As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, scouting the Buffalo Bills’ offense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
Bills’ Run Game
Bills’ running backs don’t carry the ball a lot in this offense. They do have 97 carries as a team, which is only a little below average but running backs have toted the ball just 63 of those times, or less than 2/3 of the time. That’s because Josh Allen is responsible for 30 of the team’s carries.
On the year, Devin Singletary leads the team with 34 carries though he hasn’t been terrible efficient at 3.8 YPC. Behind him, Zack Moss and James Cook have higher averages at 5.1 and 4.3 yards per carry respectively though their touches are more limited. The Bills will use some Pony/2 RB looks with Cook coming on the field. They have 13 runs of 10+ yards, tied for top ten in football, with Allen having a hand in that, a unique build at quarterback with great athleticism and power.
The run scheme is man and inside zone based with a mix of both. For as new-age as their offense may feel, they employ a FB in Reggie Gilliam who has played 23% of the offensive snaps this season. He is a good athlete and reminds me more of longtime Raiders’ fullback Jamize Olawale. Gilliam has four receptions and one touchdown this season.
One interesting thing I noted about the Bills’ formations is the alignment of the running back. Often get the back really wide of the quarterback in shotgun. In Pittsburgh, the back aligns to the inside foot of the tackle. In Buffalo, they often align squarely behind the tackle. Like this (here you also get a really wide split between LT and LG, something also I routinely saw from them on tape):
But sometimes they will align inside leg, which is more likely to signal a run play. They will run the ball with that wider alignment but it’s a slower-developing play with a longer mesh point, mostly RPOs to give the QB more time to make his run/pass read post-snap.
The Bills work under center a fair amount to help with their playaction game. Pittsburgh’s been prone to biting hard and will have to be more disciplined this weekend.
Some other offensive notes. They’re fifth in the league at 28.5 points per game though they’ve cooled off the last two weeks, scoring just 19 and 23 points in Weeks 3 and 4 after running up 31 and 41 the first two games. They are a strong situational team, the NFL’s best third-down offense, converting at 55.8%. They’re also top ten in red zone play, #10 at 64.3%.
Bills’ Pass Game
Of course, led by Allen, one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He’s completing 67% of his passes with a 7.3 YPA, a half-yard higher compared to a year ago. Stefon Diggs returns as the team’s top receiver and one of football’s best route runners. Diggs has 31 receptions (second in the NFL behind Cooper Kupp) on 41 targets and averaging a healthy 13.1 YPC. RB Devin Singletary has 17 receptions while WR Isaiah McKenzie has 15. WR Gabe Davis is one of football’s best burners. Though he only has eight receptions this season, he’s averaging 17.3 yards per catch with one of those grabs going for 47 yards and another a 26 yard touchdown. TE Dawson Knox is also a matchup threat and they will isolate him backside.
On the year, the Bills have 12 passes of 20+ yards, which is only middle of the pack, but they have three completions of 40+ yards, tied sixth most in football. They’ve had some injuries to guys like McKenzie and Davis and Knox has been a little beat up but it’s still a strong group.
Schematically, the concept that stuck out the most to me is their Yankee concept, two deep crossers that are run atop each other. Some examples.
But they work off that too with fake Yankee concepts that are sorta like WASP routes, crossers that break off that I’m pretty sure the Steelers saw against the Bills last season. It’s tough to cover, especially with a QB like Josh Allen who has the arm to hit all levels of the field from virtually anywhere. Separately, Allen’s ability to change his arm slot to a sidearm throw is impressive. It’s as good as Patrick Mahomes. Examples of each off similar looks, though out of different groupings.
Especially against the Dolphins in Week 3, the Bills came out in a ton of 2×2 balanced looks and then played 3×1 later in the drive. It was similar but less pronounced last week against the Ravens but I still saw shades. One of their favorite concepts out of 2×2 is Hoss Y Juke, one Buffalo (though regimes have changed) saw New England run on them for years with Rob Gronkowski. It’s a smash/seam with the Y running an option route, clearing out the middle and creating a 1v1 matchup. Here, the Bills often use a shifty receiver like McKenzie to win that underneath matchups. Examples:
They also run sail concepts, a three-level read of a flat/corner/go route, too, that can stress the defense.
The Bills don’t keep their backs in to protect against aggressive looks. Unless he’s being used as a “sniffer” up in the A gap, he’ll release to the flat and Allen will read him hot. In these looks or against empty in general, the Bills use full slide protection and don’t block the EMOL. That means the ball has to come out quick, though Allen’s size, strength, and mobility allows him to extend plays. Last example here is a full slide vs empty.
Last thing. They also run a Drive/Follow concept with two shallow crossers with the “follow” concept” an angle route that stems outside and comes back inside to gain leverage. That can be a quick hitter for ten yards at a time.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Bills week, Steelers fans!
