This Week in Passing: Bills Preview

In the wake of their convincing 43-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the New England Patriots look to take control of first place in the AFC East with a win over division rival Buffalo. Tom Brady and the passing game returned to form against the Bengals, with Brady completing 23 of 35 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns. Buffalo poses another stern test for the New England air attack, as the Bills’ defense has held opposing quarterbacks to an 85.3 QB rating through five games. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit has allowed only 7 touchdown passes while tallying 6 interceptions. What this group does best is pressure the quarterback; Buffalo is tied with the Jets for a league-best 17 sacks. Brady and the offense need to contain their pass rush and look to exploit certain weaknesses in the coverage.

Buffalo’s In-and-Out Rush

Opposing offenses must handle a Bills defense that attacks the pocket using skill and scheme. A base 4-3 team, Schwartz prefers a 4-2-5 set when he calls for a sub package. In both situations, Buffalo uses four down linemen and looks to scheme on the edges to generate pressure. Their defensive ends are aligned in a very wide 9 technique on most plays, as shown here:

Defensive ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are each in a three-point stance aligned well outside the offensive tackles. From this alignment the two defensive ends can call upon pure speed to close down on the passer in the pocket. Because of this positioning the offensive tackles cannot expect help from the guards in pass blocking, leaving the tackles either one-on-one against the defensive ends or relying on help from running backs in protection. Here is one example of how this alignment works to pressure the quarterback:

On this 3rd and 25 play. Miami has Ryan Tannehill in the shotgun using 11 personnel while the Bills counter with a 4-2-5 sub package. Notice just how wide Hughes is to the left of the offense. The defensive end is lined up outside slot receiver Brandon Gibson. As the play develops, Branden Albert tries to meet Hughes’ width but this exposes the left tackle to a pick by defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and a cut inside by Hughes, who records the sack:

Against Chicago in Week 1, Mario Williams capitalized on the same wide alignment to record his first sack of 2014. On this 3rd and 10 play Williams is also well outside the right offensive tackle and just inside tight end Martellus Bennett, who is lined up in a tight slot formation:

The combination of speed and alignment works to isolate the right tackle in spaceas the play develops, creating an opportunity for Williams to beat Jordan Mills to the inside with a quick power move. The defensive end drags down Jay Cutler in the pocket and the Bears are forced to punt.

Given this scheme New England may look to the running backs to provide support outside on passing plays. While this may shore up protection against the defensive ends it provides opportunities for the skilled interior defenders such as Dareus and Kyle Williams to beat guards in one-on-one matchups. On this play Tannehill is in the shotgun as Miami has their 11 personnel on the field. Buffalo responds with a 4-2-5 sub package. Watch Williams, #95, on this play:

The veteran defensive tackle beats Shelley Smith with a swim move off of the snap and is immediately in the quarterback’s face. Tannehill tries to break the pocket but runs right into the arms of Mario Williams. Miami enlisted Lamar Miller to help in pass protection against the defensive end, but with Kyle Williams’s quick penetration up the middle, Miller was in no position to help prevent the sack.

Later against the Dolphins Kyle Williams recorded his first sack of the season using a strong push-pull move to beat Smith one-on-one:

With both skill and scheme Jim Schwartz’s unit attacks opposing passers. The edge players use the wide alignment to generate depth in the pocket and create opportunities to beat tackles back to the inside. Forcing the tackles to the outside allows for the skilled interior players to beat centers and guards in individual matchups. Josh McDaniels and Dave DeGuglielmo must find the right combinations in pass protection to counter this defensive pressure.

Get Them in Cover 2

Through five games Buffalo has shown a variety of coverages in the secondary, most notably Cover 0, Cover 1 and Cover 3. Their defensive backs do a very good job of disguising coverage and changing their look just prior to the snap. They have been most vulnerable when they roll into Cover 2, which they tend to do based on the offensive formation. On this play Houston shifts into an empty backfield and the Bills adjust by altering their secondary into Cover 2:

Strong safety Duke Williams recognizes the quick route from DeAndre Hopkins and breaks on the ball immediately, but he cannot prevent a completion and then misses the tackle.

Another formation that Buffalo uses Cover 2 against is this double stack-slot look from Miami. Facing 2nd and 15, the Dolphins put Tannehill in the shotgun using 10 personnel. Buffalo’s sub package shows Cover 1 in the secondary but rolls into Cover 2 prior to the snap:

Miami runs a bubble screen to each side of the field and the quarterback gets Jarvis Landry the ball quickly with room to make a play. The receiver gets a block from Brian Hartline and advances for an 8-yard gain.

Given the alignment of the deep safeties in Cover 2, opponents have attacked the Bills underneath when they roll into this coverage. Here, Philip Rivers is able to convert a long 3rd-down situation against Buffalo’s Cover 2 on a simple shallow drag route:

Facing 3rd and 9, the Chargers have their quarterback in the shotgun with 11 personnel. They show a trips formation to the left and the Buffalo sub package shows Cover 2 in the secondary. San Diego sends Eddie Royal in motion across the formation and the Bills stay with their Cover 2 coverage. Using deep routes outside, the offense is able to isolate Royal one-on-one underneath against rookie Preston Brown, and the speedy receiver gains separation from the linebacker and cuts upfield for a first down.

As outlined previously, there exist numerous ways to attack Cover 2 coverage. Against the Bills the New England offense must identify formations that put the defense into Cover 2 and then attack the weaknesses in that scheme.

Hello Brandon, Old Friend

After the Patriots chose not to re-sign linebacker Brandon Spikes, the former Gator signed a one-year deal with Buffalo. His move within the AFC East was met with some early game-planning in corners of Patriots Nation.

Through five games in 2014 opponents have found ways to attack the linebacker’s deficiencies in pass coverage. In this sequence the Chargers use play-action and an underneath route for a big gain:

San Diego has Rivers under center for this 1st and 10 play using 12 personnel. Buffalo counters with their base 4-3 defense showing Cover 1 in the secondary. The Chargers run a simple play-action play and the quarterback quickly looks for one of his tight ends on a crossing route:

Spikes falls for the play-action fake and then fails to identify the crossing route, opening up a big play opportunity for the offense.

Houston provided a nice blueprint for the Patriots to isolate Shane Vereen on Spikes along the sideline. On this 2nd and 10 play, the Texans break the huddle with their 12 personnel on the field against the Bills’ base defense. When Ryan Fitzpatrick notices Buffalo’s personnel, he sends Arian Foster out wide right. Notice how the defense responds:

Spikes moves outside to cover the running back, giving Foster nearly 10 yards of cushion. Fitzpatrick gets his running back the ball quickly on a curl route and Foster breaks the tackle for a 12-yard gain.

With the ability of Vereen and the emergence of Tim Wright, this play is a road map for New England on Sunday. If Buffalo chooses to split Spikes out to cover Vereen in such a situation, the running back will be able to take advantage of the linebacker’s inability to cover him man-to-man. However, if the Bills respond by shifting a defensive back outside, there will be a mismatch inside for Wright to exploit against Spikes.


Every defense brings new sets of challenges to overcome and weaknesses to exploit. In 2014, Buffalo’s defense has enjoyed success against the pass by generating pressure on the quarterback and either bringing him to the turf or forcing poor throws in the face of heat. If the Patriots can contain the pressure game from Buffalo, Tom Brady will find coverages to attack down the field and mismatches to exploit underneath.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.


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