Bills, Chiefs Prepping for a Shootout

Buffalo Bills ER Mario Addison
Buffalo Bills ER Mario Addison
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Divisional - The Bills played a pretty good wild-card game. You might have heard. Quarterback Josh Allen shepherded the team's seven drives to seven touchdowns and did so against a Patriots pass defense that entered the week ranked third best by DVOA. Allen excelled on his deep passes, completing all eight of his attempts thrown 10 or more yards in the air. He excelled as a runner, gaining 5 or more yards on five of his six carries and earning a new first down on four. And with Allen making plays that quarterbacks with lesser physical tools couldn't make, and with a defense rebutting its relative weakness against the run (11th in DVOA versus first against the pass) by limiting Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to 57 yards and 3.4 yards per attempt, the Bills made a compelling case that their best football is the best in football.

The Chiefs won't need to review Saturday's film to reach that understanding. They lived it in a 38-20 Bills dismantling in Week 5 in Kansas City. But while recency and matchup connectivity make it easy to expect the team to play to the standard of those two best offensive performances of their season by DVOA (108.1% and 86.5%), the Bills were the least consistent team in football. The broader recent history on its own suggests something less than an encore performance. And the Chiefs have reasons in their improved defensive personnel and presumably improved turnover luck to expect they will be better in their second chance at their new conference rivals. Fans will have to hope that both offenses play to their potential. But if they do, the Bills and Chiefs are poised for a playoff classic.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  BUF KC
DVOA 27.7% (2) 17.5% (7)
WEI DVOA 34.2% (1) 26.3% (5)
Bills on Offense
  BUF OFF KC DEF
DVOA 9.7% (10) 4.5% (24)
WEI DVOA 18.9% (4) -2.3% (14)
PASS 20.6% (13) 11.3% (23)
RUSH 2.8% (9) -5.6% (20)
Chiefs on Offense
  BUF DEF KC OFF
DVOA -18.1% (1) 18.1% (3)
WEI DVOA -14.9% (5) 19.1% (3)
PASS -23.0% (1) 34.7% (3)
RUSH -11.9% (11) 0.7% (10)
Special Teams
  BUF KC
DVOA -0.1% (19) 3.9% (3)

All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL

BUF Week-to-Week Graph

The Bills' inconsistencies defy an easy explanation. Josh Allen may have been due for regression after his unprecedented leap from -35.9% and -11.8% passing DVOA rates from his first two seasons to a 25.9% rate in 2020 that was third best among regular starters. But his modest 4.9% DVOA this year is shockingly low in light of his outbursts against the Chiefs and Patriots. When he plays his best, Allen still matches the near-MVP standard he set in 2020. And when he falls short, his opponents offer few clues of what went wrong.

It wasn't the schedule. The Bills had the easiest schedule by DVOA, but their 32nd-ranked variance is opponent-adjusted. And for every 35-0 and 40-0 win over a bottom-third Dolphins or Texans team, the Bills have a head-scratching 9-6 loss to a Jaguars team picking first in the 2022 draft and a three-interception fiasco against a bottom-five Falcons pass defense that intercepted just nine passes in their other 16 games.

It wasn't defensive scheme. Allen's versatility as a runner and a passer provides him counters for most defensive choices. For the season, he averaged almost identical 6.8 and 7.0 yards per attempt and identical 46% success rates against zone and man coverages per Sports Info Solutions. The Chiefs tried and failed with several approaches in their Week 5 matchup. They opened the game with light boxes that allowed Allen to scramble for 11 yards and take designed runs for 22 and 9 yards and a touchdown. And when they adjusted with heavier fronts and spies, Allen extended plays within and outside the pocket and beat one-on-one coverages with deep throws over the top of defenders.

Maybe it was blitzes. Aggressive teams saw unexpected success against another dual-threat passer in Lamar Jackson this season. And Allen showed similar passing splits, completing 11.8% fewer passes for 1.4 fewer yards per attempt against blitzes than he did non-blitzes. But Allen threw for more similar 7.6 and 8.2 yards-per-attempt averages against blitzes and non-blitzes in 2020. He was a more efficient scrambler on blitzes than Jackson and finished second at his position with 136 rushing DYAR. And Allen was one of the most efficient quarterbacks against pressure this season, when blitzed and not.

