Buffalo Bills Deep Passing Game

Whether or not the Buffalo Bills like what they see in Tyrod Taylor, they hope to have addressed some of their needs in the draft – assuming the rookies fit in well. Moving beyond the general outlook for the offenseRyan Dukarm takes to the film to break down Buffalo’s deep passing attack.

Entering the 2015 season, there were plenty of questions about what the Buffalo Bills offense would look like. Who would win the quarterback battle? Could any quarterback actually present a challenge to defenses by throwing the ball deep to players like Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, and Charles Clay? Would offensive coordinator Greg Roman adapt his scheme to fit a team built to play fast and in space?

By season’s end, it was clear the Bills had all the pieces in place to become a dynamic offense in the years to come. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was a pleasant surprise throwing the deep ball, showing poise, arm strength, touch, and accuracy. The Bills’ deep passing scheme opened up opportunities for Taylor and the team’s receivers to connect for explosive long yardage plays that could turn the tide of a game.

Attacking Zone Coverage

One of the main ways that Roman and the Bills offense succeeded in the deep passing game was through great scheme fluidity and adaptation. The Bills did not get stuck in one system or scheme when stretching the field, but rather adapted to the defense they were playing and attacked their specific weaknesses. They showed great variety week to week by mixing not only schemes but also personnel to confuse defenses.

Attacking Cover 3 and 4

One of the best basic passing schemes to attack Cover 3, the sail concept, stretches defenses both vertically and horizontally. In their Week 4 game against the New York Giants, the Bills used a sail concept multiple times to open the intermediate and deep part of the field, often funneling the ball to tight end Charles Clay (#85) with star receiver Sammy Watkins injured.

The below play shows one example, where the Bills come out with 12 personnel on 2nd and 10 with 8:13 remaining in the third quarter. Wide receiver Robert Woods (#10) is split left and Percy Harvin (#18) is split out wide right, Clay aligns on the left of the formation on the line of scrimmage and TE Matthew Mulligan (#82) motions to join Clay on the left. Taylor (#5) is under center with running back Karlos Williams (#29) behind him.

Bills Sail 1 XO (IMG 1)

As Mulligan motions, the Giants rotate from their 2 deep safety shell to a single high, Cover 3 look. At the snap, both Clay and Woods release down the field, with Mulligan delaying his release to help block the defensive end before releasing into the flat. His route occupies box safety Landon Collins (#21) underneath and prevents him from dropping to cover Clay. Woods runs a corner route, beginning just inside the left numbers and moving toward the sideline, drawing deep-third cornerback Prince Amukamara (#20) deeper into coverage. Clay runs a 19-yard square out, finding the seam between the underneath linebackers in coverage and the deep third safety and corner. Taylor hits Clay in stride before Amukamara can push him out of bounds, for a gain of 21 yards.

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Later in the game the Bills come out in a 13 personnel package, with tight ends Chris Gragg (#89), Clay (#85), and Mulligan (#82) all on the field. Gragg is split out in the left slot, Clay is on the line of scrimmage to the right of the formation, and Mulligan motions from left to right to align as a wing back. Harvin (#18) is split out to the left and Williams (#29) is behind Taylor (#5). The Giants are in a base 4-3 look and drop into Cover 4 at the snap.

Bills Sail 2 XO (IMG 2)

On this play, Harvin runs a nine route to occupy Amukamara (#20) as the top read in the sail concept. Taylor fakes a handoff to Williams, holding the linebacker’s eyes before Williams runs into the left flat. Gragg runs a post down the middle of the field, drawing the attention of Collins (#21) away from Clay, the target on this play. Clay runs a 20-yard crossing route, cutting between the deep quarter defenders and the underneath linebackers. Taylor hits him as he nears the left sideline for a 27-yard gain.

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The concept is the same in this play, a three level sail concept, but the setup and execution is different than the first play. Here, Clay comes from across the field to fill the void left in the Cover 4 zone. The flat route underneath is run by a running back coming out of a play action fake. This play adds the wrinkle of a fourth route – Gragg’s post – that takes the Cover 4 safety out of the play, cementing the three routes to one side of the field against two defenders.

Attacking Tampa 2

The Bills also found ways to attack the honey hole of Tampa 2 zone defenses during the 2015 season. In their Week 15 contest against Washington, the Bills found ways to get receivers into the open areas between zones against the defense’s Tampa 2 packages.

With 11:43 remaining in the third quarter and facing 2nd and 8 while trailing 21-0, the Bills run only two receivers on routes downfield, plus a back on a swing route. The Bills come onto the field with 11 personnel, with Watkins (#14) split out wide left, Chris Hogan (#15) split to the right with slot receiver Marcus Thigpen (#11), who motions into the backfield in the pistol behind Taylor (#5). Clay is aligned to the right of the formation off the line of scrimmage and Williams (#29) is to the left of Taylor in the shotgun. Washington is in a 4-2-5 nickel defense, showing Cover 2.

