What the Buffalo Bills Can Learn From LeBron James

Updated: July 8, 2013
2013 NBA Finals - Game Seven

Leading San Antonio by 2 points with 30 seconds left in Game 7 of this year’s NBA Finals, Lebron James needed a big play in the face of a quickly expiring shot clock, lest he risk leaving the door open for the Spurs to revive the “Lebron is a choker” narrative.

James had the ball at the top of the key, and going to the rack, Lebron’s signature, (usually) unstoppable move, wasn’t an option. The Spurs had taken that away by giving the Heat forward an extra step and placing the rest of their defense in the lane. The message from Spurs coach Greg Popovich’s defensive alignment was clear: If Lebron James was going to score, it was going to have to be via jump shot.

Thus LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, was given a relatively easy, uncontested mid range jump shot to put the NBA championship on ice. Lebron converted, and he’s back on track in his quest to run down Michael Jordan’s 6 titles.

Football Applications

Why is Buddy Nixon off yapping about the ol’ roundball? (other than the fact apparently 50% of the city of Buffalo’s NBA fans write for this blog)

Simply put, the spacing principle at play above applies to more than just basketball and extends to all team sports where the focus is goal scoring: if a defense chooses to guard one area of the field, they are leaving another space vacated. Lebron was given a look at an open jumper not because the Spurs were playing sloppy defense, but because they thought Lebron’s ability to drive down the lane was a more imminent threat.

The football equivalent of this idea is best shown by safety play. A safety’s top responsibility is eponymous; they must keep the defense safe from downfield streaking receivers, lest an offense get an instant score with a deep ball. However, safeties are also essential defenders in action closer to the line of scrimmage, like cleaning up run plays and giving slanting receivers  something extra to worry about when they streak across the field.

The challenge for a safety, than, is that they have these two separate sets of responsibilities in two separate parts of the field. Additionally, a safety who positions himself not to get beat over the top is going to be a little bit later in run support, while playing too tight to the line of scrimmage gives the defense an opportunity for a big play. How, than, does the defense choose to align?

Mike Pettine’s Approach vs the Bills

Just like the Spurs in the example above, defenders will bias towards what the offense does well. A great example of this is week 9 of the 2011 season. Coming into that game, the Buffalo Bills had been moving the ball effectively by spreading defenses horizontally to create creases for the run game and one on one match ups for receivers. However, Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine’s New York Jets exposed a huge flaw: Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t pose much a serious threat to beat the defense over the top with the deep ball.

Take a peak at a few of the looks the Jets showed against 3+ wide sets from the Bills:

Jets tight 3Jets tight 2Jets tight 1


On each play, the free safety is playing extremely high, but the rest of the defense is playing very tight on their assignments, “Man Free” coverage. Notice the huge swaths of open field that are exposed.

Any competent vertical passing game should have been able to punish the Jets for playing such a coverage. The Bills vertical passing game was not competent, and Mike Pettine knew it. Ryan Fitzpatrick had a weak, inaccurate intermediate to deep ball; but even if his throws had more Weber’s mustard on them, the Bills famed “Goon Squad” of Stevie Johnson, David Nelson, and Donald Jones lacked the speed to get behind the secondary.

Since the Bills couldn’t present a serious threat to go vertical, the Jets got to disrupt Buffalo’s bread and butter- running the ball, short, quick passing- with an extra defender. On each of the above plays, the Jets were either able to disrupt the Bills timing on the passing routes for an incompletion or an immediate tackle for a short gain. The result was a crashing end to the Bills 2011 playoff run, and the blueprint to stifle Chan Gailey’s offense that would ultimately lead to the head coach’s dismissal.

Looking Forward to 2013

Based on personnel decisions, the Bills at least recognize this deficiency. Gone are Nelson and Jones, and in their place are a set of a receivers that all have the speed to win deep, plus a couple of quarterbacks with considerably stronger arms than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s talk of a K-Gun revival also show their recognition of the importance of the deep ball.

Execution is another matter in entirely, but it seems the Bills are moving in the right direction. The running game is in place as teams know they must account for CJ Spiller’s ability to turn any play into a score. Adding an ability to test opposing secondaries vertically will be the key to having a consistently effective offense this year and beyond.

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