The wait is over. The NFL played all 256 games of its regular season, and Saturday, the playoffs begin with Super Wild-Card Weekend. The first game of the slate is arguably the most intriguing from a tactical perspective, pitting Josh Allen and the high-flying Buffalo Bills offense against DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard, and a Colts defense that limits explosive plays better than almost any unit in the league.
When the Colts have the ball
Jonathan Taylor is on an absolute rampage over the last several weeks. There was a lull in the middle of the season where Jordan Wilkins seemingly overtook him as the Colts’ lead ball-carrier, but over the final six games of the year, Taylor carried 119 times for 741 yards and seven touchdowns, adding 14 catches for another 96 yards and an additional score. He’s coming off of a preposterous 30-253-2 rushing line against the hapless Jaguars — a game during which he played a season high 82 percent of the team’s snaps.
The Indianapolis offensive line, despite rotating through several different tackles as the team dealt with various injuries, has just been totally dominating opposing defensive fronts, allowing Taylor to average 2.48 yards before contact per carry during that time. The league average is 1.71 per carry, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, and Taylor averaged 1.67 per carry through the team’s first 10 games of the season.
Of course, Taylor has also done his part. After breaking just eight tackles on 113 carries through the early part of the year, Taylor avoided 33 tackles on 119 carries from Week 11 through Week 17. That spiked his yards after contact per carry average to 3.75, and allowed him to gain at least 12 yards (PFF and Tru Media’s bar for an explosive run) on nearly 18 percent of his carries down the stretch. (By way of comparison, Derrick Henry did it on just south of 11 percent of his carries during the same time span.)
Buffalo’s run defense has been vulnerable at times to blow-up games this season, allowing at least 150 yards on the ground to each of the Rams, Chiefs (245), Patriots, and Cardinals (217). But all of those games occurred in the first half of the season, and the entire Bills defense has tightened up since the team’s Week 11 bye. The Bills haven’t allowed more than 26 points since Week 10, and even that total was in last week’s game against the Dolphins, where a bunch of starters rested during the second half. It’s notable the in Pro-Football-Reference’s expected points model, the Bills defense created positive value for the team in just two of 10 games before the bye, and in four of six after it.
Buffalo is seemingly well set up to deal with the Indianapolis passing game as well. Tre’Davious White is more than capable of following T.Y. Hilton all over the field. The Bills are most vulnerable to slot receivers who are dynamite-quick in and out of their breaks. The Colts don’t have a receiver who really fits that mold. Instead, they run the kind of offense that would actually really struggle against Indianapolis’ own defense, one that relies on a ton of crossing routes to create rub action and additional space for their wideouts, tight ends, and backs to get free for gains after the catch. But the Bills are very athletic at both linebacker and safety, and they did a solid (if not necessarily spectacular) job dealing with crossing routes throughout the season.
The key in being able to do so on Saturday will be getting early pressure on Philip Rivers, forcing him to deliver the ball before his man has actually sprung open. Rivers has excellent timing and anticipation, but is also willing to force a throw where he wants it to go if he’s under duress, rather than trying to avoid the rush, escape to the outside, and make a play later in the down. He just doesn’t have that kind of mobility anymore. The Colts offensive line is terrific, but there’s a weakness at tackle right now due to all the injuries, and if the Bills can take advantage of it, they can cause some problems for Rivers.
When the Bills have the ball
This is my single favorite matchup of the entire weekend. Buffalo’s passing game is built to create explosive plays, which it did as well as any team in the league this season. Indianapolis’ defense is explicitly built on the idea of limiting explosive plays in the passing game, which it did as well as any team in the league this season. So, what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?
There are a couple things that may actually be working in the Colts’ favor here. The first is that the Colts are an extraordinarily zone-heavy team, and the Bills found their most passing success against man coverage. Indianapolis played zone on 77.7 percent of opponent dropbacks this season, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, one of the highest rates in the league. Meanwhile, take a look at these passing numbers for Allen.
Note: PFF and Tru Media exclude shovel passes, jet sweep touch passes, and certain types of goal line plays from these coverage numbers. Allen went 20 of 31 for 92 yards, 13 touchdowns, and zero interceptions on excluded plays. A look at the film reveals only one of the 13 touchdowns came against zone coverage.
What’s most interesting about that trend is that it’s actually a reversal from what happened during Allen’s first two seasons under center, when he was more efficient against zone coverages than he was against man. It makes sense on a certain level, though, because Buffalo’s offense evolved to become much more about crossing patterns and winning one-on-one matchups. When you have players like Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, John Brown, and Gabriel Davis, you want to put them in the best position to succeed, and the Bills did exactly that throughout this season.
Of course, Beasley and Brown are both listed as questionable for this game after not practicing at all on Wednesday and getting in limited sessions on Thursday. While Brown’s absence earlier in the season seemed to affect Allen’s performance, they have been able to get by of late with Davis filling that role opposite Diggs on the outside. If they have to play without Beasley, though, that could be really damaging against this Indianapolis defense. Beasley is by far the team’s best zone-beater, and his and Allen’s chemistry on option routes has been their best chance of moving the ball against teams that sit back and dare the Bills to dink and dunk downfield. Beasley is a master at finding the soft spots between defenders, turning around to give his quarterback a target, and then evading a tackler to gain quick, easy yards after the catch. How Buffalo decides to attack Indianapolis’ coverage if Beasley is out, is an open question.
Of course, the Bills also may have some things working to their advantage. Because the Colts so often play zone, they also very rarely blitz, sending at least one extra rusher after the opposing quarterback on only 17 percent of opponent dropbacks. Allen, meanwhile, was blitzed on 37 percent of his dropbacks, one of the highest rates in the league. Granted, blitzing the Bills is part of what allows Allen to use his legs to either take off downfield or create something out of nothing outside the pocket. But sitting back in coverage also reduces the likelihood of getting any pressure on Allen at all, and he has just completely shredded defenses when afforded a clean pocket this season.
It’ll be important for the Colts that DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart decisively win their matchups on the inside, and that Bucker in particular generates quick pressure up the middle, moving Allen off his spot. It will be even more important that their edge rushers don’t allow Allen to break contain — especially to his right, which is how so many of his big plays this season have begun. Keeping Allen boxed into the pocket takes away some of what makes the Buffalo passing game so special and so explosive, but it is easier said than done. And even doing that still leaves a lot of pressure on the secondary to deal with one of the game’s best pass-catcher corps.
Considering the strength of the Colts run defense (ninth in DVOA) and the Bills’ propensity for extreme pass-heavy game plans, it seems unlikely that the Buffalo run game will make much of an impact here. The contributions of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss will primarily come via pass blocking and in the screen game.