How to improve Bills' deep passing woes; Texans' struggling D


Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.

Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!

Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! This week, he reached out to YOU the fans to see what issues your team has that you'd like him to fix. Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 15. Now, let's get to the first response:

Thanks for the reply, Ryan. I love talking about the Buffalo Bills, whose development I've enjoyed watching from afar. I have also seen them up close and personal this season, most recently at New Era Field where they easily disposed of the Denver Broncos. The Bills (9-4) are in the thick of the AFC playoff race but aren't guaranteed a playoff spot with two monster road games left to play. It starts with a Sunday night showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are an impressive 7-1 in their last eight games, and is followed by a trip to Foxborough in Week 16. The last time Buffalo beat the Patriots in Foxborough there was a different president in office.

The road isn't yet paved to the playoffs, and I couldn't help but notice one flaw that needs correcting after watching the Bills lose to the mighty Ravens in Week 14. But before I get to that, it's noteworthy to see just how far the Bills have come from their 6-10 record last season. The offense has improved in scoring from 30th in the league a year ago to 20th, and were an abysmal 31st in passing in 2018 before improving to a respectful 19th. On third down, they've jumped from 30th to 18th. All of these are healthy improvements behind a rebuilt and improved offensive line, along with free-agent acquisitions at receiver and a rookie class that includes right tackle Cody Ford, tight end Dawson Knox and starting running back Devin Singletary. The Bills are building this team the right way, and it's noticeable.

They have built around their franchise quarterback Josh Allen but simply need to find a rare player to do everything around him. It's clear that that plan is in place. Right now, it's far from perfect and there is much room for improvement. While the wind swirled and made the football do some crazy things amidst the crazy gusts -- hey, it is Buffalo in December -- Allen attempted eight deep passes (20-plus air yards) against Baltimore. Allen connected on one of those passes to Knox for 37 yards, which means the Bills missed on the other seven. That's worrisome.

The first deep shot was the most telling. On the third play of the game on third-and-4 from their own 33-yard line, the Bills lined up in a bunch formation (a cluster of three receivers) to Allen's left. Covered by Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey with help from safety Earl Thomas, Bills receiver John Brown was wide open when he turned to look for the ball on a deep post at midfield. The young passer had great protection and a good view of his receiver -- Allen kept his eyes on Brown the entire way -- but overthrew Brown for an incompletion. The speedy receiver looked a tad frustrated that they missed a great opportunity and were forced to punt.

There were other clean misses with one to Knox against CB Jimmy Smith on a deep corner route and another where the ball fell off Singletary's fingertips on the outside. Another was dropped by Cole Beasley. All were missed opportunities that have made a narrow loss to the hottest team in football that much more challenging.

Deep passes is the last phase of improvement in Buffalo's metamorphosis from a non-playoff contender to regular participant. The deep throw connection is sometimes the last thing that clocks because it doesn't get called all that frequently because it's a low-percentage throw to begin with. Watching Drew Brees and Tom Brady play each week, you'll notice they take their shots sparingly because their accuracy allows them to chip away at defenses at a much higher completion percentage. They can't rely on the cannon for an arm like Allen can.

I like most everything about the Year 2 development of Allen, as he's improved in almost every statistical category under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. If the Bills can convert a few more deep shots in the next few weeks, they will likely make the playoffs and pose a tough matchup for any team. It won't be easy against the Steelers on Sunday, though, as they rank second with 17 interceptions this season, including 11 on passes of 10-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats. Allen must pick his spots and make the most of them.

Well, the Seahawks are enjoying a very nice 10-3 record with signature wins over the Vikings and 49ers in recent weeks, and Russell Wilson has been mentioned throughout the season as a bona fide MVP candidate -- and rightfully so. Unfortunately, the grueling schedule has taken a toll on these Seahawks, and I'm not sure they can withstand much more carnage. They lost great center Justin Britt against the Falcons in Week 7. They lost a terrific second-year tight end in Will Dissily a few weeks ago, and last week, it was second-year running back Rashaad Penny falling victim to a season-ending knee injury. Penny had just amassed 203 rush yards and two TDs on 29 carries in the team's two previous wins, and his role was clearly being defined. So was the Seahawks' offense as a power running team with Chris Carson and Penny providing a one-two punch behind a very good offensive line. That vision fell apart quickly when the Seahawks lost Penny to IR.

Less than a month ago, the Seahawks bolstered their receiving corps by adding Josh Gordon, who has only amassed six catches for 81 yards and no TDs despite playing 116 snaps. I mention all of this because just when the Seahawks looked like they were establishing a firm identity, they lost a key component. No one feels sorry for Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, and neither do I. Injuries are part of the game and winning teams always find ways to overcome them. The Seahawks have certainly done this in the past under Carroll, so I suspect they will again in 2019.

