3rd-and-18 Sunk the Bills

In an amazing game filled with several memorable plays, none was bigger than Deshaun Watson ping-ponging off two Bills defenders before finding Taiwan Jones for 34 yards. While Watson’s great escape set up the game-winning field goal and will be memorialized forever in NFL Wild Card Playoff history, it never should have happened in the first place.

Four plays prior, the Texans faced a 3rd-and-18. It’s understandable that Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier called a coverage that was designed to defend the sticks on this play. For Houston to convert, Watson would have to throw the ball well beyond the first-down marker or dump it off shallow to a receiver who would then have to make multiple tacklers miss – two unlikely possible outcomes. In theory, this made sense. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the Texans were able to convert way too easily.

You can see below that the Bills rotated to Cover-3 right after the snap, with most of the underneath coverage and the two outside corners sitting near the first-down marker.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Texans called a play that was designed to clear out safety Jordan Poyer (who had rotated down into the middle-hook zone) with a deep-over route by Kenny Stills. DeAndre Hopkins would run his route into the vacated zone underneath Stills.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

As anticipated, Poyer ended up carrying the deep over route.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

But linebacker Tremaine Edmunds did a good job of recognizing the route concept and taking away Hopkins.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

This created space underneath, however, for Deshaun Watson to dump the ball off to running back Duke Johnson. Still, there should have been enough defenders nearby ready to tackle Johnson shy of the first down marker.

The player to watch here is Bills DB Siran Neal (#33). Look how deep he had dropped by the time Johnson caught the ball.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Neal drifted 5 yards beyond the first-down marker, yet there was no deep route to his side that he was forced to carry. There was no threat that would require him to drop so far downfield instead of staying at the sticks. Maybe he lost track of exactly where he was on the field. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the extra steps kept him from making initial contact with Johnson until he was just a yard or two in front of the first-down marker. Johnson never should have gotten that close.

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It’s not like Johnson used 3 spin moves, hurdled a defender, then carried 4 tacklers across the line to gain like Billy Bob in Varsity Blues. He merely caught the ball, turned, and ran. It should never be that easy to convert on 3rd-and-18, especially in a playoff game.

This first down was the result of a good play design by the Texans and poor execution by the Bills. I guess the decision to play such a soft coverage in a big moment deserves some scrutiny as well. There are ways to be aggressive while still being safe. This was something the Bills were burned by on a 3rd-and-long against the Patriots two weeks ago. Teams often don’t get very far in the playoffs by playing it safe and hoping for the best. Although to be fair, better execution would have made this the right defensive call (funny how that works).

At very least, the coverage choice gave Houston breathing room and an opportunity – both of which the Bills gave to the Texans in too many other big spots throughout the day. They will have all offseason to think about it either way.

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