If you only looked at the records of the four AFC East teams last season, you wouldn’t guess that they’d be the talk of the NFL now, but here we are.
The New England Patriots are still one of the media’s favorites following another Super Bowl appearance last February despite a mini youth movement this offseason. Meanwhile, Rex Ryan is still making bold statements about his New York Jets that at this point even Bill Clinton would deem unconstitutional if he happened to go off script, and the Miami Dolphins had a television show. You read that right; the Miami Dolphins had a series on HBO detailing their cigar smokin’ ways and their lack of (offensive) talent.
And the Bills?
Nobody in the mainstream, national media is talking about the Buffalo Bills nearly as much as the other three teams in the division, even though they’re the only team that actually made significant acquisitions in the offseason, and could push New England off the medal stand. On Sunday, the Bills have the chance to make a strong statement in the division if they defeat the Jets, who beat them in both meetings last year. Although Buffalo lost, they showed some promise offensively in the second meeting, particularly in the passing game.
Week 12 saw the Bills do a great job of using the width of the field to spread the Jets defenders horizontally and really make them work in their favored man coverage.
Spreading out the defense significantly helped the Bills’ passing game, which primarily relies on short passes that basically serve as an extension of the running game. This consisted of play action passes, which was enhanced by the use of pre-snap motion to the running back in the flats and quick slants to various players, notably wide receiver Stevie Johnson who worked against Darelle Revis on the backside of the formation the majority of the time.
An instance of the latter came on several occasions, including early in the second quarter when Ryan Fitzpatrick and his teammates lined up in a 4×1 set from the Empty (empty backfield) shotgun set. As you can see below, the strength or “strong side” of the formation is the four pass catchers to Fitzpatrick’s right, while the weak or “back side” is to his left where only Johnson is lined up. After the snap, three of the four pass catchers — the “wing” to the right tackle’s right stays in to block — run varying routes that combined to create a “Sail” or “Flood” (football terminology is not universal) concept, whereas Johnson runs a slant.
On this play, Fitzpatrick catches the snap, quickly looks down the middle of the field, and then shifts his eyes to Johnson, who beat Revis to the inside for the catch after taking an outside release to create space for the route.
A significant aspect of this play was not just the Bills’ offensive concepts, but New York’s defense; they were in man coverage on this play, something that is clearly visible by the cornerbacks defending the pass catchers man-to-man and the lone safety in the middle of the field playing zone — which suggests Man-Free coverage. There is one other defender (to Johnson’s right) that appears to be in zone coverage, but he served as a spy on the quarterback.
The reason this coverage is important is because the Jets play a lot of it and did so in this game. Man coverage was the choice on this day for Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, but we might not see it tomorrow. There is a chance that New York plays more zone coverage than man so they can stop the underneath passing game of Buffalo. It wouldn’t be the first time they did it — remember their 2010 divisional playoff game against New England’s underneath passing game?
If not, the Jets flooded the zones underneath while rushing three or four defenders and forcing Tom Brady to hold the ball as long as possible and make bad decisions. It’s possible the Jets look to do some of this in Week 1, because based off the game tape, it’s clear that Fitzpatrick doesn’t make the best decisions at times, and Buffalo really thrives on the short passing game.
So, how do the Bills counter the potential zone coverage of the Jets?
Go back to what they were doing early last season: run more double-moves. Buffalo did a good job of attacking the intermediate and deep area of middle by running double moves and sending multiple players in the same area, which can be accomplished by running double post patterns, for example. They also flashed this against the Jets in week 12 when New York played a little bit of zone, and the Bills had success and were able to get their targets open.
If they repeat that game plan, success awaits again tomorrow.