Entering their week 16 game against the New England Patriots, the Buffalo Bills run defense ranked in the top 10 in total yards allowed and yards per carry. However, the unit had some outliers as it gave up 220 yards to the Indianapolis Colts in week seven and 226 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 12. For the Patriots, the plan to attack the unit — one that has been tremendous against the pass this year — was therefore a simple one.
New England’s offense would try to establish the running game early and keep at it drive after drive after drive. And drive after drive after drive, the approach worked. At the end of the day and before backup quarterback Brian Hoyer took two kneel-downs to subtract a couple of yards from the total, the Patriots had carried the football 45 times for a combined 275 yards (an average of 6.1 yards per run) as well as two touchdowns.
“Our goal is always to move the ball and score points, so that’s what we try to do,” Bill Belichick said during his press conference after the game when asked about his team’s offensive approach to the game — one that helped New England score 24 points. “It depends on how they’re playing us and whether we can run it, throw it, whatever it is. If we can move the ball and score points, that’s a good thing.”
The Patriots’ head coach then went on to further break down his team’s outing — the tenth best in franchise history and second-best of Belichick’s tenure. “[On Sunday] we were able to get the ball outside to the edge a few times,” he said about the performance. “Then when they took that away, James [White] hit it up inside on the touchdown run there on third down. Sometimes those things are taken away and you do something else.”
“We don’t try to go into the game and say this is how many times we’re going to run the ball, this is how many times we’re going to throw it to this player, this is how many times we’re going to throw it to that player,” New England’s head coach continued. “We call our plays, we see what happens and we try to adjust as the game goes along to do what we think is best. It’s the same thing we do every week.”
On Sunday, the Patriots did it very well and saw contributions from all layers of its depth chart. First-round rookie Sony Michel led the team with 116 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, while change-of-pace back James White gained 41 yards on eight attempts and also found the end zone. Rex Burkhead received 13 carries for 39 yards, while New England’s wide receivers also got in on the action.
Cordarrelle Patterson ran the football four times for 66 yards. After the first-year Patriot exited the game in the second half with a knee injury, Phillip Dorsett received additional snaps and was also used as an occasional ball carrier: Dorsett was handed the ball off twice for a combined 13 yards. All in all, New England was able to get running plays out of five different skill position players and thus control the game’s rhythm from start to finish.
“That’s a team effort,” Belichick said when talking about how the Patriots were able to establish the ground game the way they did. “Certainly Josh [McDaniels] and the offensive coaches — Dante [Scarnecchia], Ivan [Fears]. I thought the receivers really blocked well today. Chad [O’Shea], Nick Caley, all of those guys do a great job and our offensive line, tight ends, fullbacks working together with the back and their reads.”
“Even some of the receiver running plays which, again, involve a lot of receiver perimeter blocking which is critical to those plays,” he continued. “I thought Julian [Edelman], Chris [Hogan], Rob [Gronkowski], Dwayne [Allen] were out there some too. [...] The backs ran hard, C.P. [Cordarrelle Patterson], Phil [Dorsett] got on the edge there, Julian ran hard after a couple of catches. Those guys, if you give them a little bit of space, they can make some yards on their own.”
While the Patriots’ passing offense was inconsistent and finished the day with just 117 net yards, the ground game kept the momentum with New England. “It’s team execution and that comes from a lot of reps on the practice field, a lot of time spent in the meeting rooms to get those things right,” Belichick said about his team’s outstanding performance. “We had a good day with that [on Sunday] and that was important for us.”
New England’s dominance on the ground extended beyond the offense, however: the Patriots also performed well when it came to slowing down Buffalo’s rushing attack. After surrendering 7.5 yards per attempt over the last three games — two of which losses — the unit was able to limit the Bills to a mere 72 yards on the ground. When talking about the defense’s play in the running game, Belichick again mentioned a familiar theme.
“It’s about team defense,” the future Hall of Famer said. “One guy can’t stop the running game so it’s about everybody — our run force, our ends, our tackles, our linebackers, coordination, communication, playing physical, tackling well. Defensively, I thought we competed well in the running game. [...] It was competitive. That’s just all about team defense. It just can’t be one guy. It’s everybody.”
“Those guys worked really hard this week and I thought played very competitively tonight,” Belichick continued. With the playoffs on the horizon a performance like Sunday’s certainly is a step in the right direction for New England’s defense. And while the Bills are no offensive powerhouse — neither on the ground nor in the passing game — the Patriots did what they had to do to slow the unit down.