Before we continue, let’s stop and ponder that last sentence for a moment. The odds of being able to write it on a Steelers’ blog without being laughed off of the page two months ago seemed somewhere between slim and none, with slim, as the saying goes, about to leave the building. And yet here we are. What an incredible season it’s been.
Both teams have reached this point on the strength of formidable defenses. The Steelers’ defense ranks 1st in the NFL in sacks, 1st in turnovers, 3rd in yards per drive, 3rd in DVOA and 5th in points per drive. The Bills are 2nd in points per game, 3rd in points per drive, 5th in yards per drive and 6th in DVOA. They held Baltimore’s league-leading offense to just 257 total yards last Sunday while forcing five three-and-outs and seven punts. They will be the best defense Duck Hodges has seen as a professional.
Among all of the numbers that tell the tale of this match-up, one seems particularly instructive. Through 12 weeks, the Bills’ defense ranked first in the NFL in forcing negative plays. They had 81 plays where they caused the offense to lose yardage, either on a run, a pass or a sack. By my count, they added 11 more in their last two games against Dallas and the Ravens. That makes 92 plays for loss in 13 games, or roughly seven negative-yardage plays per game.
Buffalo is not making these plays by accident. The Bills have assembled a talented front seven to man their base 4-3 defense. The linebacking corps, led by Tremaine Edmunds (bother of Terrell and Trey), is fast and instinctive. Edmunds has nine tackles-for-loss (TFL) on the season and moves well laterally. Up front, tackle Star Lotulelei is an athletic Javon Hargrave-type while Jordan Phillips (6’6-340) is a mammoth human being adept at occupying double teams. Phillips leads the team with ten TFL, predominantly by bullying offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. On the edge, Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes are quick off the ball and are difficult to reach, making it hard to run outside. They also pinch exceptionally well, allowing them to beat slower OTs inside and wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
For the Steelers, staying out of negative plays will be imperative if they are to find success on offense. The offense, as currently constructed, is not built to play from behind the chains. This is a phrase you hear a lot from football announcers and talking-heads: “The Steelers need to stay ahead of the chains to move the football.” What they’re saying is the offense must consistently put itself in manageable down-and-distance situations in order to sustain drives.
2nd and 5 is a manageable situation, for example, because it gives the offensive coordinator a variety of options on how to make five yards in the next two downs. He can run it inside, run it outside, throw short, throw long, take what the defense is giving, etc. Even if the 2nd down play falls short, he still has a decent shot at converting on 3rd down. “Staying ahead of the chains” tilts the play-calling in favor of the offense because it means the OC can call the plays his offense knows best and is most comfortable executing.
2nd and 13 is much less manageable because it limits those options. Running the ball is pretty much off the table, which means the playbook shrinks dramatically. A young QB like Hodges can expect to be pressured in these situations, allowing defensive backs to sit on underneath routes since the ball will likely come out quickly. When the Steelers fall behind the chains, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is in a bind because, other than throwing a capable fade ball, Hodges is not yet able to diagnose complex coverages or make the full-field reads necessary to convert long-yardage situations.
The need to stay ahead of the chains is even more urgent against a defense that produces as many negative-yardage plays as does Buffalo. Consider the following: not counting their kneel downs at the end of each half on Sunday, the Ravens had 12 drives against the Bills. On four of those drives, Buffalo produced a negative-yardage play. The Ravens scored three total points on those four drives. On Baltimore’s other eight drives, they totaled 21 points. So, the Ravens averaged 2.6 points per drive (PPD) when they didn’t lose yardage on any plays and .75 PPD when they did. That’s a big difference.
It was even bigger the previous week against Dallas. The Cowboys had ten drives against the Bills, with seven of them containing negative plays. Dallas scored no points on those seven combined drives. On their three remaining drives, they scored 15 points. That’s zero PPD when there was a negative-yardage play and five PPD when there was not.
