Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

by Ben Muth

After two straight weeks of watching the Buffalo Bills defense, there isn’t much to say. They can’t cover or tackle on the back end. The linebackers don’t get off blocks and are terrible at blitzing. The well-paid front four isn’t generating a pass rush and is getting pushed around in the running game. To paraphrase Silky Johnston (Player Hater of the Year 2002-2003) "What can be said about this defense that hasn’t already been said about Afghanistan? It looks bombed out and depleted."

The biggest concern for Buffalo has to be the play of the defensive line, and in particular Mario Williams. I thought Williams played better against San Francisco, especially against the run, but he still isn’t doing much in the passing game. He had a couple of pressures, but was mostly held in check by right tackle Anthony Davis.

From what I’ve seen, the biggest issue for Williams is that no one seems to be scared of Williams beating them around the edge. Everyone is either jump-setting him right on the line of scrimmage or playing heavily for an inside counter move. Williams just doesn’t seem to be getting off the ball with any kind of explosion or urgency, and as a result, offensive tackles are always comfortable against him. You need to get guys out of their comfort zone so that they’re off balance and scrambling. Williams simply isn’t doing that.

The other disappointing Bills defensive lineman is Marcell Dareus. The second-year player simply struggles to get off blocks. He got controlled by both guards Alex Boone and Mike Iupati, and handled by center Jonathan Goodwin. He also has a tendency to lose control of his assigned gap. Here’s one example of that:

The 49ers faced first-and-20 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. San Francisco lined up in a single back formation with both tight ends to the right (just like the Patriots did a bunch last week). San Francisco called a simple draw play.

Buffalo was in their base 4-3 over. They weren’t caught in nickel personnel like they were most of last week against New England, and actually had a perfect call to stop the 49ers. They were blitzing both the Mike and Will linebackers into the A-gaps. Mark Anderson was dropping to replace the blitzing Will (Nick Barnett) in the hook zone of the defense.

Since Anderson is dropping, it is Dareus’ job to get outside and contain the play. Usually that means the quarterback in this down and distance, but Dareus has to get outside on runs as well. Dareus does a good job of this at the snap, getting stripe to stripe (helmet stripe that is) immediately. All he has to do is keep fighting outside. Because of the formation, the 49ers don’t have enough players to block Buffalo’s front seven. San Francisco cannot block Barnett, who is blitzing right where the play is designed to go.

As Frank Gore goes to cut up field, Dareus sees him and tries to swim inside. He actually beats the (LG) Iupati across his face, but it doesn’t matter. As soon as Gore sees Dareus look inside, he bounces it outside. If Dareus had stayed outside, he wouldn’t have made the tackle, but Barnett almost certainly would have. For a loss or a short gain.

Instead, Gore gets outside. The nearest defender is a backpedaling Anderson. Left tackle Joe Staley is easily able to block the end on his heels, and Gore is into the secondary for a 31-yard gain.

These breakdowns are what kill run defenses. Last week, Buffalo had nickel backs not playing aggressively enough in the running game. This week, last year's No. 3 overall pick is trying to make a play and giving up his gap. Now, all of this is exasperated by the fact that no one is getting off blocks, not to mention poor tackling, but you don’t give up over 240 yards on the ground in two consecutive weeks unless you’re having serious issues with your run fits.

Now that I’m done talking about the dumpster fire that is the Bills defense, we can move onto the team I’m actually covering this year. There isn’t much to say about San Francisco except that they looked great. Iupati had two penalties but played very well otherwise. Davis has improved a lot in a year, and shut down Mario Williams. Right guard Boone has been a revelation, replacing the consistently poor play of Adam Snyder (now part of the disaster known as Arizona’s offensive line) with very strong play all year.

Everyone played well, but I think the game ball (at least the offensive line game ball) goes to Staley. He kept Mark Anderson away from Alex Smith all game on pass plays. He did a much better job with his hands, engaging rushers before they got into his frame. Plus, he did a great job of clearing out space in the running game. It was a really solid effort for the left tackle.

One thing San Francisco’s coaching staff does to help their line is having them block defenders from a lot of different angles. Take Dareus, for example. In this game I saw him get trapped by the guard, trapped by the tackle, whammed by the fullback (from the inside and outside), double-teamed, reached, cut, and straight drive-blocked. That’s a lot for a defensive tackle to deal with. It’s hard to play off a block when you never know where it is coming from.