But it's hard to gain consistency week in and week out with so many good offensive players falling out of the lineup. Wilson has done a good job of overcoming injuries to the unit and adjusting to new personnel, but after the Seahawks came away from Los Angeles without a single touchdown, questions are raised. When I studied the loss to the Rams, I saw a lot of missed opportunities, including going just 5-14 on third down. The first came on the opening drive on third-and-3 at the Rams' 15-yard line. Carson left the backfield toward a bunch formation behind the quarterback, while three receivers took off to cross right to left at different levels. The Rams completely blew the coverage with three defenders keying on Carson's movement and leaving Lockett wide open in the middle of the field. Wilson's first read was Carson and by the time he went to his second read, the pocket collapsed. The veteran passer misses those opportunities from time to time as he relies on great footwork and his amazing athletic ability to escape the rush or to get clearer vision. With the inability to stay on the field due to miscues and finish drives were huge reasons for Seattle's struggles.

Doug Baldwin, now retired, was a master at moving with Wilson during his days in Seattle, but Wilson's guy is Lockett now. So far it's been a blessing and a curse for this unit. Wilson will often extend the play to buy valuable time to find an open target, but when doing this, he tends to pass over open receivers like Lockett when the coverage was blown. There are growing pains for any unit with so many rotating parts, and especially when playing with a quarterback like Wilson because plays often go beyond the X's and O's.

Knowing Wilson's work habits and desire for excellence, I expect to see the quarterback to be on the same page as his receivers more regularly in the coming weeks. We'll get our first glimpse Sunday of whether or not this area was addressed during the week.

No Week 15 game is bigger than the one in the Music City this weekend between the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans (both 8-5), who also meet in the season finale. Bottom line: First place in the AFC South is up for grabs. The Texans have their eyes on repeating as AFC South, but there are several areas that need fixing before that can happen.

Losing J.J. Watt was immeasurable especially after trading away Jadeveon Clowney prior to the start of the season. With those two monsters chasing QBs around the yard every Sunday last season, the Texans reeled off nine straight wins at one point to win the division with a healthy 11-5 record. They were No. 1 in run defense and finished the year as the fourth-best defense in the NFL, giving up as many TDs in 16 games last year as they have in just 13 this season. In addition, the Texans haven't generated the number of takeaways as they've decreased from 15 picks last season to just seven so far in 2019. The fourth-best defense of yesteryear dropped to 20th this season, and possibly the most startling evidence of this decline was what Denver rookie Drew Lock did to the unit a week ago. In just his second NFL start, Lock threw for over 300 yards and three easy TD passes, while putting up a 136.0 passer rating. It wasn't pretty from a defensive standpoint.

The Texans knew being without Clowney and losing Watt was going to hurt. That's the reason they picked up Vernon Hargreaves and Gareon Conley -- both former high first-round draft picks who have rarely played at that level. The Texans' defense aim to play sticky man coverage to make quarterbacks throw quick passes to beat the coverage. There wasn't much of that last week as Lock was unfazed and only sacked once on 27 dropbacks.

A great pass rush is always a good counter if a secondary is struggling to cover man to man. Perhaps the rumors of Watt making a late-season return could help, but I don't think Houston should count on that. Romeo Crennel is an experienced coordinator and understands that he must play to his strengths. The Texans need their secondary to play better but it's hard when the pass rush is giving time for players like Lock to carve them up. First of all, the Texans can't keep blowing assignments. On Broncos tight end Jeff Heuerman's touchdown, his first of the season, no one covered him. Blown assignments have hurt this defense and will continue to unless they are addressed in meetings and practice.

The Texans are last in the NFL on third down, surrendering almost 50 percent of attempts (Lock was 5-of-8 with two TDs on third down last week). Third-down defense is largely a mentality. It's time to come up with a different plan. Maybe that includes playing rookie Lonnie Johnson, who played well in a big win over Kansas City earlier in the season. Rookies make mistakes, and I'm not suggesting he hasn't made his fair share, but some quickly learn from those mistakes. It's worth a try.

Or maybe they should consider more zone pressures to get after the quarterback to make him move while playing more zone coverage behind the receivers. Ryan Tannehill is one of the hottest QBs in the league since taking over as the Titans' starting quarterback in Week 7. In addition to his ability to get the ball to his receivers at a high percentage clip (73.4), he is also the second-leading rusher for the Titans in rushing for three TDs this season. His production could vary depending on whether or not Derrick Henry (hamstring) plays Sunday.

It comes down to this: If the Texans want to repeat as division winners, they have to be better defensively. I could spend all day isolating many weaknesses, but it's up to Crennel and the veteran players to pick their game up. There is no better time than when first place in the AFC South is on the line.

Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.



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