Word of Muth: Shufflin' in Buffalo
In this year's preview column, the key focus for Buffalo's line was the continuity they had coming in. Their five projected starters had each started 16 games in 2019 except for Cody Ford, who started 15. I knew it was unlikely that Buffalo would enjoy that kind of health/luck again, but having those five guys back still meant the continuity should be strong in 2020. Well, right guard Jon Feliciano got hurt in camp and hasn't played. Left guard Quinton Spain was hurt or benched (or a combination of the two) after two games and was just released despite signing a contract extension back in March. Presumed right tackle Cody Ford has been filling in at guard, but he went down with a knee injury before the Jets game in Week 7 and is still on the shelf. So the offensive line that was supposed to bring continuity has been injured, shuffled, and released into chaos.
Still, the season marches on and doesn't take your team's offensive line health into consideration. The Bills are off to a hot start but they're starting to show some cracks on the offensive side of the football. They moved it into Jets territory every time they had the ball Sunday but settled for eight field goal attempts, connecting on six of those. It was enough to beat a truly awful Jets team but there are some real holes in Buffalo's offense right now.
The Bills offensive line wasn't awful on Sunday, but it wasn't particularly good either. They certainly weren't dominant, and I think they really need to get Feliciano back more than anything else.
One area where Buffalo struggled up front was on twists. It's not surprising that an offensive line that has been shuffled so much would have trouble picking up games where both communication and mid-play feel with your linemates are key. On this play, I think it's actually one of Buffalo's better offensive linemen, center Mitch Morse (along with Dion Dawkins), who could be better. The center has to feel that 97 for New York (Nathan Shepherd) isn't actually rushing. Look at the choppy steps the defensive tackle is taking and how he's just kind of drifting around; that's not how defensive linemen rush when they're trying to get to the quarterback, that's how they act when they're trying to keep your attention.
If Morse feels this earlier, he can start looking for the stunter and drop deeper to pick it up. Left guard Ike Boettger is pretty good at closing down the penetrating defensive tackle, but Morse doesn't give him enough presence so he can leave his man and pick up the looper. The looper comes free and flushes Josh Allen out of the pocket. This isn't horrendous offensive line play, but it clearly forces Allen to run before he's ready.
It doesn't really have much effect on the play, but I love the feet of left tackle Dion Dawkins here. Nice and in control. The Jets' edge guy is rushing absurdly wide here, and Dawkins does a good job of not chasing him. As an offensive lineman, one of your biggest advantages is knowing where your quarterback is dropping so you just have to defend that spot and let defenders rush wherever they want if it's not threatening that spot. Here, the defender rushes so wide he gets tangled up with the releasing back and Dawkins blocks him without ever having to touch him.
Here is another stunt that gives the Bills trouble. This one is a little tougher because the penetrator on the stunt (Neville Hewitt, 46) is coming from depth, which makes it harder for everyone involved to read. Still, teams pick this up all the time. The Bills are close to pulling it off here, but Boettger turns his shoulders just a little too much when he punches the linebacker to get back inside on the looping end (Jordan Jenkins, 48). He doesn't even turn them that much, and there are a lot of offensive linemen who are better athletes that could get away with how Boettger plays this, but it's clear Boettger isn't the kind of guy who can open his shoulders outside like this and still redirect inside. If you aren't a really good athlete, the margin for error on technique vs. stunts like this gets really thin. Takes so much anticipation and technique.
Boettger was probably the biggest weak link for Buffalo against the Jets. I've definitely seen worse play this year but Boettger's performance isn't what you would want from a starting guard. He got beat and was forced into one of the most obvious holding calls of the year early in the second quarter. He also had his struggles in the run game.
Now this isn't all Boettger's, fault so it's not quite as bad as it looks, but still. To me, it looks like the Bills see the play-side end (John Franklin-Myers, 91) flinch and give away the Jets' stunt. So Morse makes a call to really try to push everyone as far play-side as possible. With the line call, Morse wants to take the slanting end (Franklin-Myers) and right guard Brian Winters wants to bypass the end and get to the linebacker on the second level (Hewitt), leaving right tackle Darryl Williams to pick up the blitzer off the edge (Brian Poole, 34). In this scenario, that means Boettger has to pick up the shaded nose (Henry Anderson, 96) which is a hard block, but the defender should be slanting towards him making it much easier. The issue is that the slant isn't nearly as strong as the Bills thought it would be. Both defenders are really only slanting half a man, so everything gets muddled up on the front side (Morse chases the end too long before climbing) and Boettger gets beat clean.
So the Bills aren't in the best situation here, but even without the perfect call, they should be able to block it better than they did. The reason the play gets killed is that Boettger's first step is awful. He gets so far underneath himself with that first right step that he basically goes backwards. He steps behind his far leg and loses ground. Compare his first step with Morse's at center. Morse gains a little ground with his first step -- not a ton, but a little -- while Boettger loses about a yard. There's no way he can overcome that.
I've focused on the lowlights here today but that's not to say it was all bad. Williams got beat for a really bad sack-fumble at one point in the game…
… but other than that I thought he and Dawkins continued to be a pretty good tackle tandem. Brian Winters filling in at right guard was serviceable against his former team. I think if the Bills can get Feliciano and Ford back in time to play with everyone before the stretch run, this can be a top-10 unit this year.