Colts Loss Exposes Buffalo's Biggest Weakness

Buffalo Bills LB Matt Milano
Buffalo Bills LB Matt Milano
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 11 - The Buffalo Bills have now been featured on Any Given Sunday twice in the last three weeks, with their last appearance coming after a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. One such loss can be written off as an aberration. Anyone can have a slip-up game against an opponent who seems inferior on paper. Just ask the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, or any of the teams considered contenders in the 2021 season.

Two losses, however, begin to define a trend.

Let's not completely bury Buffalo before the typical end-of-section evaluation, because this is also about the historic day Jonathan Taylor had on the ground. Taylor has already been dominant this year while facing off against some of the top run defenses in football. He currently leads the league with 356 rushing DYAR, absolutely dominating the category.

Our Vince Verhei made a case for Taylor's MVP candidacy in this week's Quick Reads. This will provide some of the historic context for the day Taylor had, including the fact that he's only the fourth player in league history with at least 185 yards rushing and five total touchdowns. With Sunday's game under his belt, Taylor also tied the NFL record of eight straight games with 100 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown. And while Taylor has put the team on his back, the run game is often a group effort in conjunction with the offensive line. That team effort resulted in an absolute drubbing of the Buffalo Bills.

The Colts offensive line simply overpowered Buffalo on Sunday. With Tremaine Edmunds and Star Lotulelei absent from the Bills' front seven, Indianapolis had no problem handling a smaller, rangier Buffalo defense. They did an exceptional job of driving Buffalo's four-man front off the line of scrimmage, getting to the second level with ease. While that should be nothing new for an offensive line that ranks second in second-level yards and leads the league in open-field yards, it was a point of emphasis on Sunday. Taylor consistently had holes he could have driven a semi truck through, and it showed in his consistent output. Taylor had one run stuffed for no gain and two go for negative yards, meaning 29 of his 32 runs went for positive yards.

The Colts' most successful plays of the game involved big personnel and pulling blockers. Indianapolis brought in an extra tight end or two to the line of scrimmage to match up nearly one-to-one with the personnel Buffalo brought into the box. Instead of mauling, slow-developing power runs, the Colts ran variants of trap and wham with quick releases. Taylor finished the day averaging just 2.58 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, per Next Gen Stats. That mark was good for eighth-quickest across the league in Week 11, and only two of the backs ahead of Taylor had more than 10 carries on the day. Man-on-man blocking, coupled with a guard or tight end pulling backside to pick up the trash, meant Taylor often had a one-on-one with a linebacker or defensive back in the second level. Considering Taylor leads the NFL in yards after contact, that seems like a matchup Taylor wins most of the time.

On the defensive side of things, Indianapolis had a very similar game plan to that of Jacksonville. The Colts presented a lot of two-high looks to Josh Allen. This took away the Bills' typical over-the-top deep shots, instead forcing Allen to hold the ball, make reads, and find holes in the coverage. Indianapolis added an extra wrinkle, often presenting one look pre-snap then rolling into another post-snap. The Colts were able to make Allen uncomfortable while only rushing three, meaning they could drop their linebackers into coverage as well.

Allen's first interception on the day was indicative of just that strategy. The whole first drive of the game, Indianapolis was able to get penetration just rushing three or four down linemen. Allen adjusted as best as he could, often settling for checkdowns to keep moving downfield. On the interception, the Colts defense rolls five up to the line of scrimmage with another linebacker 3 yards off. Three Colts rush the passer while three linebackers drop back. Allen, who has more time than he thinks he does, quickly works through his progressions and forces a ball to a tightly covered Gabriel Davis. George Odum, sitting back in zone, reacts quickly enough to undercut an already underthrown pass and picks Allen off.