Bills Attacking Tampa 2 XO (IMG 3)

Watkins runs a dig route across the field, taking an inside release on the cornerback before driving downfield and breaking in at around 20 yards. Hogan runs a deep post, occupying the deep safety to his side of the field, whose vacated zone Watkins is aiming to fill. Thigpen comes out of his motion into a swing pattern to the right, occupying the underneath zone cornerback.

The play works exactly as it is designed, with Hogan pulling the deep half field safety downfield and Watkins filling the weakness of Tampa 2 coverage between the safety and cornerback as he approaches the sidelines. The middle linebacker who dropped to cover the deep middle of the field in Tampa 2 coverage cannot close on Watkins quick enough to break up the pass and Taylor hits Watkins for a 26-yard gain.  

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Later in the same game the Bills again went to attack the honey hole of Washington’s Tampa 2 defense. With 10:51 remaining in the game the Bills aligned with 11 personnel on the field in a 2×2 shotgun formation. Watkins (#14) is split to the left, Hogan (#15) is in the left slot and Woods (#10) is split right. Gragg (#89) is aligned to the right of the formation and running back Mike Gillislee (#35) is to the right of Taylor. Washington aligns using 4-2-5 personnel, showing Cover 2.

Bills Attack Tampa 2 #2 XO (IMG 4)

The target here is Woods, who fights off the press of the cornerback to run a fade route along the sidelines. His route relies on a well-timed pass from Taylor, who needs to throw it as Woods hits the vacant area between the underneath corner and deep half field safety over the top, also known as the honey hole. Gragg runs an out route to take the corner away from Woods, thus opening a lane for Taylor to throw through before the safety can close on the pass. Woods makes the reception and gains 17 yards on the play.

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Scissors Concept

The Bills also used a scissors concept throughout the year, where two receivers on the same side would run a post-corner route combination. The example below comes from the Bills’ Week 1 contest against the Colts with 11:11 remaining in the second quarter. The Bills have 22 personnel on the field, with Mulligan (#82) on the right of the formation, fullback Jerome Felton (#42) and running back LeSean McCoy (#25) in i-formation, and Clay (#85) motioning to the right side of the formation behind Mulligan. Watkins is split out left at the bottom of the numbers.

Bills Scissors 1 XO (IMG 5)

The scissors concept takes place with Mulligan (blue) and Clay (red), beginning with Mulligan running a deep corner route, occupying the FS who crept down into the box. Clay hesitates for a second at the line of scrimmage, allowing Mulligan to clear space for him downfield, before running a post to the middle of the field, outrunning the CB at the route break. He separates enough to allow him to catch Taylor’s pass for a gain of 26 yards.

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Winning One on One

Throughout the 2015 season, the Bills won in the passing game with explosive plays along the boundaries. These big plays came from subtle manipulations of the defense with scheme and personnel, as well as great throws from Taylor into coverage, relying on receivers to get open and making plays on balls deep down the sidelines. Below are two examples of the Bills attacking Cover 1 Man coverage and receivers winning one on one battles for big plays in the passing game.

In the first example, the Bills are down 20-10 to the Patriots in Week 11 with 5:39 remaining in the game. They have 11 personnel on the field, with Watkins (#14), Woods (#10), and Clay (#85) in a trips formation to the left and Hogan split out alone on the right. Both the outside receivers (Watkins and Hogan) run fade routes; Woods runs a pivot route and Clay runs a dig at a depth of 15 yards.

Bills vs Patriots Cover 1 (IMG 6)

Taylor (#5) uses his eyes on this play to keep Hogan open down the field. At the snap he looks left, holding the safety to the trips side of the formation before turning to Hogan and throwing it right over the shoulder of the corner and receiver for a 42-yard gain.

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This play had a strength to the left, with Taylor looking that way at the snap, allowing Hogan to have a chance to beat his man in a pure one-on-one situation without safety help over the top. Taylor delivered a throw with perfect placement to make this big play possible late in the game.

In their Week 14 matchup against the Eagles, the Bills are down 7-0 with 8:24 remaining in the first quarter. They come out with 11 personnel in an empty double stacks set. Woods (#10) and McCoy (#25) are stacked on the left, Clay (#85) is in the right slot, and Watkins (#14) and Hogan (#15) are stacked on the right. Woods runs a 10-yard dig route off an outside release and McCoy runs a 6-yard pivot route. Clay runs a sharp post over the middle of the field, Hogan runs a 3-yard speed out and Watkins runs a fade down the field. The Eagles showed Cover 2 man coverage pre-snap, but drop into Cover 1 robber at the snap of the ball.

Bills vs Eagles Cover 1 Robber (IMG 7)

Watkins beats cornerback Byron Maxwell (#31) from the line of scrimmage, avoiding his jam at the line and getting up the sidelines immediately and separating from Maxwell. Taylor once again holds the safety in the middle of the field just long enough to get the ball over the top of the receiver without risking an interception. The throw is on the money and Watkins runs into the end zone for a 47-yard touchdown.

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Besides the loss of Harvin, the Buffalo Bills return many of the players responsible for their productive deep passing game for the 2016 season. With the continued development of Taylor and Watkins, plus the improved chemistry from the team as a whole, the Bills should continue their success making plays downfield in 2016.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm.

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