Xs and Os: Buffalo's Surprising Offense

Doug Farrar warns teams not to "mail it in" against this Bills' offense

The Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills have one thing in common – they are two teams that don't scare anyone from a won-loss perspective, but as you peel away the layers of each offense, problems for opposing defenses will arise. People are waking up to what Peyton Hillis is doing behind an outstanding offensive line, but the Buffalo offense hasn't received the credit it's deserved in the same space of time. And that's a shame, because any team thinking that it can mail it in against the Bills offense designed by head coach Chan Gailey and run by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is in for a rude awakening.

Like the Browns, the Bills are playing better than their record would indicate (4.3 Estimated Wins and a 2-10 record), and the team's aerial attack has been particularly effective in recent weeks. Fitzpatrick ranks 18th in Football Outsiders' cumulative performance metrics among quarterbacks, and Steve Johnson is one of the most dynamic receivers in the game.

Throughout his career (both college and pro) as an offensive game-planner, Gailey has been great at taking undervalued players and pushing them to succeed in atypical situations. The Browns should be especially concerned about what Gailey's doing, because he seems to have a real knack for blowing up AFC North defenses – he threw four touchdowns each against the Bengals and Ravens earlier this season, and the performance against Baltimore was especially instructive. Fitzpatrick took advantage of the Bengals after injuries hurt their secondary, but the Ravens game showed the surprising uptick of Buffalo's offense, and enhanced concerns I've had all year about the formerly impenetrable Baltimore defense.

Of Fitzpatrick's four touchdowns against the Ravens, the first two each went for 33 yards, and they were against the same basic coverage principle. So, here's a quick note for Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: Do not, under any circumstances, put single high safety looks against Johnson and Lee Evans, Buffalo's two speed receivers. If you do, they'll eat your lunch just like they ate Baltimore's.

Both coverages were fairly similar, so let's look at the first touchdown to Evans. On this play, the Ravens rolled their coverage presnap from more of an asymmetrical Cover-2 look to that single deep safety look as the second safety same up to blitz. The problem with that concept was that in their offset-I formation, the Bills had a pre-set blocking option in their fullback, and all Fitzpatrick would have had to do is call off any pass options and direct the fullback in to block. And you can clearly see Fitzpatrick either audibling the blocking assignments presnap, or sending a dummy audible with the right call already made.

With the extra pass-rushers handled, the nest problem for the Ravens was that with a single high safety against two speed receivers, there's slmost no way to set up  a winning proposition, especially when Fitzpatrick has time for the routes to develop. In this case, while Johnson ran inside position and was led obviously open, Evans gave his cornerback a great inside move ad then trailed outside for kind of a long fade route against late double coverage. The key here was that in each case, Fitzpatrick could make the long throw over the heads of the defenders and into the hands of his receiver with absolute confidence.

The Ravens learned their lesson, playing zone with more defenders hanging back later in the game, but Fitzpatrick found ways to beat them for two more scored. If the Browns want to avoid an upset loss here, they must bring a varied and intelligent defensive gameplan to the field. The Bills deserve that more than people may think.


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