QB Blitz Graphic

Allen is an outlier. His relative weakness against blitzes came from lesser efficiency when his blockers picked them up. Typically, quarterbacks throw deeper and for more yards per attempt on successful blitz pickups than they do when protected from four-man rushes. But Allen averaged a yard and a half less per attempt on unpressured blitzes and was a bottom-third passer in those situations by accuracy percentage, completion percentage, and yards per attempt.

Josh Allen When Not Pressured, 2021
  Non-Blitzes Blitzes
Rate Rank Rate Rank
Acc% 79.2% 6 70.1% 23
Comp% 73.4% 6 62.4% 28
YPA 7.8 9 6.3 28
Ranks are among 33 quarterbacks with 200+ attempts

The defenses that handed the Bills their five below-average DVOA games blitzed Allen on just 10.2% of his dropbacks, dramatically lower than the 29.8% rate he saw in his other 13 games. And based on Allen's non-pressure splits, it's difficult to argue with them. Allen seems poised for positive regression on his blitz-pickup shot plays.

With a 30.8% blitz rate in Week 5, the Chiefs joined the losing side of recent Bills blitz history. But that aggressiveness may say more about defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's confidence in his personnel than his preferred matchup strategy. The Chiefs cut their blitz rate from 32.7% in Weeks 1-7 to 26.2% in Weeks 8-18. That corresponds roughly to the team's injection of Melvin Ingram, Frank Clark, Willie Gay, and Juan Thornhill into their lineup by way of a trade, returns from injury, and a depth-chart decision. And it coincides with the team's transformation from a bottom-three defense against both the run and the pass to 15th against the run and eighth against the pass in the second half of the season.

Chiefs Defensive DVOA Splits, 2021
Play Type Weeks 1-7 Weeks 8-18
DVOA Rank DVOA Rank
Pass 38.4% 31 -6.7% 8
Run 0.7% 30 -10.6% 15
Total 21.6% 31 -6.9% 10

Ingram had a modest total of 11 pressures for his new team, but he created balance on their defensive line by allowing Chris Jones to return to his natural position of defensive tackle. With strong 9.4% and 5.9% broken tackle rates per Pro Football Reference, Gay and Thornhill eliminated many of the explosive plays opponents found after the catch in the early season. Thornhill replaced veteran safety Daniel Sorensen in the starting lineup, and Sorensen was the coverage victim of Allen's two biggest pass plays of 61 and 53 yards in early October. However frequently Spagnuolo blitzes in the rematch, those upgrades should target the deficiencies that Allen exploited.

Of course, the Bills haven't sat idly as the Chiefs defense found itself in the second half of the season. They have made their own improvements, most notably in the running game with third-year back Devin Singletary wrestling control of what had been a backfield committee with Zack Moss and at times Matt Breida. Singletary has always excelled by some measures of rushing efficiency. His 4.7 yards per attempt and 8.3% avoided tackle rate since the start of 2019 are eighth- and 18th-best of the 45 backs with 300 or more carries and reflect his elusiveness. But Singletary committed to an offseason training program, and his reportedly increased top-end speed may explain his jump from 2.1 yards before contact per attempt from the start of his career to 2.5 yards since he became the Bills featured back in Week 14. That improvement has spurred a similar jump from a 49.1% to a 52.1% rushing success rate and made him a threat to run at every down and distance.

Singletary will never be the focal point of an offense with Josh Allen under center. But his development into a credible rushing threat in myriad situations helps the team's passing game. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Bills saw a modest gain of 0.9 yards on play-action versus traditional pass attempts in the regular season. As the centerpiece of a spread offense that lives in shotgun, Allen has never matched the play-action gains that quarterbacks such as Ryan Tannehill and Baker Mayfield have enjoyed in their power rushing offenses. But with Singletary exploding for more than 5.0 yards per carry and a pair of touchdowns on Saturday, Allen drew attention with his play-action fakes, throwing all five of his touchdowns on play-action passes. And that is a major concern for a Chiefs defense that allowed 2.4 more yards per play-action versus traditional pass attempts, the third-biggest differential in football this season.