A tough road test awaits the black and gold once again as the 1-3 Steelers head to Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park to take on the 3-1 Bills, who are currently the AFC and Super Bowl favorites thanks to the offensive firepower they possess with all-world quarterback Josh Allen and superstar receiver Stefon Diggs.
Allen, the former No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, has developed into arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, one that is a prototype of the modern day elite-level quarterback with impressive mobility, power as a runner, and an absolute howitzer attached to his right shoulder.
Coming out of Wyoming, Allen was rather raw and needed a lot of work, but the Bills stayed patient and have been rewarded with a potential NFL MVP and an elite-level quarterback for years to come.
The Steelers defended him rather well to open the 2021 season, and have played relatively well against him overall in the past, but it feels like Allen has reached another level this season with his ability to create on the move, serve as an extension of the run game for the Bills, and can unleash bombs on defenses from anywhere on the field.
With his accuracy improving each and every year, he’s becoming incredibly difficult to slow down, let alone stop, at this point in his career. The Steelers did well last year with T.J. Watt getting after him and then-defensive coordinator Keith Butler confusing Allen with post-snap rotations.
Making it even more difficult to slow him down is the fact that he has Diggs to throw to.
Diggs is the modern-day version of Antonio Brown – on the field. There might not be a better route runner in football, and he has some of the best hands at the position.
He’s consistently on the same page with Allen and does a great job getting open for his quarterback when he’s scrambling around. They’re constantly on the same brain wavelength, and Allen trusts him immensely.
Diggs has been difficult to stop in the last two matchups with the Steelers. With a banged-up secondary in Pittsburgh, he could have another field day with his ability to separate and make plays all over the formation.
Opposite Diggs, the Bills have a legitimate No. 2 receiver in Gabriel Davis, who is a height/weight/speed freak that brings great route running abilities to the table and is a true home run threat.
He’s a bit banged up at the moment, which has slowed him early in the season, but he’s a special player. Look no further than the Bills-Chiefs playoff matchup in which he scored four touchdowns.
With Jamison Crowder lost for the year due to a broken ankle, the Bills will rely on veteran journeyman Jake Kumerow, veteran Isaiah McKenzie and rookie Khalil Shakir in the slot.
McKenzie has had a terrific season to this point, but he’s dealing with concussion protocols, which could hinder him for Sunday’s game. He was limited in practice on Thursday. Kumerow has missed the first two practices of the week with an ankle injury as well.
Buffalo is the walking wounded at this point.
At tight end, Dawson Knox is the true No. 1 for the Bills, but he’s banged up as well with a foot and hamstring issue going on. When healthy, he’s a difficult matchup in the middle of the field, one that consistently makes the tough catches to move the chains.
He’s a good blocker as well and really adds an element for the Bills offensively. If Knox can’t go, Tommy Sweeney and Quintin Morris will serve as the two tight ends for the Bills. They could also elevate Zach Davidson off of the practice squad.
In the backfield, the duo of Devin Singletary and Zach Moss is an underrated one. Singletary makes a lot of defenders miss, but he has a tendency to put the football on the ground, leading to turnovers in big spots.
He excels out of the backfield as a receiver and really runs hard between the tackles as the first choice in the backfield for Buffalo. Moss is the guy that should probably get more work though. While he has fumbling issues of his own, he has great contact balance and erally can wear defenses down with his power.
Rookie James Cook could get some run on Sunday as that third down back with his ability to catch the football out of the backfield. He has put the ball on the turf a few times this season though and has been buried on the depth chart at times.
In the trenches, Buffalo has done a really nice job reshaping the unit on the fly while dealing with some injuries. Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Sunday:
LT — Dion Dawkins
LG — Rodger Saffold
C — Mitch Morse
RG — Ryan Bates
RT — Spencer Brown
Dawkins is one of the very best left guards in football. He is a mauler in the run game and is light on his feet in pass protection. He’s the leader of the group up front and really sets the tone.
Speaking of setting the tone, Saffold and Morse in the run game are nasty. They really get after guys. They’ve had their struggles in protection due to heavier feet, but they are experienced linemen that can really get a good push off the ball.
Bates and Brown are still developing on the right side of the line, but both are good athletes overall that move well in pass protection to give Allen plenty of time in the pocket.
On special teams, kicker Tyler Bass has a massive leg that can drill kicks from all over the field. He is a weapon from the 45 yard line and in.
At punter, the Bills have seemingly healed from the black eye that happened in training camp, eventually landing veteran punter Sam Martin. He’s averaging 44.5 yards per punt on the year on just seven punts, but he’s downed four of those punts inside the 20 yard line.
McKenzie is the kick returner and Crowder was the punt returner, but that could change this week. Shakir would be next man up as the punt returner, while James Cook would return kicks if McKenzie can’t go.