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The Film Room: Establishing The Run, The Buffalo Bills, And The Houston Texans

Bills. Texans. Houston’s big matchup advantage on paper isn’t that much of an advantage.

Houston Texans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Will Vragovic/Getty Images

From a rudimentary perspective, a simple approach to this Saturday’s Texans-Bills Wild Card clash, it looks like the Texans will need to ESTABLISH THE RUN to beat the Bills. Buffalo is fifth in pass defense DVOA. They have a pass rush that runs six deep, two outside cornerbacks who can play man coverage against any passing offense, a pair of big playmaking safeties, and a well-coached team that rarely leaves receivers running free despite playing a wide variety of coverages. On the other hand, they rank 18th in run defense DVOA and yards per carry allowed. In their six losses this year, the Bills allowed 131 rushing yards a game and opponents averaged 30.8 carries. Teams abandoning the run against Buffalo and throwing at this lockdown pass defense is one reason the Bills have had a successful 2019 season.

This is a simple analysis of a complicated issue. Yes, the Bills have struggled stopping the run at times; see what they did against the Eagles. But those struggles have occurred in a very specific way. The Bills’ run defense is underrated. It’s a case of the the film not entirely matching the numbers.

Buffalo’s front is composed of multiple run defenders who can play the ball. Ed Oliver, Trent Murphy, and Shaq Lawson each have more than 20 run tackles this season. Jordan Phillips explodes off the snap and can make plays in the backfield. Star Lotulelei plays the ‘1’ technique and tries to give Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds chase and tackle opportunities.

Oliver and Lawson are the most impressive of this bunch. Oliver has transformed as he’s grown accustomed to the pro game. Absurd run defense reps are the norm for him.

Need more evidence that the Bills are not bad against the run? Buffalo was one of the few teams that hindered the Ravens’ rushing attack this season. Buffalo’s run defense DVOA was -42.4% that game and they allowed 3.57 yards a carry. For context, Baltimore led the league with a rush offense DVOA of 21.1% and averaged 5.5 yards a carry.

The Bills were relentless along the line of scrimmage against the Ravens. Lawson, Oliver, and Murphy consistently made plays along the defensive line. They also loaded up the box on first down. Without any concerns of getting beat by Baltimore’s pass catchers in man coverage, Buffalo was able to stick eight and even nine defenders in the box. Sure, this led to a long Hayden Hurst touchdown catch, but they were able to limit the Ravens’ unlimited rushing attack.

Here the Ravens have an ‘Ace’ block between Patrick Mekari (#65) and Bradley Bozeman (#77) that’s supposed to go from Oliver (#91) up to Taron Johnson (#24).

Oliver has other plans. He sees the double team and widens right to miss the center. He turns a double team into a one-on-one block. From there, he presses and extends Yanda to maintain his gap and play the ball.

Oliver consistently makes run plays against strong double teams. He turns doubles into singles, and when he’s blocked by one player, he uses pad level, lower body strength, and hands to create space from blockers and find the football.

At the defensive end position, Lawson (#90) is a vile critic of opposing run offenses. He’s great at reading the play and chasing from the backside. He has 14 tackles for no gain or a loss this season.

The Ravens love this play. Lamar Jackson (#8) will hand the ball off and loop away from the play to sell play action, which then leads to plays like this where he actually keeps it. Lawson isn’t fooled, though. He staves off left tackle Ronnie Stanley (#79), stays wide, and chases after Jackson. It leads to a loss of four yards.

This will be a problem for Houston’s rushing attack on Saturday. The Texans like to occasionally run actual zone read plays instead of painting Santa Claus on the windows by throwing either Jordan Akins or Darren Fells into the flat. They especially love these plays in short yardage situations.

Here it’s 4th and 1. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (#90) is the read defender. He crashes hard and devours the running back. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil (#78) is supposed to get up to the second level. He misses. It doesn’t matter. Deshaun Watson (#4) keeps and makes the spectacular mundane. Lawson, unlike Pierre-Paul, wouldn’t bite the head off the bat on this play.

At Buffalo’s second level, Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano are great chase and tacklers. They’re aggressive. They play downhill. And they use their speed to take advantage of the lanes the first level creates. Edmunds has 72 run tackles and Milano has 55.

Each one is at their best in space. Here the Ravens are running a zone read play. Lawson (#90) is the read defender. Marshall Yanda (#73) should be pulling up to Edmunds (#49). He’s unable to since Lawson is in the way. Yanda is stuck blocking him and is unable to get up to Edmunds because of his speed and wide pre-snap alignment.

