Preview: Bills Game
Ted's excellent post broke down what to look for in the Buffalo Bills game, and there's nothing to add to his breakdown.
Instead, it behooves us to take a look at what the Buffalo Bills have to offer in their game against us in New York, as the only professional football team that plays in the state of New York (because the New York Dragons have folded, and the New York Sentinels moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Before folding).
We won't see the Vikings line up against Stevie Johnson or Kiko Alonso, which is too bad-both look like precautionary rests, as Johnson is at the tail end of his recovery from a hamstring issue and Alonso, though medically cleared, will be forced to rest his shoulder.
Given that T.J. Graham is also out, the Vikings will see a good rotation of receivers, including my third, fourth and 17th-ranked rookie wide receivers. The combination of speed, technique and intelligence from that receiver corps should give even veterans like Chris Cook a difficult time.
This will be a fantastic way to test out the concepts the Vikings are willing to roll with, not just with Xavier Rhodes, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson (or Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford) but throughout the roster, given how quickly the Bills ended up becoming deep at receiver.
Anyone watching the Bills may eventually get tired of hearing about the high-tempo "no-huddle" offense that teams around the league have increasingly adopted. What's interesting is that Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett have decided not just to implement some of their Syracuse playbook, but dig into the K-gun that made Jim Kelly famous and quickly allowed the Bills to join the Vikings as having four unsuccessful Super Bowl appearances.
Hey, 0-4 is better than 0-0.
But it would be lazy to describe their offense as a no-huddle. That's not an offense, it's a tactic.
The Bills will bring a variety of offensive formations and tactics, but will likely keep a philosophy similar to Jim Kelly's offense in Buffalo, which is fundamentally the Run and Shoot Offense that people think died in the 1980s. Somewhat similar to the scheme run in New York under former ‘Shoot coordinator Kevin Gilbride, I wouldn't be surprised if the modern twist on the Buffalo offense is also designed to be entirely reactive.
Given that Marrone has spent some time with a heavy ‘Shoot offense like the Saints, don't be shocked to see similar concepts.
Aside from the philosophical tension between keeping a pro-active tempo with a reactive scheme, Buffalo will do its best to make sure that matchups and options dictate its approach. For this they'll use a variety of formations.
The Bills didn't actually run too many shotgun snaps with three-wide (their preferred passing formation), instead choosing to play their primary personnel in power formations.
It's not surprising that it's a run-heavy offense. I've been saying for months that C.J. Spiller is going to end up as a top-five running back in fantasy circles because he'll get a heavy load. It's not only that the Bills will likely field a rookie quarterback in E.J. Manuel (or a terrible one in Kevin Kolb), but that even with Ryan Nassib, the offensive coordinator (who travelled with Marrone from Syracuse to Buffalo) ran the ball twice as often as he passed it.
Marv Levy loved the 2x1/3x1 set with the running back set to the weak side
Up-tempo doesn't always mean passing the ball.
It looks like an offense that likes the play-action pass as a way to move the ball downfield, but not one that lacks its own set of pass concepts independent of the running game.
Of the 44 passes thrown in the Colts game (and remember, they were ahead for much of it), 10 were play-action. That doesn't compare to the Eagles (23 of 47) or the Seahawks (11 of ... 17), but it's a heavy enough dose to pay attention to.
More on that later.
The Bills ran the ball 40 times, although six of them were marked as quarterback runs. At least two of them were scrambles by E.J. Manuel. There were some brief instances of read-option plays (one was a run-option and the other a pass-option, as far as I could tell) with E.J. Manuel, but Manuel did not keep the ball and run on those options.
I did not log the game as closely as I did the Vikings game, but it's clear that the Bills will, on occasion, use their quarterback as a run threat.
It looks to be a largely zone-running system that should take advantage of Spiller's skill-set, allowing him to read the blocks and make his own decisions about which lanes to choose. He jumps the gun a little early in terms of gap commitment, but it has worked out so far.