Unlikely to benefit from zone coverages or blitzes and particularly susceptible to the Bills' improved play-action passing attack, the Chiefs are left with few recourses. They need to confuse Allen with disguised coverages and create chances for interceptions. Colts cornerback Kenny Moore credited his team's success against Allen to its post-snap realignments—and maybe those explain the apparent randomness of the teams that gave the Bills problems in the regular season.

And the Chiefs need their star players to win. Chris Jones did not play in Week 5. But in his return at defensive tackle, Jones will be well positioned to victimize Daryl Williams, whose 4.4% blown pass block rate is the worst among guards per Sports Info Solutions, if also likely inflated by some time spent at right tackle. Left tackle Dion Dawkins blew just 2.4% of his pass blocks this season and made his first Pro Bowl roster.

Jones should help. Another starter that missed Week 5, Charvarius Ward, should also help. He led the team's regular cornerbacks with 6.0 yards allowed per target and a 63% coverage success rate. But the Bills are deeper now at the skill positions than they have ever been. Dawson Knox and Gabriel Davis have developed into exceptional red zone targets. Traditional returner Isaiah McKenzie is playing more offense and adds a speed option from the slot to complement Cole Beasley's short-area quickness. And that says nothing of Stefon Diggs and Emmanuel Sanders, the team's more versatile star receivers.

At full strength, the Chiefs are a better defense than the one the Bills scorched in Week 5. But Allen has too many answers for too many questions for any defense to consistently disrupt him. The Chiefs will have to hope the bad Bills show up this Sunday. Or hope Patrick Mahomes can match Allen point for point.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL

KC Week-to-Week Graph

Defensive issues took the full blame for the Chiefs' four losses in their first seven weeks this season. But the Week 5 Bills blowout kicked off an offensive swoon that, while mostly a result of poor luck, should have the Chiefs at least mildly concerned for their rematch.

First, the unsustainable. The Chiefs scored just 20 points in their regular season Bills matchup, but they either definitely or probably lost points from the following plays:

  • Patrick Mahomes overthrew a wide-open Travis Kelce 40 yards down the field.
  • Byron Pringle fumbled away a kickoff return.
  • With more than seven seconds of clean pocket, Mahomes failed to find an open receiver and threw incomplete on fourth-and-5 to turn the ball over on downs.
  • Kelce drew an offensive pass interference penalty that erased a 17-yard gain with too little time in the final minute of the first half for Mahomes to gain it back and push for a touchdown.
  • Tyreek Hill had a pass bounce off his hands and into Micah Hyde's for a pick-six.
  • Mahomes threw a quick screen that the 6-foot-6 Gregory Rousseau batted at the edge of his wingspan, and it bounced perfectly in the air for him to intercept it.
  • Mahomes fumbled away a shotgun snap as rain picked up late in the fourth quarter.

Mahomes threw 10 incompletions that Sportradar charted as poorly thrown, tied for his second-most this season. He will likely be sharper on Sunday. And Mahomes already saw his tipped-pass and deflected interception misfortune regress from its inflated rate from the early season. But while the Chiefs have returned to their 30-points-a-week standard in the latter third of the year, they haven't scored those points as effortlessly as they used to score them.

In the Chiefs' reign of offensive terror from 2018 to early 2021, Mahomes averaged a consistent 8.0 or more air yards per pass attempt and ended a quarter or more of the team's touchdown drives with an explosive play of 21 or more yards. But the Bills forced Mahomes to play differently, positioning a pair of safeties deep and blitzing the Chiefs on just 3.5% of their dropbacks, nearly 10% less than their previous low-watermark from early in the 2021 season. As other defenses followed that Bills blueprint, Mahomes saw his already modest blitz rates fall further to 16.3% this season. And Mahomes declined to a 7.0-yard average depth of target in Weeks 7-13 and even further to a 6.7-yard average from Week 14 through the wild-card round even as the Chiefs returned to their prolific scoring ways. Conservative defenses have forced Mahomes to hit singles and doubles instead of home runs. And his success in stringing those into big innings has ebbed and flowed with the quality of defenses the Chiefs have faced and the meticulousness he and his skill players have had in the details they never before needed to mind.

