How the Bills can stop the Dolphins' explosive passing game




 

It is unclear what the Buffalo Bills collectively thought when they first saw their 2022 regular-season schedule, with the Miami Dolphins as their Week 3 matchup. As Buffalo beat its AFC East rival in both games last season by combined scores of 61-11, perhaps there wasn't much thought about it at all.

Now, the Bills know exactly what they'll be facing this Sunday in what is unquestionably the game of the week. The 2-0 Dolphins, under new head coach and offensive shot-caller Mike McDaniel, are just about as hot as the 2-0 Bills after their amazing game against the Baltimore Ravens in which Miami overcame a 21-point halftime deficit to beat Baltimore, 42-38.

The stats in that game were pretty impressive for McDaniel's team. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the first time in 12 years a team has come back from a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Since 2011, NFL teams are 0-711 when trailing by at least 21 points in the fourth quarter. And per NFL Research, the Dolphins were the first team in NFL history to have a player record 400+ passing yards and 5+ passing TDs (quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) in the same game as two teammates recording 170+ receiving yards and 2+ receiving touchdowns (receivers Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill).

Tagovailoa's six passing touchdowns tied a franchise record and was the most by any NFL quarterback since Patrick Mahomes had six touchdown passes on Nov. 19, 2018 against the Los Angeles Rams.

It got to the point where McDaniel and Tagovailoa were able to quickly communicate on what the head coach called the "F- it" play, which became one of Hill's two deep touchdowns. 

The Bills have been just as much about great defense as great offense this season (they rank first in Defensive DVOA, while the Dolphins rank second in Offensive DVOA behind the Ravens), but head coach Sean McDermott is well aware of the test his team faces.

"He's a once in a lifetime player with his speed, and his ability to go after the contested catch," McDermott said of Hill this week. "They've got tremendous speed on offense. They put up points, they do a great job scheme-wise, and Mike does a great job putting them in positions to be successful. So, it'll be a big challenge for us."

It's likely that the matchup between Buffalo's explosive offense and Miami's average defense will once again have the Dolphins playing catchup. Here's how the Bills can prevent what happened to the Ravens happening to them.

All advanced metrics courtesy of Sports Info SolutionsPro Football Focus, and Football Outsiders unless otherwise indicated).

Jam Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at the line.

 

(Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

This seems entirely counter-intuitive. Speed receivers like Hill and Waddle use the threat of downfield acceleration to prevent cornerbacks from pressing them at the line. The thought is that if you press these guys, and they put one good move on you, it's all over. That is certainly a legitimate threat as we have seen, but you aren't necessarily in better shape defending Hill and Waddle in off-coverage. Especially in the Ravens game, we saw that speed receivers also gain acceleration in however many yards you give them as a cushion. And if those guys are running you vertically, and they then change direction at all, you are equally hosed.

The only possible counter is to at least force Hill and Waddle to push past (or kick out) the jams at the line before they get all vertical. The Bills do this well for two reasons: They have naturally aggressive press cornerbacks, and they have two outstanding safeties in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer to limit the damage downfield. Assignment-correctness with your deep defenders is crucial when facing fast receivers, and the Hyde/Poyer combo has this down to a science. Both Hyde and Poyer have been on the Bills' injury list this week, but let's assume they'll both be in the game and playing at decent strength.

Another reason you want to jam Hill and Waddle at the line is that it forces Tua Tagovailoa to re-set his clock - if you successfully alter their routes, the timing and rhythm of the play are then different, and Tagovailoa is a timing-and-rhythm thrower above all else.

Tagovailoa also threw two interceptions against the Ravens, and this pick with 10:42 left in the first quarter on a target to Hill shows the value of pressing Hill even if the effect isn't immediately obvious.

Hill (No. 10) greases cornerback Marlon Humphrey (No. 44) off the line with a foot-fake, but the timing of the play is affected. It's a progression-read throw in which Tagovailoa starts to the right and hits Hill on the backside based on what he sees. Tagovailoa doesn't have a lot of time to make any of those reads - he needs to be on a 1-2-3-throw schedule. When Hill comes back at the end of the route, Tagovailoa has him a beat late, and safety Marcus Williams  (No. 32) is able to jump it.

Benford, the Villanova alum, is another guy who isn't afraid to press and attack receivers right from the snap. His pass breakup this preseason came against Colts veteran Michael Pittman, and it was impressive to see how Benford (No. 47) recovered from Pittman's initial charge to reset and bat the ball away.

Obviously, Hill and Waddle present more grievous challenges. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Bills are completely hosed just because they've got a couple of rookies out there.

"It comes down to at the end of the day, just communication," Poyer said this week. "Just making sure that us on the back end, we're all on the same page. [The rookie corners], I trust them. I know that if I get a call, I can tell them a call and they'll be able to execute it."

Force Tua Tagovailoa off his spot.

 

(Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)

The ability to tie pressure to coverage is a supreme skill for any defense, and Buffalo's defense stands alone in this regard in the young season. Through their first two games, the Bills have blitzed on just six of 65 opponent passing attempts. That's a blitz rate of 7.8% - only the Bears, who have blitzed on one of their 53 opponent dropbacks for a rate of 1.6%, have done it less. But the Bills also have the NFL's second-most sacks with nine (the Buccaneers have 10 with a 30.1% blitz rate), and Buffalo's overall pressure rate of 26.0% is pretty amazing when they're barely blitzing at all.

