“I love the sound it makes. So much power.”
Oh boy! Are you ready for some more asphyxiating defensive football? Maybe a Monday night “Bugatti”? Two weeks ago, when the Buffalo Bills were winners of four in a row, fresh off triumphs over the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots, and the Seattle Seahawks had just beat the previously-hot Atlanta Falcons to rise to 4-1, this matchup that before the season looked like another MNF sacrifice to Seattle (the Seahawks famously own the league’s best lifetime record on Monday Night Football, 22-8, including 10 in a row—Buffalo enters with a five-game Monday losing streak) appeared a “fresh of breath air” in the NFL primetime circuit, an intriguing clash of playoffs-bound clubs.
The game has since lost a bit of its lustre after Seattle and the Bills combined to go winless in the meanwhile, but now it presents itself rather as a crossroads game for both teams—if not an absolute must-win. A fifth loss would put Buffalo on the precipice of elimination midway through the year, even in a shallow AFC, and dropping a third-and-a-half should severely hamper the Seahawks’ odds of skipping the NFC wild-card round. But the Bills are still ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings and Seattle’s recent offensive struggles (as we saw last week) prove that no game is safe.
All the more so considering the deadly matchup along the line of scrimmage when the Seahawks hold the ball. Although Seattle has avoided taking too many actual sacks in 2016 (12 so far, compared to 33 through seven games last year) Russell Wilson has been hit 43 times and harried by pressure on more than 21 percent of dropbacks, which is 31st in the league. Buffalo shares the NFL lead in sacks with Denver, and enjoys an even better adjusted sack rate. Although league sack leader Lorenzo Alexander suffered a pulled hamstring in the Bills’ loss last week and has not practiced yet, his replacement, 19th overall pick Shaq Lawson, has emerged just in time to fill in for Buffalo’s outside rush—which looks alarmingly like a facsimile of Arizona’s which harassed Wilson restlessly using Markus Golden and Chandler Jones in Glendale two weeks ago. In other words, a poor matchup to get the Seahawks healthy if Seattle continues leaving George Fant and Garry Gilliam in single protection on the outside.
I know last week I recommended using more spread approaches to change defensive personnel and create quick-throwing mismatches and running lanes, but it’s also curious the Seahawks haven’t lined up in more double-tight end sets to help neutralize their vulnerability on the edges. Seattle even patched its void at fullback by reenlisting Will Tukuafu last week, and might employ two-back packages combined with heavy formations to their advantage more.
In recent years, @nfl offenses have decreased their utilization of the 22 personnel package (2 running backs, 2 tight ends, 1 wide receiver). While 22 personnel has become less common in recent seasons, it hasn't been any less effective than it was when it was being utilized on a more frequent basis.
As Tony Khan, son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan and head of Jacksonville’s analytics team, pointed out this week, 22 personnel remains an effective package for NFL offenses even as teams have sharply declined using it leaguewide the past few years. This 2016 assembly of Seahawks tight ends and fullbacks aren’t the prime example of sturdy blockers ideal for this, but pushing such an edge seems anyway like something the 2012 team would have tried.
Nevertheless, New England showed last week that the Bills can be victimized by a spread passing game as well. Despite taking five sacks, Tom Brady thrived on third down in the Patriots’ 41-25 win in Buffalo, 9-13 overall and 6-8 before halftime while gaining all nine first-half first downs through the air. On the opening drive it was a perfect 4-4 on the crucial down, including this touchdown on third and nine in the red zone:
Has Seattle faced a high-leverage play from the ten-yard line recently? I can’t remember. Curiously, the Bills only attacked with three rushers that play, opting to defend the five-wide formation with eight in coverage at the goal line, which left Brady room to move up in the pocket to find Danny Amendola drifting into the paint in the right flat.