Buffalo typically plays nickel and then pulls defensive backs into the box as needed. Sometimes they’ll play a 4-3 and put Lorenzo Alexander (#57) in the box. He’s more than a spinning ray of light bursting off the edge of their pass rush. He can put his speed to use in the run game. Buffalo is simply well coached. They did a great job following Baltimore’s motions to shift their linebackers and got them in a position to make plays. Alexander exemplifies this.

Buffalo’s problem at the second level is that their linebackers don’t respond when a blocker gets their hands on them. If they can’t juke past blocks or run unimpeded, they are easy to stick onto. They rarely take blocks head on and then make plays on the ball. Buffalo is 26th in second level adjusted line yards with 1.32. The Patriots had a successful rushing attack in the AFC East Championship Game a few weeks ago because of their ability to block the second level.

Here the Patriots run lead with linebacker turned fullback Elandon Roberts (#52) and center Ted Karras (#75) scowling up to the second level quickly. Each one devours the Bills’ linebackers. Sony Michel (#26) bounces off tackles and falls ahead for extra yards.

Houston will try and block Buffalo’s linebackers in a variety of ways. The Texans are at their best when they run plays that create strong first level double teams. Max Scharping has been particularly excellent in these situations. He’s been great working with Laremy Tunsil and Nick Martin to move the line of scrimmage. Occasionally these blocks create enough movement for the second level not to matter.

This is dart to the left. Chris Clark (#77), the backside tackle, is pulling to the play-side linebacker. Left guard Max Scharping (#74) and center Nick Martin (#66) have a strong double team to A.J. Johnson (#45). Together they turn the nose tackle. The tight end, Jordan Akins (#88), gets Johnson running away from the play when he seals the backside. This removes the need to peel off the first level. Tunsil (#78) expands the hole by turning the defensive end wide.

This is an inside zone play. The ‘Ace’ with the right guard Zach Fulton (#71) and Martin (#66) traps Roberts behind the rubble. The block doesn’t get to the second level, but it doesn’t matter when the tackle is made six yards up the field. Scharping (#74) and Tunsil (#78) also have nice first level movement here too.

Sometimes dart requires Clark, or Roderick Johnson, to actually make a second level block. Most of the time Clark doesn’t. He usually whiffs entirely.

Roderick Johnson (#63) should get the start at right tackle on Saturday over Clark. Houston has been oscillating between the two like a junior varsity team rewarding players with playing time after a great week of practice. Johnson has problems against quicker edge rushers and doesn’t understand the nuances of punch timing, but he’s the superior run blocker. This is dart again with Johnson pulling. He clears out Jayon Brown (#55). Max Scharping and Laremy Tunsil have a great double team here.

Houston is a shoddy outside zone team. The Texans don’t understand the outside zone isn’t a hobby; it’s a lifestyle. Teams have to commit to it and make it the staple of their run game to excel at it unless they’re fortunate to have an elite offensive line that can do it all. It stutters and the wrong notes are played if they don’t commit. Houston shouldn’t run the outside zone against this Buffalo front. The Bills are quick off the ball. They time the snap well. That being said, here Johnson makes a great second level block on this outside zone play.

In previous years, Houston had an offensive line that was atrocious at blocking the second level. This season they’re competent enough at picking up linebackers and box safeties. When they struggle blocking the second level, it’s because of how they use their tight ends.

Houston doesn’t utilize a fullback. They have turned Fells and Akins into their fullbacks. They motion them into the backfield. They pull into the flat and block no one. Most importantly, they struggle at the second level.

Akins (#88) is in the backfield as an off-set I-formation fullback. Roberts (#51) is the free defender Akins is leading up to. The Patriots run a twist with Dont’a Hightower (#54) and Roberts. Akins and Martin miss their blocks.

Here the Texans go with a full house backfield to try to replicate the Baltimore Ravens. It doesn’t go well. They are blocking outside zone left with each tight end in the backfield pulling to seal the backside. The defensive end jumps into right tackle Chris Clark’s (#77) gap. This means Fells should move up to the second level. He doesn’t. The result? Houston has two players blocking the same player.

Most of Houston’s plays involving tight ends making a substantial contribution to the run game doesn’t amount to much. It pulls extra defenders into the box. It requires lackluster blockers to make tough blocks. That in turn leads to a lot of missed blocks.

Here Houston has both their tight ends in two point stances. Fells (#87) is pulling back to seal the backside. Akins (#88) is pulling to Devin White (#45). Watson utilizes a hand off that looks like a zone read play. Keeping isn’t an option. He hands it off despite the end chasing.

Fells runs past the defensive end. Akins doesn’t block anyone. Carlos Hyde (#23) is patient through the muck. He’s able to bounce this wide and away from Jason Pierre-Paul to make something happen despite each tight end failing to make a block.

Fells, despite his size, isn’t the type of player who can block defensive ends on his own. He’s matched up one-on-one against Jurrell Casey (#99) here. As you might expect, this doesn’t work out. Casey punishes him and makes the tackle.

