Every contender's crucial flaw: Part I
Digging through the NFL's top preseason contenders to find the crucial flaws that could prevent them winning the title
Let’s get cynical, cynical… I wanna get cynical. Let’s get into cynical.
A team can be anything at the start of the season. Excitement abounds. Sitting here in mid-August, there’s even a path to the Giants being kind of, sort of frisky – if you dig deep enough.
But where’s the fun in looking at only the positives? As we crank up the more preview-y style pieces here on The Read Optional ahead of the season, let’s instead turn our focus to the flaws that could turn should-have-beens into might-have-beens.
Fourteen teams will make the playoffs by the end of the regular season. So, let’s dig through the flaws of the top fourteen championship contenders.
One caveat: These are the top-14 teams by DVOA projections, not my selections. So, if your team isn’t listed here, save your hot air and point it towards the data nerds. I also subbed out the Browns for the next placed team because of the uncertainty of Deshaun Watson’s status.
The teams are listed in no particular order.
Buffalo Bills: Interior Offensive Line
There are problems. There are high-end problems. And then there is whatever it is the Bills are facing. Flaws? Pfft.
You know you’re in a good spot when your biggest preseason concern is whether or not the injury-addled guard you added in free agency to help push your running game to the next level can stay healthy – a calculation that was already baked into the Rodger Saffold pie.
The interior of the Bills’ offensive line is the only real area where, if you squint hard enough, there is some room for concern. Mitch Morse remains a solid-to-good starter at center. The Bills matched an offer sheet the Bears handed to guard Ryan Bates to keep him in town. Saffold can be a legitimate difference-maker – unlocking new potential in the run-game – if he’s able to keep a clean bill of health.
There is a broader question here: What do the Bills want to be on offense under new OC Ken Dorsey? Throughout the offseason and preseason, Dorsey and head coach Sean McDermott have said they plan to keep as much of the Brian Daboll structure intact as possible. They want to be multiple. They want to be explosive. Who doesn’t?
There is a chance, here, that subbing out Daboll for Dorsey pushes the Bills' offense to a new level. Daboll, to my mind, has always been more of a quality play designer – a big picture, structure guy – than an instinctive gameday play caller.
There were times at the back end of last season when it felt like Buffalo had hit on the future of football. After opening the season up in their version of the super-spread offense, the Bills slowly worked in more two-back and heavier personnel sets. They paired a steady dose of RPO concepts (in every incarnation) and quarterback options (in high-leverage spots), with old-school, two-back football – everyone, anywhere, liable to pull and move. They leveraged the confusion of the two styles and the movement of the personnel (Daboll liked to flip players between positions to run the same concepts over and over again rather than to craft some intricate window dressing) into easy completions for Allen and chunk yardage on the ground.
It wasn’t always a smooth fit. As the season progressed, Daboll pared things back. He figured out what his guys did best, and ran the heck out of it. The offense entered into the bounce-between-two-systems world, which is ideal in the abstract but can also lead to high variance performance. Jumping from a two-back system on one play to a super spread on the next play can make an offense all sorts of predictable based on who is in the huddle.
Sometimes, when you have Josh bleeping Allen, it doesn’t matter. Other times, even with Josh bleeping Allen, it does. The Bills clubbed the Dolphins and Saints – two of the league’s best defenses – but struggled to move the ball against the stanktastic Jags. The 2021 Bills offense led the league in the variance of their weekly DVOA rates, per Football Outsiders.
Down the stretch, Daboll bailed on some of the more vintage spread concepts. He ditched the famed 10 personnel usage (one back, no tight ends) that had fuelled some of the Bills’ success and instead pivoted the entire offense to one of two modes: 11 personnel (with Dawson Knox used as an auxiliary receiver) or the 21 personnel, two back stuff. By the season's end, 77 percent of the offense was run from 11 personnel (with limited general concepts), with the bulk of the rest made up of two-back football.
