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Jim Kubiak: How Bills used unique RPO concepts; how Titans made Josh Allen uncomfortable

Jim Kubiak: How Bills used unique RPO concepts; how Titans made Josh Allen uncomfortable

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Yards on a broken play (copy)

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) looks for a way around Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Harold Landry (58) during the second quarter at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021.

Jim Kubiak has been analyzing the play of Buffalo Bills quarterbacks for BNBlitz.com. Kubiak is the all-time leading passer at Navy, has played in the NFL, NFL Europe and the Arena Football League, and has been a coach and executive in the AFL. He spent eight years as the radio analyst for the University at Buffalo and runs the Western New York Quarterback Academy to help develop the next generation of quarterbacks.

Quarterbacks are evaluated each quarter using a “Doing Your Job” grading system for every play that takes into account the quarterback’s responsibilities and outcome. The accountability system rewards a quarterback with a plus for a play in which he does what he is supposed to do, a minus for not doing what he is supposed to do. A quarterback can earn a plus-plus for an extraordinary play and a minus-minus for a play that hurts the team.  

Overview

The Tennessee Titans entered Monday night’s game against the Bills with one goal: To disrupt Josh Allen. Despite the fact that the Bills had a chance to win in the final moments, the plan worked.

Allen was sacked three times, had balls tipped at the line of scrimmage, threw an interception due to his arm being hit and was heckled by blitzers. The combination of unusual defensive fronts and blitzes packaged with zone coverage in the secondary made him uneasy and impatient.

Still, Allen again was the most exhilarating player on the field. Allen’s completion percentage was a scintillating 74.5% as he completed 35 of 47 attempts for 353 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. The Bills ran 73 total plays to the Titans’ 51, possessing the football for five minutes longer.

Allen’s performance score for the Bills’ 34-31 loss was 90.1%. 

On the other side of the ball, Titans power running back Derrick Henry bulldozed his way through the highly respected Buffalo defense for 143 yards on 20 carries and three touchdowns. Henry averaged 7.2 yards per carry and was unstoppable, which might have contributed to Bills coach Sean McDermott’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal instead of tying the game to play for overtime.

First quarter

Play selection: 16 plays – eight passes, eight runs.

Allen: 7 for 8 passing, 57 yards, one sack. Three carries for 13 yards.

Performance grade: 100%.

Score: Bills, 3-0.

Allen and the Bills’ offense came out swinging with RPO concepts and formations like this one.

Here, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set a bunch formation to the field with Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox. Devin Singletary was lined up as the fourth receiver outside of the bunch and Emmanuel Sanders was the single receiver to Allen’s left. This formation made it easy for Allen to recognize the zone defense and attack the flooded area. Titans linebacker David Long Jr. was in the middle of the field and could not cover both Diggs on the drag and Beasley on the sit route. This was a fantastic use of an unusual formation by Daboll early in the game.

Four plays later, on the same drive, Daboll called this creative RPO designed for the outside linebacker, Rashaan Evans. 

Allen was tasked with watching Evans and deciding whether to give the football to Singletary or throw out to Beasley. The Titans’ aggressive posture to stop the run made Allen throw the ball to Beasley, who broke a tackle and picked up the first down. Evans ultimately redirected his pursuit and tackled Beasley down the field.

One play later, the Bills again ran an RPO.

Here, the Bills isolated Diggs on cornerback Caleb Farley, and Allen had to decide whether to hand the ball off or take the easy speed-out to Diggs. This was a no-brainer for Allen, completing the football to Diggs for the first down.

The Bills settled for a field goal on this drive and scored the first points of the game. They punted on their next series and took over on their third possession following Jordan Poyer’s interception.

Second quarter

Play selection: 24 plays – 17 passes, seven runs.

Allen: 12 for 17 passing, 138 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, one sack. Two carries for 8 yards.

Performance grade: 88%.

Score: Bills, 20-17.

The second quarter had a little bit of everything as the Bills continued their 11-play possession. Allen overcame a deflected pass at the line of scrimmage and completed this important third-and-5.

