When Tyrod runs, or presents even just the threat of running, the defense is forced to adjust and respect him as a ball carrier. This means that the defense will have to designate a player to spy on Taylor to ensure he doesn’t leave the pocket, which removes a player from coverage or from the pass rush.
And that’s when the Bills started to push the tempo.
“It’s tempo,” McCoy said when asked about the offensive efficiency. “I knew we would run the ball well because he’s [Rex Ryan] big on that. The urgency to get in and out of the huddle. Get up on the ball. There were some times where we would snap the ball when they were just kind of lining up and that helps out. Defenses can’t structure their blitzes how they want. They can’t see what formations we’re in so they can line up everything and get it correct.
“You know, cause defense, all that is, is they just react to the offense. Okay, the ball goes left, they react to the left. So when they line up they try to find out who’s who, they have their keys, when you snap the ball fast it’s kinda hard to get everything together. I don’t know if you noticed, but we ran some quick two-minute type of plays early in the game, so there is a lot of different things to prepare for.”
The Bills used tempo to catch the Cardinals off guard for their first touchdown of the day. Patrick Peterson had been flagged for defensive pass interference on the prior play (the Bills declined because the officials ruled that Roberts Woods caught the pass anyways), so the Bills took advantage of the Cardinals disarray to get to the line and run their next play.
The Cardinals didn’t have a safety on the right side of the field, so Buffalo ran a trap play to the right, where they allowed the defensive linemen to get through, but sealed them away from the lane where McCoy scampered 24-yards for a touchdown.
“I think the way we mixed in our no huddle definitely was beneficial,” Taylor said after the game. “Definitely with the touchdown that Shady (Lesean McCoy) had off the trap. That was definitely a big one in the game. You have to pick and choose when you use it, because sometimes you get stuck on a personnel, and it is not the personnel that you can run your whole offense from. But I think we did a good job of mixing it and it also, like I said, forced them to play certain coverages and stay in certain things and give us decent looks to run our plays.”
The Bills found success against the Cardinals defense by picking and choosing their battles, but it’s also important to call a spade a spade: Buffalo wasn’t great on offense.
The offense gained a mere 297 yards- the Patriots picked up 282 yards against the Texans on Thursday and no one should call that offensive performance “great”- and benefit greatly from the field position battle.
Arizona’s punter was hurt early in the game, so their place kicker had to handle the punts- one of which only went for 19 yards. The Bills defense did their job to push the Cardinals back.
Three of the Bills touchdown drives started within 3 yards of the 50-yard line, and they added another field goal after starting on the Cardinals 30-yard line and picking up only 3 yards. The Bills had another drive that started on the Cardinals 39-yard line that picked up -13 yards and ended in an interception.
If the Patriots can stop the Bills from picking up chunk plays and win the field position battle, then they will be in a good position to win next week. Of course, they’ll have to be able to move the ball against a new(?) defense.
CHANGES ON DEFENSE
The Bills have not been good on defense under Rex Ryan and the head coach finally stripped himself of playcalling, handing it to longtime Rex assistant-now-defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman.
“We were really, obviously, embarrassed by the type of play that we had last week,” Rex said after the game, “but we had to really look deep and try to help ourselves and come up with different ways and change the look on them. Bruce Arians is a great coach, so we knew we weren’t going to have the same plan that we had going into obviously the last game with. We were wanting them to think we did, but we were going to change everything and really try to keep them off balance.”
The Bills needed a spark of genius, so they threw out their playbook and started to field unique defensive fronts to disguise pressures and present as much coverage ability as possible.
Rex, Thurman, and the Bills decided to play much of the game with six and seven defensive backs. Buffalo would play one defensive tackle, two pass rushers, and then just one or two linebackers depending on the scenario.
The Bills would ask one of the defensive backs to serve as a linebacker, similar to what the Patriots asked of Patrick Chung against the Texans, and then ask another to pose a pass rush threat. The Bills would then rush three or four or five players, depending on whether or not the defensive back was actually going to pressure, or really just drop back into coverage like another linebacker.
“Yeah, we did this package was totally different it was something nobody had really seen from us,” Bills safety Corey Graham said. “Rex (Ryan), Rob (Ryan) and DT (Dennis Thurman) did a great job that nobody wouldn’t expect because you had never seen us do it and it worked out for us. It was a good package, good play calling and I mean we tip our hat to the coaches.”
“We showed a couple of different things up front and tried to change their protection--manipulate their protection- and let our DBs do their thing on the back end,” Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “Listen, if it takes me getting my head beat in by three guys in the middle and we walk off like that, I’ll do it every week.”
The Bills strategy was pretty simple: they knew that Carson Palmer wasn’t going to scramble, so they disguised the pressure and coverages to make him hold onto the ball long enough for the pressure to get home.
What Rex Ryan defenses do extremely well is find a way to mess with cerebral quarterbacks. If you adjust your protection, the defenders will have a different read. If you designate a running back to stay in and protect the blitz, then the “blitzing” player will drop into coverage to give the defense a numbers advantage.
And if all of this sounds familiar, it should. This is Rex Ryan
circus circa 2010 when he was with the Jets.
Rex didn’t conjure up anything new; he just used the Tom Brady chapter of his defense against Carson Palmer.
What makes this defense so difficult to crack is that you need to be able to hold onto the football since the defensive backs will be playing tight coverage. Dropping eight into coverage gives the defense a 3-man advantage, while keeping in a tight end or running back to block against phantom pressure will create a 4-man advantage for the defense.
Offenses can manufacture space with legal pick plays, which is exactly what I would expect offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to conjure up. The easier option, in my opinion, would be to just run the ball down the throat of the defense.
If the Patriots trot out an offensive package with both tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the typical Rex response would be to match them up with a defensive back because there’s no way a linebacker can defend either in the open field. But if the Patriots keep running back LeGarrette Blount on the field, or even James White, then flexing into a favorable run play is possible.
Cardinals running back David Johnson averaged 4.4 yards per carry against the Bills, in part because of the light defensive front.
The Patriots offensive line has proven that it can handle some of the best defensive fronts in football over the first three weeks, so putting five linemen and two tight ends that block like linemen in Gronkowski and Bennett against one defensive tackle and three linebackers is a match-up the Patriots could absolutely win on a consistent basis.
The Bills certainly re-energized their team by focusing on playmakers on offense and, uh, taking the playcalling away from Rex on defense. But I expect the Patriots to be fully prepared and ready to take advantage of the Bills weaknesses.