Tagovailoa has been quite good against defenses pressuring him without the blitz this season. He's completed 10 of 17 passes when pressured by four or fewer pass-rushers for 163 yards, 88 air yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 105.8.

So, it's a pretty decent standoff until you factor in Buffalo's pass defense when not blitzing and still getting pressure. They've done so on 16 opponent passing attempts, allowing nine completions, 61 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 25.3.

Why is this such a problem for enemy offenses, including Miami's? Because the Bills play a ton of nickel, they have two outstanding match-and-carry linebackers in Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, and again, the communication from front to back is stellar - as consistently good as you'll see from any NFL defense.

On this Matthew Stafford interception to Poyer in Week 1, left edge-rusher A.J. Epenesa (No. 57) pushes the pocket in on left tackle Joe Noteboom (No. 70), and Stafford is forced to hurry his no-look throw to Cooper Kupp (No. 10) over the middle. The throw goes high, and Poyer (No. 21) is right there to take advantage of the damage.

Never give Tagovailoa a clear picture.

 

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Per charting, Tagovailoa has faced a different coverage look after the snap than was presented before the snap on 43 plays this season. He's completed 20 of 30 passes on such plays for 148 yards, 7.4 yards per attempt, none of his six touchdowns, and both of his interceptions. This is where the Hyde/Poyer duo can pay extreme dividends, because they communicate so well, and they can cover all areas of the field.

Let's look at Tagovailoa's second interception against the Ravens, with 1:25 left in the first half. Pre-snap, the Ravens show a single-high look with Williams as the deep defender. But as the play develops, safety Kyle Hamilton (No. 14) drops to the other deep half, and this is actually Cover-6 - Cover-2 to the boundary, and Cover-4 to the field side. It's just my theory, but if Tagovailoa had a clearer picture here, he would have come off the throw to Waddle to the left side, and instead thrown over the middle to Cedrick Wilson Jr., (No. 11), who was a bit more open on the deep over from the right slot.

The Bills are expert at subtle coverage switches. On this Ryan Tannehill interception last Sunday, it looks as if Milano (No. 28) is playing the outside slot, while Edmunds (No. 49) might be cheating to the inside slot. But Milano is reading Tannehill's throw to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (15) all the way - the Bills guessed that Tannehill would take that opening as bait, and one pick-six later, it was clear that they guessed correctly.

Stay in your lanes against pre-snap motion.

 

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Pre-snap motion has been a major part of McDaniel's offense, which should come as no surprise, as McDaniel spent a number of years coaching with Kyle Shanahan in several different cities, and Shanahan does more with more motion than anybody else - at least, until now.

"They are one of the teams with the most amount of pre-snap movement in our league," Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said this week of the Dolphins. "So, we're gonna see a lot of that. That's who they are, that's their offense. We're going to work that throughout practice."

This season, only Joe Flacco of the New York Jets (60) has more dropbacks with pre-snap motion than Tagovailoa's 48, and with pre-snap motion, Tagovailoa has completed 32 of 45 passes for 348 yards, 171 air yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 89.9. Not altogether amazing, but as Dolphins receivers coach Wes Welker (a guy who knows a few things about how to win as a receiver with pre-snap motion) said this week, the Dolphins are just starting to unleash the matchup nightmares motion can present.

"You know that defenses are talking about him the whole week," Welker said of Hill. "And so moving him around or changing the strength of formations and all those different things, they're tough on a defense. If we're running a three-by-one, where's Tyreek? Alright, we're in a two-by-two, where's Tyreek? Where's Waddle? Are they on the same side or are they on opposite sides? There's a lot of stuff for [defenses] to think about when you have skill players like we do to that a defense has to prepare for.

"I think the more motions and changing strengths of motions and three-by-one, two-by-two or vice versa, are they on the same side or not; it's just a lot for a defense to handle and hopefully get us in advantageous coverages to get those guys open."

Great theories, but this might not be the optimal defense against which to expand them. The Bills have allowed 13 completions on 17 attempts with pre-snap motion for 117 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 54.9.

Buffalo succeeds against motion because they have a zone-heavy defense that communicates very well, and can match and carry across the field. Ryan Tannehill found that out last Sunday when he tried to hit Robert Woods on a crosser, and Edmunds, who carried Woods over the middle. deflected the ball to Poyer for the interception. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine's cross motion presented no advantage for the Titans.

There are defenses that allow themselves to get untucked by pre-snap motion. The Bills do not possess one of those defenses. It will be fascinating to see if McDaniel and his staff stack Hill and Waddle to the same side with motion, and how they affect the passing strength with it. If you see football at a chess match, focus on how this goes.

The Bills have no reason to fear any of this.

 

(Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Are the Bills well aware of what the Dolphins' offense could do to them? Absolutely.

Are the Dolphins just as cognizant of how the Bills' defense could shut it all down? You bet.

"I think they've had a great defense there for a while," Miami offensive coordinator Frank Smith said Thursday. "Coach Frazier, Sean, they've done a great job of assembling the talent there to really - in many ways, it reminds me of the great defenses they had in Carolina when I was coaching in New Orleans. I mean, they were really a model of many of the same things: great fundamentals, great team speed, effort to the ball.

"So I think that what they're able to do, especially this season, with the pressure on the quarterback is really playing to have what they've kind of always believed in philosophically dating all the way back to Carolina. And that is playing hard, physical defense with strong fundamentals and attacking the ball, so it'll be a great challenge for us this Sunday to match their intensity and play fundamentally sound ball."

It'll be all kinds of fun to see which side comes out with the schematic win.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire

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