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Matt Eberflus is a lucky man. He is the defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts, one of 14 teams left with a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. He has assembled a talented defense in Indianapolis, and that has made him a highly-coveted interview in the upcoming head coaching circuit. Eberflus has already been linked to interviews with the Jets, Texans and Chargers.
And you could not pay me enough money to be him right now.
Why? Because in front of him this week is solving the Josh Allen riddle. This season the Buffalo Bills quarterback has developed into a bona fide MVP candidate, posting career-best numbers along the way. Making matters worse, the Bills might be “getting hot at the right time,” as you cannot come away from watching Allen and this offense down the stretch and feel comfortable about facing him:
The Bills are averaging 47.3 PPG in their last three games lol what
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 5, 2021
But that is the task for Eberflus this week. How does he go about it?
First things first: Zone coverage or man coverage. This might be the easiest answer for the defensive coordinator.
Stay away from man coverage as much as possible.
Thanks to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, we know that Allen has feasted on man coverage this season. Against Cover 0/Cover 1/Cover 2 Man Underneath, Allen has completed 132 of 202 passes (65.3%) for 1,649 yards and 25 touchdowns, against just two interceptions. SIS also has Allen with an on-target percentage of 76.6% against these coverages, trailing only Teddy Bridgewater and Kirk Cousins according to their data. Allen’s NFL passer rating of 126.0 when facing these coverages trails only Cousins, and is ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
Now against zone coverages, the numbers dip. According to SIS when facing zone coverages (defined in this setting as Cover 2/Cover 3/Cover 4/Cover 6/Tampa 2/Combinations) Allen has completed a higher percent of his throws (71.2%) but his NFL passer rating drops to 95.1. He has also throw for just 11 touchdowns against these coverages, but eight interceptions.
Conceptually, this makes sense. Allen is still learning and developing, so facing coverages where he needs to read the field a bit more, rather than just gripping it and ripping it, might cause some problems. Couple that with the talent around him: When you have receivers to throw to that can separate consistently from man coverage – and an arm like his – you can have success against man.
Take this performance against the Miami Dolphins from earlier in the season, and take note of how he layered in some crossing routes against man coverages:
It's time to watch some Josh Allen
*Layering in throws
*Trusting Crash Davis…err…Brian Daboll
*Working the middle of the field
*Processing speed and manipulation pic.twitter.com/ST0TOthekX
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) September 21, 2020
Not what you want to see Saturday if you are a Colts fan.
So, zone coverages.
But which ones?
That might be a tougher question to answer rather than the nebulous “man versus zone” choice. Because Allen has been good against different kinds of zone coverages this season. This is where Eberflus might start thinking about what he wants to take away, and the choice between “middle-of-the-field closed” (MOFC) versus “middle-of-the-field open” (MOFO) coverages.
Traditionally, the Colts under Eberflus have been more of a MOFO team, playing a lot of Cover 2, Cover 4 and Cover 6 schemes in the secondary. That leaves you with two safeties deep for the most part, exposing you to throws in the intermediate area of the field and between the safeties, but giving you safety help to both sides of the field.
Numbers might also push you in that direction. According to SIS when facing those coverages this season, Allen has an NFL passer rating of 97.4, in contrast to the passer rating of 105.8 he has posted when facing MOFC coverages (Cover 1 and Cover 3). Granted this blurs the line between man and zone somewhat, but if this is what you do as a defense, and the opposing quarterback might struggle against it – relatively speaking – that is your answer, right?
Not so fast my friend, as Lee Corso would say.
This season the Colts have been much better defensively when using those MOFC coverages. When they’ve run Cover 2/Cover 4/Cover 6, the Colts have allowed a completion percentage of 71.9%, yards per attempt of 8.2, and a QBR against of 95.68, according to SIS.
When using Cover 1/Cover 3? The Colts are one of the best pass defenses in the league. They have allowed a completion percentage of just 58.3% (fourth-best in the league), 7.49 yards per attempt, and a QBR against of just 84.11.
Closing the field might be what the Colts do best this season, and it might just be an answer to slowing down Allen and this passing attack. Yes, the Bills quarterback has enjoyed success against man coverage this year, but closing the middle of the field allows you one more player in the intermediate area of the defense, to help take away those crossing routes and constrict the throwing lanes between the hashmarks.
Of course, that might leave you in one-on-one situations against wide receivers who can separate consistently against man coverage such as Cole Beasley and Stefon Diggs. But with both players banged up going into the weekend (Beasley with a knee injury and Diggs with an oblique strain) you might be willing to take that chance.
Besides, watch the throw from Allen at the 1:25 mark of this video:
The Buffalo Bills clinched the AFC East with a win Saturday evening. Let's look at three throws from Josh Allen:
*Working progressions and staying in rhythm
*Placement to the boundary on the 5 route
*Splitting the safeties with the seam for six pic.twitter.com/BPkA5m9z80
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) December 21, 2020
Or the throw at the 1:00 mark of this video:
Kicking off the Week 17 QB videos with…Josh Allen yet again. Three throws! (Thanks for following along all season everyone these have been fun to do).
*Scramble drills and arm talent
*Left shoulder involvement when moving left
*Bucket shots pic.twitter.com/6SckXrRsXi
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) January 4, 2021
Those two throws – perhaps Allen’s two best of the season in my opinion – came against those MOFO coverages. Perhaps, just perhaps, closing the middle of the field gives you a shot. Maybe even a decent one.
Still couldn’t pay me to be Eberflus this week, though.