For the first time since 1995, the Buffalo Bills marched into the 2020 NFL Playoffs as AFC East Division Champions. The rise of their division rival New England Patriots, under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, more often than not led to a disappointing end to Buffalo’s quest to return to the top of the division which they dominated during the 1990s.
Much to the delight of Bills Mafia, the demons have been exorcised. Buffalo is once again the ‘beasts of the east.’ Still, they have set their sights on more hardware.
Following a 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts during WildCard Weekend, the Bills will welcome the Baltimore Ravens to Orchard Park for a Divisional Round Showdown on Saturday, January 16 at 8:15pm. Baltimore enters this contest, fresh from a 20-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
Led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens can be lethal in their ground attack. Baltimore is only the third team in NFL history to have three players top 700 yards rushing in a single season with Jackson (1,005), rookie J.K. Dobbins (805) and Gus Edwards (723).
By contrast, Buffalo’s run defense has regressed a bit from its 2019 output. The Bills rank 14th in total defense, 16th in scoring, 17th against the rush and 13th versus the pass. On paper, this seems like a mismatch that would favor the visiting Ravens.
However, Buffalo…all is not lost.
As of late, the Bills have been much better when defending against the run. As NFL.com’s Grant Gordon recently outlined, the Bills are allowing 18.3 points per game since Week 12 — more than eight points less than their first 10 weeks. During that same span, the Bills have allowed an average of only 94 yards per game on the ground. This change of fate is sure largely in part to Buffalo’s much-improved run defense. The return of linebacker Matt Milano to the middle of Buffalo’s defense has allowed the Bills’ to stack the box more effectively and allow a formidable front seven to win key battles at the line of scrimmage. Also, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have occasionally stepped into hybrid linebacker roles to solidify the defensive backfield. will need to stand up to the Jackson-led attack.
Despite allowing 163 rushing yards in 30 carries in their win over Indianapolis, the Bills were able to do just enough to contain the Colts. An effort of similar proportions will not net them the same success. Baltimore’s run game is far more formidable.
Still, it can be done.
Perhaps the biggest key to Buffalo’s success on Saturday will be to make a few key, early stops of the Ravens runners. When these two teams met in 2019, Buffalo utilized a strong game plan to nearly pull the upset over Baltimore. From the start, the Bills worked to contain Lamar Jackson. Accordingly, the Ravens were held to an average of 3.6 yards per rush; nearly two yards under their 5.5 average. As for Jackson, he averaged 3.63 yards against the Bills’ defense, nearly half his average of 6.9 yards per rush.
In order to achieve this feat, the Bills used an abundance of zone looks throughout the game to ensure that each member of their defense had their eyes on Jackson, and the ball. With a defensive backfield that boasts Hyde and Poyer at the safety position, as well as Tre’Davious White and Josh Norman at corner, Buffalo can place a great deal of trust in their secondary.
On Saturday, the task will be more difficult, as the Ravens offense has evolved. However, Buffalo’s defense has also reinvented itself by blitzing at the fourth-highest rate in the league on first down (37.7%), per Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com. Brown also indicates that the Bills defensive unit has also gone to an almost exclusive nickel personnel grouping, as they lined up with five defensive backs just over 90 percent of their defensive snaps, the highest rate in the league (90.4%). A key component to success in this type of defense is to enable the linebackers to provide support for the defensive backs on the back end. Having both Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano playing at a high level should help to facilitate that type of attack. With Milano healthy, he might once again be called upon to spy the Ravens backfield.
In short, Buffalo might be wise to consult their 2019 blueprint for marginally disrupting Lamar Jackson and the high-powered Baltimore offense. However, expect Bills’ defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to design some exotic looks, to account for the changes in the Ravens’ offensive schemes. Should they get an early advantage, they might be in prime position to punch their ticket to this season’s AFC Championship Game.
-Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and Columnist for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots, the AFC EAST and provides NFL editorial content. He is also the host of the Locked On Patriots podcast. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC