This season, the Buffalo Bills seem to be preparing to win a shootout versus Kansas City gunslinger Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs, but the New England Patriots may be bringing tanks to the gunfight instead.
The NFL goes through phases, and right now, it’s going through one in which mobile quarterbacks leading potent aerial attacks are running the show.
The Chiefs have the superior blueprint.
Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat them in the Super Bowl, but that was due to some Tom Brady magic and a number of devastating injuries and dropped passes for KC.
The Chiefs’ roster, to be sure, includes incredibly talented and fast players, including Tyreek Hill, who clocked 4.29 at his Pro Day; All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, who is 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds and ran 4.61 at his Pro Day; and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who somehow ran a 4.60 second 40-yard dash at the combine but seems to be much faster and very elusive.
This is undoubtedly a fantastic group of athletes, and they are the darlings of the betting public as well as the terrors of defensive coordinators around the AFC. Hence, AFC defensive coordinators, and especially the Bills, are obsessed with finding speedy edge rushers and linebackers to keep Mahomes, Edwards-Helaire and Kelce at bay.
So let’s talk about the Bills defense and how it’s constructed. Last season, Buffalo usually started games in a conventional 4-3-4 defense but played most of the snaps in the 4-2-5, which is increasingly in vogue these days. That is, they feature only two linebackers instead of three, replacing the linebacker with an additional defensive back.
Last season they were better versus the pass than the ground game. According to pro-football-reference.com, the Bills were 13th best versus the pass in terms of yardage (3,726), surrendered the ninth fewest-touchdowns (23), and ranked 16th with 15 interceptions. Against the run, they were 17th in terms of yardage (1,914), 24th in yards per carry (4.6), and 27th in rushing touchdowns allowed (27). Most of the time they were ahead, so teams were more likely to pass than run against them, or their run stats perhaps look even worse.
Let’s develop this theme in greater detail, beginning with the Bills edge rushers. Up front, the incumbent defensive ends are Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison. Both of these fellows are small, mobile ends and not known as run stoppers. Addison tied for the team lead with five sacks last season at age 33 and was re-signed to a three-year, $30.5 million contract this offseason.
They drafted a defensive end with their first-round pick (30th overall) in Greg Rousseau (6-foot-6 and 266 pounds), a sackmeister from the Miami Hurricanes. Second-year man A.J. Epenesa (6-foot-6, 260 pounds), their 2020 second-round draft choice, was slowed by COVID-19 last season, but the Bills remain high on his potential. He’s built in the same mold. These draft picks show that the Bills are looking for lighter players with speed and pass rushing skills. The Bills could really care less about 350-pound offensive linemen, two-tight-end formations and run-first offenses. They want to stop Mahomes.
Their best defensive tackles are Justin Zimmer (6-foot-3, 292 pounds) and Harrison Phillips (6-foot-3, 307 pounds). Second-round draft Boogie Bashum (6-foot-3, 281 pounds) has the best name for a defensive lineman in history and may be used as a pass-rushing defensive tackle and can also play defensive end. These gentlemen can hold their own at the dinner table, but they would not remind anyone of Danny Shelton as dominant run-stoppers.
Let’s talk about linebackers. As mentioned, the Bills had three nominal starters, but in reality only two were used on the field in most situations. The every-down linebacker was Tremaine Edmunds, who was a formidable 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. But next to him, the Bills usually used Tyrell Adams (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) or Matt Milano (6-foot, 223 pounds). Milano is a former safety and was part of the strategy for covering Kelce. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde also took turns getting torched. Here again, however, of all things that linebackers do, these players are concerned about covering the tight end, generating sacks, or sealing the perimeter against Edwards-Helaire rather than necessarily defending the middle of the field against runs.
So not only do they have two linebackers instead of three, but they are using a converted safety as one of their key LBs.
The Bills have a very fast cornerback in Tre’Davious White who can slow down if not stop Hill. He’s also a zone blitzing threat as evidenced by 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits last season. Ironically, White was obtained using the draft pick that Buffalo got from Kansas City when the Chiefs moved up in the 2017 draft to select Mahomes. Fellow cornerback Levi Wallace is also highly rated, but does not have quite the top gear that White has.
More than ever, due to the incredible athleticism that has taken over the sport, offensive coordinators are looking to exploit any and all mismatches in a given game.
But let’s not overthink this. If everyone else in the NFL is focused on stopping Mahomes (and they are), maybe the real mismatch is halfback over right tackle. Teams like the Bills may be getting too overspecialized if they’re shedding too much weight.
The Bills front seven (four linemen, two linebackers, and Jordan Poyer thrown in to add up to seven) adds up as follows:
260 + 292 + 307 + 266, 250 + 223 + 191 = 1,790 pounds.
Today’s Bills are somewhat smaller than a few years ago. The defensive ends are on the light side; the defensive tackles are on the light side; there are two linebackers instead of three (one of whom is a converted strong safety), and the front seven is really a front six.
This season, the Patriots offense has upgraded in the receiving game, but the Bills are probably better equipped to defend that aspect of their gameplan.
More problematic for the Bills is that they do not match up well against the size that the Patriots can apply on the line of scrimmage, starting with gigantic Trent Brown, who is 6-foot-8 and 355 pounds. Then you have 350-pound Michael Onwenu at guard, Isaiah Wynn (315 pounds) at left tackle, Shaq Mason (310 pounds) at guard, and David Andrews (listed as the starting center) at 300 pounds. He will be challenged by Ted Karras at 305 pounds.
One way or the other, the Patriots are going to have blockers ranging up to 350 pounds tasked with going up against Bills defenders who weigh around 260 pounds. They will be assisted by two premier tight ends in Henry and Smith, and they may also retain fullback Jakob Johnson or whomever emerges from that competition.
Man for man, the Bills are going to be much smaller than the Patriots. What will they use their speed for? Running away?
It could be a great opportunity for big rookie back Rhamondre Stevenson, who is 6-foot and 227 pounds. He just needs to run mostly north and south to make his impact.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be happy to exploit this mismatch, and it may not be rocket science. If the Patriots stay reasonably healthy, there’s no reason why they cannot run the ball all day long.
This article has dealt with the Bills defense, admittedly because that’s way more fun than Josh Allen and the offense. Allen, in the eyes of some, is every bit as good as Mahomes, but so far lacks the shiny hardware for his trophy case. Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley form as dangerous a receiving tandem as anyone, with 2,502 combined receiving yards between them. However, Jacob Hollister and Dawson Knox are not quite so intimidating at tight end.
Likewise, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss accounted for 1,532 total yards from scrimmage in 1,024 total offensive snaps, or 1.50 TYFS/snap, a more than respectable output. By comparison, Sony Michel and Damien Harris combined for 1,306 yards in 432 snaps, or 3.02 TYFS/snap, more than double the Bills’ figure-of-merit. The numbers confirm what you knew already: Mr. Allen’s best options are through the air.
The Bills may in fact excel against teams built like the Chiefs, but you can bet it won’t be easy for them against run-heavy offenses that can control the clock and keep their offense off the field, preventing Allen and Co. from getting in a rhythm. The Patriots will have their offense sorted out bu the time they face the Bills for the first time in 2021. Weeks 13 and 16 can’t come soon enough.