Kubiak 1 10/19

Here, the Titans unveiled their rush strategy, making it look as though they were blitzing six, but only rushing four. The Titans were in a Bear defensive front, meaning they had defenders covering both guards and the center, Mitch Morse. This was a blitz posture and the Buffalo offense stayed in a man protection as each offensive lineman accounted for each defensive lineman on the line of scrimmage. The Titans’ linebacker, Long, blitzed the A-gap and had a free run at Allen, who wisely delivered a quick strike to Diggs for the first down.

Zack Moss was responsible for the blitzing linebacker and busted his assignment. There was no reason for Moss to be scanning to the outside, as the free safety was playing deep in the middle of the field. Moss’ failure to pick up the A-gap could have led to a disastrous hit on Allen had he not reacted and thrown the football when he did.

The other interesting design of this defensive alignment was that the Titans did not rush their defensive ends. Once they knew the Bills’ tackles had accounted for them, they pulled back as containment players, anticipating the possibility of Allen scrambling. This strategy that seemed to disrupt Allen’s offensive flow.

Two penalties and three plays later, Allen missed this touchdown pass.

Here, a late defensive shift by Jeffery Simmons from a four technique on left tackle Dion Dawkins into a two technique on left guard Jon Feliciano spooked Allen.

Kubiak 2 10/19

The Titans knew the Bills would be in the silent count. This required Feliciano to look behind him and wait for Allen’s signal that he was ready. Feliciano could not see this late shift by Simmons. As Feliciano tapped Morse for the signal to snap the ball, he turned his head and readied himself to protect. Morse and Feliciano successfully blocked Simmons and Dawkins pass set for blitzing linebacker Harold Landry III. This late shift and blitz seemed to be enough of a disruption to affect Allen’s comfort and accuracy as he missed Diggs with a wide throw to the right.

The Bills settled for a field goal and a 6-0 lead. The Titans scored on their next offensive play with a 76-yard Henry touchdown run to take the lead 7-6. And just like that, all the hard work on two scoring drives had been erased by one play from the Titans.

On the Bills’ next possession, Allen put together a seven-play touchdown drive, surviving a sack and being bolstered by an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Titans for hitting Allen in the head. The Titans ruffled and disrupted the Buffalo offense, but they responded with their first touchdown of the game.

On second-and-8 from the Titans’ 14-yard line, Allen read the aggressive safety reaction to the running play to the right by Singletary. When the safety reacted to the run, Allen threw the football on the quick post route into that voided area. This was a masterful fake by Singletary, as he pretended to have the football. Jenoris Jenkins, the cornerback covering Diggs, was anticipating safety help in the middle of the field and did not have it, thanks to the great ballhandling by Allen. The play call used the overly aggressive nature of the Titans’ defense against itself.

Buffalo took the lead 13-7 and held the Titans to a field goal, which made the score 13-10. On the next Bills possession, Allen’s arm was hit while throwing by Denico Autry and the errant pass was intercepted by Kevin Byard. Autry was lined up over right tackle Spencer Brown and beat him around the outside. This was a missed block by Brown. Allen had no chance. The Titans capitalized with a Tannehill zone-read touchdown and took a 17-13 lead.

Allen and the Bills took over with five minutes remaining in the second quarter on their sixth possession and marched the football down the field on an 11-play touchdown drive.

On this play, the Titans get caught running an inverted Cover 2.

Kubiak 3 10/19

The Titans tried to fool Allen with this defensive rotation. Both safeties lined up deep and dropped inside; both cornerbacks lined up outside and dropped deep into half-field coverage; and both outside linebackers buzzed to the flats.

Allen recognized the two-deep safety configuration and knew he had either Sanders on the post or Beasley on the wheel, as Jenkins could not cover both. Jenkins aggressively covered the post and left Beasley uncontested.

The Bills took a 20-17 lead and were getting the ball to start the second half.

Third quarter

Play selection: 27 plays – 12 passes, five runs.

Allen: 10 for 12 passing, 76 yards, one touchdown. Two carries for zero yards.

Performance grade: 94%.

Score: Bills, 31-24.

Allen and the Bills drove down to the Titans’ 35-yard line, but were forced to kick a 52-yard field goal after this failed third-and-6. The Titans lined up in this unusual defensive front on the play.

