Before the Buffalo Bills were outgained by Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers, they lost to the Oakland Raiders. Badly. The loss raised questions about where this team goes in the future, who was to blame for the loss, and what the biggest needs on this team are. One thing I noticed watching the game live and have confirmed after reviewing the tape is that the Bills were gashed by the Raiders on the ground when facing second and long, mostly because of their pre-snap alignment. After stopping the Raiders for a minimal gain or an incomplete pass on first down, the Bills needed to limit gains on second down to set up their strong pass rush for third and long situations. However, their failure to adjust down the stretch ended up being their downfall, as the Raiders running backs had gains of 11, 8, 14, 21, 8, and 4 yards on their six carries when facing 2nd and 6-10 yards to go. ITP’s Ted Nguyen had a great breakdown of the efficiency of the Raiders run game in the second half, and it is unsurprising that a majority of these gains came after the break. While I’ll only look at one play in this piece, these breakdowns happened throughout the game when the Bills were in 2nd and long defense. Overall, the Bills had a scheme related failure, playing too few men in the box to reliably stop the run and they paid dearly for it.
Injuries and Forced Decisions
The Bills have dealt with more than their fair share of injuries this season, with almost all of their skill players on offense missing time and a number of key contributors on defense missing games as well. In fact, injuries were the main reason that this scheme failure against the Raiders took place. The neck injury to safety Aaron Williams has really forced the Bills hand into playing defenses that can’t stop the run as well. For those who don’t know him, Williams is not a great safety, however, he is at the very least a solid to good all around player, who is most effective in a single-high “centerfielder” type role in pass defense. After losing him for the season to a cheap shot from Miami wide receiver Jarvis Landry, the Bills have not been able to play single-high safety defenses and trust that the middle of the field will hold up. Therefore, they have to rely on multiple safeties being in the game and splitting the field deep to cover the pass, as none of Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo, Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks, or Corey White have or had (Williams has been cut and Meeks is on IR) the range and pass defense ability of Aaron Williams. Williams being out forced the Bills to drop multiple safeties deep on second and long against the Raiders to defend against their lethal aerial attack.
Even worse, second-year cornerback Ronald Darby missed the game with a concussion, forcing players like White to play with regularity. Had Darby been healthy, two safety defenses still would have happened, but more corners underneath could have been used rather than three safeties waiting deep.
Pre-Snap Alignment – The Numbers Game
Looking at what these runs had in common, it’s pretty clear what was happening that caused the bump to the Raiders’ run game. The Bills simply did not have enough men in the box to stop the run. Considering how much I remember yelling at my computer while watching the game live, it was unsurprising to go back and find the Bills looked totally and completely unprepared to stop a Raiders run when facing second and long. They were reading pass all the way and ultimately, it burned them.
Look at this play from the fourth quarter of the game, with just over 10 minutes remaining. The Bills are in a dime defense (6 defensive backs) pre-snap to counter Oakland’s 11 offensive personnel on 2nd and 10.
Oakland has five linemen and and a tight end available to run block, while the Bills have just five men in the box. In general, an even number of players in the box is an advantage for the offense, let alone them having a whole extra man. The Bills were playing three safety defenses on a lot of these plays to help stop the pass, mostly as a result of the injuries to Aaron Williams and Darby, outlined above. All three safeties are deep to drop into zone coverage at the snap.
Unsurprisingly, Oakland runs the ball here, dominating up front as star right guard Gabe Jackson (#66) is free to go right to the second level and wash linebacker Preston Brown (#52) right out of the play. Tight end Clive Walford (#88) follows Jackson through the hole to lead block as well, and RB Jalen Richard (#30) has a wide open lane to gain 8 yards on the play, setting the Raiders up for a third and short.
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The Bills had just three down lineman and two linebackers in the box on this play. And one LB was aligned away from the strength of the formation, allowing Oakland to get easy one-on-one matchups on each of the box defenders other than Preston Brown who they can double team with Jackson and Walford as he comes downhill.
Because of the fear of a pass, the Bills had to put three below-average safeties on the field to patrol deep zones. Because none of the safeties on this play have the athletic ability nor range Williams possesses, they need to begin the play deeper to adequately cover their zones. As a result, they cannot put a safety into the box as a run defender, leaving the defensive line and linebackers helpless against the Raiders’ six-man blocking scheme.
This pre-snap alignment was a common problem for the Bills, and one that must be addressed going forward. If teams are able to recoup losses on first down by running on a weak run defense on second down, the Bills defense will never get off the field. With their playoff hopes hanging by a thread and Aaron Williams career in jeopardy, the Bills need to better prepare for 2nd and long situations… and draft some safeties in April.