Fresh off a dominant performance on the ground against the Cincinnati Bengals, the New England Patriots will look to maintain their momentum when they meet the Buffalo Bills this Sunday. The Patriots amassed 220 rushing yards in 46 attempts on Marvin Lewis’s squad, including a season-high 113 yards on 27 carries for Stevan Ridley. However, it will be no small feat to replicate that production this weekend, as the Bills have allowed a league-fewest 71.0 yards per game to opposing running backs this season. New England must implement a scheme to challenge Jim Schwartz’s talented front seven and the wide 9 alignments of Buffalo’s defensive ends.
The Wide 9 Alignment Against the Run
In the passing preview, we outlined how Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams both regularly line up in wide 9 alignment. In the passing game their positioning works to isolate the offensive tackles in space. This creates opportunities for the edge rushers to beat blockers with speed on the outside and for the interior linemen to win one-on-one battles inside. Against the run, the wide 9 alignment serves to generically set the edge while creating a natural running lane off tackle. Here is the Buffalo base 4-3 defense:
Any run outside requires flawless execution or ‒ more likely ‒ a bit of luck to be successful. The linebackers in this scheme must be cognizant of any attempted run off-tackle and immediately fill that hole, while the safeties need to be ready to assist in run support.
How It Stops the Outside Run
First, some examples of how this alignment impedes rushes to the outer edges of the line. Houston has their 21 personnel on the field against the Bills’ base 4-3 defense. Rookie C.J. Fiedorowicz is set up just off the line of scrimmage to the left of the offense and Arian Foster and first-year fullback Jay Prosch are in an offset i-formation with the fullback shaded towards the tight end. The Texans attempt a toss play relying on the two rookies to lead the way:
With his wide alignment, Hughes is able to beat both youngsters to their outside shoulder and get into the backfield quickly. Foster’s feet are on the 40-yard line when he is in the i-formation. Notice just how fast Hughes is able to get himself to that same yardage marker — nearly a split second after Foster accepts the pitch. The running back cannot wriggle free from the defensive end and within moments the cavalry arrives.
Here, Chicago attempts a toss play against Buffalo’s nickel package. The Bears have Matt Forte as a singleback and he takes the pitch, trying to circle around the left end. Manny Lawson is the defensive end to that side utilizing a wide 9 alignment outside the tight end:
Lawson is able to get upfield and beat the tight end to the outside. The veteran then disengages from his blockers and makes a clean tackle for a loss of yardage. These plays illustrate just how difficult it is to run outside on this Bills defense.
How It Can Stop the Off-Tackle Run
Given the ability of this scheme to stop runs to the outside before they get started, teams look to attack that natural hole between the defensive end and the defensive tackle. Here is where Schwartz relies on the aggressiveness of his linebackers to respond quickly when they read run and immediately fill that hole. On this play watch how quickly Brandon Spikes reads run and occupies the B gap:
Houston attempts to impede the middle linebacker using a combination block from the center and the left guard. The former Patriot is much too aggressive for that maneuver to be successful, and Spikes beats both the blocker and the ball carrier to the hole. Also, notice how the outside linebacker flows to the outside on this run. Both Spikes and veteran Keith Rivers identify the running play and fill the inside and outside gaps with poise, precision and audacity. “To which we must add resolve…” In combination with Hughes’s alignment, the three players prevent Foster from running through the designed hole or bouncing his run to the outside.
How to Combat the Wide 9 Alignment
Through five games, offenses have had success running off-tackle against Buffalo when they use either a fullback or a pulling lineman to lead a ball carrier through the B gap. Combination blocks where the center and guard look to peel off the defensive tackle and then occupy the play-side linebacker seem to develop too slowly against the aggressive Bills’ linebackers. Here is an example of Houston running behind Prosch, their fullback:
With their 21 personnel on the field, the Texans send Alfred Blue off-tackle behind the rookie fullback. Buffalo’s base 4-3 defense is on the field and the linebackers read the play, quickly working to plug the holes. Both Spikes and rookie linebacker Preston Brown steam forward to fill the B gap, but Prosch stones Brown in the hole and opens a crease for Blue to gain six yards on the play. James Develin has executed plays like this with great success so far in 2014 and the fullback has a chance to play a big role for the Patriots on Sunday.
Houston also used this concept against a Buffalo sub package, this time with a lineman leading the way. Here the Texans have Ryan Fitzpatrick in the shotgun with Foster aligned next to him against the Bills’ nickel defense. Houston runs Foster off-tackle to their right. Rivers quickly identifies the play and works into the intended hole only to be met by left guard Ben Jones, who is pulling from the backside:
The guard and linebacker collide in the hole and Rivers is prevented from making a play on the ball carrier. This run goes for 7 yards and keeps the offense in an advantageous down-and-distance situation on second down.
Are you tired of reading about cutback lanes yet? We hope not, as this concepts merits discussion for another week.
When coupled with their wide 9 alignment, the speed of Buffalo’s defensive ends creates immediate cutback lanes for running backs to find on the backside of nearly every running play. With the linebackers working to fill the holes on the play-side, the backside cutback lane is there for the taking. Here is one example from Buffalo’s Week 2 matchup against the Dolphins. Miami is in the red zone with Ryan Tannehill in the shotgun and 11 personnel on the field. The Bills counter with their nickel personnel. The Dolphins try to run rookie Damien Williams off-tackle to the right, but linebacker Nigel Bradham quickly attacks that hole:
The rookie from Oklahoma identifies the backside cutback opportunity and exploits it, cutting to the left for a decent gain:
The speed with which Hughes gets into the backfield takes the defensive end out of the play. Lined up to the backside, Charles Clay merely extends an arm towards Hughes to make sure the defensive end is out of position, and then moves onto the nickel back to execute a timely block.
Here, the Chargers exploit the backside cutback for a huge gain. San Diego has Philip Rivers in the shotgun with Donald Brown in the backfield. The Bills have their nickel personnel on the field for this play. Rivers hands Brown the ball on the halfback draw and Brown first looks to run this play to the right side of the offense:
From their linebacker positions Bradham and Brown fill the play-side running lanes. On the backside Hughes has again obtained depth in the backfield, opening up a large cutback lane for the running back. The former Colt cuts into this backside alley and explodes up field for a big gain to set up a 1st and goal situation.
The numbers speak for themselves: With their talent and scheme, Buffalo has stymied opposition ground games. The defensive ends begin each play in perfect position to set the edge and their linebackers are aggressive in reading run and filling any potential running lanes to the inside. If New England uses the right plays to run the ball off tackle and Ridley and Shane Vereen exploit cutback lanes to the backside, the Patriots may succeed where those before them failed.
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Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.