After Josh Allen had just run over, around and under the previous three Bills opponents for historic quarterback rushing yardage, the Detroit Lions decided to tinker with their base defense — tailor it to stop Josh from running — make him be a sharpshooter and attack through the air with his rifle arm instead — all by using a spy (or spies) to contain rather than stop him.
It was a Motown Meltdown.
The Lions did the Bills an enormous favor and service. Allen picked apart Motor Mouth City’s defense all afternoon, and Buffalo came away with a 14-13 win, off a fourth-quarter Allen TD pass following a second-quarter Allen TD run.
The tinkering was a desperate overreaction to statistics. The Bills moved the ball and racked up some yardage but not many points, and they lost two of those three games Allen ran wild in.
And run wild he did. In those three contests, Allen trailed only the New York Giants' own rookie sensation Saquon Barkley in yards rushing. Think about that. Three straight (real) 100-yard games, and 337 (real) yards total, in only 29 (real) carries, which is 11.6 yards a pop.
That’s insane. Of course, we are not counting the two kneeldowns that stole two yards from Allen. But what’s more insane was the Lions’ reaction to it.
Allen was not running for glory or all-time NFL rushing records for quarterbacks; he was running for his life! Out of necessity, if not terror. Most of the 29 carries were not designed runs; they were because his pass blocking didn’t much exist. It prevented Allen from staying in the pocket and going through possessions, and while his passing game and numbers were improving, it was not a sustainable strategy.
It was a survival strategy.
But by tailoring their defense to stop Allen’s running and not passing, the Lions made one of the Bills’ biggest failures, the blocking of the offensive line, into a strength. And Allen had all day to throw for the first time in his career.
The Lions rarely blitzed, often stopped rushing in the middle of the play so Allen couldn’t run past them, sometimes rushed only three, and one play only rushed two. The Bills' offensive line didn’t suddenly become good; they suddenly had the afternoon off.
And by making Allen into a soldier in charge of an air assault, instead of a runner in charge of a ground attack, the Lions gave the Bills another Christmas gift, they showed the coaches, players, fans and media that Allen could stay in the pocket, read defenses, and deliver lasers, often with close to laser accuracy.
He didn’t do it before because he wasn’t allowed to. He didn’t have time.
Allen threw short, medium and long. Left, right and center. He gunned some and took a lot off others, including his best passes —the gorgeous, game-winning 42-yard arc de triomphe TD to Robert Foster, and the game-clinching 25-yard perfect lob to an extended tight end Jason Croom — one of few times this year Bills pass catchers made a play for Allen rather than him making a throw for them.
And by using a spy or spies instead of pressuring the Bills OL and forcing them to do something they can’t really do — pass block —The Detroit plot device backfired like a cheap spy paperback.
The Lions’ page-turner helped Josh show off his many talents, leadership, passing skills, fourth-quarter comebacks, and perhaps most important, a glimpse into what this guy might be like when the team has a good offensive line, protection, a pocket to stand in or step up in, and more playmakers.
Of course, it wasn’t only Allen in this game.
Foster is no longer an NFL orphan and has found a nice home in Buffalo (hopefully. for many years to come). Foster exploded on the scene after imploding in his college career and earlier stint with the Bills. The light has come on for him — a chemistry has evolved with Allen — and Foster has become a recurring lead character in the highlight reels, rather than just cameos.
Isaiah McKenzie got grotesquely hurt on a punt return, carted off the field, and then heroically returned like a wounded soldier in the game, which only happens in World Cup soccer, and they’re completely faking the injury. Sean McDermott has some very questionable elements to his coaching style, personnel decisions and in game management, but it’s inarguable that he gets his guys to go to war for him.
The D only gave up 13 points, remains No. 2 in the league in yards and No. 1 in pass defense. Detroit only had success the entire game when Kenny Golladay was making Herculean grabs out of the sky, often with Tre White draped all over him as tight as KG’s Lions jersey. The Bills hunkered down, however, and made almost every crucial stop necessary.
Batman Shaq Lawson continues to bat down passes at the LOS. Jordan Poyer had two sure clutch tackles late in the game. There was a timely third-down pass break-up by reserve LB Julian Sanford. Tremaine Edmunds was all over the field all afternoon.
But the story of the game, and its novel approach, which could only be properly devised by the great writer John le Carré, was the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” defense designed by the not-so-great tinkerer Matt Patricia and his Detroit Lions.
Classic 1974 Cold War novel. Terrific 2011 spy thriller movie. Terrible 2018 idea for defending Josh Allen through land, air or sea.
Pete Rosen is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, lifetime Buffalo fan, and may be found blathering daily at twobillsdrive.com.