We all know the saying "any given Sunday," but the shock of the Buffalo Bills' 27-6 bludgeoning of the Minnesota Vikings might never wear off.
Entering with the NFL's worst point differential (minus-55), on the road and without their best offensive player (LeSean McCoy, fractured rib cartilage), the Bills were 17-point underdogs. According to Pro Football Reference, which has point spreads dating back to 1978, only three 17-plus-point dogs had won outright in the last 40 years (none since 1995), and only six had won as underdogs of 15-plus points. None of the six won by more than seven points.
The Bills didn't just win -- they stormed out to a 24-0 lead within 18 minutes and settled for a 21-point margin. How the heck did it happen? I'm glad you asked.
Rookie first-round quarterback Josh Allen certainly wowed, flaunting the physical gifts that had scouts drooling on their trips to Wyoming.
After outrunning linebacker Anthony Barr (4.66 40-yard dashes at 2014 combined) and flying to the pylon for an early 10-yard score, Allen (perhaps unwisely) hurdled the 6-foot-5 linebacker two possessions later for a 10-yard gain on third-and-9. His legs also created a 55-yard catch for Chris Ivory off a scramble, a 9-yard run on third-and-6 and two QB sneak conversions: one for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal, and one against a strong Vikings surgeon a third-and-a-long-1.
Despite those positives, Allen didn't exactly shine as a passer, though he was heavily insulated by the scheme. To limit the burden on Allen, coordinator Brian Daboll dialed up myriad screens (bubbles, flares, RB, TE), play-action and spread misdirection including jet sweeps, option fakes, and the power-read shovel. To his credit, Allen mostly executed well, but plenty of work was done for him. Exhibit A was the 26-yard touchdown to tight end Jason Croom, a fake bubble screen where Allen merely had to pump fake to the flat and then throw to a wide-open target for six.
Allen benefited greatly from field position -- thanks to takeaways and a bad punt, the Bills' first five possessions, on average, started at the Minnesota 46 -- and game script, as Buffalo led the whole way. He escaped with a dropped interception by Waynes on a deep ball late in the first quarter. Allen also botched a jet-sweep pop pass (incorrectly ruled a fumble) early in the second quarter, fumbled a snap from under center early in the third and was incredibly careless on a strip-sack five minutes later, though Croom fortunately recovered.
Taken altogether, it was a nice game for Allen to build confidence. But the real star of Sunday's upset was the Bills' sublime defense, which allowed just 68 yards -- 20 of which came on two meaningless completions just before halftime -- on 33 plays through three quarters.
The dominance started up front and was led by defensive end Jerry Hughes, who reached Kirk Cousins often and also set up teammates. He hounded Reilly Reiff all day, using both a dip-and-rip around the edge and a speed-to-power bull rush. Hughes bent the corner for Buffalo's second of two first-quarter strip-sacks and was inches from another on a nearly identical play late in the third quarter.
Including Hughes' strip-sack, much of the Bills' pressure came via zone exchanges, a concept in which one of four linemen drops into coverage as a linebacker blitzes a different gap. Head coach Sean McDermott -- who took playcalling duties from coordinator Leslie Frazier this week -- loves this tactic because it can create free rushers while keeping seven men in coverage. Don't dismiss the dropping lineman: On a third-and-5 late in the first, defensive end Trent Murphy recognized Stefon Diggs' shallow crosser and walloped him 3 yards into the backfield.
McDermott repeatedly called zone exchanges on third downs, utilizing gifted linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. A freakish talent who occasionally played as an edge rusher at Virginia Tech, Edmunds actually wasn't asked to rush but instead showed blitz before dropping out, something his 4.54 speed allows him to do very effectively. Pretty swift (4.67) in his own right, Milano often rushed from a few yards off the ball -- far enough that O-line protections usually didn't account for him -- and beat running backs for pressures, including a sack.
Edmunds and Milano also showed off their speed in underneath coverage throughout the afternoon, breaking hard downhill to gobble up short throws. Midway through the third quarter, both men sandwiched Latavius Murray as a pass arrived from Cousins, popping the ball into the air before Milano corralled it (with the help of his feet) for an interception.
That takeaway was only possible because another young stud, cornerback Tre'Davious White, made a dazzling breakup a play earlier. The Vikings dialed up a Mills concept (also called "pin" or "anchor") in which an inside target (Kyle Rudolph, in this case) runs a curl or square-in and the outside receiver to the same side (Stefon Diggs) runs a post. The concept is deadly against Cover-4 -- which the Bills' defense had called -- as the safety usually bites on the inside route, leaving the outside corner (White) to chase down the post with no help. Cousins saw it open and delivered a perfect throw to Diggs, but White's fantastic closing speed helped him jostle Diggs as the ball arrived, and it fell incomplete.
