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Steelers Vertex: How the Bills halftime adjustments made all the difference

To start the third quarter on Sunday night, the Bills looked like a completely different offense with very simple tweaks.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Another week and another loss. Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is looking at how the Buffalo Bills’s offense emerged from the locker room at halftime and began moving the ball of the Steelers defense. Was it something the Bills did well, mistakes by the Steelers defense, or a combination of both?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Pittsburgh Steelers did a wonderful job in the first half of holding the top 10 Buffalo Bills offense in check. In the first half, the Bills only had 102 net yards of offense and produced 3 points. The Bills only achieved six first downs in the first half, two of which came due to a penalty. The Steelers forced three drives that went three and out and had two takeaways. The only drive the Bills had in the first half which went longer than 20 yards was their 58-yard drive which ended with a 34-yard field goal.

In the second half, it was a completely different story. The Bills put up two offensive touchdowns on their first two drives. The first drive of the half went 68 yards on 8 plays. After the Steelers went three and out, the Bills followed up with another touchdown drive of 57 yards in 4 plays.

So what happened in these drives? The most noticeable thing on the stat line was the emergence of wide receiver Stefon Diggs who finished the game with 10 receptions for 130 yards. In the first half, Diggs had three receptions on six targets for a total of 38 yards. His 23 yard catch and run on third and three at their own 33 yard line helped set up the Bills first score of the game.

In the second half, Diggs had seven catches on eight targets for 92 yards along with one rush for a yard. On the first two drives of the second half, Diggs had a total of 6 catches for 83 yards. The opening drive saw Diggs making four catches for 42 yards, one of which was a 19-yard touchdown. The next drive saw catches of 22 yards and 19 yards.

Needless to say, the Buffalo Bills offense woke up to begin the second half of their game against the Steelers. In the two scoring drives to begin the half, wide receiver Stefon Diggs had 83 of the 125 yards which saw the Bills open up their lead to be more than the Steelers could overcome.

So the Bills made the necessary adjustments to their offense when they came out of the locker room at halftime. What exactly did they do? I guess it’s time to check the film…

The Film Line:

The Steelers and Bills matchup saw Stefon Diggs facing off against Steven Nelson, and Nelson played like he normally does.

2nd quarter, 1:55.

Nelson sticks tight to Stefon Diggs, keeping the pass window small. When Diggs exposes the ball to Nelson, his hands are quick and right into the chest of Diggs, denying any shot at a completion.

Diggs was 0-3 on deep passes in Week 14, all with Nelson in coverage.

1st quarter, 2:12. Stefon Diggs is the receiver to the top of the screen. Steven Nelson is lined up opposite him.

This is what you see from Steven Nelson week in and week out. Nelson gives ground to prevent anything deep and breaks on anything short, allowing a catch for 8 yards, but not giving up any yards after the catch.

When you can defend the other team’s #1 receiver with one cornerback and know he won’t be beating you deep or breaking short passes for big gains it makes life easier for the entire defense.

The one big gain Stefon Diggs had in the first half was an interesting one.

2nd quarter, 4:14.

Nelson again breaks on the short in route, and gives Diggs a shove that likely would have put Diggs on the ground, if it weren’t for Minkah Fitzpatrick’s shoulder catching Diggs and allowing him to keep his feet. That’s bad luck right there, Nelson played it well.

To start the second half, The Buffalo Bills didn’t reinvent their offense, they just moved Stefon Diggs to the other side of the field to face Cameron Sutton.

3rd quarter, 11:42. Stefon Diggs is the receiver to the bottom of the screen, Cameron Sutton is lined up opposite him.

Diggs clears Sutton out with a push, but it is inside 5 yards, and Diggs has Sutton turned and off-balance.

That’s a legit #1 receiver working a very good #3 cornerback. Diggs doesn’t need to push with two hands, his already engaged left arm is enough and it’s a quick 12 yards for the Bills.

3rd quarter, 8:29. Stefon Diggs is the receiver to the bottom of the screen, Cameron Sutton is the cornerback to the bottom, backed off the line of scrimmage.

Sutton is backed off of Diggs due to the bunch, but he doesn’t get any closer until the ball is thrown. Diggs easily evades Sutton’s tackle and picks up 19 yards on the play. For comparison, look to the top of the screen, where Steven Nelson is defending a very similar route. Sutton can’t give Diggs that much room.

During the Bills two touchdown drives, Stefon Diggs caught all 6 of his targets, and only one came when he was facing Steven Nelson.

3rd quarter, 10:23. Stefon Diggs is the receiver to the top of the screen. Steven Nelson is lined up opposite him.

Nelson slips, giving Diggs space to operate and he scores a touchdown.

The Steelers took away Diggs as a deep threat, and Steven Nelson, apart from the play he fell, met him every time he caught the ball at the point of the catch. Against Cameron Sutton, Diggs had more room to operate and gain yards after the catch, and it jump-started the Bills offense.

The part that doesn’t make sense to me, is that after the Bills second touchdown they moved Diggs back to Nelson’s side, where he would catch one of two targets for 9 yards in the last 23 minutes of the game. Diggs recorded 83 yards in a 7 minute span of time at the start of the second half, mostly facing Cameron Sutton, the other 53 minutes of the game he was on Steven Nelson’s side of the field where targets and yards were much harder to come by.

The Point:

Yes, it really was that simple. While the stats show that the Bills broke out offensively in the second half, especially the first two drives, it is ultimately the film which shows why. The Bills simply moved their best wide receiver to the other side of the field in order to get a more favorable matchup to get him going. While matched up on Steven Nelson, Diggs had an average day and Nelson did an admirable job defending him with the exception of the key play where he lost his footing.

As Steelers’ fans, it can be frustrating to know a team can basically flip their formation and suddenly hold a large advantage. Yes, in normal circumstances it would be Joe Haden on the opposite corner which would make the matchup no better. And it’s not that Cameron Sutton played poorly, it was just where the Bills made sure they got the matchup they wanted. Unfortunately for Steelers fans, this problem of the offense determining their matchups in regards to the best receiver has been a problem for sometime (see Keenan Allen in 2018).

The biggest thing to remember is how sometimes a small, simple adjustment can give a team a nice advantage for a drive or two until the defense comes back with a counter attack. The Steelers offense should definitely be taking notes.