by Rivers McCown
It would have surprised nobody who closely followed the Buffalo Bills last year if you told them in the offseason that their defense would improve in 2017. The team had more talent than it showed under Rex Ryan, who alienated his own edge rushers with his passive asks left and right. Before Ryan, Jim Schwartz had the Bills as a top-five defense by DVOA two years in a row in 2013 and 2014. And new head coach Sean McDermott had an above-average DVOA every year in Carolina outside of 2011. The question was simply how much would they improve?
After four weeks, it's hard to argue with the tinkering that McDermott engaged in, dealing Ronald Darby before the season and elevating Tre'Davious White and E.J. Gaines to major roles in his defense. Through the games of Week 3, White had allowed just 7.6 yards per pass, which ranked 39th among all qualified corners per Sports Info Solutions' charting. Gaines was fourth among qualified cornerbacks in success rate. Jerry Hughes has been a monster as a pass-rusher, and the Bills showed equal parts skill and fortune in limiting Matt Ryan to just 5.8 yards per attempt last Sunday. Both Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu left this game with injuries, scaling back the impressiveness of Atlanta's attack. Also, White's scoop-and-score changed the game script drastically in a match the Bills uglied up on offense.
Buffalo came into Week 4 with a -27.4% DVOA on defense, and what we learned on Sunday is that they are mostly for real. Even with Jones and Sanu on the field, the Bills were able to bottle up Atlanta's deep passing attack and force Ryan to be methodical. After applying opponent adjustments for the first time, the Buffalo defense now leads the NFL with -21.2% DVOA. (Full numbers will be posted later on Tuesday, but the top four is all AFC: Buffalo, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Houston.)
I can't say I'm terribly inspired by Buffalo's offense. (Neither is DVOA; the Bills are 23rd.) The switch from Anthony Lynn to Rick Dennison has seemed to bottle up the Bills' wide-open running game from last year. Their longest run in this game was just 8 yards, and their longest run against a non-Jets franchise this year is just 13 yards. This team seems to be relying more on Power '80s football. Mike Tolbert and Patrick DiMarco had appeared on 29.1 percent and 24.5 percent of the snaps, respectively, over the first three weeks.
In a league where the Broncos won the Super Bowl a few years ago and continue to be a threat to this day, I can totally buy the Bills being a fringe AFC contender as long as they continue to not turn the ball over at all. They have already banked three wins, and massive injuries have hit other AFC contenders, with the Bills being relatively unscathed so far.
But it sure would be nice to see this defense paired with last year's offense.
By the DVOA
and by the VOA ...
Now with opponent adjustments! Not a case where Atlanta was drastically outplayed, but they were definitely outplayed either way you look at it. Buffalo's offense, though...
Questionable Coaching Decision of the Week
The Bills took the final lead they would need in this game by virtue of a 55-yard field goal with 3:06 to play. But they eschewed a 56-yard field goal attempt earlier in the game, where they ended a 13-play, 53-yard drive with a punt at the Atlanta 38. Now, granted, it was fourth-and-17, and Buffalo's offense is not exactly explosive. Still, you'd think the field goal would be the winning decision there if it was going to be the winning decision even later.
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The Atlanta Defense: Splits Happen?
Many an offseason piece can be written about a selectively crafted sample size of good play. After the Week 11 bye last season, the Falcons only had a positive (i.e. worse than average) defensive DVOA in two of their last six games. They then allowed 20 and 23 points to the NFC's best in the playoffs and held the New England Patriots to three points until ... yeah, we don't need to rehash that.
But you could look at the youth and anticipate a major jump. With stud corner Desmond Trufant coming back from injury and joining a unit where nine of the top 10 tacklers last season were 25 years old or younger, the conventional wisdom was that Atlanta was due to sustain the leap they found at the end of last season. Marquand Manuel took over for Richard Smith as defensive coordinator, and the raw tools were there for the defense to help make up for an offense that had to be expected to regress to some degree or another.
You could also look at the splits and say "splits happen." The floor is littered with dead narratives about teams who were supposed to be better after good second halves and were not. While the narrative of Atlanta improvement seemed to have more logical backing than most given the Falcons' youth, there was no guarantee the good play at the end of 2016 meant anything.
2017 has, to date, chased "splits happen." The Falcons made Mike Glennon look exceedingly competent in Week 1, his only game of the season without an interception. 2016 sack leader Vic Beasley is out for the long term with a hamstring tear. The Falcons rank 22nd in defensive DVOA after four games, and the promise of late last year hasn't been delivered.
A big problem early has simply been sloppy tackling. Between Brian Poole, Deion Jones, Duke Riley, and Ricardo Allen, the Falcons boast four of the 32 players who had four or more broken tackles per Sports Info Solutions' charting through Week 3. Riley added a couple more in this game. (Reminder: that's part of our Premium Charting Data, and you can subscribe to that for just $30 for a full year.)
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The Falcons, for all their team speed, are still wildly exploitable over the middle of the field. They allowed a 50.6% DVOA on passes marked "middle" through Week 3, as well as 10.2 passes per game targeted at tight ends, both among the bottom three in the league. And so, if you had Charles Clay catching five passes for 112 yards on seven targets in this one, you could read the statistical indicators.
That's not to say that the Falcons have no promise. They still have the same potential on defense that they had last season, especially since they're so young. But they haven't taken the step forward that could have helped mitigate some of their regression on offense. And even if you'd expect some falloff without Beasley, it's curious how the Falcons have defied the narrative.