Also, I'm not sure whether to credit a Colts defense that ranks second in rushing DVOA or chide a Bills offense that ranks 18th in rushing DVOA, but Buffalo couldn't get anything going on the ground. In a week where every other game seemed to be plagued by precipitation, Buffalo was particularly rainy. While Taylor and the Colts ran the ball down Buffalo's throats, the Bills run game failed to see any production. Matt Breida performed the best of the bunch, and more than half his 51 yards came on one 28-yard carry. Devin Singletary mustered three carries for 17 yards, while Zack Moss posted an additional three carries for just 5 yards.

Where the Game Swung

IND-BUF GWC chart

Qtr Time Down To
Go
Yard
Line
WP
Change
Play
2 2:12 KO N/A IND 35 +18.5% Isaiah McKenzie fumbles on kick return. T.J. Carrie recovers, returns it to Buffalo's 2-yard-line.
1 1:51 2 5 BUF 23 +7.7% Jonathan Taylor 23-yard receiving touchdown
2 6:01 3 10 BUF 48 +7.2% Carson Wentz scramble on third-and-long for first down
1 4:10 3 18 IND 43 +7.1% Josh Allen intercepted by George Odum

First off, let's just take time to appreciate the fact that Jonathan Taylor wasn't the only Colts player with success on the ground. Carson Wentz's Matrix-style slow-mo duck out of a sack pivoted perfectly into an 18-yard scramble. The Colts receivers' crossing routes cleared out the middle of the field, allowing Wentz to run for a first down on third-and-long.

This one was over before the fourth quarter even started, so there isn't much to glean from the win probability. Buffalo's costly kickoff cough-up all but buried the Bills. Buffalo had just held Indianapolis to a field goal after Wentz's scramble (a feat they would muster just two more times before the Colts starters exited the game). They were getting the ball down 17-7 with about two minutes to go in the second quarter, plenty of time to cut the margin to one score at halftime. However, McKenzie fumbles and Carrie recovers and takes it all the way back to the 2-yard-line. One Jonathan Taylor leap later, the Bills go down 24-7.

By the DVOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
IND 45.2% -18.7% 18.1% 82.0%
BUF -27.3% 28.5% -21.0% -76.8%
         
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
IND 26.5% -15.8% 18.1% 60.3%
BUF -23.9% 41.0% -21.0% -85.9%

The Colts offense has ascended our DVOA rankings, with this performance leaving them second in rushing offense and eighth in total offense. Buffalo's offense, on the other hand, is doing a fun interpretation of the Michael Scott "snip-snap" GIF: down to 19th overall after Jacksonville, up to 14th after their blowout against the Jets, then back down to 18th after this week. The Bills defense, still clinging onto the title of league-best in DVOA, has slipped from third-best against the run all the way down to 11th. This is only Buffalo's second game this season where they have posted a positive DVOA against the run, positive being worse for defense. Here are their weekly logs for rushing defense:

Wk Opp DVOA VOA Yd/Car
1 PIT -25.6% -32.6% 4.12
2 MIA -24.0% -44.7% 3.94
3 WAS -38.5% -46.3% 2.95
4 HOU -33.5% -59.7% 2.71
5 KC -25.6% -20.2% 3.69
6 TEN 40.5% 40.6% 7.00
8 MIA -12.5% -31.5% 2.81
9 JAX -65.3% -53.4% 3.08
10 NYJ -27.5% -30.8% 3.18
11 IND 26.0% 45.2% 5.47

While Buffalo has stymied the likes of Antonio Gibson, Myles Gaskin, Mark Ingram, Darrel Williams, Najee Harris (in his NFL debut), and Carlos Hyde, the Bills have been run over by Derrick Henry and Taylor. In a now-contentious AFC East, the Bills still have two matchups against a run-heavy, big-personnel New England Patriots team.