Mahomes can effortlessly sling the ball down the field. But his 80.6% accuracy rate on throws behind the line and up to 10 yards down the field does not differentiate him from the other above-average quarterbacks in football. And while Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Travis Kelce create space with their deep speed, the Chiefs have had even greater problems staying ahead of the sticks than the Bills with their similar spread offense did before the Singletary renaissance.

The Chiefs likely expected Clyde Edwards-Helaire to offer that balance. More heralded as an effort to fix the pass protection that failed them in their Super Bowl loss, the Chiefs' heavy investments in Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, and Trey Smith spurred a greater improvement from the 31st to the third ranked run block win rate per ESPN. Had Edwards-Helaire translated his tremendous broken tackle rates and yards after contact averages from college to the pros, he would be one of the most productive backs in football in so favorable of circumstances. Instead, Edwards-Helaire avoided just 5.9% of his tackles and ran for just 1.8 yards after contact per attempt, both in the bottom half among regular backs in 2021.

Even as defenses clipped their wings, the Chiefs could have overcome modest rushing efficiency. But a late-season Edwards-Helaire shoulder injury forced the team to explore their alternatives. And if his wild-card performance is any indication, Jerick McKinnon could be the team's two-high safety killer.

McKinnon started his career as Adrian Peterson's productive backup in Minnesota. And he seemed destined to become a star with his 4.41s speed when Kyle Shanahan signed him in San Francisco. Instead, an ACL tear and subsequent setback in his rehabilitation cost McKinnon his 2018 and 2019 seasons and left him an afterthought in 2020. The Chiefs signed him in 2021 for less than $1 million and with undoubtedly guarded expectations. But after languishing with fewer than 30 snaps in every game he played this regular season, McKinnon saw 51 snaps with Edwards-Helaire out and Darrel Williams fumbling and fighting a toe injury against the Steelers on Sunday and turned 18 touches into 142 yards and a touchdown.

McKinnon's speed fits nicely with the Chiefs' spread offense because he can reach the edges defenders leave vacated as they follow speedy receivers such as Hill and Hardman on their deeper routes.

And his speed and decisiveness should breathe life into the screen game that head coach Andy Reid deemphasized after the team released Kareem Hunt in November of 2018. McKinnon produced his three biggest gains of 15, 20, and 23 yards against the Steelers last week on his three screen targets.

The Chiefs need those easy wins. In lieu of screens, they have relied more heavily on run-pass options, finishing second in the regular season with a 22.0% RPO rate per Sports Info Solutions charting. But those RPOs averaged just 4.9 yards per play, 14th-highest in football. And the Bills should be confident they can continue to limit Mahomes' bigger plays. Their -71.8% DVOA against deep passes was by far the best in football. No other defense was better than -15.6%.

That deep success on defense is about as shocking as Josh Allen's junior-year transformation. The Bills relied on man coverage on 53.7% of their plays per Sports Info Solutions, the second-highest rate in football. And they didn't change after All-Pro corner Tre'Davious White tore his ACL in Week 12. Levi Wallace deserves a lot of credit for allowing just 5.0 yards per target despite a late-season promotion to shadow No. 1 wide receivers. But new starter Dane Jackson allowed 7.8 yards per target and could be hunted this week. And facing just the Bucs with a top-eight passing offense since White suffered his injury, the current Bills secondary has barely been tested.

To cause problems for a Chiefs offense that looks both explosive and consistent with McKinnon in the backfield, a Bills team unlikely to bring extra rushers will need exceptional efforts from their stars up the middle. Linebacker Matt Milano missed on just 11.3% of his attempted tackles per Pro Football Reference, and his coverage skills could earn him assignments against McKinnon and Travis Kelce. And safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde will have to protect their less experienced cornerback teammates. They could flip this game with a turnover if Mahomes loses patience. Each intercepted five passes this season, and Mahomes threw eight interceptions into man coverage versus five against zones on a similar number of pass attempts.

