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.