As is, the Steelers rank 25th in the league with an average of 1.59 points per drive. Should Buffalo put them behind the chains with regularity, that number will be significantly reduced. Limiting Buffalo’s ability to create negative-yardage plays is a huge key to success on Sunday night, then. How might the Steelers do this? Here are a couple of ideas.
RUN THE INSIDE ZONE PLAY. THEN RUN IT SOME MORE.
The most glaring weakness in Buffalo’s defense is their ability to stop the run. The Bills rank 14th in rushing yards allowed (105.3 per game), 21st in yards per attempt (4.4) and 22nd in rushing DVOA. The Steelers are 25th in the league in rushing yards per game (94.6) but have run it more effectively in recent weeks, averaging 141 yards over their last three outings. The Steelers need to keep this trend going against the Bills.
Simply running the football won’t be enough to prevent drive-killing negative plays, however. With Buffalo’s lateral quickness and ability to penetrate gaps, outside zone runs, pin-and-pull sweeps and slow-developing counter plays are all risky. The Steelers have run their counter-gap play well the past few weeks and we should see more of it on Sunday night. But the best way to attack Buffalo’s front seven is with the inside zone play.
Look at the difference in Buffalo’s effectiveness on the following two plays. First, here’s a toss sweep by the Cowboys from their game on Thanksgiving day:
With the full-flow action (all of the backs and linemen moving in the same direction), the Buffalo defenders are out of the blocks at the snap. Lorenzo Alexander (57), Lawson (90) and Edmunds (49) are all too fast off the ball to be reached by the guard, tackle and tight end on the left side of the Dallas line. On the backside, 4i tackle Ed Oliver (91) pinches inside the OT’s reach block to close off the cut-back lane. With nowhere to go, running back Ezekiel Elliot hesitates, slips and is swallowed up for a four-yard loss.
Now watch what happens when the Eagles run right at Buffalo:
This is zone lead, or a version of a play commonly called “Dart.” It’s a great play to run to the weak side of an Under front, where the defense has a 1 and a 5 technique and is giving the offense an empty B-gap. On the play, the play-side tackle turns out on the defensive end while the rest of the line zone blocks away from him. A blocker from the opposite side of the formation (often a tackle or an H-back) wraps around to the play-side linebacker. Here, it’s running back Jordan Howard out of Philly’s two-back formation. The play is similar to a traditional inside zone run but adds a bit of counter action to slow the linebackers.
It works. Watch how Edmunds and backer Matt Milano (58) are paralyzed by the backfield action while Lotulelei (98) gets washed across the football by the left guard. Miles Sanders takes the hand-off and follows Howard through a gaping hole, where he is quickly into the secondary and off to the races.
Milano is an undersized backer at 6’0-225 and Edmunds, though huge at 6’5-245, plays more with his quickness than his brawn. Lotulelei and Oliver are best when slanting and pinching and the ends (Lawson, Hughes and Trent Murphy) like to get up the field. Only Phillips is a true run-stuffer, but like many of today’s 1-techs, he’s on the field about 40% of the time. If the Steelers can prevent penetration by covering up Buffalo defenders at the line of scrimmage and can get blockers up to the second level like the Eagles did (Philly rushed for 218 yards in that late October game while scoring a season-high 31 points on the Bills), they can eliminate negative-yardage plays and stay ahead of the chains.
Inside zone is the perfect recipe for that scenario. With no pulling linemen, there are less vacant gaps for defenders to penetrate. Linemen instead must occupy their play-side gap and block whatever defender shows there. Philly only gave up two negative-yardage run plays against the Bills (one came on a reverse) while running a ton of inside zone. The Steelers, with veterans up front who are well-versed in the scheme, should copy that game-plan.
Here’s an example of the Steelers pounding Cleveland with inside zone two weeks ago. All of the linemen block the gap to their left, covering up whichever defender is on that track. They get bodies up on the backers and running back Benny Snell Jr. takes the hand-off, heads downhill towards the A-gap and then runs to daylight.