Fells struggles at making any block on his own. This time it’s a futile attempt at picking up Lavonte David (#54) on a power play that has him pulling to the second level.

It’s the same play. This time Fells misses White (#45) entirely.

The other problem is these plays don’t really build up to anything. It’s a lot of flowery purple language. The plot doesn’t develop. Houston hasn’t used Watson as a runner that much this season. When these plays use a throw option off them, they’re suffocated. Week Seven was a long time ago. Teams have caught on. Opponents use the unblocked defender to play the quarterback and a linebacker following the tight end to squash these attempts. The Bills, unlike the Chiefs, Raiders, and Jaguars, are blessed with viable linebacker play.

Houston should look to block the second level with their offensive line as much as possible and limit the blocks their tight ends make in this game. The only logic against this is if the Texans have spent the past few weeks expanding upon these plays and formations and have something conjured up to attack the aggressiveness of the Bills’ defense.

The Texans love to ESTABLISH THE RUN. They love to run on first down and smash their head against the wall until it’s a bloody and pulpy mess. Houston is tied sixth in first down rush attempts with 259. They’re 14th in first down rush offense DVOA. Sometimes it works, like in their first match-up against Tennessee, where they faced lighter boxes. It doesn’t work when they do things like bash Hyde on first down 14 times for 20 yards against the league’s best run defense.

Teams catch on. Houston will find themselves in situations where they can’t block everyone. Here the box is full. The extra safety can’t be picked up. Hyde has nowhere to go.

Buffalo knows this. They’ll be prepared for it. They’re 9th in first down run defense DVOA. They play to down and distance situations perfectly. The box will be more loaded than $12 nachos. Safeties will blitz. Cornerbacks will get yanked into in the edges of the box. They’ll use wonky boxes that will question the offense’s existence. This is what Buffalo throws out there on first down against run-heavy teams.

First and ten will become second and long and an attempt to recover yards to set up more manageable third downs. This all leads to third down passing attempts and plays right into Buffalo’s big blitzing overwhelming pass defense. ESTABLISHING THE RUN on first down is a lie told to you by those who control and manipulate you. This isn’t a viable offensive strategy for Houston this week.

The Bills are mobile. They love to slant, loop, and blitz in run situations as well. Houston has to be fluid. They have to trust their feet and be prepared for their pre-snap block to disappear. They have to be ready for defenders to materialize right in front of them. Houston’s backs will be in a good position to break out for big gains if the blocking can pick up their run stunts and blitzes.

There’s one reason why the Bills’ run defense numbers appear so mediocre. They give up too many yards at the second level and in the open field. They’ve allowed the tenth most runs that gain more than ten yards and the eighth most runs that gain more than twenty yards in the league. This all stems from their biggest problem—tackling.

12% of the Bills’ defensive plays have a broken tackle. This was the fourth highest rate this season. Strong safety Jordan Poyer has missed 14 tackles, Milano 13, Edmunds 12, Jerry Hughes 9, and free safety Micah Hyde 9.

Even when their box defenders make nice plays to find the ball, they can get swatted away by ball carriers. This morphs a 5 yard gain into a 25 yard gain.

Buffalo is fortunate. The Texans’ primary ball carrier doesn’t break many tackles. Occasionally Hyde will spin out of something in the backfield and turn a negative into a positive. But these are rare instances. Hyde has a broken tackle rate of just 13.3%. He’s best at running straight ahead and falling forward. His best trait is picking up every yard the blocking creates for him. He’s a firefighter rushing into a scorched apocalypse to rescue a shoe box of wailing kittens.

Like every Texans game, Saturday would be a great time for Duke Johnson to get more carries. He has less than half the amount of touches that Hyde has, but Johnson has many broken tackles and double the broken tackle rate. He’s the type of player who can spin and juke out of one-on-one tackle attempts. If Houston uses their rushing attack like they typically do, they’ll be unable to take advantage of the blind spots in Buffalo’s defense.

What appears to be a significant plus for Houston really isn’t. Second level blocking, running in advantageous situations, and the ability to break tackles aren’t strong suits of Houston’s offense. The things required to rumble against Buffalo’s front doesn’t match what Houston’s run offense does well. Houston should be able to move the first level often enough and block the second level with their offensive line, but everything else will give them fits.

This is the biggest match-up advantage Houston has on paper. In reality, it’s meek and watered down by the environment it exists in. Without Will Fuller, Houston’s passing offense should flail against a dominant pass defense. Add all of this to a Bills’ offense that struggles to score more than 20 points a game, and everything points to a brutal and close game where each team has their hands on the other’s throat, grasping, strangling, until the clock finally runs out, and one team is left lifeless and the other is left panting.