Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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

ATL -2.6% 2.8% -0.9% -6.3%
BUF -15.0% -14.3% 8.3% 7.6%

and by the VOA ...

ATL -10.7% 1.5% -0.9% -13.1%
BUF -11.8% -9.5% 8.3% 6.0%

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.

[ad placeholder 3]

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.)

[ad placeholder 4]

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.


13 comments, Last at 05 Oct 2017, 6:15am

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

Want to note Schwartz was the coordinator for just 2014. Mike Pettine was the coordinator in 2013. Which makes Rex Ryan's failings even worse. Three coordinators/coaches led the Bills to very good to great defenses, including a 3-4 coach that was Rex Ryan's understudy for years.

9 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

The Jets defenses were coordinated by Mike Pettine. In Collision Low Crossers, Nicholas Dawidoff relays that Pettine had pretty much full control over defensive game planning and play calling. Pettine's Jets defenses were top-ten in DVOA every year, which then dropped to 12th and 21st in the two years after he left. Meanwhile the 2013 Bills ranked fourth under Pettine, after finishing 27th the year before. Pettine's Browns teams weren't as great, but damn it Jim, he's a defensive coordinator not a miracle worker.

10 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

To be fair, Rex Ryan's pedigree largely comes from his time as the DC in Baltimore, where his 2006 & 2008 defenses were amazing.

Of course, Baltimore's defense was basically as good with Marvin Lewis / Mike Nolan / Greg Mattison / Chuck Pagano / Dean Peas. What I'm saying is maybe there's another reason for the Ravens being good on defense, a reason more to do with the men who will wear gold jackets filling that squad.

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

Weird to see the bills so outplay the Falcons in VOA even though the Falcons outgained them in yards per play (5.4 to 4.8), first downs (25 to 15) and yards per drive (39.1 to 28.1).

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

What's annoying is that Dennison made several indications he would keep a lot of last year's successful running plays in the playbook and then add a splattering of his favored zone plays. This hasn't been the case thus far, and it hasn't helped McDermott has a fetish for giving Tolbert carries for the haziest of reasons (leadership? toughness? "establish" the power run?) when he so clearly is inefficient at best, actively counterproductive at worst.

Also, the Watkins trade looks bad in hindsight, although I would argue it was dumb in the first place---or at the very least, dumb if you wanted to be competitive on offense at all this year. Tyrod Taylor throws a menacing deep ball, especially on go routes, and with the Bills not having even the sniff of a credible deep threat anymore, the best part of Taylor's game has been effectively neutered. He's still good enough to get by, but smart teams like the Panthers funnel the middle of field and can completely stymie the Bills offense. Matthews being injury-prone and out a month now further makes the trade questionable, since if you traded Watkins because you thought he couldn't stay healthy, why did you acquire EJ Gaines and Jordan Matthews, both of whom haven't exactly proven they are ironmen.

I felt like it was a case of the new GM, who was hired after the draft, really wanted to do SOMETHING because he didn't get his full offseason to play around and tinker with the roster, and didn't comprehend how much talent this team had because it was being held back by Ryan's jaw-dropping stupidity. Beane should have given Watkins, especially in a contract year, to prove his ability with Taylor (also in a contract year) before trading him, maybe near the deadline instead of so early in the preseason. Now the Bills have a very competitive team and could have been AFC favorites had they not made such a short-sighted trade.

But man, that defense is good and McDermott knows how to coach that side of the ball. At the very least the Bills will go 8-8 again or maybe finally sneak into that last playoff spot, or maybe they'll surprise me and actually figure out the offense and stay this good on D, but it seems most likely to me they're going to end up disappointing again. I could just be scarred from so much unfounded hope, however,

13 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

Of course part of suggesting that the Watkins trade is bad is to assume that he'd play all 16 games.

Maybe he will stay healthy but even then I'm guessing the Bills wouldn't have had enough info on the guy to feel confident of offering him a high priced new contract. And he'd have gone tested the market in free agency so they'd get nothing for him except maybe compensatory picks.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

I am sorry but this article is weak. This is only about the Falcons. And not even about the game. Did the author watch the game?
I know the Bills are not sexy and so on. But at least give some effort, write about the game and also about what the Bills did well and so on. I guess we have to make the playoffs to be worth putting some effort in writing articles about us.
PS: I do realize that this content is for free so I maybe should not complain to hard, but at least I buy Outsiders stuff for years, so I think I can ask for a higher standard here.

12 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Falcons

Really? I mean ... really? That is insane ...
I mean that you are a Bills fan ... ;D

Ok, obviously I was dissapointed to not being able to read more about my team which is usually only mentioned as an example for a team that will not be discussed in audibles. And in my mind the other "any given Sunday" articles were way longer with more details about the game. I might be mistaken.