So I hear Seattle is playing Buffalo in Toronto, the Bizarro Detroit. Although the Seahawks are not quite as poor on the road as the record and national narrative suggest, the team also hasn't played well away from the CLink either. Sunday is the last chance. A good road performance is definitely on my bodes-well-for-the-post-season checklist. A win doesn't help much, unless other teams also falter. But, at this time of the year if you're not winning you're faltering. Playing well in Toronto can put to rest some lingering questions about how well this young team responds to a bit of success. At Miami, not so good. At Chicago, better*
Buffalo, for its part, is not likely to donate a second unscheduled bye week to the cause like Arizona did. The Bills have more than enough talent to command a good road effort from the Seahawks. They have home run hitters like C. J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson on offense along with an interesting mix of emerging players (e.g., Jairus Byrd and Marcel Darius) and pricey vets (e.g., Mario Williams and Kyle Williams) on defense. Don't forget field-flipping return specialists in Brad Smith and Leodis McKelvin.
*The win at Chicago was more exciting than well-played.
Here's a few things I think I think about the matchups.
1. On offense, Buffalo is like a low on-base-percentage, strikeout-prone power-hitter in baseball. Seattle can't be afraid to challenge Buffalo but can't afford to hang too many sliders either.
On a per drive basis, the "low on-base-percentage" analogy* definitely fits the Bills. Buffalo does not convert many of its drives into anything good. They punt almost 45% of the time (23rd) yet don't create good field position. And then they turn it over on another 17% of drives (27th), just to round out the portfolio.
*Serious question to Bills fans or Field Gulls readers who know their Xs and Os. What am I missing with Chan Gailey's offenses? I see neither innovation nor impressive production. Perhaps because I associate him so strongly with Ga Tech and his former QB protege, Reggie Ball (pound-for-pound the worst supposedly good college player I ever saw), that I may be missing something important.
What Buffalo does well is hit "doubles" and "home runs". Its rush offense (9th in DVOA) is big play oriented while effectively avoiding negative plays. The adjusted line yards is an impressive 4.36 and the "second level" and "open field" rankings are both top three. C.J. Spiller ranks 2nd (just ahead of Beast Mode) in DYAR. Unfortunately, Seattle is only middling this season against second level and open field runs. Now on the flip side, Buffalo "strikes out" a fair bit too. The Bills get explosive plays in the running game but few drive-extending short yardage plays (29th in power success while Seattle ranks first defensively against such runs). The Hawks will need to hold up in short yardage situations because the Bills are likely to have some explosive runs.
For its part the pass offense is more middling than bad. Buffalo is a quality pass blocking team, so that's not the issue. Their adjusted sack rate (5.8%) is a few spots better than Seattle's (6.2%). At QB, Fitzpatrick is quintessentially "meh" but he's pretty close to awful. QBR ranks him 27th trailing the likes of Vick (26th), Bradford (25th), and Hasselbeck (24th) while there's not much behind him. Brady Quinn is 28th and Carson Palmer is 29th. QBR punishes his 13 INTs more severely than DVOA and DYAR, who compare him more favorably to Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco.
In addition to being Buffalo's top RB, Spiller is probably the team's best receiver for explosive ability plus consistency. The top WRs, Stevie Johnson and Donald Jones, who rank 58th and 61st, respectively in DYAR, are something of a poor man's Rice and Tate. Johnson has really poor hands (52% catch rate). Brad Smith (Go Mizzou!) is a low usage but productive 3rd WR and occasional Wildcat QB. TE Scott Chandler's 6 TD catches place him among the position leaders. He can be a matchup issue with his size (6'7" #270) in short yardage and red zone. But, his shockingly low catch rate for a TE (57%) and enviable 13 yards per catch suggests that Buffalo also features him down the field. (Feel free to chime in on this Bills fans. I have not seen the Bills play this season.)
Of course, the Bills middling passing attack will be facing a somewhat depleted and inexperienced secondary. Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell will see the bulk of the action at cornerback.
2. On defense, Buffalo has improved from unspeakably awful to show some flashes in recent weeks. So, what's more diagnostic--season totals or recent games?
Over the season, on a per drive basis, only Oakland is worse at preventing touchdowns and only New Orleans has a lower drive success rate (combined first downs and touchdowns). In DVOA terms, Buffalo ranks 26th. (They improve to 21st using weighted DVOA, which de-emphasizes early season games.) The only phases of pass defense where the Bills rank better than 20th are against top TEs (1st) and sack rate (12th). Against the run, the Bills compare favorably to Seattle in that they are middling at preventing long runs but are much worse than Seattle against power (24th vs 1st).
All of this defensive suckage has come against one of the league's most forgiving schedules. Allow me to put things in context. Remember all the talk this week about what we couldn't learn from the Arizona game because their defense just quit? Well, in terms of expected points (-16.75) Buffalo has played five worse defensive games this year! Buffalo's defense against SF was more than twice as bad as Arizona's was last week. Given the franchise's recent investments on defense, that must be bitterly disappointing.
So it's cakewalk city in Canada then, eh? Like a trip to Timmy's for donuts and homo milk, you say? Well, pump the brakes on your toboggan there frere Jacques. All but one of those five games (New England at Foxborough) came before the bye. Since then, the Bills have looked more like an NFL defense. Getting Mario Williams back from injury has to help. Add to that the Bills' most recent games have come against some pretty bad offenses, save Indianapolis. (To be fair though the Bills gave Miami's offense what for while we just gave them first downs, and they weren't bad at all against Indianapolis.) Now Seattle's offense will certainly be a challenge.
The season-long data pretty clearly shows that things have gotten ugly when Buffalo faces quality offenses, and you can't just toss that data out. Even in recent games they haven't exactly choked the life out of the two "decentish" offenses they've faced--St. Louis and Indianapolis. What they've done is stomp on bad offenses and keep the team in the game against quality offenses. That's kinda what I expect to see. I expect Seattle to be able to score but probably not run away and hide unless something weird happens like it did last week.
3. Limiting Spiller requires some creativity on defense.
Working at the University of South Carolina afforded me the opportunity to see C.J. Spiller play at Clemson several times. The Gamecocks were pretty successful in limiting his damage. It wasn't just one thing they did, in no small part because Spiller is so versatile. I did, however, note two things about what Spurrier's defenses did to limit Spiller. Neither is genius-level scheming, but I believe both still apply.
(a) In the run game, setting the edge is critical. Like Reggie Bush, Spiller would like to bounce it outside. That's where the big plays are. He looks fast on film but on the field he has blinding speed. The defense must set the edge, keep him in traffic, trust the inside guys to get there and live with the results. Crash too hard from the edge and give him cutback lanes, and you will have a 'sho nuff problem. Additionally, you have to hit Spiller at every available opportunity even on play fakes.
(b) In the pass game, make him pass block. If I recall, South Carolina designed some blitzes to force Spiller to stay in and block as much as pressure the QB. He's an okay-at-best blocker, but just as importantly blocking is a waste of his talents. Defensively, you want someone else to beat you. I haven't watched Buffalo, but it would hardly surprise if Gailey's decision to stick with Fred Jackson is due in no small part to blocking. I don't know if Buffalo lines him out wide to get him away from the fray, but he runs routes and catches like a WR. So if Seattle sends a LB out there with him it is not likely to end well.