On the first play of the fourth quarter the 49ers brought in Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. They lined up in an empty set, but motioned Mario Manningham into the backfield. Gore was aligned on the hip of the left tackle. Buffalo was once again in a 4-3 Over with the linebackers plussed (shifted) towards the three receivers to the offense’s left (well, really a receiver, a tight end, and a running back).

At the snap Kaepernick and Manningham take off to their left like they’re running the option, and Gore comes across the formation for a handoff on a counter. Up front, San Francisco is pulling Staley to trap block Dareus in the opposite A-gap. Iupati blocks out on the three-technique (Kyle Williams) and (C) Goodwin releases straight up to the Mike linebacker.

On the right side, (G) Boone and (T) Davis are cross blocking the linebacker and defensive end. San Francisco will change up the traditional blocking angles and throw different guys at you even away from the point of attack.

Dareus immediately recognizes he is unblocked and does what he’s supposed to, stopping one yard past the line of scrimmage. He knows he’s getting trapped and can’t penetrate too far upfield -- if he does, the back will cut up underneath him. But he doesn’t know is where the trap is coming from. He’s already been whammed twice and trapped once, so the block could be coming from anywhere.

By the time he sees that it’s Staley, it’s too late to wrong-arm it (rip move inside with your outside arm), so all he can do is anchor down and try not to get driven too far out of his gap.

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He does a good job of holding his ground, but that’s all. He can’t get off the block or knock Staley into the hole. Iupati kept Kyle Williams right where he lined up, and the gap between to the two defensive tackles is as wide as it was before the snap. The only hope the Bills have is the Mike linebacker, but he overruns the play on the counter action, and Goodwin pushes him past the hole. The play gained another eight yards for the 49ers and gave the Bills’ defense (and anyone watching) another wrinkle to think about.

That does it for this week. Be sure to follow me on Twitter. Also, I’m looking to do a Q&A in the next couple weeks, so if you have any questions for that, please leave them in the comments section or email them to me at wordofmuth(at)gmail(dot)com.

Please don’t ask me about specific players unless they are on one of the teams I am covering. If you ask about a specific play, please make sure to give me the time and quarter.


23 comments, Last at 12 Oct 2012, 10:54am

1 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Very interesting as usual, glad you're covering the 49ers this year. Is there a website you'd recommend to have a minimal grasp of OL & DL terminology (i.e. 4-3 Over, wrong arm and so on?).

Thanks a lot.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

I've found Rex Ryan's book (link below) to be a helpful start in terminology describing d-line technique. My own forays have shown that books, rather than websites, are the better resource for learning football concepts and terminology.


this also looks like a good start:

2 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Ben, do you see any evidence that o-line performance in general has improved this year, compared to last? The teams I've watched most this year, with the possible exception of the Packers, all seem to be getting better and cleaner performance. It makes me think that the lockout last year had more effect on offensive lines than other units, but this is pretty vague speculaton, obviously.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

I got the impression that the lockout hurt defensive backfields as well, which would make sense as those are the two areas that are probably most dependent on communication.

5 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

If you had told me in 2006, that by 2012, neither Mario Williams, Reggie Bush, or Vince Young would look any better than mediocre or worse, I would not have thought you were nuts, but I would have thought you likely wrong.

13 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Going back to last year (warning: arbitrary endpoints), he's had 169 carries for 936 yards and 5 TDs in his last 9 games. 5.53 YPC. Throw in 20 catches for 150 yds more and you've got yourself a pretty productive back.

Surprising? Certainly. It's like he figured out how to be a between-the-tackles runner overnight (and yes, he actually is gaining big chunks of yards up the middle). Maybe the Saints didn't give him enough of a chance?

8 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Ben, great article again.

Question: How does a coach install a play like the one shown in the fifth picture when each lineman is moving to block a specific defender without prior knowledge of the defensive alignment? Is it based on general principles or will they have been able to predict how the defense will align from their scouting?

12 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Great question, Karl. I would GUESS that the play is designed to be run on 1st & 10 (BTW, Ben, what was the down & distance?), or 2nd & 5 or 6, where with the "neutral" D&D a defense would prob. be in a base alignment. Based on the game shots, SF designed the blockers to get the 4 DL's, plus the Mike & Will. The Sam should be taken out of the picture by the fake (as he is), plus he prob. has contain responsibilities. This leaves Gore to deal with the safety in the picture, and the contain defender (CB) on the offense's right. Now, if the Bills were in a defensive alignment like in the first play, that could be problematic. However, IMO, this offensive alignment would likely cause a defensive audible, or CK should have enough latitude to call a specific audible out of this play. I would guess that the audible would be to NOT handoff to Gore, and simply run the option.

