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Did it work? Robert Saleh’s gameplan against Buffalo last year

Buffalo Bills v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been reviewing the games between the 49ers and the Jets’ AFC East rivals in 2020 to see what we can learn about Robert Saleh’s approach to countering these teams, concluding today with a look at the 49ers-Bills game.

Saleh was obviously the 49ers’ defensive coordinator and playcaller in 2020, so we’ll mostly focus on the defensive side of the ball. However, he also brought 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur and offensive line coach John Benton with him to the Jets. LaFleur will be the offensive coordinator in 2021 and his system is expected to be similar to that of the 49ers. We’ll therefore also touch on some of the offensive aspects of the gameplans against these teams.

The 49ers met Buffalo in week 13 last year. At the time, Buffalo was 8-3 and the 49ers were 5-6, but only one game out of a potential playoff spot.

As already noted in our previous two updates, the 49ers had already lost Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas for the season and had also traded Kwon Alexander by then. However, they were in slightly better shape than they had been for the Dolphins and Patriots games with both Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward available. Jaquiski Tartt did not play though.

It’s interesting to contrast the gameplan here with that of the previous two games against Miami and New England. What’s immediately apparent across the three games is that Saleh doesn’t mix up his formations very much or run a series of complex blitz packages.

You’ll note from our previous articles in this series that the main focus against Cam Newton seemed to be to keep him contained in the pocket and force him to read the defense and make quick decisions, whereas they made more of an effort to get quick pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick to force him to get rid of the ball quickly.

You’d expect this gameplan against Josh Allen to be more in line with the Patriots gameplan because Allen brings a similar threat as a runner to that of Newton. However, the main difference between the two offenses was that Buffalo’s pass catching options were far superior to those of New England and therefore the 49ers were reluctant to have Allen standing in the pocket and scanning the field.

As a result, they mixed up their pass rush approach more often with inside moves and stunts from the edge defenders, balancing out the risk of having Allen escape the pocket by spying him with an inside linebacker. There wasn’t one linebacker tasked with doing this all the time. Instead the decision would usually be determined by whichever way the back came out of the backfield, with one inside backer picking him up and the other staying in the middle of the field to spy Allen.

On this occasion, this almost worked to perfection as Allen was dissuaded from trying to run and instead tried to force a pass that was intercepted by Fred Warner. Fortunately for Buffalo, this was negated by a defensive penalty.

On another occasion you can see that Warner stays home and is able to prevent Allen from picking up the first down as he takes off. You’ll note that the running back lines up on the right but heads out into the left flat, so Dre Greenlaw (#57) goes with him as Warner (#54) can pass off the responsibility. Had the back gone to the right flat, Warner would pick him up leaving Greenlaw to stay home.

Ultimately, this neutralized Allen’s running threat (six carries, 11 yards) along with the overall running game for the Bills (three yards per carry), but they were unable to generate enough pressure on Allen to prevent him from having a big day through the air.

One key sequence at the end of the first half saw the Bills complete two passes to get into field goal range and make it a two-possession game at halftime. On the first of the two plays, the 49ers went with a conventional four man rush and the Bills left two extra blockers in (and had a third throw a chip) so Allen had forever to find an open man. On the next play they sent five against five blockers and Allen hit a wide open receiver on a quick crosser.

No doubt if the 49ers’ defensive line was at full strength, they’d have had more success with this and made Allen’s life a lot more difficult, but he ended up with 368 passing yards and four touchdowns.

If there was an example of Saleh getting outschemed, it came on this pivotal third quarter touchdown that allowed the Bills to stretch their led to 17 and came just a few plays after a costly roughing the passer penalty gifted the Bills a first down when they would’ve been faced with 3rd-and-18 near midfield.

The well-designed play by Brian Daboll led to Tarvarius Moore getting caught up in traffic. Maybe if Tartt was in instead of Moore, then this doesn’t work as easily.

Despite all of this, the 49ers were within seven points midway through the third quarter and Dion Jordan’s strip sack early in the fourth could have given them a chance to again pull within one score had the Bills not been fortunate enough to recover the ball on a lucky bounce.

On offense, the 49ers racked up over 400 yards, but - crucially - turned the ball over twice inside the five-yard line. With third-stringer Nick Mullens in at quarterback, they had some success on downfield shots, mostly going after Levi Wallace and staying away from Tre’ White. However, White’s interception in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter basically iced the Bills’ win.

In the running game, the 49ers offered up a varied attack that enabled them to rack up 86 yards at over four per carry. Here was a well-designed swerve counter to get the action going in one direction and then have the fullback, Kyle Juszczyk change direction so the back could go against the grain, setting up a one-on-one with a defensive back.

Once again, Juszczyk was an important contributor. He scored a touchdown again, just as he did against both Miami and New England and made key contributions as a blocker.

One final nugget on the 49ers offensive playcalling: In each of the other three games against AFC East opposition, the 49ers opened up with the same toss play on their first offensive snap. You may recall Gregg Williams saying the Jets knew the 49ers would run this and somehow still gave up an 80-yard touchdown.

In this game, they may well have been primed to do the same thing but instead opened up with a Juszczyk fullback dive, presumably because their first snap was lined up at their own two-yard line.

So...did it work? Well, the 49ers lost 34-24 and the result wasn’t really in doubt for the entire fourth quarter. However, in terms of an overmatched team staying competitive with a team on a roll that had one of the league’s best records, this wasn’t a bad effort by the 49ers and the game could have gone down to the wire but for a couple of key moments.

The Bills look like being the team to beat in the AFC East over the next few years and clearly their variety of offensive weapons presented a major challenge for Saleh and the 49ers with the players they had unavailable. The Jets clearly need to upgrade their defensive personnel to be able to operate Saleh’s scheme effectively against this team.