For this the Vikings will need to maintain gap integrity more than they have to spill into the backfield and make plays, although Floyd, Williams and Greenway should be fine moving downhill to the running back without giving up too much in terms of gap discipline.
This sort of running is prevalent, and the Vikings will see a bit of zone-type running in their schedule this season. Nailing down their assignments on inside and outside zone runs will be important.
The linebackers will have critical functions, and Erin Henderson, Audie Cole and Michael Mauti will have a lot of leeway to attack and make plays at the line of scrimmage against these types of runs. If they can bottle up Spiller and Jackson, they should be set against the wide variety of running attacks they'll see throughout the season.
The schedule is filled with talent (Carolina and Seattle), scheme (Philadelphia) and lethal combinations (Washington and Baltimore) in the running game, but also some softies (Green Bay and Detroit). They know how to attack power running schemes, but zone schemes require constant refinement.
In the passing game, the Bills will play a little looser with their routes. Instead of orienting themselves around timing schemes, they'll play with option routes and make sure that they attack the defense that they see.
Last week, the Vikings functionally ran three basic defenses-a Cover-3 with combined man coverage and zone concepts, a Cover-1 that largely used man coverage and a Cover-2 in the two minute drill that Vikings fans should be familiar with.
Against the Cover-1 and Cover-3 the Bills will have their receivers option to the outside and try to pull the deep safety to one edge or the other. Against the Cover-2, they'll try to attack the inside to stress the zones that the Vikings will have. Given their unbalanced receiver sets, also expect them to overload a zone on the weak side of their formation.
That means that the Vikings corners will have to rely on tight passing windows and reactive play. The physical style of defense that Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes are known for (and Josh Robinson isn't a slouch there either) will be relatively less useful against this offense than others because of the propensity for the Bills to throw receivers open instead of simply hitting anticipation routes at predetermined times.
At a fundamental level, this will test the basic coverage ability of the Vikings' corners. Reading individual receivers will be important, not just because they don't have tendencies on film in a big way, but because the receivers will be relatively autonomous in their decision-making.
That also means the pass-rush will be more important in this type of game than many others because the offense, by design, may find itself in many situations where the quarterback will hold on to the ball for a little longer. If they can't create pressure, the defense will crack open.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings face a real challenge. Even though Jairus Byrd is holding out for a better contract, Da'Norris Searcy is an underrated safety and Stephon Gilmore is poised to step up and become one of the league's best young cornerbacks.
Bryan Scott and Nigel Bradham have an unusually good ability to create tackles and make plays despite the defense's relative inability to stop drives, and Bradham grabbed a tackle on 14.2 percent of the plays he was in. The average for an outside linebacker was eight percent.
He's a solid pass-rusher and should be one to watch out for as the Vikings set their protections against a confusing defense. In IDP leagues, Bradham is a sleeper to keep an eye on, and worth a late draft pick in deep leagues.
More importantly, Mike Pettine, formerly of the New York Jets, is willing not just to play with 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, but also gap concepts. Preparing for this kind of defense is extremely difficult.
One-Gap Blitzes on Blitzes from the Buffalo Billzez
When I talked to Charlie Johnson about the Buffalo game, he made no bones about the difficulty of a front like that.
"We've seen it from their preseason game last week; their first series or their first team defense when they were out there threw three or four different looks that you don't normally see for a first preseason game," he said of Buffalo's surprising aggressiveness.
Expect even more this time around.
"That's his MO," he said of Pettine. "So you know you're going to see, especially with them being home now, five or six different things, but it's good though. We're prepared for it."
Not that the transition would be easy. The Bills ran perhaps the most vanilla front four concepts in the NFL last year (limiting their otherwise excellent pass-rushers), so moving from a defense that will mix up gap concepts and split different people in and out of gaps will be tough.
Buffalo Bills Also Block Bodies
Johnson mentioned that this sort of complexity may not just make it difficult for the Vikings, but also the Bills.
"You get a guy who's classic 4-3 defensive end, and you see a lot of times those guys try to convert to be on that outside linebacker trying get used to dropping and all that stuff and it can be a little bit of a transition.
