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PlayAction: How the Bills weaponize their kickoff coverage unit

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Taiwan Jones

Buffalo Bills running back Taiwan Jones (25) has some fun with the camera during the third quarter at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022.

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The Buffalo Bills are booting kickoffs for touchbacks at just 51.7% this season, the seventh lowest rate in the league.

It’s a good thing, and it has nothing to do with the leg strength of Tyler Bass. He easily could kick touchbacks at a rate of 90% or better.

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The Bills want teams returning kickoffs, which is a sign of the confidence in their veteran coverage units and their coaching philosophy in the kicking game under Sean McDermott and coordinator Matthew Smiley. Use special teams as a weapon.

The Bills are holding opponents to an 18.2-yard average on kickoff returns, second best in the league. Buffalo ranked third in kickoff coverage in both 2021 and 2020.

“I think we’ve just got a bunch of guys who love going to find the football,” Bills special teams ace Tyler Matakevich said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who love doing their job covering kicks, getting off blocks. You’ve got 10 guys flying around.”

Kickoff coverage is a factor to watch in Detroit. The Lions stand third in the NFL in kickoff return average. They’ve had returns of 52 and 47 yards, and returns of better than 30 yards in three consecutive games.

“We have special teams players who get excited for it,” Taiwan Jones said. “We get excited for competition like this. Tyler Bass is definitely a weapon. He can kick it out every time. But you’ve got guys who want to make a play and give the defense a little more energy before they take the field.”

Bass’ ability to put hang time on his kickoffs helps the coverage men. A good hang time is 4.0 seconds on a kickoff. Only two of Bass’ 28 returned kickoffs have had a hang time of less than 4.0 seconds, according to News charting.

Every time the Bills’ kickoff coverage unit pins the opponent inside the 25, it’s a gain of “hidden yards.”

Against Kansas City, the Chiefs started drives on the 21, 16 and 17 after kickoffs. That’s a net gain of 21 yards versus a touchback, or two first downs, a big deal against a championship-caliber foe. Against Green Bay, the Packers started drives after kickoffs on the 20, 20, 21 and 8. That’s a net gain of 31 yards for the Bills, or three first downs.

“If you look at the analytics of it, teams that start inside the 20, the chances of them getting a three-and-out, the chances of them getting stopped, are higher,” said Bass. “Over time if you keep doing that, I think it wears on them a little bit.”

The Bills had nine kickoffs against Cleveland. Smiley had Bass kick touchbacks on the last seven. On a short week with less preparation, we’ll see how aggressive Smiley plays coverage in Detroit.

Buffalo Bills safety talks with the media about playing in front of fans in Detroit after the Bills' 31-23 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

Heads up

Jones, 34, is in his third year as a leader on special teams. He had a heads-up play late in the Cleveland game when he batted a bouncing onside kick attempt out of bounds.

“It was one of those plays we actually practice every week, and it goes unnoticed until it presents itself,” Jones said.

It was a perfect squib by the Browns, and it took a funky bounce over the arms of Gabe Davis before Jones swatted it.

“You can practice it every week, and it unfolds different every time,” Jones said. “You just have to be prepared for those moments.”

Two OL studs

This is the second straight week the Bills will face one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. Detroit has top-five-caliber players at their positions in center in Frank Ragnow and right tackle in Penei Sewell.

Ragnow, a first-round pick in 2018, is strong, physical and good on the move. Sewell, the seventh overall pick in 2021, is huge at 6-foot-5, 331 pounds, and he ran an impressive 40-yard dash of 5.10 seconds entering the draft. He’s still only 22 years old. Left tackle Taylor Decker is a quality mid-tier player, a rung below Dion Dawkins as a pass protector. Decker, 6-7 and 320, is a bit better as a run blocker than as a pass blocker.

It will be interesting to see whether the Bills shift Von Miller to right defensive end more this week. Miller has played left defensive end just more than 80% the past two weeks. But in other games – against Pittsburgh and Kansas City – he played more against the left tackle.

“Sewell is great,” Miller said. “I played him when he was a rookie. He had a solid day. I have a lot of respect for that offensive line, a lot of respect for Decker.”

“When you watch that film, the entire O-line fires off the ball,” Bills defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “It kind of looks like a D-line. It’s cool to watch. I think that’s just a reflection of what their head coach preaches over there, that physical toughness. I think he’s done a great job with that organization.”

Both Detroit starting guards, Evan Brown (ankle) and Jonah Jackson (concussion), are dealing with injuries. Jackson is likely out.

The 30,000-foot view

In 2021, the Lions hired Brad Holmes from the Los Angeles Rams to be general manager and installed former tight end Dan Campbell as head coach. They took on a giant rebuilding project. Detroit has done a good job adding offensive talent the past two drafts, but this is a multi-year task. Detroit has the third lowest cap dollars, $49 million, invested this year on the defensive side of the ball, according to Spotrac.com. The Lions have two first-round picks and two seconds in the 2023 draft. Their other first rounder is from the Rams, which is looking like a top-10 pick right now. ... Detroit has just three playoff seasons since 2000, and 12 since the 1970 merger. Detroit has one playoff victory – one – since its 1957 NFL championship season. That was in 1991.

Stats for the road

Lions quarterback Jared Goff is not nearly the scrambler that Cleveland’s Jacoby Brissett is. Goff has just 42 yards rushing on 12 carries. If the Bills can contain the Lions’ rushing attack, the opportunity exists to cause Goff problems in the pocket. He’s good in play-action and the bootleg game. Under pressure, Goff is 23rd among NFL starters in passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. ... Josh Allen has to be wary of the blitz on third downs. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will throw the kitchen sink at the QB on third-down situations. Glenn might have no other choice this week due to injuries. ... No. 1 wide receivers have torched the Lions this year, and Detroit’s No. 1 cornerback, Jeff Okudah, is out (concussion). Unheralded Jerry Jacobs, Amani Oruwariye and Mike Hughes are expected to rotate at the two outside corner spots.

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Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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