We need to talk about the Buffalo Bills’ 12 men on the field penalty — the one that lost them the game on Monday, when the Denver Broncos got a re-do on their original missed game-winning field goal attempt. This penalty wasn’t the unavoidable result of fast-paced football. It wasn’t human error outside of a head coach or special teams coach’s control. This penalty shouldn’t be on the players for failing to execute the substitution properly.
The Athletic talked to two recently out-of-the-game special teams coordinators and three other current NFL staffers who work closely with coaching decisions, and all five agreed that an NFL team should not sub out their existing defense for the field goal block defense when they are operating in a “mayday” field goal situation. There’s not enough time to guarantee a clean substitution (under two minutes, the officials don’t stand over the ball to allow a man-for-man substitution) and the chances of blocking a field goal are miniscule.
“Defensively, we would never substitute an opponent’s mayday situation for the exact reason (of) what happened the other night,” said Mike Priefer, longtime special teams coordinator for four NFL teams, most recently the Cleveland Browns.
Over the past five seasons, just 2.2 percent of all field goal attempts have been blocked across the NFL (86 of 3,925), and it’s been even less common with the game on the line. Over the same span, just 1.8 percent of all potential game-tying/go-ahead field goal attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime have been blocked (7 of 392).
Buffalo has actually had better-than-average results on this play. The Bills have blocked 2.7 percent of all opponent field goal attempts under head coach Sean McDermott, the seventh-highest rate across the NFL since his first season in 2017. That includes 7.1 percent of potential game-tying/go-ahead attempts in the fourth quarter or OT by their opponents (1 of 14).
But that’s still not enough reward to risk a more likely and unnecessary result: Having too many men on the field.
“You don’t want to give them a second chance,” Priefer said. “Whatever 11 is on the field, in a mayday situation, nickel or dime, keep them out there and make sure you don’t have more than six on the line of scrimmage on one side of the center or the other, and make sure you come off the edge.”
That’s the opposite of what Buffalo tried to do. They switched from their dime defense with six defensive backs, to their field goal block unit. Five players left the field. Six went on.
“We practiced two or three times this week, the substitution from dime to field goal block,” McDermott said. “And at the end of the day we didn’t execute it, so it’s inexcusable.”
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Before we go any further, we need to define what a mayday field goal actually is. Broncos coach Sean Payton said he calls it “hurricane” now, and other teams might refer to it as “lightning,” but whatever you call it, teams have similar parameters.
1. Running clock
2. Offense has no timeouts left in the half
3. Third down, in or near field-goal range
4. Inside of 40 seconds, all the way down to 17 seconds on the clock
In the mayday scenario, the head coach alerts the offense and the special teams coordinator, who passes the message to the kicking unit to be ready. The kicking unit is likely already prepared on the sideline because their job is to be two or three steps ahead of the offense. The offense is instructed to get down as fast as possible to save time and get off the field immediately, and then the snapper takes the lead for the kicking unit, always keeping an eye on the clock.
It might look like absolute chaos, but teams practice these situations multiple times in training camp, and then a few times throughout the year with the whole team. Kickers, snappers, and holders run through this scenario several times a week. “We drill it, we time it, we drill it, we time it,” Payton told reporters. There’s even a coordinated way for the offense to exit the field (straight off, horizontally) and the kicking unit to come on (at an angle from the bench) so no one collides and wastes time.
In Denver’s case, quarterback Russell Wilson kneeled three times to set up for the mayday field goal, so this was a planned mayday. This is slightly different than other forms where the offense is actually running a play on third down, which means more uncertainty because the field goal is dependent on the third down play. In this case, there was no third down play, or second down play, or even first down play. Denver was in comfortable field goal range after drawing a 28-yard defensive pass interference penalty, so all three plays were kneeldowns.
Buffalo even took two timeouts in the middle of kneeldown 1 and 2 and kneeldown 2 and 3. They knew what was coming, and those timeouts should have given them plenty of time to organize the field goal block substitutions, if they insisted on subbing. In this scenario, a planned mayday, where everything is telegraphed, would it be appropriate here to substitute the defense for the field goal block? For Buffalo, that meant subbing out five players.
