The Buffalo Bills are currently puffed up about their chances against the New England Patriots and for good reason- their defense is that good and their offense has plenty of potential. I watched the Bills recent performances to see what we could learn about how the Bills operate and how the Patriots can counter on the field.
When the Bills run the ball
Over half of running back LeSean McCoy's rushes against the Colts went for 1 or fewer yards. Five of his 17 carries went for negative yardage. McCoy is still a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, and he's still a threat if he gets into the open field, but he's the type of running back that can put the Bills in and-long situations and the Patriots have to take advantage.
Five of 6'1, 230 lbs running back Karlos Williams' six carries went for five or more yards. The lone carry that didn't was his last of the day, with the Bills in clock-killing mode. He's the back that will give the Patriots defense headaches and will force the team to align in their base formation with three linebackers on the field.
There's nothing fancy about Rex Ryan's rushing attack. It's there to punch the opposing defense in the mouth and to see how they respond. It's a lot of single-cut-and-go from the running backs, where the fullback or tight end opens up a crease for the back to hit as hard as they can.
The primary goal of the running game is to break down the defense and wear them down on extended drives. It not only makes the defense tired at the end of the game, it forces them to think about attacking the line, leaving the team susceptible to the deep play. Additionally, long grinding drives keeps the ball away from the opposing offense.
The Bills ran 36 times, compared to just 19 passing plays, but the ratio is closer to fifty-fifty when kneeldowns and quarterback scrambles are taken into account.
The Patriots should operate in a 4-3 defense with Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard on the edge, and with Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch in the middle. Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, and Jamie Collins should see time at linebacker. This is a strong run defending front, especially as Rob Ninkovich struggled against the Steelers.
When the Bills pass the ball
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has a perfect offensive mentality for quarterback Tyrod Taylor after having worked with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a few seasons. The goal of the 49ers offense was to have a 50-50 pass-to-run ratio, but with an allowance for the quarterback to scramble if the passing plays weren't there. This leads to, similar to the Colts game, a seemingly disparately run-heavy offense.
The Bills ran plays out of the shotgun 45% of the time against the Colts. The shotgun allows Taylor more space to operate and allows him a faster reaction ability to opt out of the pass and start running downhill.
Taylor wasn't asked to do much from a passing perspective against the Colts, other than refrain from making mistakes; 75% of his passes were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and the majority were within 5 yards (or behind) the line of scrimmage.
Still, when evaluating the Bills offense, it's clear they have some incredible skill players in Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay, and LeSean McCoy- so the smart coach gets the ball into their hands as quickly as possible to let them work their way down the field.
If the Patriots operate out of the aformentioned 4-3 front, the defensive linemen will have to ensure that Taylor does not leave the pocket. Taylor can pick up 30-yard chunks on the ground and can't be ignored. Mayo and Collins need to watch both the tight end and running back as outlet receivers.
Only four Bills caught the ball against the Colts and based on Buffalo's snap counts, there's only five receivers to be concerned about: Watkins, Harvin, Clay, McCoy, and Robert Woods.
Malcolm Butler will shadow Watkins during the game, while Pat Chung and Mayo should pair up on Clay. The more athletic Collins is left to cover McCoy in the flat. Tarell Brown should cover the highly athletic Harvin and the burnable Bradley Fletcher should cover the less explosive Woods in the nickel package.
When the Patriots run the ball
While LeGarrette Blount returns to the field after a one-game suspension, look for the Patriots to favor their receiving back against this Rex Ryan-led ferocious defensive line. Dion Lewis is primed for a key performance if Bill Belichick doesn't bench him for his red zone fumble, otherwise James White will receive the nod.
It will be difficult for the Patriots to generate any sort of running up the middle behind rookies Shaq Mason, David Andrews, and Tre Jackson. While Ryan Wendell is recovering from an illness, he is the team's best interior run blocker. The optimal line-up would be Mason, Andrews, and Wendell across the interior, but that's still an unfair match-up against the likes of Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will have their hands full against Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams.
The Colts running backs gained 35 yards on 8 carries to the outside (4.4 YPC), versus a mere 9 yards on 5 carries inside (1.8 YPC). The rest of the Colts rushing gains came on Andrew Luck scrambles or sneaks. The Colts were able to run by spreading out the Bills defense, which loves to attack north-south, and that's why Lewis is a viable option (even though Blount is a threat to the outside, too).
The Patriots have to make sure they don't abandon the run against Rex because that's exactly what the Bills want. They want to make the Patriots single-faceted on offense so they can just drop multiple players into coverage. New England might want to run out of a spread package in order to pull the Bills defenders towards the sidelines. It won't be easy to run against this team. Buffalo ranked #1 in stuffed rushing attempts in 2014 for a reason.
When the Patriots pass the ball
Tom Brady needs to make sure that the offensive line has the correct blocking calls because the Bills are going to try and hit him early so he sees ghosts for the rest of the game. With such a young Patriots interior line, Rex is going to send linebackers up the gut to get in Brady's face. Dion Lewis is going to have a major role in blitz pick-up.
Of course Brady has plenty of success getting rid of the ball quickly against ferocious defenses- just ask the Seahawks or Lions or even the Bills. Brady wins by dissecting the opposing defenses and understanding where the ball should be thrown prior to the snap and Rex tries his best to disguise his defenses so Brady can't read them. If Brady figures it out, though, he'll be fine.
And for all the talk about the strength of the Bills defensive line, Stephon Gilmore is the only player in the defensive back seven that should cause much concern for opposing offenses. Gilmore knocked away four passes against the Colts as he spent time in coverage against each of the Colts top wide receivers. There is some other potential in the group (Ronald Darby, Nickell Robey, Mario Butler), but they're far from proven quantities.
The Patriots need to make sure that Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola are involved early and they need to make sure they're running routes that put the Bills on their heels to generate separation. Similar to the rushing attack that needs to get the Bills defense moving laterally, the Patriots receivers can't run in straight lines and expect to be open.
Brady should attack the linebackers and the safeties when possible- and that perfectly aligns with the Patriots offensive skill players and their utility.