After watching the demoralising defeat to the Patriots a couple of weekends ago, I wasn't in any particular mood to write. The sobering recalibration of expectations had me on a bit of a downer, and facing the rest of the season with the spectre of the demolition wasn't a great thought. It still lingers in my mind that we'll likely face a similar fate in any likely playoff scenario - but in the meantime, we're winning games. Sunday's matchup always loomed as a potential win even before the remarkable performances of this year came to the fore, and as the season has progressed, the Buffalo offense has shown itself to be as expected - the up and down Ryan Fitzpatrick presiding over a mediocre passing game, while the primary threats on offense come out of the backfield.
In particular, the threat was going to come from CJ Spiller - a running back with rare speed and acceleration who seems to be maturing as a runner with time. He's averaging a frankly ridiculous 6.7 yards per carry this year with a 10.4 yards per catch receiving average to boot. In essence, we had to bottle up Spiller to maintain an element of control over the game and maintain our superiority elsewhere. In the event, he emerged from the matchup with 107 yards on 14 carries for a 7.6 yards per carry average. Taking the numbers at face value, you'd presume a terrible showing from the Colts run defense.
The numbers mask the truth to an extent, however. Spiller only gained more than 3 yards on 6 of his 14 carries. This type of feast or famine running doesn't help an offense control the game, particularly when the passing game is as anaemic as the Bills'. I felt the Colts largely coped with the threat of Spiller well, even if he proved to be underutilised in a poor offense. When he was able to get to the second level, Spiller showcased the talents which made him a Top 10 pick in the draft. Fortunately for the Colts, that wasn't a regular occurence - primarily because we were winning in the trenches.
Here are some examples, starting with a 1st and 10 from the BUF 20 with roughly 10:00 on the clock in the 1st Quarter:
On the play in question, the Bills have motioned Lee Smith (#85 - TE) over towards Dwight Freeney, who's positioned at ROLB on the outside shoulder of the tackle.
Now that Lee's motion is out of the way, the Bills' intentions become clear. They're going to run a toss play, with the TE assigned to hold up Freeney for a reasonable amount of time in order to free the kickout blocker and Spiller himself.
As Spiller receives the toss, Freeney immediately uses his leverage to push Lee backwards and sideways, directly influencing the development of the play.
Freeney sees the play develop in his peripheral vision and is able to counter the play by a combination of willpower and leverage.
Freeney does such an outstanding job on Lee that he forces the pulling guard Andy Levitre (#67 - LG) into the confrontation. This frees up the backside defender from a Colts perspective which forces Spiller to cut back. Freeney isn't even stopped by two blockers.
And as is clear here, Spiller doesn't really have many options.
He's forced to cut it back into a group of Colts defenders, and is ultimately brought down for a 4 yard loss. Freeney's stand helped set the tone on defense and forced the Bills to schematically adjust. Hell of a job.
Talking of schematic adjustments, the Bills immediately countered a few plays later:
The Bills again motion a TE down towards Dwight Freeney, though in this instance the blocker is able to seal Freeney outside. Spiller takes advantage of Freeney moving upfield and moves through the available gap off tackle.
As you can see, the hole is fairly sizeable. The rest of the Buffalo OL does a fairly reasonable job and Spiller's stunning speed and agility come to the fore.
Whether the Colts are playing Cover 3 or a slanted man coverage, it's not a huge deal considering it's about block shedding and awareness of running lanes. Tom Zbikowski doesn't do a terrible job here in the slot and manages to elude his man after some grappling, but the short amount of time this takes allows Spiller to take off.
Spiller reaches the edge and turns on the burners - fortunately Antoine Bethea has the position and speed to close off the angle. Spiller sees it's Bethea later on in the run and clearly doesn't want to tempt fate with the Colts' best tackler.
As mentioned, Bethea shepherds spiller out of bounds at roughly the 20 yard line for a 23 yard gain. It displays the ease with which Spiller can manufacture big plays with his sheer speed - and after this run, I was wary of what was to come. A couple of 10+ yard runs again showed Spiller's abilities, though the Colts defense proved stout in run defense for the majority of the day. A great example of this is the following play, where I've chosen to highlight Cory Redding and Jerell Freeman.
The Bills again utilise a pulling guard, and utilise both the RT and TE to block Cory Redding. Jerell Freeman is on the second level awaiting a read.
Redding fills space as the 3-4 DE and holds up the two blockers. Freeman reacts to what he sees and seeks to fill the hole he seems emerging. Opposite him, Pat Angerer plunges into the line in order to force a cutback from Spiller.
Cory Redding is as stout as it gets - unmoved by two blockers, he begins to push back. He's able to do this due to Jerell Freeman, who frees up the attention of the RT.
Redding keeps grinding away in the trenches while the approaching backside Colts defender eliminates the major cutback route.
Redding tosses the blocking TE aside and engulfs Spiller in a bear hug.
The play is stopped for no gain, and it reinforces the notion that the Bills run offense was feast or famine, and the feast was usually due to Spiller's talents. I was pleased by the efforts in run defense overall. Admittedly I'm omitting analysis of a 41 yard Spiller run late in the 3rd quarter, mainly because it was a messy play with a bad Zbikowski angle. That's the very definition of rehashing old ground, so there's no need.
Instead, i'll give credit where it's due, to an unlikely recipient - Fili Moala [Editor's Note: Moala was placed on the IR list this week. Ben had written this before that news had broke]. He showed the stoutness inherent in the defense all day, and came up with a nice play to again reroute a Spiller run.
I've circled Moala here as he plays interior DT in a 4 man front. The Bills are lined up in the Shotgun formation with Spiller aligned to the right, so any run is likely to come left. Moala has this in mind and slants downhill to take it into account.
Moala absorbs the double team in front of him comprised of the Bills starting LT and LG - and the Colts DE doesn't pale in comparison.
Moala - complemented by the Colts Front 7 - redirects Spiller outside, which is where Moise Fokou comes in. He can clearly see Spiller and what he's going to do, and he reacts well.
Fokou disengages from his blocker, and from here it's a race to the edge.
The Colts defensive back on the edge does a great job - not easily identifiable, unfortunately - and he seals any potential lane. Fokou pursues diligently.
Fokou shows the benefit of a good angle and a good sense of awareness, closing Spiller down for a gain of 2 in the 4th quarter. The Bills didn't go back to Spiller subsequent to a pair of 2 yard gains of which this was one, and while I question their decision, the feast or famine nature of the run offense all day didn't inspire confidence.
What did I draw from this game? Perhaps that the Colts are starting to institute some of the schematic changes they had in mind with some success. I saw penetration from the defensive front on a frequent basis, and I have to say that I was impressed by the instincts of Jerell Freeman, even if I'm still not completely convinced of him in coverage. Plays were ultimately made all over the field to inspire the Colts win, not least on offense and special teams by T.Y. Hilton - though Sunday was an occasion on which the defense earned their bread. Ryan Fitzpatrick may not be particularly awe-inspiring at QB, though the Colts certainly did their best to unsettle him with some success.
I look forward to the next few games with optimism - I firmly believe we can steal a game from Houston especially if they have a bye locked up, while our other opponents do have deficiencies. Calvin Johnson against our defensive backs will be an interesting one, though they lack the sheer efficiency of Brady et al so I don't approach it with trepidation. I just have confidence in our QB, and that's all the difference.
Until next time.