How will the Buffalo Bills utilize the blitz against New York Jets QB Aaron Rodgers?
Under Sean McDermott, the Buffalo Bills have never been known as much of a blitzing team. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bills had the sixth-lowest blitz rate in 2022 at 21.0%.
Aaron Rodgers experienced this firsthand last year. In the Packers’ Week 8 trip to Buffalo, Rodgers was blitzed only one time across 34 dropbacks (2.9%). It led to positive results as Buffalo held Green Bay to 190 passing yards and secured a 27-17 victory.
With these facts in mind, it would seem the Bills are poised to utilize a low blitz rate against the New York Jets on Monday night. But is that really the case?
There’s a key variable to keep in mind here: Von Miller. Buffalo had a healthy Miller in the win over Rodgers. Miller’s presence allowed the Bills to feel confident in their four-man rush, eliminating the need to use the blitz to create pressure. After Miller went down with a season-ending ACL tear in Week 12, things changed drastically.
According to PFF, the Bills ranked fourth in the league in pressure rate (34%) with a four-man rush while Miller was in the lineup. Without Miller, the Bills were 27th in pressure rate (25%) with a four-man rush. They could no longer generate pressure at an effective rate without blitzing.
The loss of Miller prompted Buffalo to blitz more frequently. Through Week 11, Buffalo had the fourth-lowest blitz rate at 16.8%. From Weeks 12-18, the Bills jumped to 13th in blitz rate at 27.8%.
Miller will miss Monday’s game as he continues to recover from his injury. This begs the question: Will Buffalo revisit the anti-blitzing strategy that worked against Rodgers, or will they stick with the heavier blitzing approach they utilized after Miller’s injury?
Until gameday, the Jets will have no idea what to expect from Buffalo in this department. They must be ready for both possibilities.
If the Bills decide to rarely blitz
If Buffalo decides to use a low blitz rate, it will be paramount for the Jets’ offensive line to dominate in pass protection. Yes, dominate, not just do “okay”.
The Bills’ pass rush struggled mightily to win with four after Miller’s injury – performing at a bottom-six level in terms of pressure rate. New York’s offensive line needs to fully exploit this weakness and give Rodgers ample time to read the field against seven defenders in coverage.
Buffalo has the same defensive mindset as New York. They want to rely on the four-man rush and stay away from the blitz so they can keep as many defenders in coverage as possible. This allows them to limit deep passes and create more opportunities for interceptions.
This strategy works great when the four-man rush gets home (see: 2022 Jets). But it leads to disaster when it doesn’t (see: 2021 Jets). The Jets’ offensive line needs to thoroughly handle the Bills if they decide to rarely blitz. Otherwise, Buffalo’s defense will be right in its wheelhouse.
It should be noted that Buffalo added former Rams edge rusher Leonard Floyd in free agency, which should help them survive the loss of Miller better than they did at the end of 2022. However, while Floyd is known as a solid sack artist (three straight seasons with 9.0+ sacks), he’s actually not stellar when it comes to consistently creating pressure.
In 2022, Floyd’s pressure rate was 11.2%, which ranked 44th out of the 99 edge rushers with at least 200 pass-rush snaps. The league average for edge rushers was 10.8%. Over the past three years, Floyd’s pressure rate is 10.9%. He’s only a tad above average when it comes to consistently generating pressure. If the Jets are serious about protecting Rodgers, Floyd should not be a serious problem for them.
Lining up on the right side of Buffalo’s defensive line, Floyd will spend most of the game battling against Jets left tackle Duane Brown. On the opposite edge, Mekhi Becton will have a fierce duel with Greg Rousseau, who had two sacks in Buffalo’s win over the Jets last season.
On the interior, the Jets will count on Laken Tomlinson, Connor McGovern, and Alijah Vera-Tucker to handle the defensive tackle duo of DaQuan Jones and Ed Oliver.
To pass the ball successfully against a light-blitzing team, you need great pass protection. Teams can drop as many players into coverage as they want, but if the quarterback gets all day to throw, somebody will get open eventually – especially when you have a quarterback like Rodgers who thrives at improvisational throws.
The spotlight is already squarely focused on New York’s offensive line, but if the Bills utilize a low blitz rate, the pressure on New York’s front five will be dialed up even further.
If the Bills utilize a high blitz rate
Should Buffalo decide to turn up the heat, I’m turning my attention to the skill-position players – both in the blocking game and the receiving game.
Most importantly, the running backs and tight ends will be called upon to make crucial blocks in pass protection.
This was on full display in the Jets’ Week 14 loss to the Bills. Buffalo blitzed Mike White on 29.8% of his dropbacks (14 of 47) and achieved great results. When blitzed, White completed 7-of-13 passes for 77 yards and was sacked once for a loss of 10 yards, ultimately generating 67 yards on 14 plays (4.8 yards per play).
The high blitz rate placed a heavy amount of stress on the Jets’ skill-position players. They were not up to the task. New York’s tight ends and running backs combined to allow five pressures on 13 pass-blocking snaps in that game (38.5% pressure rate), including two sacks.
The Jets need everyone to do their part in pass protection if the Bills decide to blitz frequently.
At tight end, Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah must be prepared to handle one-on-one reps if a blitz forces them into it.
At running back, the Jets need Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook to stay alert for blitzers. The Jets cannot afford to have linebackers coming up the middle and spearing Rodgers in the chest the way Buffalo’s linebackers did to White last year. Hall and Cook must be completely sure there are no incoming threats before they release into the flat.
Hall showed potential as a pass-blocker in 2022, allowing only one pressure on 22 pass-blocking snaps. Cook has well-documented issues as a blocker. Both backs will be tested if the Bills send Matt Milano and other speedy blitzers after Rodgers.
It’s not just in the blocking game where the skill-position players will be placed under greater stress if the Bills blitz heavily. It’s also in the receiving game.
Rodgers will want to get the ball out quickly against the blitz. He’s going to sniff out blitzes pre-snap, locate his preferred answer among the available options, and try to release the ball before the pressure can affect the play.
For Rodgers to do this, his receivers need to be on the same page with him. The Jets’ weapons will have to read the blitz just as effectively as Rodgers. They must be able to identify that a blitz is coming, adjust their routes accordingly, and present themselves as early options for Rodgers.
In his last season under Nathaniel Hackett (2021), Rodgers averaged 2.46 seconds from snap to throw when blitzed, the sixth-fastest time among 37 qualified quarterbacks. This quick release time led to fantastic results; Rodgers completed 94-of-151 passes for 1,089 yards, 17 touchdowns, and one interception against the blitz.
Hackett won’t know how Buffalo plans to utilize the blitz until the game gets underway. Regardless of which approach the Bills use, the Jets need to be ready for everything. Buffalo has a well-coached defense that features many players who have accrued years of experience in the scheme. It’s a disciplined and fundamentally sound crew that always comes ready to play.
The Jets’ preparation will be tested.