The Bills defense deployed a familiar strategy to defend the Patriots’ passing attack by consistently dropping extra bodies in the middle of the field to take that area away from Tom Brady.
Brady adjusted by attacking the perimeter of the Bills’ defense on 20 of his 28 pass attempts and did so with a high-level of efficiency. In all, Brady was 16 for 20 with 170 yards, two touchdowns, and a passer rating of 135.4 when throwing outside the numbers on the Bills’ defense.
Also, the Bills did an excellent job of taking the deep passing game away from the Patriots’ offense as well, despite playing a variety of cover-1 coverages for most of the afternoon. Brady’s three pass attempts of 20 or more yards downfield were tied for his fewest in a game this season, and the future Hall of Famer didn’t complete a single deep pass in Week 16.
Finally, Brady’s time to throw against the Bills was around his season average at 2.6 seconds. In 2017, Brady is tied for tenth in the NFL in terms of time to throw at 2.62 seconds. Brady ranked eighth a season ago in time to throw at 2.49 seconds.
The absence of Julian Edelman has certainly taken away some quick throws from Brady’s completions this season, which is the most apparent reason for the 1.3-second increase this season. However, the additions of wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a healthy Rob Gronkowski also are a massive factor in Brady holding the ball longer than usual this season.
Still, Brady has one of the faster releases in the NFL, and we are talking about tenths of a second in terms of what separates the top quarterbacks in the stat from the middling quarterbacks like Brady.
The Patriots’ offensive line has struggled in recent weeks to protect Tom Brady, but that wasn’t the case against the Bills this week.
Buffalo doesn’t have a strong pass rush ranking tied for 26th in sacks (26) and dead last in overall pressure percentage (19.0%) this season, so opponent played a factor in their stellar day, but it was terrific nonetheless. On the stat sheet, the Patriots’ offensive line allowed just three total pressures of Tom Brady, and Brady was pressured a season-low 13.3% of the time in Week 16.
Starting guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason have well-documented struggles in pass protection of late, but neither allowed a single pressure against Buffalo and replacement right tackle Cameron Fleming was clean as well.
Furthermore, it’s time we start to give credit to left tackle Nate Solder for a strong 2017 season. Solder came down with an illness on Saturday night and was a game-time decision in Week 16. Plus, Solder has been dealing with health issues with his infant son, Hudson, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2015.
Despite a challenging few years off the field for Solder, the sack he allowed on Sunday was just his fourth sack allowed in pass protection this season, despite blocking on 581 pass plays for the Patriots in 2017. With the right tackle position in-flux due to injury, Solder has been a stable presence protecting Tom Brady’s blind side this season.
The Patriots and Tom Brady struggled to connect with receivers working out of the slot in Week 16. This is a growing trend over the second half of the season as outside of wide receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots haven’t gotten the same production as most seasons out of the slot receiver position.
In Week 16, just six of Brady’s 28 attempts came to a receiver that started in the slot, and he completed only four of those for 35 yards. As teams continue to stack the middle of the field against the Patriots, the onus falls on the outside receivers such as Brandin Cooks to force teams to help their outside corners in man coverage, or Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola to beat double-coverage inside.
Until then, the slot will be a bit of ghost town for the Patriots’ offense.
PASS RUSH/RUN STOPS
The Patriots’ pass rush followed up its strong performance in Pittsburgh by having it’s best game of the season against the Bills in Week 16. They sacked Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor six times and pressured him on a season-high 47.8% of his drop-backs.
The Patriots' pass rush is finding its groove as of late as they rank second in the NFL with 22 sacks since Week 11. Linebacker Marquis Flowers was the star of the game recording two sacks, three total pressures, and three run stops but it was a team effort in terms of pressuring Taylor.
In all, nine different players recorded a pressure during Sunday’s game, including three pressures combined from the secondary, and interior pressure from Adam Butler (2 pressures), Lawrence Guy (2 pressure, 1 QB hit), and Malcom Brown (sack).
Brown continues to be a leader for the Patriots’ defense as he has been an all-around problem for opposing offensive lines. On Sunday, Brown had a 15-yard sack of Taylor followed by a crucial run stop on second down that completely changed the momentum of the game.
Lastly, you have to give credit to Marquis Flowers for a spectacular game against the Bills on Sunday. To slow down the running back-like ability of Taylor, the Patriots opted to put more speed on the field with Flowers as a primary spy and edge setter. Flowers did a terrific job both as an on-ball linebacker in the middle of the Patriots’ defense and off the ball on the edge and played with tremendous control and smarts to chase down Taylor when he broke the pocket.
If the Patriots can rely on Flowers to play different roles at a high-level, and get Kyle Van Noy back from a calf injury in time for the playoffs, they just might be able to piece together enough athleticism to get buy at linebacker for the duration of the season.
Over the last two weeks, starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler have struggled to prevent receptions into their coverage. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 17 of 22 passes for 257 yards, one touchdown, and a passer rating of 123.9 when targeting Gilmore and Butler in the last two games.
For Butler, he only surrendered 28 yards into his coverage against Pittsburgh, and most of that came against All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. However, in Week 16, Butler tracked Bills wide receiver Deonte Thompson, who isn’t exactly a household name, and Butler got beat badly by Thompson three times for 83 of Thompson’s team-high 91 receiving yards on Sunday.
Butler hasn’t been able to replicate his Pro Bowl-level form over the previous two seasons in 2017, as he has allowed a passer rating of 98.7 into his coverage this season compared to 78.2 in 2016.
As for Gilmore, he had to deal with 6-5 behemoth Kelvin Benjamin in Week 16. Benjamin has been a thorn in the Patriots’ side tallying 174 yards in two games against them this season, one as a member of the Panthers.
Unlike Butler, Gilmore appeared to be in better position to defend the seven passes into his coverage against Buffalo but had a difficult time defending at the catch point against the giant Benjamin. On the one hand, Benjamin made a few terrific contested catches against Gilmore, including the controversial touchdown catch that was reversed by officials, and the throws by Tyrod Taylor were well placed as well.
But on the other hand, the bigger-bodied Gilmore was brought in this offseason in part to defend bigger receivers like Benjamin, and the Bills’ new weapon certainly got the better of Gilmore in this one.
(h/t to Pro Football Focus: https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge)