We are a handful of hours away from the San Francisco 49ers “hosting” the Buffalo Bills in what should be an entertaining matchup. Thanks to a Sunday where the Niners received some help from their NFC foes, Monday night isn’t a “must-win,” but a victory would propel this team into a tie for the final wildcard spot in the NFC.
Based on how the weekend went and knowing what San Francisco has at stake, the Bills will get the 49ers’ best shot on Monday night. A win would put the Niners at 6-6, with two NFC East opponents on deck and the likelihood of Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle returning to the lineup in the coming weeks. Not as if the team needed any motivation, but everything that was just mentioned should have the team locked in.
A win won’t be easy. The Bills are one of the better-coached teams in the NFL with an MVP-caliber QB, a top-5 wide receiver on one of the best offenses in the league, and Buffalo boasts an opportunistic defense. Let’s take a look at where each team has its biggest advantage on offense and defense, and explain why the Bills defense will be the reason the home team wins.
Bills greatest strength on offense: Josh Allen and the passing game
Unlearning what you already know about someone is one of the more difficult things to do. Coming into the NFL, Allen was considered a project and hadn’t done much to change that perception. That is, until this season. Statistically, Allen is in elite company. Among quarterbacks, Allen’s second in success rate, fourth in EPA/play and completion percentage over expectation, sixth in quarterback rating, and eighth in DVOA.
When you watch the Bills, each of those numbers checks out. Allen is playing on time, and when the initial play isn’t there, he’s been one of the best in the league at buying time with his legs and holding onto the ball until the last second so his receivers can get open. If they’re not open, Allen has progressed to the point where he’s throwing them open, or at least giving his wideouts a chance to make a play.
San Francisco better be ready for Allen to carry the ball. He’s had three games this year with double-digit carries. We know the 49ers struggle against mobile quarterbacks. Allen isn’t going to run away from defenders, but he moves the chains. Allen has 81 carries on the season, and 32 of those have gone for first downs. He also has 121 yards after contact.
Monday night will be one of the best passing attacks the 49ers defense sees all season. When you watched the defense against the Rams, you could tell they saw Sean McVay’s plays in training camp every day. Players were running routes for the receivers. Unlike the Rams, the Bills make you defend every level. If the 49ers show blitz too quickly, Buffalo will check into a screen. On the next play, Buffalo will scheme up a long pass to Stefon Diggs. Two plays later, we’ll see Cole Beasley running an intermediate route.
Buffalo is dangerous, and it all starts with their quarterback being a playmaker. The 49ers must be prepared to defend the Bills receivers “twice” in one play, as Allen should have time to throw against a Niners defense that’s trending in the right direction but still struggles to sack the quarterback.
49ers greatest strength on defense: Getting off the field
The Niners’ defense makes you earn it. Nothing comes easy. Yes, they are fast. Yes, they have a bunch of good players despite having suffered from injuries. Yes, they have an outstanding defensive coordinator. The 49ers play sound and smart, which makes life difficult for any offense. On the year, San Francisco ranks seventh in yards and plays per drive. They’re fifth in time of possession per drive and sixth in drive success rate. All of this has happened without their best player.
When you see Kevin Givens PFF grade last week in the 50s, it ignores the six players where Givens knives into the backfield, throws all of the blocking out of whack, and the running back has nowhere to go. San Francisco wins on early downs, which allows them to get to third down, put a track team on the field, and force offenses to punt. The Niners are eighth in opponent third-down percentage this season.
Kerry Hyder seems to make a play every week on third down to help get the defense off the field. It’s unlikely that Emmanuel Moseley plays on Monday night. Who will play in the slot? Probably the same guy that limited Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods a week ago. Jimmie Ward will likely be on Beasley, while Tarvarius Moore’s speed should limit the Bills’ deep passing. On the year, the 49ers have allowed the fourth-fewest explosive passing plays in the NFL.
Think about those plays. Donate Johnson late against the Eagles. The ghost of Brian Williams against the Dolphins. Marcell Harris a couple of times at safety. Emmanuel Moseley against DK Metcalf and Devante Adams, then Jason Verrett on a double move here or there. There have been more, but they’ve been few and far between.
The biggest mismatch of the night
When you watch the 49ers on offense, you see speed. Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk present matchup problems for anybody. When you watch the Bills, you see linebacker Tremaine Edmunds flying around, but that’s the only player that jumps out. Buffalo has struggled against teams that motion at the snap. They get out of their gaps, and it’s created big rushing lanes.
Guess which team motions pre-snap the most in the NFL? Good guess. Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and Jerick McKinnon will have ample cutback lanes against Buffalo. On the season, the Bills have allowed the 8th-most explosive running plays on defense. Where do the Bills struggle to stop the run the most? Outside of the tackles. What is Kyle Shanahan’s offense known for running? You guessed it, running outside of the tackles.
Per Sharp Football stats, Buffalo has given up 6.4 yards per carry on the season on runs to the left end and 5.1 yards per carry on runs to the right end. On. The. Season. I mention the cutback, as the Bills have surrendered ten explosive runs up the middle. This number sums up Buffalo’s rushing attack the best: No team in the NFL has allowed more second-level yards—yards where the running back gains 5-10 yards per carry—than the Bills this season.
When you gash a team against the run, especially in this Shanahan offense, the middle of the field parts like the Red Sea, that’s what the 49ers are hoping for, so backup Nick Mullens doesn’t have to play like a superhero for the team to win. There will be open receivers against the Bills because there have been open receivers no matter who has been under center for the 49ers this year. The question is whether or not Mullens will hit them. Screens and jet sweeps will make life easier for Mullens, but he has to avoid the catastrophic mistake that he seemingly has made each week.
What was promising against the Rams is that Mullens bounced back from those mistakes and led the 49ers down the field on three different occasions to put them in scoring position. Against the Bills, field goals won’t cut it. Josh Allen is going to lead his team into San Francisco territory more often than not. Buffalo is going to score. The question becomes whether the Niners can limit Allen and company to field goals and if Mullens can do the opposite.
What I expect to happen is a high-scoring, entertaining game full of the unthinkable because that’s what happens when the 49ers take the field. Allen will make plays. Diggs will get his production as well. I like the Niners tonight because of how the offense matches up against the Bills’ defense. Speed will make a difference tonight, and so will the Bills tackling, which is fifth-worst in the NFL.
We haven’t talked about the human element in this game. Yesterday, as the 49ers were cooped up in their hotel room, they were watching the NFL. They saw the Vikings struggle against the Jaguars. They saw the Bears lose. They saw Colt McCoy beat the Seahawks, and the Rams, a team that the Niners have owned, handle the Cardinals. Knowing what’s at stake against the Bills, you can’t tell me Sunday’s results won’t add more fuel to a 49ers team that was already going to play desperate.
The 49ers’ speed is too much for Buffalo, and while Allen makes plays, a costly mistake will be enough for San Francisco to pull out a win. Monday will resemble the ‘19 49ers offense where Mostert was running around people and Samuel running through them, and Mullens is in cruise control all night. I like the matchup for the Niners and weirdly feel confident about tonight.