Circling the Wagons 2: Broken Axle

The Buffalo Bills offense is currently suffering from the same ailment Kansas City's offense suffered from earlier this season (and is still somewhat suffering from, to a degree). This is, after all, an offense somewhat modeled in the Chiefs' image: a quarterback with a cannon, equipped with speedy receivers who are a nightmare to cover in man. The result is a high-flying offense that, when operating at its peak, can score at will from practically anywhere on the field. Teams have responded in the same way: two-safety coverages with multiple looks, slowing the passing game down and forcing more precision passing. Buffalo started the season off scoring 30-plus points in five of their first six games. Since their Week 7 bye, however, the Bills offense accomplished that feat just once in four games, going 2-2 in the process.

The Chiefs had their tune-up game against Las Vegas, where Gus Bradley is bucking the rest of the NFL by almost exclusively running Cover-3. Buffalo's get-right game came in a dominant performance against the New York Jets, who couldn't have done much to stop this offense on their best day. Instead of building off that momentum, the Bills are right back to where they were a few weeks ago. Josh Allen had his second two-interception game in three weeks and posted his fourth-lowest completion percentage of the season. Further, Buffalo doesn't have a passing attack built to overcome a more physical pass coverage. The Bills' top three receivers—Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders, and Cole Beasley—have contested catch rates of 36.8%, 30.0%, and 11.8% respectively, per Player Profiler. Outside of the occasional Dawson Knox ball over the middle, there isn't really anyone Allen can throw to that can get up and get one. Take away the over-the-top speed, and you take away a major aspect of this Bills' passing attack.

The Bills defense is still faring well, sitting atop the league in total DVOA, but their ability to match up against larger-bodied rushing attacks is an issue. As stated earlier, this is going to be a major problem against the New England Patriots, whom the Bills will see twice in a four-week span (one such matchup comes after a Patriots bye). New England zagged when the rest of the league zigged. When everyone else got smaller, New England beefed up. Their size on the offensive line is almost comical, boasting the likes of 380-pound Trent Brown and 350-pound Michael Onwenu. They have the personnel to run two-tight end sets and overpower most front sevens at the line of scrimmage. While Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson aren't exactly Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor, the Patriots now boast the eighth-best rushing offense in the league in terms of DVOA and look very similar to the units Buffalo has struggled against this year. Even worse, the loss this weekend means that the Patriots leap-frogged the Bills in division standings.

Buffalo has a tough road ahead of them. Their future schedule ranks 11th in difficulty in our database. In a wide-open AFC, the Bills had a chance to separate themselves as a contender, then lost two of three games against beatable opponents. This loss alone has dropped Buffalo's chances of making the playoffs by a whopping 22.3%, down to 73.5%. That's a shift from near-certainty to still strong, but with some slight worry. This is a team that still boasts a talented defense and a high-upside offense that still hasn't fully clicked this year. The odds are still in their favor, but their road to a Super Bowl—the benchmark expectation headed into the season—is looking more and more difficult as the weeks go on.

Comments

8 comments, Last at 24 Nov 2021, 1:06pm

1 Taylor's early season

I did not realize his early opponents had been so stout vs the run overall, but I will point out that he'd likely have produced more if Reich called his number more than 12-16 times a game, which was frustratingly low for the first half.  His only two games over 20 carries were the last two. I saw a narrative today that that was by design, so he finishes strong, but if so, did they also PLAN to lose two early conference games in OT (rushing Taylor 10 times in the first loss to TEN, 15 times in the second, and 16 times in the loss to BAL)???  Maybe five more carries vs BAL would have netted 25 more yards, a couple first downs, and prevented BAL from tying the game late.  I don't recall the TEN OT loss as clearly.

Sigh.

2 "Maybe five more carries vs BAL would have netted 25 more yards"

Maybe but idk where specifically they could've been.

But I feel it's akin to the Eagles where people are asking "Well why didn't you run earlier in the season?" Well, there could be a bunch of reasons, one being they were testing things. Not something I think is egregious early in the season. Still want to win every game but I think it's perfectly fine to experiment, especially early in the season. If it "he finishes strong" can be seen as a (positive) side effect. 

