Bills Upset Makes Jets Legitimate Playoff Contenders
NFL Week 9 - The New York Jets' 20-17 win over the Buffalo Bills proved that, despite what a certain ex-Carolina Panthers head coach would lead you to believe via the life story of Jay-Z, it doesn't take seven years to build a competitive football team.
Want proof? Just look at Joe Douglas. In June 2020, Douglas was handed the keys to one of the worst rosters in football, not even given a full offseason in his first year. By the end of that year, the Jets had the worst DVOA and the second-worst record in the league.
That's where the fun began.
At the halfway point of Douglas' second (real) season in charge, the Jets have already eclipsed their preseason win total of 5.5, hold the fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture, and boast a top-10 team by total DVOA. Douglas' hand-picked head coach, Robert Saleh, is top-five in Coach of the Year odds. All but two of New York's starters were signed or drafted under Douglas' tenure. Most importantly, the Jets are playing inspired football.
This was very much a defensively driven win, starting with the secondary. This was Buffalo's worst game by offensive passing DVOA this season at -26.7%, just the second time this season Buffalo has posted a negative DVOA in this category. Josh Allen finished with just a 52.9% completion rate and his lowest yardage total of the season, his second-lowest yards per attempt of the season, and—for the first time in 2022—zero passing touchdowns. After the Bills opened the game with a 42-yard Josh Allen-to-Stefon Diggs connection, Buffalo was stymied through the air the rest of the way. The Bills finished with just four completions deeper than 15 air yards, according to Next Gen Stats.
Part of that success stems from the Jets' new-look secondary. After finishing dead-last in pass defense DVOA in 2021, Douglas re-invented this secondary, signing safety Jordan Whitehead and cornerback D.J. Reed and drafting Sauce Gardner fourth overall. Each player had his moment on Sunday. Whitehead picked off Allen in the red zone on the first drive of the game. Reed was clutch with a third-and-long pass breakup. Gardner finished with an interception and his own key pass breakup on Gabriel Davis on the last play of the game.
Josh Allen's incomplete pass intended for Gabe Davis traveled 69.3 yards in the air, the longest pass attempt over the last six seasons.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 6, 2022
Buffalo also struggled in the passing game because of the Jets' impressive front seven. The unit has quietly become one of the best front sevens in football, creating massive pressure on Allen throughout the game. The Jets came together to notch five sacks against Allen, tied for fourth most in a game in his career. The only reason the Bills remained in this game is because Allen is such a prolific athlete, running for a season-high 86 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the mounting pressure, Allen was still able to make plays like this through the air to keep his team alive.
As an aside, Zach Wilson deserves a brief shout-out. There is no stat category or metric that suggests Wilson has lived up to his No. 2 overall selection in the 2021 NFL draft. In fact, Wilson has shown the least of the four 2021 first-rounders who have actually played a season's worth of games. He has a penchant to try and extend every snap into a SportsCenter Top 10 play, but he usually spins it into a baffling error. This, however, was the first game we saw Wilson play mistake-free football. Saleh completely changed the game plan against Buffalo, leaning heavily into play-action and RPOs. Wilson currently leads the league in time to throw according to Next Gen Stats, but in Week 9, the Jets' game plan pushed Wilson's 3.12-second season-long average down to 2.31 seconds.
The result was evident. The Jets didn't try and take too many big shots. They worked down the field, picking up chunk after chunk off screens, quick passes, and outside toss runs. Michael Carter, James Robinson, and Garrett Wilson—all Douglas acquisitions—helped pick apart a top-five Buffalo defense. Twenty points typically will not beat the Bills, but a staunch defensive performance helped put together a complete team win.
Wilson has that high-end playmaking in him, the same kind of playmaking that helped Josh Allen become a superstar. The difference is that Wilson goes to that chaotic, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency style of play as his default. A game like this—where the Jets take away all the big-shot plays, do everything in their schematic power to make the game easier, and just focus on safe, manageable quarterback play—is the exact thing Wilson needs. It's like when Wilson watched Mike White take care of the Bengals in a death-by-checkdown execution. These kinds of lessons are the ones Wilson needs to learn if he has any hope in succeeding in this league.
If the Jets can lean into this style and slowly integrate Wilson's big-play potential in a controlled manner, he can have a shot at becoming a legitimately successful NFL quarterback. Even if he doesn't pan out, though, Douglas has already executed one of the best short-term rebuilds in recent memory, and this team is well ahead of schedule.
By the DVOA
This is just the third time since Josh Allen's fabled third-year leap that the Bills have posted a negative offensive passing DVOA in back-to-back games. They have done it about once per year, closing out the 2020 postseason and opening the 2021 regular season with such performances. Prior to this stretch this season, the Bills had yet to have a game with a negative offensive passing DVOA, and finished just one game (Week 3 at Miami) with a negative offensive DVOA. If there is any indication of the Jets' turnaround, Buffalo's single-game DVOA is as easy a place to start as any.
The Jets continue a six-game streak of negative defensive DVOA; they have not had such a streak since the first seven weeks of the 2015 season (broken up by a bye). Their -30.3% defensive DVOA is their best since Week 17 of 2019 against the Bills, while their -63.1% pass defense DVOA is their best since Week 7 of 2013 against the New England Patriots.