Notice how there are no pulling linemen and no subsequent open gaps to exploit. Blockers stay square off the ball and climb through their zone to cover up defenders. Right guard David DeCastro and tight end Vance McDonald each make the mistake of turning their shoulders at the line, which prevents them from covering up Mack Wilson (51) and Sheldon Richardson (98), respectively. Still, Snell is five yards down-field before any Cleveland defender lays a hand on him and he proceeds to run through the contact for another seven yards. With a power back like Snell, getting a body on a body up front is sometimes all it takes to make positive plays on inside zone.
The Steelers have used a good deal of their jumbo package in recent weeks, employing massive tackle Zach Banner as an extra lineman. I’d love to see heavy doses of this road-grader personnel group Sunday night to wear down Buffalo and prevent them from making tackles in the backfield.
ISOLATE THE LINEBACKERS IN COVERAGE
Buffalo is very good in the secondary, where Tre’davious White is a budding star at corner and Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and Levi Wallace are solid. The Steelers may be able to exploit Wallace, who has given up 63 completions on 94 targets (67.0%) and 3 touchdowns. Teams are completing less than 50% of their targets against White, however, with no touchdowns and four interceptions, while safeties Poyer and Hyde play a lot of cover-2 and have been targeted infrequently.
The position group to attack in the passing game against Buffalo is the linebackers. Edmunds has surrendered completions on 66.7% of targets in his direction while Milano is at 63.0%. 36 year-old Lorenzo Alexander isn’t on the field very often in passing situations (he’s usually subbed out in Buffalo’s nickel and dime packages) but when he is the Steelers should attack him. Alexander has surrendered 10 completions on 13 targets this season for a completion percentage of 76.9. The Steelers need to scheme to create favorable match-ups against Alexander in particular and the linebackers in general.
One way to do this is to throw high percentage passes to the backs and tight ends on early downs. While running the ball will be important, the Steelers can’t expect to make four or five yards dialing up inside zone on every first down. They can, however, put heavy sets on the field or spread Buffalo out with 11 personnel to ensure the Bills are in their base 4-3 and run swing routes, option routes, screens and play-action passes.
This would accomplish several things: one, it would get the Steelers favorable match-ups against Buffalo’s linebackers in coverage; two, it would give Duck Hodges high-percentage throws he can make that get the ball out of his hand quickly and avoid those drive-killing negative-yardage plays; and three, if effective, it may prompt Buffalo to play more nickel, in which case the Steelers have a favorable look to resume pounding the rock.
Watch how the Steelers steal nine yards on this 1st and 10 play from their November meeting with the Colts. Jaylen Samuels is split wide to the bottom of the screen in an 11 personnel empty set. Indy is in a 4-2-5 nickel with a corner lined up over Samuels and a two-high shell behind him. The Steelers run Diontae Johnson up the numbers from the left slot, which pulls both the corner and safety away from Samuels. That leaves outside linebacker Darius Leonard (53) with a lot of space to cover in the flat. Samuels hangs at the line of scrimmage as an outlet receiver and Mason Rudolph flicks him the football for an easy gain, setting up a 2nd and short that keeps the Steelers ahead of the chains.
Last week, Baltimore completed just seven throws to their wide receivers against Buffalo for a measly 19 yards. Their backs and tight ends caught 9-126, however. Dallas’s tight ends and running backs caught 15 balls for 116 yards against the Bills the week before. And Philly, who moved the ball better than anyone on Buffalo, completed 9 of their 17 passes to backs and tight ends for 101 yards. The Steelers will have a hard time getting the ball outside Sunday night but they should be able to work the RB/TE tree.
Success on offense against the Bills begins with eliminating negative-yardage plays that put the Steelers behind the chains. If I were Randy Fichtner, I’d load the game-plan with inside zone runs and a variety of quick throws that isolate linebackers in coverage. It might not be the sexiest game-plan but in a December grudge match between two great defenses, style points don’t matter. The bottom line is this - the Steelers can’t go backwards with the football. They have to give their young QB a chance by making positive yardage and staying on schedule. “Matriculating the ball down the field,” as legendary coach Hank Stram once said, will be the key to victory.