ORCHARD PARK — The Buffalo Bills want to beat quarterbacks into submission. Whether they get a sack or not, the Bills want quarterbacks to remember the hit and that they are coming back for more.
Buffalo hit Washington’s Sam Howell — the NFL’s leading passer — 15 times. It got Baker Mayfield 10 times and Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence nine times apiece. Opponents saw and decided they didn’t want that fate for their quarterbacks.
After the Bills recorded 16 sacks in the first four games of the season, opposing offenses began running concepts designed to slow or nullify pass rushes. Buffalo saw 3 ½ screen passes per game through four weeks, but the number has jumped to 4.1 over the last seven, while no opponent ran more than eight play-action passes through Week 4, but they have averaged 10 over the last seven outings.
As a result, the Bills pass rush has gone from averaging four sacks per game to 3.3. Hits, hurries, bad throws and just about every other pass rushing metric has gone down during that span as well.
Albeit against a subpar New York Jets offensive line, the Bills got some juice back in the pass rush by recording six sacks, the most since sacking Lawrence five times in Week 5. But now Buffalo faces a Philadelphia Eagles offense designed to put defenses in a bind and force them into quick decisions, with the ideal conductor in quarterback Jalen Hurts.
“They’re going to try and take us out of the game and have us running left and right,” Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “And when they try to do that, we gotta get over there and make a play. They’re not going to hand it to us.”
The Eagles aren’t among the league leaders in screens or play-action passes, but they run run-pass options (RPOs) more than any team in the NFL. Philadelphia has run 98 RPOs thus far, 15 more than anyone else in the league.
The 473 yards gained on those plays may not be a significant chunk, but RPOs are integral to Philadelphia’s running and passing games. The Eagles are the only team in the NFL that has eclipsed 40 runs and passes apiece on RPOs.
Philadelphia ranks 22nd in sacks allowed (27), but they are third in quarterback hits (17), eighth in hurries (22) and 15th in pressure percentage (20.9). Hurts’s ability to run — 28 of his 100 rushing attempts are on scrambles — adds another element to the RPOs and it can freeze the pass rush.
“Just don’t let looking at the run stop you from pass-rushing,” Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver said. “… Don’t stop pass-rushing to play the run and then have to start back rushing again.”
But the Eagles have capitalized by gaining 973 of their 1,281 yards rushing before contact, while being 27th in yards after contact (308).
“A lot of times I would assume give (by the quarterback), but you know what they say about assuming,” Epenesa said. “So I try to play every key, see what they’re giving me and then react to it off of that. You can’t really play for anything specific because then you let stuff go on the other end. … We’re gonna feel the game and just have to deal with those RPOs as they come.”
It’s hard to find cues or tips pre-snap if a team is going to run an RPO and Hurts mixes it up so much to have a tell which he will choose. Because it’s an immediate throw, most teams don’t have my receivers in a pattern, so most don’t worry about selling it.
“Most of the time receivers don’t really sell, they just go block who they have to block,” Bills cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “Most of the time they’re having to dig out safeties and linebackers, so they have to really get in there and really block.”
If the Bills solve the RPOs and pressure Hurts with four rushers, they have a better chance to stop him. The Bills are not a good blitzing team, giving up 198 yards passing when blitzing fewer than 10 times, compared to 254 when they blitz more than 10 times.
Hurts is also not a quarterback affected by the blitz often. His mobility allows him to escape muddy pockets, but he also ranks third in the NFL with 764 yards passing under pressure and is fifth with six touchdown passes.
If the Bills are forced to blitz, Hurts will get more one-on-one chances for receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, who have combined for more than 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“We’ve seen different styles of quarterbacks, where they’re a featured runner or a second runner, the RPO-style offenses,” Bills defensive line coach Eric Washington said. “… We’ll be prepared for Jalen and every dimension — everything that he provides for that offense. And we just have to be ready to execute how our plan dictates that we need to.”