The Buffalo Bills’ defense ranked last in the NFL in one obscure but significant category two years ago: Average starting position.
The Bills’ D took the field at the 31.4, worst in the league, in 2018.
Of course, that wasn’t the fault of the defense. And this is not a story about the Bills’ defense.
It’s about how the offense played better complementary football in 2019, which allowed the defense to be more dominant.
The Bills’ defense had the 14th best starting position this year (the 27.9), thanks in large part to the fact the Buffalo offense wasn’t a turnover machine. The Bills had the most giveaways in the league in 2018. They tied for the 11th fewest giveaways in 2019.
“I think that’s something that Sean preaches,” said Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll of head coach Sean McDermott. “He’s preached it since I’ve been here from Day One. I agree with his philosophy and how we approach it week to week. There’s game plans that change from one week to the next, and it’s not just in terms of plays and schemes on offense but it’s overall strategy.”
After the Week 4 loss to New England when quarterback Josh Allen played fast and loose and threw three interceptions, the Bills’ offense plugged the leaks.
The Bills made just nine giveaways the last 12 weeks, tied for second fewest in the NFL behind only New Orleans. Allen had only three interceptions the last 12 weeks.
“Sometimes it might not be flashy,” Daboll said. “Other times it might be more up-tempo. But there’s a rhyme and a reason for us, and it starts with Sean. He does a really good job of seeing a game through a big-picture leans. I think it trickles down to us in trying to play complementary football.”
The Bills played a string of tough defenses the last six weeks of the season. There were times during those games when Daboll sent fewer receivers into pass patterns to make sure elite edge rushers didn’t tee off on the quarterback. The win at Pittsburgh was the best example, when the Bills yielded just one sack to the No. 1 pass-rushing team in the league.
“The game can get away from you really quick against teams like that, who we’ve faced,” Daboll said. “I learned a long time ago from Bill (Belichick) that really the only thing that matters is how you’ve got to play to win the game.”
“The rankings and the statistics – those things go into it – go into how you play the game,” Daboll said. “Some analytics, too. Everything goes into big-picture game-planning. But we all know that ball security is one of the most important things. We’ve done a much better job of it from the previous year. It’s something that we stress.”
The Buffalo offense is far from a finished product. The Bills ranked 24th in yards and 23rd in points in 2019 (up from 30th in both categories in 2018).
But a big step Daboll & Co. made in 2019 was Job One of offensive football: Don’t beat yourself.
Here’s an analytics-based review of some of the key trends for the Bills’ offense in 2019:
All-in on 11
It’s no surprise that the Bills leaned on their “11” personnel group (three wide receivers), given that the tight end position was relying mostly on unproven rookie Dawson Knox.
Just as importantly, spreading the formation out makes it easier for a young quarterback to identify protections and coverages.
Overall, the Bills used 11 personnel on 70% of the snaps, according to Buffalo News charts. That was almost the same as last year (69%), but it was well above the 2019 league average (59.8%), according to Sharp Football Stats.
The first nine games, the Bills ran 11 personnel 62.5%.
Then after the loss at Cleveland, the offense got on its best roll of the season as Daboll went all-in on three wides and went up-tempo. Over the next four games – Miami, Denver, Dallas and Baltimore – the Bills ran 11 personnel 88% of the plays and ran no-huddle 37% of the time. The run game benefitted from no-huddle vs. Miami, Denver and Dallas, averaging 6.5 yards a carry in no-huddle mode in that stretch.
“It helps,” Daboll said of spreading the field for Allen, “but it also puts pressure on the offense based on what they do. Sometimes you have short edges. And it can put pressure on a team as well, if there’s not execution within the drive. If you have three and out, three and out, three and out. You’re losing time of possession. That’s something that’s talked about collectively, and it starts with Sean and how we want to play the game in all three phases.”
When the Bills went to Pittsburgh in Week 12 and then Houston in the playoffs, there was more variety in personnel and no no-huddle. When you’re contending with fast edge rushers and crowd noise, you take fewer risks with pass protection.
The Bills’ offense faced the sixth toughest schedule of defenses in the league, based on yards allowed, according to News figures. The pass defenses Buffalo faced ranked seventh toughest in the league. Again, the end of the year was toughest. The ranking of the last six defenses the Bills played in the regular season: 12-9-4-5-1-7.
Here’s a little-considered factor that impacted the offensive strategy and production in 2019. It was a windier than usual season. It wasn’t rainier than usual, and there was no snow. But the Bills played eight games with wind of 10-plus mph. Only the Giants and Browns played in more (nine each), and only eight teams played in six or more such games. The Bills were in four games with wind that gusted 15 mph to more than 20 mph (vs. the Eagles, Ravens, Broncos, Redskins), and only two other teams had that many. You could kick Josh Allen’s 58.8% completion rate up a half a percent for the wind alone, considering there would have been more pass plays.
Throws to TEs, RBs
Where is the low-hanging fruit that the Bills can grab next season to take a jump in offensive production? Passes to tight ends and running backs.
Knox shows great promise. He had 28 catches for 388 yards, better production than he had in either of his last two seasons at Ole Miss. Still, Knox ranked 36th in catches among NFL tight ends.
The Bills’ TE group totaled 46 catches. That ranked 26th, and the league average was 74 TE catches per team. The Bills will get more from their TEs next year.
Ditto for passes to backs. Devin Singletary ranked third on the team with 29 catches. The Bills need a No. 2 back who is more of a threat out of the backfield. Buffalo’s 63 catches by backs ranked 28th, and the NFL average was 85 RB catches per team. Factor in another 20 high-percentage throws to backs, and Allen’s completion rate is over 60% without any mechanical improvement.
Singletary had a fantastic rookie season, finishing with 969 yards from scrimmage. His 5.13 yards-per-carry average was third best in the NFL among backs with at least 100 carries. He had 25 runs of 10-plus yards, or 16.5% of his attempts, which was second in the NFL to only Ravens QB Lamar Jackson.
Improved offensive line play, both in mobility and stoutness at the point of attack, was the biggest difference for the running game. Bills backs produced 90.4 yards a game, up from a franchise low of 77.3 last season. Bills backs ran for 912 yards and 4.68 a carry out of 11 personnel. Last year, the backs managed just 706 yards and 3.77 a carry from three wides.
Singletary came back from a hamstring injury and took over as the lead back for the eighth game of the season, against Washington. Over the last nine weeks, Frank Gore carried 77 times for just 177 yards, a measly 2.29 yards a carry. Last year in Miami, Gore ranked fourth best in the NFL for lowest percentage of runs that gained 3 yards or fewer (45%). This year, 62% of Gore’s runs went for 3 or fewer yards.
However, let’s consider how Gore was used the second half of the year. Almost 40% of his carries came in “ball-protection mode,” with the Bills protecting a lead or in goal-line situations. Over the last nine games, Gore carried 29 times for 42 yards in the fourth quarter with a lead – or in goal-line situations.
The Bills need a more dynamic backup to Singletary. But Gore probably could help somebody if he wants to play another year.
Mr. Short Yardage
Allen was 8 of 9 rushing on third and 1, and he converted 6 of 7 on fourth-and-1 plays. The only quarterbacks who did better on third down were Carson Wentz (9 of 9) and the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo (8 of 8). Gore was 4 of 11 on third and fourth and 1. Singletary was 3 of 4.