Even without White, the Bills have better defenders to disrupt the Chiefs' passing offense than the Chiefs have to disrupt theirs. But even the best defenders can only do so much. Mahomes has had to work harder for them, but the Chiefs have scored 28 or more points in six straight games. And playing at home in relatively mild January weather for Kansas City, the Chiefs seem unlikely to snap that streak even with less than flawless offensive execution.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Although overshadowed by a longer run of excellence from Bill Belichick's Patriots, the Chiefs have finished top-10 in special teams DVOA in eight of Andy Reid's nine seasons with the team and finished third best this season. They should enjoy an advantage over a Bills special teams unit ranked 19th, even if they failed to show it in a regular-season loss that swung (the first time) on a Byron Pringle return fumble.

Ironically, the Bills suffer their biggest special teams disadvantages over the broader season because of punt returns and punts. Isaiah McKenzie lost his returner job in mid-November but regained it for the playoffs after rookie Marquez Stevenson botched a return in Week 18. Matt Haack has kept his punting duties all season, but he has shanked a handful of punts down the stretch and is a threat to offer Patrick Mahomes a short field or two. The Bills should consider scoring touchdowns on all of their offensive possessions again this weekend. That would neatly hide a glaring weakness.

OUTLOOK

In their regular-season rout, their deep-pass defensive proficiency, and their unrivaled recent offensive form, the Bills have more points on paper to favor them this Sunday. But call it the home-field advantage, the difficulty of beating a good team twice, or the longer track record of excellence in the postseason, but I won't predict the torch passing in the AFC until I see it.

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

12 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2022, 9:46pm

3 I agree with KnotMe

All of the following outcomes are in play:

  1. Kansas City's parade of twitchy receivers overwhelms Buffalo's pass defense, and Ingram, Jones, and the Arrowhead crowd combine to drag down Josh Allen, leading to a blowout Chiefs win.
  2. Buffalo's receivers stay hot, Mahomes gets impatient and makes a couple of critical mistakes, and Buffalo's rejuvenated bully-ball running game helps the Bills put away a convincing victory.
  3. The Chiefs win a close one.
  4. The Bills win a close one.

I think Scott Spratt's outlook is more than fair. To me, three keys stand out:

  1. Can Buffalo's fully formed offensive line hold up against Jones, Ingram, and the Arrowhead noise?
  2. Can Buffalo's secondary hold up against Kansas City's endless stream of twitchy playmakers, especially if they give up all the short-and-easy stuff to take away deep shots to Hill and Kelce?
  3. Has Sean McDermott truly learned the lessons from last year's AFCCG loss—namely, that he can't settle for field goals and hope to beat his mentor's team?

If the Bills can answer "yes" to two or three of those, they're a good bet to continue their trend of winning by 12 or more points, because (1) their best football seems to be better than any other team's best performance and (2) the gap between their offense and Kansas City's defense is much bigger than the gap between Kansas City's offense and Buffalo's league-leading defense. If they can't, though, I think we'll see a result more like last year's AFCCG than the close shootout so many people seem to be hoping for.

4 Evidence from the postseason…

Evidence from the postseason so far says the major feature from the Bills' AFCCG loss - "sticky" coverage that would be holding in the regular season - has already been in play.

Having said that, I see a 27-24-style game. Or the over could be 100 points. Who knows?

5 The Chiefs defense has…

The Chiefs defense has obviously gotten better over the course of the season, but their struggles in Weeks 1-5 were at least partially due to schedule. They faced CLE when Mayfield was healthy and the offense wasn't broken, BAL when Jackson was healthy and their offense wasn't injured beyond ruin, LAC, PHI and obviously BUF. KC's defense played well against bad offenses (WAS, NYG, PIT), against GB with Love, DAL without Cooper or Lamb, LV twice and DEN. They then gave up 28 to LAC and 34 to CIN, and needed a fumble return TD to beat Drew Lock's Broncos.

6 This is what keeps me crossing my fingers, too

A few good offenses have kind of rolled over this defense lately. And so did the Broncos! Drew Lock scrambled four times for 35 yards, including a 23-yard score. And Josh Allen is a bit better than Drew Lock. (Apologies to John Elway if he reads this. Hey, Bradley Chubb is a great player! No one can really fault you. No one!)

11 .

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12 Yeah

they are