So most of what I'm about to say is rendered moot if Josh Allen is hurt. ESPN's Chris Mortenson reported Monday that Josh Allen is being evaluated for a UCL injury and related nerve damage stemming from a hit he took while passing the ball. Further reporting from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport claims it is "considered a situation to monitor rather than an ailment that would keep him out of a game."
Any mention of the UCL is cause for concern. That is the ligament baseball pitchers get repaired during Tommy John surgery, which necessitates at minimum a full year of recovery and potentially two years until they return to their former selves. I'm not too worried, because Allen can still make throws like this…
… and guys who need Tommy John can't throw a ball 70 yards through the air and place it on a dot. It's just a whole lot more delicate a balance now. This team, as good as it is, can't go anywhere without Josh Allen.
With that out of the way, everyone knows the Buffalo Bills are firmly in Super Bowl-or-Bust mode this year. The Bills came into the year as the odds-on Vegas favorite to win the Super Bowl. They were our preseason favorites to both win the Super Bowl and be the best team in football. But while they certainly have the talent to win the Super Bowl, they are not playing like potential Super Bowl champions at the moment.
Let's start with Allen, who has developed so much since his rookie year and become one of the NFL's five best quarterbacks over the course of his five years in the league. However, in the last game and a half, we have seen the cracks in the façade, shades of pre-leap Allen. Allen has had as many interceptions in the last three halves as he had the entire season prior. Those flashes of early Allen only rear their ugly head on a few individual plays per game, but those plays can end up being back-breaking. Both of Allen's turnovers Sunday were thrown to nobody. On his first, Jets safety Jordan Whitehead was in lock-step with Dawson Knox, directly in between Allen and Knox. Even trying to loft this over Whitehead is a dangerous throw.
The second one is just to … nobody. Gabriel Davis cuts back toward the sideline, but Allen throws it like Davis is going to cut upfield. Maybe there was a miscommunication, and the pressure in Allen's face certainly didn't help the throw, but it doesn't excuse an interception.
Speaking of the pass-catchers, the ones not named Stefon Diggs have not played up to expectations as of late. Davis set the league on fire with a four-touchdown, 201-yard game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round. That game was both an unexpected surprise and a harbinger of things to come, insomuch that he has been boom-or-bust all season long. In the three games where Davis has a touchdown, he has gone for at least 74 yards (with a 171-yard, two-touchdown game in that mix to boot). In the four games where he has gone scoreless, he has produced under 40 yards.
Knox received a four-year extension this offseason worth $53.6 million, making him the seventh-highest paid tight end in football per Over The Cap. Right now, he ranks 18th in receiving DVOA among tight ends. Last year, he averaged 39.1 yards per game, but he has eclipsed 40 yards just twice this season. The Bills also re-signed Isaiah McKenzie to be their starting slot receiver after watching him come on at the end of 2021; he has two games with more than two receptions and is averaging his lowest catch rate since 2018.
As for the vaunted Buffalo defense, one of the shortcomings of Bills head coach Sean McDermott, at least in this game, is that the Jets saw relatively similar looks all game long. Buffalo kept lining up in their same defensive fronts, with their linebackers getting downhill fast and flowing to first motion. The two things the Jets had consistent success with all game? Play-action and RPOs. Buffalo's secondary also provided substantial cushion to Jets receivers, playing right into the Jets' quick-passing game plan.
Buffalo is changing year-over-year. There's a larger incorporation of running backs into their passing game. According to Fantasy Data, Bills running backs currently have a 21.8% target share in the passing offense, which is up from a 13.9% target share in 2021. That's only expected to rise with the addition of Nyheim Hines to the running back room and the further incorporation of James Cook. The defensive personnel has significantly improved, especially up front. Greg Rousseau is fifth among defensive linemen in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions, and Von Miller is a half-sack off pace from setting a new career high for himself. While Kaiir Elam has not played to the same level as fellow rookie cornerbacks Sauce Gardner, Derek Stingley Jr., and Tariq Woolen, he has proven to be a valuable add as a rookie while serving as a stopgap starter before Tre'Davious White's return.
Those changes need to just happen game-to-game, or even half-to-half. For lack of a better term, the thing holding Buffalo back is complacency. It is obvious just how elite this Buffalo team could potentially be. The talent on this roster is undeniable, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Josh Allen is still in the debate for best quarterback in the league. As currently constructed, though, the Bills aren't so dominant that they can just walk out and beat a team, no strategy needed. Those second-half adjustments, the pre-snap alterations, the "show one look, run another at the snap of a ball" style of play that helped Miami beat Buffalo in Week 3, those are the added wrinkles that turn a great team to a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
McDermott is a good enough defensive mind to make those changes, and the roster is talented enough to execute them . Allen can elevate the rest of the roster on his own, and he can make plays out of structure as well as anyone in the league, but that can't be the default for the offense. He still needs to know when to just take the loss and get rid of the ball when things go south. That's how that first interception to Whitehead happened. Taking those smart sacrifices and living to fight another down is the difference between a fun-but-chaotic quarterback who can't win the big one and an elite talent contending for a championship every year.
This Bills team is so close to running the table. All they need are some small tweaks, and they can get there. Winning the Odell Beckham bidding war would be a big plus, but they don't necessarily need him to hoist a Lombardi Trophy.