Priefer said no, but allowed for a little flexibility. He said he would have subbed to base defense during one of the timeouts Buffalo took in between Denver’s kneeldowns. In Cleveland, Priefer said the 4-3 base defense was the same personnel as the field goal block personnel, but that’s not the case with every team. This way, they’d be ready in that defense before Denver ran their quick change to the field goal unit on fourth down.
Many coaches are opposed to subbing out the defense in this situation because with the clock running, there’s no need to overcomplicate it. Don’t beat yourself; make your opponent screw up.
And the Broncos had already beaten themselves in this game. The reason they trailed by one point is because kicker Wil Lutz missed an extra point in the second quarter, and then again in the fourth quarter, when Broncos holder/punter Riley Dixon mishandled the snap on an extra point attempt so badly that Lutz didn’t even kick the ball (Dixon ran with the ball, then fumbled and recovered it). All the more reason to not risk substituting defensive players during mayday.
Both ex-special teams coordinators The Athletic spoke to said they created a plan with their head coach well in advance for this scenario. And the plan didn’t change during the game.
Many NFL teams have a block team ready within whatever defense is on the field, no matter what sub package or base package. Each defensive player should know where to line up and run a field goal block. Some teams even practice this on every field goal scenario during preseason games, so the players get used to the situation.
On Denver’s end of this questionable sequence, Lutz’s 40-yard miss made reporters wonder if the Broncos actually had enough time to execute the field goal attempt with 24 seconds on the clock.
Is anyone going to discuss why Denver elected to go mayday FG instead of kicking on 3rd down? Why panic and rush? Got bailed out by 12 men.
— Greg Olsen (@gregolsen88) November 14, 2023
“Was there any second guessing (about) getting the field goal unit out a little earlier?” asked one Denver local reporter on Tuesday.
“No,” Payton said. “Here’s the thing, 17 seconds is the cutoff. So for us to send our hurry-up unit out, with the time we had, I knew there was plenty of time.”
Whether there was enough time was the wrong question to ask. The right one is: Did they use up enough time to play this as sound as possible?
Priefer said the general rule of thumb is for the snapper to snap the ball with under five seconds on the game clock, so that there’s no time remaining after the kick for another play. Denver went so fast with their hurricane field goal that they snapped the ball with seven seconds left, an eternity. And all that extra hustle may have caused Lutz to miss, but it also might have played into the sloppiness with Buffalo’s substitutions. There were four seconds left on the clock after the miss. In the first half, Denver executed the hurricane perfectly, snapping the ball with three seconds on the clock.
On Tuesday after the game, McDermott also addressed the end-of-game debacle in more detail. He talked about the two different ways a team could play it, stay or sub, both of which the Bills did in this game. In the first half, Denver ran the truest version of the mayday field goal in a more compressed timeline, with 20 seconds on the clock to start their third-and-6 play, a completed pass to Jerry Jeudy, and in that scenario, Buffalo kept the same defensive personnel out there for the field goal attempt. The kick was good, and there was no defensive penalty.
“Normally you stay with your defensive team out there, we call it defensive stay,” McDermott said. “And you do that so you are not having a fire drill type of situation unfold, where you are trying to get so many on and so many off. Now at the end of the game, there are two schools of thought. Either you do the same and rush with your defensive unit, or you try and get your block, the max rush unit out there, that’s what coach (special teams coordinator Matt Smiley) tried to do and unfortunately a certain amount went in and not the equivalent came out.”
“Because it doesn’t happen very often, I would just try to keep it simple and not change anything,” Priefer said. “Because to me, it would be the same exact situation at the end of half and end of game.”
McDermott had the right answer. And he knew it well enough to say it out loud. He put the responsibility on his special teams coordinator, but this mistake speaks to the team’s process overall. Why wasn’t there a consistent plan?
(Top photo of Sean McDermott: Timothy T Ludwig / Getty Images)
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