Predominantly a left corner, White uncharacteristically traveled with Diggs (who finished with four catches for 17 yards) at times and gave him fits. Rookie corner Taron Johnson also impressed, flashing speed and physicality from underneath coverage in the slot. That duo, along with Edmunds and Milano, is part of a wealth of exciting young talent McDermott has to work with on defense.
There will certainly be plenty of headaches (like the Ravens' 47-point outing in Week 1), but performances like Sunday's are a reason for tremendous optimism.
--Atlanta breaks out its shiny new toy
Even after an underwhelming first year under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons' offense didn't really need another dangerous receiver. But general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn couldn't help themselves when Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley fell to them at No. 26 in the draft.
After a catchless debut and four grabs for 64 yards and a score in Week 2, Ridley took center stage in the Falcons' game plan against the Saints and stole the show. The stat line (seven catches for 146 yards and three scores) was fantastic. The film looked even better.
Known for his polish coming out of Alabama, Ridley doesn't play like a rookie. He showed patience and feel on his first grab Sunday, sitting down in a zone on third-and-7 so Matt Ryan could hit him for 10 yards. After a 9-yard end-around on the next play, Ridley capped the drive by exploiting Saints corner P.J. Williams twice in a row.
On third-and-10, he ran at Williams' off-coverage before cutting sharply inside on a dig, coming wide open for a 15-yard gain. The Falcons then went up-tempo, and Ridley preyed on the corner's comfy cushion, again showing patience by selling the "stop" portion of a stop-and-go. Williams bit hard, just as Ridley released for an easy 18-yard TD.
It got worse for Williams. Early in the second quarter, Ridley juked to beat the long-armed corner's jam to the outside and caught a back-shoulder throw for 11 yards. Ridley used the same release again on Williams 12 minutes later, but this time he continued over the top. The result: a 75-yard score.
The Saints tried Ken Crawley on Ridley in the third, but he flew behind the corner (and safety Marcus Williams) on a post and drew a 45-yard pass interference penalty. Two plays later, Ridley peeled out of his route into the back corner of the end zone as Ryan scrambled, shaking free from Williams' zone for TD No. 3.
Running out of answers, the Saints put top corner Marshon Lattimore on Ridley -- with Crawley taking Julio Jones -- on third-and-6 in the third. But Sarkisian helped Ridley with a stack-release rub route from tight end Austin Hooper, freeing the rookie for 8 on a crossing route.
With his speed and precision route-running, Ridley already looks more dangerous than nominal second wideout Mohamed Sanu, which is no knock on Sanu. The rookie will surely demand more attention moving forward, loosening coverage around Jones, Sanu, Hooper and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
That trickle-down effect could make the Falcons' offense one of the deadliest in the NFL once again, especially on the turf of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Given Atlanta's rash of injuries on defense, the pressure will be on Sarkisian's unit to play to its talent on a weekly basis.
-Shanahan a master of disguise
Beating defenses with the same plays on a routine basis are hard. Opposing coaches and players watch a film, see what's working for their next opponent and make a point of recognizing it and stopping it. But Kyle Shanahan is so good at disguising his favorite plays -- dressing them up with different formations, personnel, etc. -- that defenses often don't recognize them until it's too late.
Sunday's walk-in 35-yard touchdown to fullback Kyle Juszczyk -- on a concept known as the tight end throwback -- was the epitome of this. The design involves a play-action bootleg fake during which a tight end patiently pretends to run-block across the formation, before surreptitiously releasing on a wheel route up the far sideline, opposite the quarterback's rollout. Since quarterbacks almost never throw all the way across the field by design, the route usually comes wide open, unless the defense is prepared for the play.
Defenses surely study this play before facing the 49ers, who used it several times last year and in Week 1 (a wide-open George Kittle dropped a 50-plus yard gain). But Shanahan dressed it up Sunday so the Chiefs would never see it coming.
First, he flipped the play's direction, which sounds simple and obvious but is critical in this case. Almost every team that runs this play has the QB boot to the right (and TE route go to the left) because it's far easier for a right-handed quarterback to make the demanding, cross-field throw while rolling right. By running it the other direction, Shanahan asked more of Jimmy Garoppolo -- who had to get out of the boot quickly, flip his hips and fire -- but made the play much harder to recognize.
Second, Shanahan used a fullback in Juszczyk, who surely draws less attention than Kittle, instead of a tight end. And third, he used pre-snap motion, starting Juszczyk in an offset-I position before motioning him to an inline tight end spot.
The Chiefs' defenders probably practiced against this look attacking their right side, but probably not to their left. And they certainly didn't practice it with the key route being run by a fullback who had just motioned out of the backfield. With those slight tweaks, Shanahan kept the element of surprise intact on one of his signature plays for an easy touchdown.
Garoppolo's injury understandably took the air out of the 49ers' sails, but there's comfort in knowing Shanahan remains one of the league's shrewdest play designers.