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Defending McCoy: How the Patriots played LeSean McCoy and how it might affect the week 15 matchup with the Steelers

What did New England do to stop the Bills’ star running back?

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t exciting. It definitely was not the convincing win that fans were expecting. But the Patriots were able to travel up to Buffalo and come away with another win, beating the Bills 23-3. The team was emotionally tested from the start. Brady was caught on the sidelines berating Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels after missing a couple of wide open receivers. Malcolm Butler was seen yelling at Coach Belichick after committing a penalty that led to a Bills’ first down. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had a particularly frustrating day that ended with him spearing fallen Bills defender Tre'Davious White, sending the young cornerback to the concussion protocol. Bills Mafia topped all of this off in the only fashion that Bills fans know how: throwing obscene objects onto the field for the second year in a row. Just another Sunday in Buffalo I guess.

As I discussed in my previous article where I previewed this matchup, the Bills had a variety of issues coming into this game. Some of these problems, which included an inept rushing defense and a lackluster receiving corps, were evident and the Patriots had no problems exposing these weaknesses. Dion Lewis was able to run for 92 yards on 15 carries (6.1 yards per carry), Rex Burkhead added 78 yards on 12 carries (6.5 yards per carry), and the team as a whole tallied 191 yards on 35 carries (5.5 yard per carry). A trip to Buffalo might be all the Lion’s need in order to end their 4 year streak of games without a 100-yard rusher (I may be pushing it there).

Defensively, the Patriots had no problems with Buffalo’s receivers, which were missing former Panther Kelvin Benjamin who is dealing with a torn meniscus. The secondary did a great job of limiting Buffalo to a measly 85 passing yards. Surprisingly, Nathan Peterman came in towards the end of the game and was not complete garbage as he was able to drive the Bills into the red zone. Once there, the Bills seemingly forgot that they were facing a 22nd ranked run defense (now ranked 27th) and decided to go out of their way target their former teammate Stephon Gilmore, a futile strategy that Patriot players found to be pretty funny.

Just another Sunday in Buffalo?

The Patriots knew coming into this game that stopping LeSean McCoy would be important to the team’s success. While the defense did a good job of keeping McCoy out of the endzone, the Bills were still able to effectively run the ball all day long, racking up 183 yards on 7 yards per carry.

From a strategical standpoint, the Patriot’s defensive game plan was of great interest to me because it could serve as a sort of preview to how the team may try and defend the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell. Both McCoy and Bell lead their respective teams in yards from scrimmage and both came into Week 13 ranking in the top three in percentage of their team’s offense. They are important pieces of their team and the Patriots need to limit Bell’s production if they expect to come out of Pittsburgh with a win.

Defensively, the Patriots spent most of the afternoon with seven to eight men in the box.

Devin McCourty is the lone safety in this play as the rest of the defense is stacked close to the line of scrimmage, hoping to be able to stop the run. By putting five men on the line, every offensive lineman and gap should be accounted for, making it easier for the linebackers to come up and make plays on the running backs.

From this formation, the defense played a variety of different coverages, all of which were most likely based on different tendencies that the coaching staff noticed during film study throughout the week. On this particular play, the defense employed a simple cover 1, which had the defense playing man coverage across the board with free safety help over the top.

Later that drive, the Patriots showed this same look but disguised their coverage, forcing Tyrod Taylor to hold the ball as the defense effectively locked down the Bills’ receivers.

Pre-snap, Jonathan Jones goes in motion with Bills receiver Jordan Matthews. The defense looks to be in the same man coverage they had shown in previous downs. But once the ball is snapped, the Patriots only rush three men, dropping the rest of the defense into a zone coverage. Credit must be given to the defense, and specifically linebacker Elandon Roberts, for communicating the changes in zone responsibilities that the pre snap motion created.

Communication was a well-documented issue for the defense at the beginning of the season but this play highlights how far the unit has come since then. Taylor’s scrambling ability buys extra time for his receivers to get open, but the defense does a great job of initially covering the Bills receivers. The Patriots should not expect Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be this mobile as his athleticism has declined considerably over the years.

The Patriots had some success blitzing out of this eight-man front versus the Bills as well. The defense continued its stretch of improved pass rush, registering four sacks, five hits on the quarterback, and two additional pressures (according to Jeff Howe).

Due to the Bills’ four receiver set, the defense is unable to put five defenders on the line. This does not stop the defense from blitzing though, as they send both David Harris and Elandon Roberts up the middle, resulting in a huge loss on third down. The secondary does their part by covering the receivers long enough for the pass rush to get there. Getting pressure on Roethlisberger will greatly aid the defensive backs as they try and cover Pittsburgh’s elite receiving group.

With that being said, committing this many resources to stopping the run could create some problems. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Big Ben is a much smarter and better quarterback than Tyrod Taylor. The Bills’ receiving corps pales in comparison to the Steelers’ group, which features Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Juju Smith-Schuster. By putting this many people in the box, defensive coordinator (and rocket scientist) Matt Patricia will be leaving the secondary vulnerable in the passing game.

Once again, the defense is stacking the box as the possibility of the run still exists on 2nd down. The defense is in man coverage, with Malcolm Butler matched up with Bills receiver Deonte Thompson, who went in motion pre snap. On the snap of the ball, linebackers Elandon Roberts and David Harris attack the line up the middle while Eric Lee fakes like he is rushing the passer and drops into coverage. Though Peterman misses the throw, it is worth mentioning that Thompson was open. This is an NFL throw that we should expect players like Roethlisberger and Brown to connect on with relative ease. That is at least a 15-yard gain, which does not account for the possibility of yards after the catch. With most of the defense in the box defending against the run, there is a lot of free space to work with in the secondary, something a more capable offense would be able to take advantage of.

One of the major issues that could arise from a concerted effort to stop the run is the use of play action. As I mentioned earlier, the Bills did not have much success in the passing game, let alone the play action. Peterman and Taylor combined to throw for 85 yards. Brady threw for 110 yards... in the third quarter. Utilizing play action (and just passing the ball in general) could be a potential weapon the Steelers utilize.

This play occurs during the Bill’s opening drive of the game. Being so early in the game, Buffalo has yet to firmly establish their running game. Nonetheless, all three defenders in the middle of the field react strongly to the play fake, leaving that area wide open for Bills receiver Zay Jones. The rookie runs a beautiful route, beating Stephon Gilmore on a three-step slant for a nine-yard gain. Once again this is pitch and catch for any NFL quarterback and receiver. There is not much resistance from the defense and if not for Gilmore’s open field tackle, this play could have resulted in a big gain.

The Patriots did a great job of keeping the Bills off of the scoreboard, which is all that matters at the end of the day. With that being said, their run defense continues to give up big numbers even though they spent most of the game lined up in formations that were supposed to help them stop the run. Various Buffalo players were able to rip off runs of 18 (twice), 22, and 12 yards. Even though the defense was able to limit Buffalo’s success in the passing game, there were definitely some areas the teams like the Steelers will see as exploitable.

It will be interesting to see how much of this strategy carries over to that week 15 matchup. The defense will definitely need to spend more time disguising some of their coverages as Roethlisberger is an experienced quarterback who will have no problem reading this unit if they are not careful. Finding the right balance between loading the box and dropping players into coverage will be key for Coach Belichick and the coaching staff. But for now, the team can be happy to come away with another hard-fought divisional win as they move on to next week’s Monday Night game in Miami.