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Film room: Bills defense gives up only 11 first downs, but Patriots’ dominates on third down

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The Patriots struggled on the ground on both sides of the ball against Buffalo.

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are one of three undefeated teams at the first quarter mark of the 2019 regular season, and they are playing great football even though there are of course things to work on.

The Patriots continue to struggle to run the ball consistently, for example, and are having a tough time getting the ball to the edge on runs other than jet sweeps. Although they are also struggling without James Develin, Jakob Johnson made some good blocks on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo really tightened up on first and second downs and took away the quick passing game that usually helps the offense stay ahead of the chains. This meant little success for New England on third downs and lots of punts and field goals.

On defense, Frank Gore cut right through the Patriots’ front seven a few times, finishing with 6.41 yards per carry, while Buffalo’s receivers had success winning against man coverage. However, as we’ve seen through four weeks, the Patriots were able to get the opposing offense off the field when it mattered most, this time holding the Bills to only 10 points.

Let’s take a look at the coaches film to see how it happened:

Patriots defense

1. Run defense gets gashed in the run game on power runs

New England struggled to stop the Bills’ power running game (counter, power, duo, lead Iso, and wham). The Patriots’ run defenders got out of position on a few runs and let Frank Gore burst through the hole for big carries. They also had plays where the run defense was in position, but simply couldn’t get Gore to the ground. The 36-year-old finished the day with 109 yards on 17 carries for a strong 6.41 yards per carry.

You’ll see on all of these clips too, the Patriots have only one safety deep; they loaded up on the run, putting the extra safety in the box and covering every gap, but still gave up explosion runs:

The Patriots’ run defense did better when the linebackers (Kyle Van Noy and Ja’Whaun Bentley) and linemen shed blocks well to shrink Gore’s running room — particularly Danny Shelton, who continues to impress in the run game. They also bottled up the Bills’ running game better when the Bills used zone run blocking instead of man:

2. Bills get multiple explosion plays in the passing game

Bills receivers attack Patrick Chung and Stephon Gilmore in man coverage

The Patriots matched up Patrick Chung on Bills tight end Dawson Knox and Stephon Gilmore on wide receiver John Brown. Knox caught two seam passes versus Chung by using his big frame to box the smaller defender out, while Brown had a few big plays on Gilmore. It looked like Brown’s threat of speed and his quickness at the line created solid separation against Gilmore, who struggled to get a good jam on Brown:

Bills running backs get open versus man coverage

The Patriots had difficulty covering the Bills’ backs in the passing game as well. Their linebackers got out of position and even safety Terrence Brooks couldn’t cover T.J. Yeldon. This is a common theme this year for the Patriots defense, as it doesn’t really have the athlete at linebacker to consistently stick with running backs one-on-one.

RPOs

The Bills also got in rhythm by hitting some slant routes on RPO concepts. They left the backside linebacker unblocked and read him: if he plays the run, throw the slant behind him and if he plays the pass, hand it off.

Josh Allen scrambles

The Bills also found success by way of their quarterback’s mobility. New England hadn’t faced a mobile passer yet, and Josh Allen did a good job of scrambling and extending plays to find the open man down field.

3. Patriots remain king on third downs

Despite these hiccups on defense in the running and passing game, the Patriots again showed that they’re currently the best third down defense in the NFL. They are first in the league in opponents’ third down conversion percentage at 13.5%. The next best team is Dallas at 26.5%. Of course, the Patriots have yet to face a top 20 third down offense, but there is no denying that they are tough to beat when they get into that dime package with six defensive backs.

The Patriots were in that dime Cover 1 defense on most third downs, except the first clip which is a zone blitz and Cover Zero. The Bills finished two for 13 (15%) on third down. Here’s the secondary in action:

And here’s the pass rush from the end zone angle:

Patriots Offense

1. Patriots struggle again on the ground trying to get to the edge

The Bills defense did a great job in stopping the run on Sunday. New England ran for a combined 77 yards on 20 carries. Buffalo stacked the box constantly, keeping only one high safety, and the run defense flowed to the ball quickly. The Patriots had some runs blown up when they tried pulling offensive linemen, and they continue to get negative runs out of shotgun:

The Patriots’ best runs on Sunday came when they had a fullback in. Jakob Johnson filled the role well against Buffalo and New England’s O-line did quite well on these lead Iso plays (click here if you want to learn more about New England’s fullback runs). It overall seems like, at least through the first quarter of the season, that the Patriots are doing much better on the ground when running downhill, up the gut, with a fullback, and are struggling more when they pull linemen and try to get to the edge.

2. The quick passing game struggles

In addition to Buffalo limiting the Patriots’ running game, the team also did a great job containing New England’s quick passing attack. New England usually stays ahead of the chains with quick passes to the flat and slant routes off of play action, but Buffalo played a ton of press man Cover 1 and took away these quick throws:

Buffalo also did the same in zone coverage. They broke on these quick slants and hitches, and also got quick penetration with their pass rush. On play action and on straight drop-backs, the Bills’ pass rush moved quarterback Tom Brady off of his spot often.

This led not only put the Patriots in many third down situations, but also plenty of third-and-longs. Of the 18 third downs New England faced, they had to go at least seven yards or more on 11 of them, leading to only five conversions on the day (28%). This is what got the Patriots offense off the field so many times: Buffalo would contain the run and then take away the quick passing game out of either Cover 1 or zone coverage, leading to difficult third downs and only 11 total first downs (for comparison, the Bills had 23).

3. Good pass protection and jet sweeps create enough explosive plays to win

Despite the struggles to move the chains on first and second downs, the Patriots did have some good explosion plays that were enough to put them ahead.

Jet sweep

The Patriots scored their only offensive touchdown with the jet sweep and gave Buffalo trouble with this play. They faked different running plays in combination with the jet sweep, which held the linebackers just long enough to give the jet sweep runner — Brandon Bolden — the time to get to the edge:

Good pass protection

When Brady had time in the pocket, the Patriots had big plays in the passing game. The O-line was able to create enough time in the pocket to go to their man beaters (James White’s wheel route and “Mesh”). The Patriots also were able to hit those quick passes against the Bills when they played off and weren’t in their press man Cover 1 defense.

Conclusion

Overall, Buffalo was able to do what most teams try when they face New England. They won time of possession (32:40 to 27:20), they contained the Patriots’ running game, and had tight coverage on the quick passing game, plus a good pass rush, leading to many third-and-longs and only 11 total first downs.

On defense, the Patriots showed some weaknesses against the Bills’ power running game. Josh Allen did a good job of extending plays and running RPOs, and Buffalo’s receivers got better separation against the Patriots defensive backs in man coverage than any other team thus far. However, the Bills converting only two of the 13 third downs they faced meant that once again, the Patriots got the opposing offense off the field when they needed to to get the win.