The last scenario you want for your rookie quarterback is trailing against a defensive coach that loves to disguise pressure. Thanks to poor execution by the offense over the first three drives- thanks to penalties and turnovers- QB Jacoby Brissett faced an apparently insurmountable 13-0 lead.
How did it happen?
The Bills marched the down the field on their first three drives, picking up 12 plays for 65 yards, 10 plays for 52 yards, and 12 plays for 71 yards. The Patriots couldn’t find a way to stop them.
The Patriots entered the game with a pretty clear strategy: sell out to stop the run and don’t give up the deep pass. The goal was to force Bills QB Tyrod Taylor to lead extended drives, keep it a low scoring game, and hopefully force a mistake or two.
The problem is that the Patriots run defense wasn’t great- and Taylor had no problem dissecting the defense.
“I definitely felt confident with our approach and our game plan going into this game,” Taylor said after the game. “We had the right plan as far as matchups and getting guys the football...The offensive line blocked their butts off and the receivers did a good job of creating a pass slants for me to go out there and make throws.
“[Slant passes were] something we were seeing watching film all week,” Taylor added. “We thought we had the right type of guys to run those routes inside and beat some of their man-coverages and just the leverages... We had the right guys to run those routes.”
The Bills planned all week for the Patriots to defend them in this fashion and it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. The Patriots challenged Texans QB Brock Osweiler to try and lead extended drives just last week. The difference is that Taylor was able to connect with his receivers, while Osweiler could not.
The Patriots, for their part, were probably not immediately prepared for the slants or the in-cuts because the Bills “kind of shy away from slants,” according to Bills WR Robert Woods. “But this game we brought them out and it worked for us," Woods added.
1st Quarter, 2:37 remaining, 2nd and 7 from the Bills 45 yard line
You can see all of the Patriots players playing over the top of the receivers. The cornerbacks on the sidelines have their hips open to ensure they can run alongside their receivers if the Bills try a deep pass.
Instead, the Bills run a fairly simply route combination where Taylor freezes LB Jamie Collins in the middle of the field and Woods gets separation from CB Logan Ryan. Easy completion, easy first down.
What you should note is LB Dont’a Hightower drifting into the flat on the far side of the field because the Bills had been picking apart the sidelines. This is how the Patriots typically take away from slant passes.
1st Quarter, 1:56 remaining, 1st and 10 from the Patriots 45 yard line
The Patriots defense reads run here as the linebackers hesitate and Collins leaves the passing lane. You would love to see Ryan more competitive against TE Charles Clay, but at least he makes the stop here.
2nd Quarter, 11:56 remaining, 2nd and 2 from the Bills 13 yard line
You see Woods selling the deep route on the far side of the screen, which results in Ryan turning his hips. The Bills run a combination of deep routes towards the near side of the screen, while also dragging Collins in coverage to the near side, which opens up a lot of open field underneath.
2nd Quarter, 10:24 remaining, 1st and 10 from the Bills 46 yard line
This is literally the same exact play. The Bills had so much success with these plays to set up 2nd and short or to convert first downs that they didn’t have to change anything.
3rd Quarter, 9:18 remaining, 2nd and 10 from the Patriots 39 yard line
The Patriots changed up their defensive approach in the second half as the corners did not turn to defend the deep pass as quickly. This allows Hightower to drift into coverage in the slot, versus in the flat, adding more traffic and taking away an easy pass. Ryan is also in far more competitive coverage on this play, too.
You also see Jabaal Sheard slow down as if he is expected to engage with Bills RB LeSean McCoy. This allows Collins to rotate into the middle as Hightower drops into coverage.
The Patriots defense executed at a much higher level in the second half and did a good job of eliminating the easy passes for Taylor and the Bills. They also stepped up to stop the run game; the Bills averaged 5.50 yards per carry in the first half and just 2.88 yards per carry in the second half.
These two improvements forced the Bills into third-and-long situations, where the conversion rate dropped from 57.1% in the first half to 37.5% in the second half.
The reality is that the Patriots pass defense didn’t make any sweeping change in the second half; they just stopped playing like they were afraid of a big passing play and started to be competitive on the shorter passes. The team really leaned on its improved run defense to set up better defensive scenarios in the second half.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. The Patriots offense wasn’t good enough to put any points on the board and withered away on their few drives that made it down the field. The rookie quarterback was put in the exact situation the Patriots wanted to avoid and the Bills found a way to capitalize.