Having different answers to different problems is the right way to design an offense. Being able to bounce so drastically between setups is the dream of OCs everywhere. But by leapfrogging between such dramatic approaches, you can build a funky, staccato rhythm – look at what happened to the Titans once Derek Henry was out of the lineup last year.
A gameplan needs some connective tissue, even as you juggle your personnel groupings and formations. The Bills stripped any of that out and instead bet on their overwhelming roster and superstar quarterback to cover up any issues with predictability.
It worked! Allen and co. set the world alight in the playoffs. Two-back football paired with quick-hitting RPO designs and unbalanced, spread formations that leverage that advantage of a super-duper star at wide receiver (one moved across the formation), quarterback options, and the creative use of a slot-back (a whirlwind of a player, Isaiah McKenzie, who can line up in the backfield or the slot)? Be still my heart.
No one could keep up. Not Belichick. Not Spags. They either knew what was coming, and didn’t have the horses to stop it. Or, Allen was playing with options – be they RPOs, option routes, or check-with-me designs from the bulkier formations – and he picked all of the right answers at all of the right times.
And yet! There is more to squeeze out of this. Dorsey is liable to find ways to more seamlessly integrate the two distinct styles. The happy middle ground could be an increase of multi-tight end sets. Only 9 percent of the Bills’ offense featured two tight ends last season. From Week 13 onwards, when it was winning time, that number dropped to 3 percent.
Buffalo brought in OJ Howard in the offseason to pair alongside Dawson Knox. Howard has more of a prototypical tight-end body type than Knox, who is essentially a heavy receiver. Planting two tight ends on the field can be a happy meeting ground between the two styles of offense. Dorsey can replicate some of the general two-back designs with a tight end on the field as opposed to coughing up some unpredictability by lining up Reggie Gilliam at fullback (and no one has more stock on Gilliam Island than yours truly).
Increasing the use of two tight end sets would allow for greater crossover between the spread designs and the more condensed, congested, power-running two-back football that will be required as Allen and the Bills’ offense face an uptick in two-deep (or two-then-rotate) defensive shells.
The alternative is to continue to lean further into the spread stuff. Allen only played 7% of his snaps last year from empty. The Bills preferred to get a fifth-eligible out in the route later or to give help to allow Allen some extra beats to survey the field and drive the ball downfield.
Is Allen the kind of quarterback who can sit in empty 12-15% of the game and pick a defense apart over and over again?
Probably. But even if he is, you’re left with a 2021 Rams-ian style of offense: Even more exaggerated differences between your run-scheme and dropback game, which can limit your effectiveness on play-action shots (never forget: play-action is not about how well you run the ball, but your ability to mimic the same initial action).
Moving to a higher dosage of empty sets to combat two-deep shells would place more emphasis on, you guessed it, the offensive line. Are the Bills comfortable playing five-on-five with their current interior group?
Saffold is one of the best double-and-climb guards in football. He moves bodies. No player is a one-man running game, but I don’t want to be the one to tell Saffold that. In pass protection, though, the knees are starting to creak. Saffold can be beaten with speed off the line – and as defenses shift evermore to spread, split fronts, isolating guards with quick-twitch three-techs in designed one-on-ones, you need linemen who can sink and dip with the best of them.
Ryan Bates was outstanding down the stretch of last season. On 235 pass pro snaps, he conceded just four total pressures, including three QB hits, and a hurry. He was responsible for zero sacks. Prorate the five games he played at the end of the season over a full regular season schedule, and you wind up with: 10 hits, and 4 hurries, for a total of 14 pressures.
That is, obviously, not going to happen. Those are best-in-the-league figures. But it goes some way to showing just how good Bates was when dropped into the line for the Bills’ postseason run – a run in which they scorched the earth.
There are should-be contenders with plenty of real, legitimate concerns. For the Bills, they are less dealing with concerns and more trying to draw up the answer to some kind of existential question: How, exactly, do we want to field the best offense in the league?
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