16 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

While I will defer to Ben when he gets around to the comments, this is generally done on principle. The pulling lineman aren't looking to block anybody specifically (The defensive tackle), they're going to an area and block whomever's there in the wrong colored jersey. Even after the defense lines up, they can always shift up until the ball is snapped, so the o-line really can't rely on pre-snap formation. Leaving the huddle, the left tackle knows that he is going to hit the first defender he sees past the hole. The right guard knows he's got the edge player, and the right tackle is hauling ass to the second level and driving out whomever's there -- linebacker, safety, dropping lineman.

After they break huddle, they look at the pre-snap formation and make sure the scheme makes sense. There might be a situation where the RT doesn't think he can get to the second-level quickly enough (maybe the LB is shaded inside the guard), so he and the guard will switch jobs. You can usually hear the calls on the broadcast -- QB will say something like 51's the Mike and then you'll hear some one-word calls by the lineman Tater, Tater. That call will tell the adjacent linemen which player he's planning on blocking.

17 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

I was more referring to that specific play, only one lineman is blocking the man across from him, so I would have thought that the chances of missed assignments are pretty significant. So is it adjusted for expected run fits or working off generic principles that are easy to apply.

Plus on that play the trap by Staley must be part of the play call, I just don't see that a tackle is going to pull into the middle of the line without being told to do so but is he blocking a specific DT?

19 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Well that play is more complicated than a power play, where everyone takes the guy to one side and if you are correct then I hope that Ben will have a very thorough explanation.

21 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

There are two ways to handle it. One is to teach the concept of the play. In this case they want to trap the first man on the right of the center. So, knowing that They can adjust their blocking to handle that. If for instance the defense lined up with a nose on the right side and the three tech on the left, the center would've blocked out on the nose, the left guard would've trapped the 3 tech and LT would've gone straight to the LB.

Another way to handle it, since this is kind of a gimmick play, is you only run it against one or two looks, and package it with something that you can run against any defense. You tell Kaepernick if they're in a three man front or the three tech is on the wrong side don't run it.

Either way the key with a weird man blocked play is to run it 4-5 times in practice the week of the game. Since this play has a unique blocking scheme you probably won't have it in the game plan every week, so you have to spend more time in the install meeting going over it, and run it more times than you would Power in practice (at least compared to how much you are going to run each in the game).

Most plays belong to some larger family plays. Like Pony is just single back Power. Or Power G is Power with the guard and fullback switching jobs. Their plays that are all blocked the same except for one guy indicated in the name of the play. I had a coach that used to call plays with completely different blocking schemes "orphan plays" because they didn't belong to a family like other plays. You install these plays during the week (usually with a catchy name) and put enough emphasis in meetings people remember them because "oh yeah, that's the weird play where Staley traps the nose". You walk through it every day, run it in team or 9 on 7 once a day, and you're golden.

Just make sure you don't run any orphans that you didn't rep in practice that week, because after a couple of weeks nobody remembers them. Draws, counters, and reverses are the most common types of one off plays. Also, you don't want too many orphans in any one game plan.

10 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

"Now, all of this is exasperated by the fact that no one is getting off blocks..."

pretty sure you mean "exacerbated"

14 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

But in a way, "exasperated" kind of works better. Reminds me of a quote I read from a baseball manager (can't rememebr who) talking about a player's poor hitting for that year: "I think it's a one-time thing. I'm just going to look at this season as an abomination."

15 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

To me; this is a prime example of when its a coaching problem and not a personnel problem. There are a few examples since I've been watching thats plainly evident that poor play is the result of severe coaching incompetence. Buffalo, ostensibly, has the talent on defense to be at least average; instead they are getting roasted is if they are the detroit lions of 2008.

The other prime examples- 2005 49ers offense with hostler, 2010 Texans Defensive with Frank Bush, 2009 Seattle Seahawks with Jim Mora, and any team coached by Jim Caldwell for good measure.

20 Re: Word of Muth: Beaten Bills

Great article. I think that one example of the SF oline's dominance so far this season can be seen in the fact that between all 7 players (Gore,Hunter,Dixon,Manningham,Kyle Williams,Smith,Kaepernick) that have ran the ball this year, the lowest dvoa of anyone is gore at 26.3. Whenever literally everyone that touches the ball is that good, the credit has to go the oline