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Why stopping the Bills’ passing game is almost impossible

The Miami Dolphins face the NFL’s most vexing riddle: Slowing down the Bills

Syndication: Democrat and Chronicle JAMIE GERMANO / USA TODAY NETWORK

I try my best to be prepared for every single radio appearance.

On Tuesday, for the first time in a long time, I was unable to answer a question.

It came during my weekly appearance on Sportsnet 650, with my friends Bik Nizzar and Randip Janda, which you can catch every Tuesday at 2:30 P.T. if you are interested. Late in the segment, they posed a relatively-straightforward question.

“How do you stop the Buffalo Bills?”

I stumbled my way through a non-answer, because in the moment, I could not come up with a way.

Through two games, it seems that I am not alone. The Bills, preseason Super Bowl favorites, are 2-0 and are living up to expectations. They went on the road in Week 1 to take on the defending Super Bowl Champions, and beat the Los Angeles Rams by a final score of 31-10. Then on Monday night, they hosted the Tennessee Titans — last year’s top-overall seed in the AFC — and won by a final score of 41-7. Meaning they beat the Super Bowl Champions and the AFC’s top seed in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 72-17.

They have punted just three times this season.

So you can perhaps understand my difficulty in answering that question.

As noted, the Titans had their crack at solving this problem in Week 2, but the Bills throughout that game showed just how they are built to respond to almost anything an opposing defense puts in front of them. It starts with, as you might expect, quarterback Josh Allen. Allen’s combination of arm talent, athleticism and yes, decision-making, makes him perhaps the ideal quarterback for this era.

The Titans began the game as many defenses do when facing an explosive offense, by relying on two-deep coverages to keep things in front of them and limit big plays downfield. But on back-to-back passing plays, Allen illustrated just how hard that still is to accomplish.

With the Bills facing a 3rd and 9 on their opening drive, the Titans dropped into Cover 2 Man Underneath, keeping two safeties deep and playing man across the board. The result? Allen scrambles for a 10-yard gain and the Bills offense stays on the field:

This is part of the danger with playing any kind of man coverage against a mobile quarterback like Allen. With defenders keeping their eyes on receivers, and not in the pocket, Allen can exploit that, and he does, racing upfield for the first down.

A few plays later, the Bills would face another third-and-long situation. Again, the Titans tried to get off the field with Cover 2 Man Underneath. This time, Allen puts the ball in the air:

His eyes come first to Jamison Crowder, the inside receiver in the trips formation to the right. Crowder breaks vertically off the line, and with the Titans playing with two-deep safeties, his route will split them, attacking the soft spot of the zone coverage. But Allen comes off that route, flashing his eyes outside to Jake Kumerow on a quick in-cut. The defender covering Kumerow in man coverage slips, and Allen hits Kumerow with a quick throw that turns into another first down.

Later in the first half, Allen and the Bills started punishing the Titans in the middle of the field when they used these two-deep looks. On this long completion to Isaiah McKenzie early in the second quarter, Allen hits the receiver on a post route, splitting the two-deep safeties in the middle of the field:

Then later in the third quarter, Allen used his arm talent to solve the two-deep riddle:

On this play, the Titans are in Quarters coverage against this 3x1 look from the Bills. At the top of the screen, Caleb Farley is in “MEG” coverage over Kumerow: Man everywhere he goes. The safety to that side, Kevin Byard, has his eyes on tight end Dawson Knox, the inside receiver to the trips on the other side of the field. If Knox is vertical on the play, Byard is going to break on his route. Otherwise he will look to help Farley against Kumerow.

As the play begins, Byard — one of the NFL’s best safeties — gets his eyes first on Kumerow to read his release. He sees that Kumerow is going vertical, and then checks on Knox. Byard reads it perfectly, as Knox is going to try and attack the middle of the field, between the safeties. Byard breaks on the route...but the ball beats him there.

How? Because Allen reads it perfectly as well, and has a rocket for a right arm.

At this point as a defensive coordinator, you’re likely pulling your hair out, and looking for answers. You might decide, tired of seeing Allen carve you up underneath and over the middle, to drop one of the safeties down, daring him to beat you to the outside.

Bet.

This is Allen’s next passing attempt from Monday night. On this snap, the Titans indeed drop one of the safeties down, playing single-high coverage in the secondary. The result? Kumerow gets behind Farley, and the Bills rip off a quick 39-yard gain.

We saw a similar scenario play out in Week 1 against the Rams. On this play from late in the first half, the Bills face another third-down situation. They show two-deep safeties, but spin to single-high at the snap. Allen attacks to the outside, targeting Stefon Diggs on a back-shoulder throw:

The task of solving the NFL’s most vexing riddle now falls to Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer. The Bills and the Dolphins meet this weekend, in an early test of AFC supremacy between a pair of 2-0 teams.

Boyer is one of the few holdovers in Miami under new head coach Mike McDaniel, and has been the defensive coordinator in Miami since 2020. He has seen Allen and this Bills offense before, and he might try and solve this problem differently.

Cover 0.

As we have seen over the past few seasons, the Dolphins are one of the defenses that rely on Cover 0, a scheme that plays straight man coverage in the secondary — with no safety help — and looks to generate near-immediate pressure on the quarterback via blitzes.

Looking back at the two games between these teams from a year ago, the Dolphins used Cover 0 on 17 passing attempts from the Bills, 13 of which came in their Week 8 meeting. On plays like this one from early in the game, you can see how the Dolphins spring a free runner at Allen, and force an incompletion from the Bills:

Safety Jevon Holland, down in the box mugging the A-Gaps along with safety Brandon Jones, comes through the line untouched and has a free shot at Allen. The QB is able to flush to his right and extend the play, but his pass to Diggs is high and falls incomplete.

Late in the first half, with the game knotted at three, the Bills faced a fourth-down situation in Miami territory. Boyer dialed up another Cover 0 pressure look, and forced a throwaway from Allen under duress:

These are all well and good, but the problem with these designs? The margin for error is razor-thin. You need to be perfect as a defense when making these calls, as the slightest slip-up could give the offense an opportunity to make a big play.

And then there is the old adage: If you go zero blitz and do not get home, the other team’s band is going to play.

In the fourth quarter, the Bills’ band got a chance to play:

With the Bills leading 10-3, they face a 2nd and 10 at the Miami 19-yard line. Boyer dials up another Cover 0 blitz package, but this time Allen has just enough time to stand in the pocket and make a throw. He targets Diggs in an in-breaking route, and with no safety help in the middle of the field, there is a huge throwing lane for Allen. He puts the throw on the money, the receiver tumbles into the end zone, the Bills extend their lead...

...and the band begins to play.

This is the riddle Boyer faces this weekend. How to slow down this Bills’ passing game. The combination of Allen’s arm talent, the weapons around him, and various ways the Bills can stress different coverages, poses quite the riddle for Boyer.

How he tries to answer that might determine who is atop the AFC East on Monday morning.