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Deep Steel Blueprint: Episode VIII - Mario's Judgment Day

Can Gary Kubiak decipher Dave Wannstedt's simple puzzle?

"There is nothing I love more than my color-coded Denny's menu of offensive delight."
"There is nothing I love more than my color-coded Denny's menu of offensive delight."
Bob Levey

Fair or not, Sunday will be Judgment Day in Houston. Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams and your 6-1 Houston Texans will play many games over many years beyond Sunday's match-up, including more against each other, but Mario's own words have ensured that this Sunday will be the day that many Houston fans, and some Williams fans, will judge his move to Buffalo. Meetings after this Week Nine battle will become just another game, but Sunday is the first game against each other in their first season apart.

Williams left Houston, and his cushy spot as defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' premiere pass-rusher, for Buffalo and $100 million. Last year, the Texans proved they could survive without Williams, but Sunday's game is the focus. Can Williams take over, dominate, and elevate Buffalo past Houston or will the Texans continue their dominant ways?

The primary focus here is the Texans offense versus Mario's defense. Make no mistake about it, when you become the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, you are the de facto leader of the defense. I choose not to focus too much on the Bulls on Parade versus Ryan Fitzpatrick because I do not believe it is the key unit match-up, and the Bills offense does not play a style that can force Wade Phillips out of his norm. If the Texans offense gets in gear and puts up points, it forces Buffalo to play faster-paced, throw the ball the keep up, and score. Playing that style of offense will play into Phillips' hands by allowing him to blitz the quarterback more.

In a word, Buffalo's defense is Tennesseesque. What? I can make up words. Buffalo sits 30th, one spot behind the Titans, in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. In a sense, the Bills are worse than the defense that held Houston to 38 points. Unlike Tennessee, Buffalo is performing well against tight ends, but they cannot cover wide receivers (ranking 29th or worse in the league against all receivers) or stop the run (dead last in DVOA and rushing yards allowed per game).

Why is a defense with six guys drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft so bad? Well, let's see what two of football's brightest minds have to say about Buffalo's defense.

It [The Buffalo Defense] pops as easily as a pimple. Wannstedt's coverage concepts, spacing, and rushers are imminently predictable. Through Week 6, we have Buffalo rushing three or four players on 194 snaps -- they have sent five, six, or seven rushers a grand total of 39 times. That's about 83.2 percent of the snaps where Buffalo sends just three or four rushers -- which is even more than they did last year under deposed defensive coordinator George Edwards. -- Rivers McCown on Football Outsiders' Any Given Sunday

Yes, you read that correctly. Buffalo defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt is not disguising anything he is doing. On four out of every five plays, he sends three or four rushers, and whenever he dials anything else up, it is not disguised or shifted. Houston head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison probably were licking their chops as they broke down film.

Given what Buffalo has shown, you could run or throw with little resistance. However, Buffalo has also had two weeks to take a look at themselves and fix things in preparation for Houston. This is where we run into a speed bump because thinking of how Buffalo intends to counter the Houston offense is dependent on one man's ego.

If Wannstedt accepts that he is part of the problem, then we will see some shifts and blitzes and changes. If the Texans struggle early on, it will be because they are not seeing the defense they studied. This will be more apparent to fans by watching Buffalo's behavior pre-snap. If they start moving, everyone will know Wannstedt is trying to change his stripes. However, that is an easy tip to the Texans to work in some of their own countermeasures to become unpredictable and force Wannstedt off his game.

With a run-heavy team playing a bad rushing defense, you would think unpredictability means play-action pass early and often. However, as we talk specific plays, Houston has run on the first play in only one of the seven games. Thanks to the wonders of mathematics, we know that six of the seven games started with a pass - two of which resulted in sacks. Going against the trend, I would hope Kubiak's script starts with a few runs before following that up with the deep play-action pass to truly test Buffalo's post-bye plan and how disciplined their defense is.

Regardless of the actual play, the Texans need to show a lot more two tight end sets and/or line James Casey up as a H-Back. In Wannstedt's base 4-3 over with one-gap responsibility, per the words of Buffalo Rumblings, adding another gap for the front seven to be responsible for will create more than the defense can handle. It will put the onus on the safeties to react and make a play.

If the safety hesitates, there will be a lane for the running backs to explode through or an opportunity for a receiver to get behind the coverage. I will direct you again to Rivers' article where he breaks down a Chris Johnson touchdown that resulted because of bad safety play on Buffalo's part. The Texans could do some serious damage by simply adding another player in the box and forcing Buffalo's hand. As said before, if the offense is in control, then so are the Bulls on Parade.

The key is seeing if there are any potential new wrinkles to Wannstedt's defense and how to best counter them, if Buffalo begins to move around pre-snap or throw extra men at Matt Schaub. If Wannstedt does not change, the Texans offense can utilize Casey and Garrett Graham at will, which will mean a long day for Buffalo and the judgment, by Houston fans and others, that Mario Williams is not worth $100 million and deserving of every bit of criticism headed his way.

Bills vs Texans coverage | Buffalo Rumblings