Frank Reich is a hero in Buffalo, but the man who led the greatest comeback in postseason history has his work cut out trying to prevent his former team from advancing in the AFC playoffs.
Stopping a relentless scoring machine on offense and a sneaky good defense are top of the agenda for Reich and the Indianapolis Colts. Reich may need a miracle like the one he engineered when he rallied the Bills from 35-3 down to beat the Houston Oilers in 1993.
It’s more likely Reich will focus on the things that got the Colts into the playoffs. A powerful running game and a swarming front seven.
Those things can combine to keep Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and the rest of the Bills’ offense off-balance. The Colts must lean on rookie running back Jonathan Taylor to punish a Buffalo defense most effective when sending sophisticated pressure at the passer.
Reich’s blueprint has three keys:
Challenge Diggs and Allen’s other receivers
Indy defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus rarely gets cute with the script. His unit relies on a steady diet of zone coverage and four-man pressure.
It’s a vanilla formula that won’t work against Allen and the red-hot Bills. Instead, Eberflus must challenge the quarterback and his receivers at every level.
The Bills are the 6th team in the Super Bowl era to score 50+ points in the final game of the season and make the playoffs
4 of the last 5 such teams won their first playoff game (only team to lose was 1976 Colts)#BillsMafia
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 3, 2021
Eberflus must be brave enough to jam Diggs and Co. in physical, press coverage. It’s a risky way to travel, but the only way to throw off the timing of this offense.
Locking receivers up in man coverage will also take away Allen’s underneath throws. The Colts must force him to go deep, one of the few obvious weaknesses in his game.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) January 6, 2021
Those numbers also tell you the Colts are vulnerable to the deep ball. So what? Eberflus has to decide what’s riskier; the chance Allen goes against the grain and finds his range on vertical throws? Or allowing the Bills to move the chains with short throws and yards after the catch?
The latter would mean keeping Philip Rivers on the sideline and reducing the amount of running plays Reich can call.
Going one-on-one with Diggs would be a bold ploy, but Eberflus can get creative and rotate a safety over the top of a corner in press coverage. Letting Diggs enjoy a clean release would be the greater risk.
Spy and pressure Allen
Allen’s mastered the art of making plays with his legs and turning broken plays into big gains. It makes it difficult to put him under pressure, but the Colts have to try.
Fortunately for Eberflus, he has the players to keep the heat on Allen. It must start with DeForest Buckner winning inside.
He doesn’t get the props given to Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt, but Buckner is just as disruptive along the interior. The player inexplicably traded by the San Francisco 49ers last April (what were they thinking?) logged 9.5 sacks this season.
Most sacks by a DT in franchise history.
Good season for our first round pick. 💪 pic.twitter.com/gHwL9h1fob
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) January 5, 2021
Buckner will keep blockers busy in the middle, and that should create free blitz lanes for linebacker Darius Leonard. He’s a seek-and-destroy missile who must zero in on Allen early and often.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 3, 2021
Intense interior pressure will send Allen on the move, so the Colts’ edge defenders must rush with discipline. They can’t push too far upfield and go beyond the quarterback, offering him easy avenues of escape on the outside.
The Colts must also spy Allen in case he runs up in the pocket to escape pressure. Strong safety Khari Willis, a sure tackler who gets downhill in a hurry, can handle the job.
Eberflus is a candidate for the head-coaching vacancies with the Houston Texans, New York Jets, and Los Angeles Chargers. He’ll boost his reputation further if he’s brave and aggressive enough to go after Allen and his weapons.
Get Taylor 25-30 carries
The Colts have a strong rushing attack underpinned by a cadre of rushers, but Taylor is the oil in the engine. Neil Reynolds noted how Taylor has become a punishing, big-play specialist behind a bruising offensive line:
Jonathan Taylor carried 30 times for 253 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s 28-14 win over Jacksonville that booked a playoff berth for the Colts. His 45-yard scoring run with 3:35 remaining was especially timely as Indy had seen their 20-0 lead turn into a nervous 20-14 scoreline. College football players often play 10 or 12 games per year, so they can hit that wall around the same time in the NFL. Not Taylor. Since Week 11, he has rushed for 741 yards – second only to Derrick Henry, of the Tennessee Titans. Taylor has averaged 123.5 rushing yards per game and scored eight touchdowns.
Ed Oliver is becoming a force inside for the Bills, but this front is geared to getting after quarterbacks. The Bills have allowed 4.2 yards per rush and 16 touchdowns on the ground.
Philip Rivers has been solid during his first season with the Colts, but the 39-year-old is not the passer he was. The good news is Reich doesn’t need him to be.
All Rivers needs to do is to handoff to Taylor, let him run behind Quenton Nelson, and make Allen wait for his chance.