4 I don't know either...

But there were plenty of 3 incomplete pass 3-and-outs earlier in the year when I'd be thinking "what the hell are you doing?"  They may have been audibles because of a look the D gave, or just flukey calls, or poor execution, or desperation time in their only two big losses, but in the first six weeks the Colts ran him 17, 15, 10, 16, 15, 14 times. Their record was 2-4 after that--related, though not necessarily cause and effect.  Two of those losses were by 9 and 12 pts, so not very close and 20 more Taylor runs each would not have won those games, but one was by 3 in regulation and one was in OT.  The OT losses in particular kill me because of the benefits of getting 5-10-15 yards with a few more runs in a drive (closer for a FG?) plus runs chew up 20-30 seconds per play if you have the lead like they did vs the Ravens, and keeps the ball out of Lamar Jackson's miracle-making hands in the second half. It was clear their D had nothing left in the last 20 minutes of that game, so protecting the lead and draining clock were the keys to winning. They managed a couple 4-5 minutes drives that did not reach the end zone, and were also undone by having an injured PK missing 2 FGs and an XP (one blocked). Late in 2020, they managed a few 8 minute drives to close out games--don't recall the opponents, but it was a pretty macho "we're gonna run to drain the clock and you can't stop us" situation.

In 2006 they had a great platoon of Dom Rhodes starting all 16 games and 1st round pick Joe Addai pitching relief in all 16; Addai became the only 1,000 yard rusher to have not started a single game and both were fresh for the end of the season. Great if you can do it.  They probably can platoon Hines and Taylor more and be effective, if late-season fatigue is a real concern, but in doing so, they should still keep total team runs in the 30 range (20/10 or 15 each) rather than just a total of 20 (15/5). Part of that is supporting Wentz, too.  Don't make his load to heavy and he's a B+/A- QB.  Put him in a hole and that grade seems to drop sharply. 

Taylor's low carry total might have been because their OL was fragmented by injuries early in the season.

When things are working on the ground, I fall back on the wisdom of that eastern (Pennsylvania) philosopher, Marvin Harrison. "Just run the damn ball." It worked when he called that play in the 2006 AFCCG, and I hear he's now in the philosophy hall of fame....

5 Their O line was kinda a…

Their O line was kinda a mess early though with injuries and a lack of continuity. They weren't running this well when they did run or I"m sure they would have run more.

6 That's Exactly It

Even with a great back, the o-line means everything. The Pats started really running over people as soon as Trent Brown returned. All of a sudden, Brandon Bolden was looking like Gale Sayers. Even an average NFL RB can put on a show if he makes it to the second level untouched.

3 It comes down to coaching.

I question what McDermott is doing during the week that this team looks so unprepared against a team they should beat.

Why isn't Buffalo running the ball?

At least have Josh Allen with the RPO's to give teams a different look.

I think they have way more talent than New England, but it needs to be played out on the field.

More Allen running opens up runs for their RB's, maybe some screens and sweeps, then the splash plays open up down the field.

 

7 It's true..

...that an Allen run is now probably their best play, just like pre-2020. I doubt that opens up much for the RBs though, the line isn't good and wasn't last year either. I'm mystified by the lack of adjustments on offense, there's more than enough talent here to make opponents pay for whatever strategy they try to use. Re the run defense, I'd really, really hate if the Bills had spent literally decades building a defense of faster guys to counter Brady, only to be taken advantage of by NE's (forced) retooling. If they keep getting steamrolled by (at least by contemporary standards) power run teams on one side of the ball, and completely flummoxed by 2 high safeties on the other, Brandon Beane will have his off-season work cut out for him. I think so long as they have Allen and their current young defensive talent their championship window is open, but the safeties are getting older, Milano who they just signed to a fat contract may be undersized, and there's no chance their current O-line creates anything approaching a decent run game. Until now, I didn't see any reason to care about that last point, but maybe it's time.