One number you need to know for every AFC team: Part II
And why it matters. Featuring: Derrick Henry; Trevor Lawrence; the Bills' run defense; and Bill Belichick's new prodigy
We are now eight weeks through the season, which is as good a time as any to take stock of where the league is at. Modern analysis is flooded with all kinds of nerdy numbers and metrics – metrics that this here writer likes to indulge and pair with film analysis. But there can be paralysis through the numerical analysis. There are So. Many. Data. Points.
So, here’s a helpful cheat sheet for the first half (just about) of the season. Here’s a figure you need to know about every team in the AFC and why it matters. Part I is here in case you missed it.
Let’s talk about this Bills defense. Right now, Buffalo ranks first in the league in explosive pass rate on defense by, frankly, a bonkers distance.
The Bills defense has conceded just 10 passes of 20-yards or more all season long, a total that their own offense is apt to post in a game. It helps to have the league’s top safety tandem, but the team’s pass-rush has finally started to bring some early down juice.
Notably: Sean McDermott’s pressure package is more varied this year than ever before. Like many top coaches, McDermott has embraced the more-is-more mantra. But it’s not as if McDermott is getting out of his tried-and-true four-down fronts with split tackles and the odd mugged look front in. That’s still the base. The pressure paths are the same. What has changed is who brings the pressure from which path on any given down.
Paths not players, that’s how the best pressure groups teach in 2021. They settle on a handful of preferred pressure paths, teach each and every assignment from those sixth paths to each and every player, and then they can mix and match spots on a down-to-down basis. The same cross-dog pressure path can be dressed up in ten different ways, giving the illusion of variance even if it’s the same call and same path for the players.
The Bills like to get spicy with their fronts on third downs. On early downs, though, it’s classic, basic stuff. But switching players between positions still messes with the protection scheme that the offense is running. The quarterback still has to ID the biggest threat (Ed Oliver!) and then figure out where the ‘backers are and what they might be doing.
More impressive: The Bills have conceded just 13 explosive runs all season – an ‘explosive’ run constitutes a run of 10-yards or more. And that despite McDermott’s staunch refusal to join the odd-front resurgence.
NFL teams have shifted back to a three or five-man base. It’s Bear fronts. It’s nose tackles head up over centers. The idea: To cover each gap along the front to try to limit or the wide-zone looks that are being chucked at defense on a weekly basis, and the boot-actions that roll off those looks.
Playing with a four-down even front is particularly problematic against spread-to-run teams who want to pound interior runs into the ‘B’ gaps:
Just look at that lovely ‘B’ gap bubble! The foundation of all spread teams – those who use inside-zone, split zone, and duo from the gun – is hitting runs between those gaps on the outside shoulder of the guard. Wide-zone teams are looking to smack the ball into that same space, too. Only a true downhill, pro-style attack *cough* the Patriots *cough* is fitting the ball in the A-Gaps.
The Bills don’t care! They don’t care that they put themselves at a schematic disadvantage upfront because their players are playing out-of-their-minds good. Star Lotulelei is playing as well as any interior lineman in the league in the run game, consistently leaping post-snap from his A-gap position and splicing across the face into the B-Gap post-snap – that’s a hard move, no matter how good the lineman. Matt Milano remains one of the best read-and-react defenders in the league. Ed Oliver’s ability to lineup right across the formation — and the springs that allow him cheat a gap — has allowed the Bills to hunt matchups.
All three — Oliver, Milano, Lotulelei — are scheme-issue-busters. They not only cover up for any holes in the pre-snap picture, but by doing they help maximize the parts of the scheme that are structurally sound. The Bills do not need to commit as many resources to the run-game because they’re winning with players, not plays. And that allows them to drop extra guys into coverage, which is how you get to the best explosive play rate in the league.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick loves him a move piece at all three levels of the defense. There’s the end who kicks inside on obvious passing situations (more on Christian Barmore, soon). There’s the linebacker who must play as an edge-rusher, a run-plugger, a turn-and-run defender, edge-setter, creep-and-trailer, stunt-game-masher and one-on-one, on-the-line pass-rusher.
And then there’s the third level. To play the volume of man-coverage Belichick wants while also disguising things, he needs a third safety who can vacillate between positions, never tipping the coverage hand through his pre-snap movement.
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