NY Jets QB Zach Wilson matches up surprisingly well against Buffalo Bills defense
On the surface, the Buffalo Bills’ defense seems like a daunting matchup for New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. Buffalo leads the NFL in interceptions per game (1.6) and has allowed the third-lowest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (73.8). Wilson has the second-lowest passer rating among qualified quarterbacks this season (71.0).
It’s impossible for Wilson to enjoy success in this one, right?
Well… maybe not. Hear me out.
Don’t get me wrong, this is undoubtedly a David-versus-Goliath matchup. Succeeding against Buffalo’s elite defense will be difficult for the struggling Wilson no matter how you slice it.
However, the Bills’ schematic tendencies suggest they might be a surprisingly favorable matchup for Wilson. Buffalo relies heavily on coverages that Wilson tends to play well against. They rarely run the type of coverages that have caused Wilson the most trouble.
Wilson has seen a stark difference in his performance this season based on the safety shells thrown at him by the opposing defense. When he faces single-high safety coverages (Cover 1, Cover 3, etc.), he struggles mightily. But when he faces two-high safety coverages (Cover 2, Cover 4, etc.), he is playing respectable football.
Check out the disparity between Wilson’s numbers against single-high coverages and two-high coverages, per NFL Next Gen Stats (ranks among 35 quarterbacks):
- One high safety: 6.6 yards per attempt (29th), -0.22 Expected Points Added per dropback (30th), 33.3% success rate (33rd)
- Two high safeties: 9.5 yards per attempt (2nd), -0.01 Expected Points Added per dropback (15th), 44.2% success rate (15th)
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While he is a bottom-tier quarterback against single-high coverages, Wilson plays at the level of an average starting quarterback against two-high coverages. That’s why the Bills might be a solid matchup for him: they use two-high coverages more than any other team in the NFL.
Buffalo leads the NFL with a 63.4% usage rate of two-high coverages. That is significantly higher than the league average of 41.0%. The Bills use single-high coverages only 35.0% of the time, which ranks second-lowest in the NFL and is well below the league average of 54.3%.
A heavy two-high team like Buffalo is what Wilson has been waiting for. Each of his first five opponents this season were teams that currently rank in the top half of the NFL in single-high usage; four of them rank in the top eight. That includes the Patriots, who stymied Wilson last week. New England’s defense is the polar opposite of Buffalo’s, leading the NFL in single-high usage at 73.6%.
To boot, NFL teams are clearly aware of Wilson’s strengths and weaknesses, as Wilson’s first four opponents (prior to New England) challenged him with even more single-high coverage than they typically use.
Ultimately, Wilson has thrown 71.1% of his pass attempts this season against single-high coverages, which leads all qualified quarterbacks. His weaknesses have been amplified and his strengths have been minimized.
The Bills may be the right team to finally pull that single-high percentage down for Wilson. While many teams would shift their tendencies to match Wilson’s strengths and weaknesses, the Bills have proven themselves to be a strict two-high team that prefers to stick with their bread-and-butter on a weekly basis. It seems unlikely that they change their gameplan too heavily to match Wilson’s splits.
Buffalo’s season-low for two-high usage was 53.5% in a Week 6 win over Kansas City. Even that would still be the fourth-highest mark in the NFL if maintained over the full season.
It appears Wilson is finally going to have a game in which he sees two-high coverages on the majority of his pass attempts. If he can maintain the success he has had against those coverages so far this year, it could be a surprisingly respectable day for the second-year quarterback.
When you consider Buffalo’s injuries at the safety position, the idea of Wilson throwing against Buffalo’s two-high defense becomes even more appealing.
The Bills will be without starting safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer on Sunday, leaving Damar Hamlin and Jaquan Johnson in the starting spots. Hamlin and Johnson are enormous liabilities in coverage, as they have combined to allow a perfect passer rating of 158.3 when targeted this season.
This will be Buffalo’s third game of the season with both starting safeties sidelined. One of the two prior games came against Miami in Week 3, when the Bills suffered what remains their only loss of the season. A big reason for the defeat was the backup safety duo’s poor production in two-high coverages.
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa shredded Buffalo’s two-high coverages with the backup safety tandem on the field. Tagovailoa went 10-of-14 for 142 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions against two-high coverages in Week 3. His 127.7 passer rating against two-high coverages ranked third-best in the NFL that week, while his average of 0.48 EPA per dropback also ranked third-best.
Tagovailoa achieved that success by aggressively challenging the safeties downfield. Against two-high coverages, Tagovailoa’s average pass attempt traveled 10.4 yards downfield, which ranked sixth-highest among qualified quarterbacks that week.
Watch here as Tagovailoa beats the Bills’ two-high coverage with Johnson (#4) and Hamlin (#3) back deep in a Cover 2. Pre-snap, Buffalo shows single-high coverage with Hamlin deep and Johnson low. Post-snap, Johnson drops back, making it a two-high look. Johnson is isolated against Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who gets Johnson to bite on a corner-post route. Tagovailoa takes the shot and connects with Waddle as he drops the ball directly in between the safeties.
Wilson is ready to match the approach Tagovailoa used against Buffalo. Zach has been very aggressive against two-high coverages this season, with his average pass attempt traveling 10.3 yards downfield. That ranks fifth-highest among qualified quarterbacks. It’s one of the biggest differences in comparison to his play against single-high coverages, as in those scenarios, he is throwing the ball only 7.6 yards downfield, ranking 23rd out of 35 qualifiers.
Aggression is the key to punishing the Bills’ backup safeties in two-high situations. In the Bills’ second game with the backup safety duo – Week 5 against Pittsburgh – they were a lot more successful, holding Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett to a 67.3 passer rating against two-high coverages. This is largely because Pickett was not nearly as aggressive as Tagovailoa. His average pass against two-high traveled only 7.4 yards downfield.
Wilson’s track record against two-high coverages suggests he is more likely to mirror Tagovailoa’s approach than Pickett’s, which should put him in a great position to be successful. To maximize this, I would like to see Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur try to isolate his speediest weapons against Buffalo’s safeties to create favorable deep-shot opportunities for Wilson.
It’s easy to picture the explosive Garrett Wilson winning on the same corner-post route Miami called for Waddle in the play above. Denzel Mims has good long speed and can provide a big jump-ball target in the middle of the field. Elijah Moore is another high-speed weapon, and his shiftiness as a route-runner could cause trouble for Buffalo’s safeties.
Don’t sleep on Zach Wilson vs. Buffalo
The NFL is a game of matchups, as they say. Buffalo’s style of play seems to be conducive to success for Wilson.
With that being said, this is the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL for a reason. It is an extremely well-coached unit. I doubt the Bills are going to just sit back and let Wilson do what he does best when he has such a well-documented set of weaknesses that have been easily exploited over the past three weeks. This is still going to be a tough challenge for Wilson despite the favorable schematic matchup.
We’ll see what happens. The Bills could be the perfect team for Wilson to have his breakout game against, or they could crush Wilson in as predictable of a fashion as most expect.