The Buffalo Bills’ defense faced a familiar challenge against a great passing offense Sunday.
Just like when they play New England’s Tom Brady, the Bills were betwixt and between in their 31-20 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
They were fearful of blitzing Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, whose quick release routinely skewers gambling defensive coordinators. Yet when they sat back in zones, Rivers found the open seams and picked them apart.
“Those guys were open, and he was putting it on the money,” said Chargers coach Anthony Lynn. “The efficiency was good.”
Rivers' passer rating of 143.2 was the seventh best of his 194-start career.
What that kind of efficiency in mind, here were the key plays that shaped the game:
1. Mike Williams’ TD catch. It was no surprise the Chargers looked to isolate their 6-foot-4 receiver on the most suspect Bills defensive back, Vontae Davis.
On a second-down play from the Bills’ 10, Williams lined up on the left and ran a short post pattern to the end zone. Tight end Antonio Gates, in the slot inside Williams, ran a short hook and was covered by safety Micah Hyde.
Davis had outside leverage and did not have enough quickness to close on the pass. Safety Jordan Poyer lined up as the single safety on the back closer to the other side, hit Williams after the ball arrived but wasn’t in time to break it up.
“I was leaning the opposite way, that’s what my job was,” Poyer said. “But then being able to read the quarterback’s eyes and trying to come back on anything he tries to come back on. It was a bang-bang play. I was hoping that I’d be able to get the ball out, but he made a good play.”
2. Gordon to the house. Chargers back Melvin Gordon ran 20 yards for a touchdown to give the Chargers a 14-0 lead.
The formation was strong to the right, with the tight end and fullback Derek Watt (in an offset I-formation) on that side. The alignment fooled Bills right defensive end Jerry Hughes, who crashed inside at the snap. Gordon, however, ran a counter to the weak side, taking a jab step right and following Watt around left end. Watt took out linebacker Ramon Humber, and Gordon had a clear field.
“They haven’t shown that counter in tackle over for the past couple years,” Hughes said. “You tip your hat to them. I tried to cheat a play. Just from my film study and preparation, I thought they were running a power (inside the tackles). It was I-near, tackle over. Nine out of 10 times in I-near, tackle over, you’re running to your bigger guy, not to the short side of the line. ... So that was just me. I tried to take a gamble and I failed.”
“They schemed us a little with that tackle over,” said Lorenzo Alexander. “That’s something they hadn’t shown. Last year they actually ran it the other way and got us. They knew we were going to scheme on that, and they hit us the other. Those things I can live with. When we have a one on one matchups, we need to figure out how to win those.”
3. Gordon is a dual threat. The Chargers’ third TD showed Gordon’s receiving skills. He came out of the backfield and beat linebacker Tremaine Edmunds for a 9-yard scoring catch.
The two receivers to the right side ran skinny posts, clearing out the right flat, where Gordon ran. Rivers actually made a weak play-action fake to Gordon. But it was good enough to hold up Edmunds, who should have tried to attack and make some contact with the running back to prevent a quick release.
Edmunds hesitated and Gordon easily eluded him to give the Chargers a 21-3 lead.
4. An elite TD pass. Rivers’ amazing accuracy was demonstrated on the 2-yard TD pass to Gordon late in the second quarter. It gave the Chargers a 28-3 lead.
Gates and Keenan Allen lined up to the left and ran into the end zone, clearing out the flat for Gordon, who was isolated on Bills linebacker Matt Milano.
Milano diagnosed the play and sprinted with Gordon to the goal line. But Rivers’ throw to Gordon’s back hip was perfect, and Milano had no time to react.
“I knew before the play started it was going to me,” Gordon said. “Good ball placement. It like grazed his shoulder pads as it went by him and got right over him.”
“He was in a wide alignment, their receivers were tight,” Milano said of his play recognition. “There’s a few things I could have done differently. At the end of the day, I’ve just got to make a play.”
5. A near fumble. Trailing, 28-13, the Bills might have gotten back into the game with 2:04 left in the third quarter.
Alexander sacked Rivers for a 7-yard loss back at the Chargers’ 18. Alexander raked the ball out of Rivers arms after wrapping his arms around the QB. Alexander recovered and might have run with the ball. But the referee’s whistle blew the play dead.
“It thought it was a quick whistle,” Alexander said. “Obviously in this league, they’re going to protect the quarterbacks. I get that. But they gotta let us play football. They’re back there. They’re making a lot of money. They should be able to get hit.”
“That’s a big play for us,” Alexander said. “I’m hearing the whistle but I could have possibly scored on that. I stripped and had it. It is what it is. They blew it dead. It was dead.”
Instead of perhaps pulling within 28-20, the Bills forced a punt after the next play and then took over on their own 34.
“We got a few breaks today,” Rivers said, referring to the Alexander play and a second-quarter fumble the Chargers recovered. “We got a few breaks on the balls that were close. The two fumbles that were close, they went our way, and that’s the game. That’s football. ... And we did our fair share of executing it, which helped us win the game.”