Ever since Justin Herbert was unexpectedly handed the reins to the Chargers’ offense in Week 2, it has been clear that he is a star in the making. Between his strong arm, accuracy, and anticipation, he possesses all the traits to be a top NFL quarterback. With Joe Burrow’s season sadly coming to an end, Herbert is the favorite to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Chargers’ Week 12 opponent, the Buffalo Bills, couldn’t have cared less.
The Bills are poised to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. However, their defense, which was supposed to be the strength of this team, has not played at the elite level most expected. In Week 12, however, we saw signs of what they could be down the stretch and into the postseason.
The Bills were effectively aggressive on early downs against a good Chargers Offense, forcing Justin Herbert into multiple forced inaccurate throws. It started on the very first play of the game. The Chargers went with an empty set with 4 receivers to the right and were trying to set up a WR screen. Nothing like a low-risk completion to ease a young quarterback into the game. Sean McDermott would have none of it. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds blitzed and disrupted the throw.
How’d you like to start a game with 250 lbs running free into your face? Kind of unsettling, right? This set the tone for the afternoon, with the plan clearly being to take away easy throws and disrupt Herbert’s timing. The Bills were simply not going to allow a young quarterback to get comfortable and execute easy completions on early downs.
Below, you can see another example a few drives later. This was 2nd-and-8, and the Chargers had a run-pass option (RPO) called. The Bills brought linebacker A.J. Klein (#54) on a blitz up the middle.
The pressure disrupted the throw, resulting in another quick inaccurate throw and an incompletion.
The Bills did not save their pressure schemes for 3rd down. They wanted to prevent Herbert from getting comfortable and to keep the offense off schedule. It sounds simple, right? So many defenses just give up easy yards on first or second down, only to leave offenses in 3rd-and-manageable situations. Why do that? Why not make 3rd down more difficult, especially for a young quarterback? The Bills were effective in this area in Week 12, forcing the Chargers to go 7 yards or more on half of their third downs. Don’t think this didn’t play a role in L.A. converting just 3 of 16 attempts on the money down.
Staying consistently aggressive speeds up a quarterback’s internal clock and gets him searching for quick passes, even when there is no pressure. It keeps him from believing he has the time to read the whole field, and as a result he doesn’t. This leads to bad things for the offense. The below play from the 4th quarter was a great example.
Focus on Tre’Davious White. The Bills would rotate to 3-deep here, with White responsible for the deep third to his side.
But a couple of seconds into the play, the receivers to his side had run their routes away from White. There was seemingly no one challenging his deep third. White turned his attention inside and hunted up any routes coming his way from the other side of the field.
Then he pounced.
Herbert didn’t see him, likely because he was playing fast and not seeing the entire field.
From the end zone, you can see that Herbert threw that ball like White wasn’t there. Notice that there was also no pass rush on this play. It didn’t matter – the cumulative effects of pressure throughout the game resulted in this turnover.
That’s a great job by White, and the sign of a well-coached defensive unit, which the Bills have been for the most part under Sean McDermott and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier.
The defense carried Buffalo to the playoffs in 2019 yet have disappointed in 2020. But if last week’s win over the Chargers is a sign of the defense finally coming together to resemble something close to last year’s unit, Buffalo might be able to give the Chiefs and Steelers a run for their money in January.
First thing’s first, though. The Bills have struggled to stop the run this season (25th in yards per game, 27th in yards per attempt), and will be challenged by the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan’s versatile running game on Monday Night. They need to get things turned around in this area in a hurry if they want to hold off the surging Dolphins in the AFC East.
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