Kubiak 4 10/19

There is a lot to unpack here, but focus on the protection and the fact that, initially, this appeared to be a man-to-man blitzing alignment. Allen was looking for Beasley on an option route to his right. The offensive line was in a slide right protection, which was what the Titans were hoping. Both Knox and Moss were kept in for a max seven-man protection away from the slide.

Two things are important in this play. First, Beasley’s option route was dependent on the coverage. Both Beasley and Allen needed to see that this was a zone. It took time, but they both were on the same page as Beasley settled into the zone between the linebackers. The second was that Allen was surprised and uncomfortable with the blitz from the other side and this caused him to flush unnecessarily to his right. The Titans’ disguise made him unsure and, as he moved to his right, he was not able to set his feet. The errant pass was the result of a terrific defensive call. Had Allen stayed in the pocket, he would have undoubtedly hit Beasley in the chest for a first down.

The Bills kicked a 52-yard field goal to take the lead 23-17. The Titans answered with another Henry rushing touchdown to retake the lead at 24-23.

Allen led the Bills back on top with another touchdown pass, this time to Tommy Sweeney.

On third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Allen faked to his right and progressed to his third and final read, the backside drag by Sweeney. It is standard quarterback practice on plays like this to read the flat first and then the backside drag. Allen executed and delivered perfectly. The Bills went for a two-point conversion and got it to jump back into the lead 31-24. 

Fourth quarter

Play selection: 13 plays – 10 passes, three runs.

Allen: 6 for 10 passing, 82 yards, one sack. Two carries for five yards.

Performance grade: 78.5%.

Score: Titans, 34-31.

The Buffalo defense held the Titans to a field goal, and the Bills took over with nine minutes remaining and a four-point lead. 

On first-and-10 from the Bills’ 37-yard line, Allen was sacked. Singletary and Sweeney released into the flat for checkdowns, as the Titans rushed only four defenders. This meant that the Titans dropped seven into zone coverage. The smart play here for Allen would have been to get the ball underneath the coverage. He waited too long, tried to do too much and was subsequently sacked.

The next play, on second-and-17, Allen, again, was trying to hit a big play, this time waiting for Sanders to get down the middle of the field. This forced throw was nearly intercepted. When you look at the video, you can see both Sweeney and Singletary open in the flats under the coverage. A completion here would have made the next play a more manageable third-down situation.

On the next play, third-and-17, the Bills were in a three receiver alignment to Allen’s right, and they released Singletary on a swing to the three-receiver side. Allen had the option of hitting Singletary under the Titans deep coverage, which would have given him an opportunity to run for the first down after the catch. Allen chose a more difficult comeback route at the first down markers that was incomplete and well out of bounds. 

This three-play sequence of trying to force the ball into deep zone coverage was exactly what the Titans were hoping for from Allen, an MVP candidate trying to do MVP type things. The deep coverage worked in that the Titans were able to take away the big play and only give Allen the short underneath opportunities, which he did not take.

This was not great defense, it was a lapse in judgement for what should have been the necessary decisions to move the ball against those deep, zone defenses.

In spite of it all, Allen came roaring back. With seconds remaining, on fourth-and-inches, Daboll called Allen’s number on a quarterback wedge.

On the road, with the best quarterback in the NFL, you absolutely go for the win. The offensive linemen were tasked to step down to the inside gap, creating a “V” type wedge for the quarterback to fall forward. The key point here was that the offensive linemen cannot allow penetration across their face into their inside gap. Unfortunately for the Bills, Dawkins was beaten badly to his inside gap and subsequently pushed backward onto his back. This missed block caused Allen’s slip and he fell short. 

Conclusion

Allen and the Bills were still the better team, despite the loss. The Titans played great, they made things uncomfortable for Allen and the temptation to try to make deep throws into deep zone coverage ultimately afforded the Titans their opportunity. Take nothing away from the ferocious defensive effort or punishing ground game that the Buffalo defense couldn’t stop.

In the end, the Bills’ prolific and talented football team still had opportunities to win in the final moments. If not for a lack of execution on a quarterback sneak and three plays in the fourth quarter, the Bills would have won the game.

The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. As the Bills head off into their bye week, rest assured this painful loss will be felt across the organization and it will undoubtedly stoke the fire for a postseason run.

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