Buffalo under the Ryan brothers is a hard team to study defensive tendencies on. In the CBS broadcast last week Dan Fouts quoted Brady characterizing Rex Ryan’s tactics as “spinning the dial” among a wide variety of packages and blitzes, so it’s unknown what the Bills will run against the Seahawks. Accordingly, if Buffalo was susceptible to passing at all levels a week ago, it was equally gashed by the run game against the Miami Dolphins one game earlier. Credit goes to Jay Ajayi and the suddenly-coalescing Dolphins offensive line, you bet, but the Bills still gave up 256 yards on the ground. Perhaps there will be openings for Christine Michael and C.J. Prosise, provided Seattle commits to the run as it has been unwilling to do lately.
Buffalo has no such trouble, of course.
That’s because the Bills run better than anyone else in the league by yards per rush (5.5), more than a half-yard ahead of the next most effective squad, and they’re third in overall rushing DVOA. Although LeSean McCoy sat out week 8 with a hamstring issue, he was back at practice Thursday with a limited designation. Even if Buffalo is inclined to keep him resting with a bye following the Seahawks matchup, backup Mike Gillislee leads all sub-qualifiers in running back DYAR (97) and DVOA—a whopping 62 percent (or roughly 103 points ahead of Thomas Rawls), although on only 34 carries (barely more than the half the sample needed to qualify).
In addition to its backs’ virtuosity, the Bills’ expertise at rushing comes from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s scheme creativity together with the added dynamic of quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s shiftiness and explosive speed. Taylor burst for a 26-yard touchdown on fourth-and-three against the Patriots, just the latest highlight in large sample of big gains for the 27-year-old. At times, only the comparisons to Russell Wilson run more freely.
However, while Taylor’s certainly been more productive running than a hobbled Wilson has in 2016 (he leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards and attempts, and is second only to Dak Prescott in QB rushes for touchdowns), Taylor’s running efficiency is actually down compared to last year when he was one of the best in football. Again according to Football Outsiders, Taylor is only ninth in quarterback rushing DYAR and 16th in DVOA—worse than Blaine Gabbert, who with Cam Newton is the only quarterback within even 25 percent of the number of carries as Taylor’s 42.
Seattle’s defense seems up for the challenge. The Seahawks’ run stoppers have been as good on the basis of yards per carry (3.3, just a tenth of a yard behind the three teams technically ahead of them) as the offensive running attack has been bad (3.4, ahead of only Minnesota). The rushing efficiency allowed shows this too, still ranking second in DVOA, and Seattle remains tied for fewest rushing plays given up more than 10 yards even after some uncharacteristic gainers by the Saints.
More importantly, if that matchup of elite units neutralizes, Taylor is in a terrible slump passing the ball. He was inaccurate against New England, completing just 50 percent of his passes for only 183 yards on 38 attempts. In fact, Taylor was also at exactly 50 percent against Miami, and has only completed 53.5 percent of his passes in the last four games—and averages 185 yards per game on the season. Wilson, healthy or otherwise, hasn’t had a streak of such low efficiency in his career, and hasn’t been that unproductive since the first half of his rookie year.
QBR likes Taylor (ranked 8th in the NFL) almost as much as it did last year (7th), probably owing to the running component, but his DVOA and DYAR as a thrower are both way down (24th in each compared to 14th and 8th in 2015, when Buffalo won nine games). However, one of his strengths has been excellent care with the football. The last parallel with Wilson is how Taylor has also thrown only two interceptions so far. Indeed Buffalo leads the league in fewest turnovers (four) and are third in overall turnover differential (+8).
But it’s strange how the Bills offense, despite its spectacular rushing advantage, hasn’t pressed that superiority into a good third down conversion rate: only 35.3 percent—26th in the league. These inconsistencies on offense, together with the Seahawks’ similar failings of late, are why I suspect another close, low-scoring slugfest is on the menu. And for that reason, it’s good news Seattle is playing at home. I hear there’s something special about night games at that venue.
Maybe it’s the ambience. Or maybe it’s the décor.