"I can imagine playing D line if you get used to one scheme for so long and have to switch, it probably would be a little bit difficult."
It won't be easy lining up against Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, however. Both are top-tier players at their position and if the Vikings want to stop the pass rush from Mario Williams and Alex Carrington, they'll need to prevent the interior from overloading the protection.
"I don't know if you ever look forward to two guys like that, but it's a good challenge."
The Vikings will have a complicated task ahead of them. John Sullivan will be even more important than usual in this game, because calling out the "Mike" for protection schemes or run blocking fits will be critical to make the offense move forward. His calls will determine who blocks who and how.
While the rules for zone blocking are designed to be relatively simple, an "odd" or "even" call from the center changes who the line will react. If Toby Gerhart is to get any room running the ball, the offensive line will need to maintain their communication and reads.
The Vikings will mix it up with a healthy power-running game as well, and read-react type blocks will be even more important. Fusco and Loadholt will have to be more comfortable than they were last year making plays up on the second level, and Gerhart can't hesitate-in order to get a man advantage when blocking, the Vikings will often leave the backside defensive end (or outside linebacker, as the case may be) completely unblocked.
Some of the areas that Christian Ponder needs to improve upon from last year will be front and center against a complicated Buffalo defense. The coverage tends to be man coverage with a Cover-1 shell-that enables blitzes-but the Bills here are at least a little less aggressive than they are up front.
Designed to limit gains instead of create turnovers from the CBs (that's what Byrd is for), they prefer to let their safeties do free-wheeling and the pressure from the front create the turnovers from what they see in the offense.
That means Ponder will be tasked with recognizing and reading defenses and making sure to key in on blitz adjustments, not just in coverage but in route patterns. Reading defenses has been marked as an issue in the past for him, so this will be another test of how the offense adjusts to a shifting defensive look.
Unfortunately, the Vikings' best game plan against the Bills won't test a different weakness of Ponder's, but they may throw in some things to make sure he can improve (or show the improvement that he's made).
Specifically, the deep ball is not a great idea against a defense so willing to allow short gains and one that salivates over jumping and doubling the deeper routes.
Should the Vikings test these deeper routes, Ponder will be asked to play with remarkable anticipation and ball placement, as mistakes further deep create interceptions more often than up close. This type of coverage demands difficult throws to the sidelines and in exclusive real estate for receivers.
On intermediate throws, he'll have a bit more of a window than against most defenses, so he has some wiggle room in regards to ball placement-they are concerned with limiting those big gains from underneath and are willing to play so that they can tackle or hit the receiver instead of jump the route.
That said, with so many defensive players in trail technique, he'll have to lead his receivers. Timing may be an issue as Buffalo likes to play with some physicality at the line, but adapting to these timing changes is part of being an NFL quarterback.
From the standpoint of developing a quarterback, the Vikings should commit to an "unwise" gameplan of making sure there are routes that go vertical, and may even want to test the deep safety (who should often be Aaron Williams) with several deep-breaking routes. But because Minnesota wants to make sure they can work on chemistry, the receivers should play their option-routes like the defense demands it.
That could lead to a lot of calls that initially have receivers go deep, but check into intermediate routes as a result of what they see. With trailing techniques and a clear MOFC (Middle of the Field Covered) read on most plays, this shouldn't happen too often, but expect it to limit the offense.
Overloading a side to prevent double-teams may help, and we may see Kyle Rudolph open up outside receivers by attacking the deep middle of the field (which may be inappropriately called the seam during the game) and pulling the safety away from the outside.
Hopefully, we can see Christian Ponder command a defense not only to stay consistent, but potent. Ball placement will be important, but coverage reads will be even more critical. His deep ball anticipation may not be a question that's really answered in the game, but should at least be tested given the nature of his development.
The Bills could be an underrated team heading into the season, but more importantly they'll be a team that should provide some important challenges for a Vikings offense that has its fair share of questions.