The Buffalo Bills traveled to take on the New York Jets and put up 30% of this year’s total scoring output in one game. That’s simultaneously sad and awesome. (Sawesome?) Compared to the rest of this year, the Matt Barkley-led offense was barely recognizable. What happened? We’ve all heard the advice “never look a gift horse in the mouth” but this is one equine that’s getting a dental checkup.
Here’s the very first offensive snap of the day for the Bills. The Jets’ defense is playing the Bills pretty much exactly the same as every other team this season. Crowd the line of scrimmage to take away the running game and let your defensive backs handle the receivers man-to-man. The “heavy” line shows run (or perhaps maximum pass protection) and the Jets attempt to swarm the Bills at the line. Technically, the Jets have a numbers advantage but the safety isn’t helping anyone until it’s too late. Barkley’s throw is where only Robert Foster has a shot at it. If the throw didn’t drift to the sideline as it did, the next play might not have even happened.
And here’s the next play. The Jets defensive play call sticks to the usual plan against the Bills. One big play does not a game make and the coaches aren’t ready to throw away a plan that’s been effective against the Bills all year. The players on the field know they just got burned, however. As Ray-Ray McCloud III goes into motion, a lot of Jets’ eyes and bodies follow him to avoid getting burned a second time. Barkley calls for the snap before the defense can reset. Almost all of the Jets who might have been able to make a tackle are immediately at a disadvantage. Zay Jones adds a block that puts the finishing touches on the newly completed highway McCoy is scooting through.
This is the next offensive play for the Bills. First-and-ten and the Jets still aren’t buying into a pass-heavy Bills offense. The Jets are continuing to let their backs take on receivers with iffy support and are still pretty close to the line. Matt Barkley tries for another deep pass to Zay Jones. The pass isn’t complete but it’s likely a little close for comfort. After this pass, a short McCoy run and a penalty on Terrell Pryor made the Bills predictable and the Jets forced a punt.
Here’s our next first-and-ten. The Jets have seen the Bills be very aggressive on consecutive first downs and paid for it dearly once. The Jets are starting to spread their defense and placing more defenders in coverage. Part of this is due to Brian Daboll calling up a play that spreads the offense, but the linebackers in particular are starting to get more hesitant attacking forward. From the second angle, we can see there’s plenty of space to create lanes. It’s only a four-yard gain but it sets up second-and-six, which allows for flexible play-calling by Daboll.
Knowing that Daboll can be flexible on second-and-six, the Jets have a harder time reading the Bills. Daboll calls Isaiah McKenzie’s number—who the Jets had no tape to work from. Daboll does the opposite of the last play and compresses his team. You’re looking at pretty much everyone in that tiny box. This leads to the Jets’ defense constricting as well. The Bills have already had McCloud run across the formation just like this a couple times already without being part of the play. Compared to the motion in Play 2, fewer Jets bite. McKenzie adds some excellence of execution on top of all these layers for a 12-yard gain.
After McKenzie’s nice gain, the Bills are first-and-ten again. So far this has meant a tendency for deeper throws, and the Jets are starting to lean toward pass play. The safety is deep from the start and the linebackers have gone from hesitant to dropping back. The Bills only send a couple receivers out and cross their fingers they can win head-to-head just like the first play. Barkley decides to throw left where Kelvin Benjamin has a contested catch to make. While this wasn’t the best throw for this play, there’s enough going right from the Bills to make the Jets a little concerned.
Between the last play and this one, the Bills had pulled off a fake punt and were starting to work methodically down the field. Getting closer to the end zone they found another first-and-ten on this play. Having seen a healthy dose of deep passes on first down, the Jets are prepared to see it again. Daboll has his skill players split out wide, making a pass play look like a near certainty. Before the snap, seven players look like they’re covering for a pass. When McCoy takes off from the backfield no one can reach him until he’s eight yards down the field.
This is the last first-and-ten of the drive, which ultimately led to the second Bills touchdown of the day. The Jets have already seen, and been burnt by, passing plays and running plays on first down. Within just the first quarter, the Jets have gone from selling out to stop the run, to slightly overcompensating to protect against the pass to this; a more balanced defense. From this point on, Matt Barkley and the Bills were able to use their entire playbook with the Jets scared to crowd the line and make the Bills one dimensional.
A few successful early plays and near misses convinced the Jets that the Bills finally found a groove in their passing game. Successes came mostly from things the Bills have tried earlier in the year, they just happened to work this time. A few roster tweaks also helped the Bills execute the plays as designed.
Until the Bills have more than one skill position player that teams are afraid of, there will continue to be some disrespect toward the passing game. However, the creative and aggressive Bills that took the field against the Jets can make teams think twice with early success on a play or two.