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:
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:
New England had trouble stopping the Bills power running game.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
When Gore had good runs, the Patriots run defenders were either out of position or couldn't get Gore to the ground.
Gore went for 109 on 17 carries despite the stacked boxes with 1 high safety on most runs pic.twitter.com/rDbUHwkxam
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:
The Patriots weren't all that bad in their run defense (did better against zone runs)— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
Danny Shelton did a great job in shedding blocks 1 on 1 with the Center and holding double teams.
Bentley and Van Noy also did well in shedding their blocks to close the running lanes for Gore. pic.twitter.com/Tgpx7lW6UZ
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:
The Bills had success throwing the ball to John Brown and Dawson Knox when the Patriots were in Man Coverage (Cover 1).— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
Brown's quickness created good separation against Gilmore on these clips and Knox did a good job boxing Chung out on the two seam routes he caught. pic.twitter.com/g67P4S7lHG
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.
The Patriots had some trouble covering the Bills Running Backs in the passing game, which has been a common thread for New England's defense so far this season. pic.twitter.com/oylIv2MaTM— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
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.
The Bills also found success running RPOs, where Allen read a Linebacker to either hand off or throw the slant behind the 'backer. pic.twitter.com/bruwcdIVnI— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
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.
This was the first mobile QB the Patriots faced, and Josh Allen showed his ability to extended the play well and avoid pressure to find guys open down field on the run. pic.twitter.com/WFLvVODLdZ— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
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:
The Patriots remain the best 3rd down defense in the NFL with their opponents only converting 13.46% of the time.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
They went with their usual Dime Cover 1 defense (expect the first clip which is a zone blitz + 1 cover zero clip) and the Bills couldn't get anything going pic.twitter.com/ncd8Cu4NcH
And here’s the pass rush from the end zone angle:
The Bills went 2 for 13 on 3rd downs (15%).— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
Here's what the pass rush looked like from the end zone pic.twitter.com/phk8bEE1oT
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:
On offense, the Patriots had trouble running to the edge for the second week in a row.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
Buffalo stacked the box often with only 1 high safety. The Bills linemen got immediate penetration on a lot of these plays which led to the Linebackers flowing to the ball quickly pic.twitter.com/yJTt1ofhCm
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.
On runs where New England had more success, they had a Fullback in. Jakob Johnson was pretty good on these Back on Backer lead plays.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
So far this season, Michel and the other backs are doing better on these downhill runs than they are on outside runs and runs out of shotgun pic.twitter.com/o5BpkQfDWc
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 did a good job taking away the Pats quick passing game. The main way they did it was with press man Cover 1. The slants, quick passes to the flat, and play action crossers that usually help New England stay ahead of the chains weren't there. pic.twitter.com/zpNcpaY0sj— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
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.
Buffalo took away the quick passing game from zone too. Their secondary broke on the ball very quickly and the pass rush moved Brady off his spot often.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
This led to 3rd + 7 or more on 11 of the Pats 18 3rd downs. They converted only 5 of them and had only 11 total 1st downs pic.twitter.com/weEUAbKrNk
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.
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:
Despite their struggles on the ground and in the quick passing game, the Patriots had success running the jet sweep.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
They fake their 1 back power in the first clip and then they fake their duo run in the second clip. This held the 2nd level defenders long enough to get the edge pic.twitter.com/03GsyvWfv8
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.
The Patriots also had success when they had good pass protection. They went to White on the wheel route and "Mesh" to beat man coverage.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 2, 2019
They were also able to move the chains with their quick passing game when Buffalo gave more cushion and weren't in press man pic.twitter.com/rEa0iTOu7i
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.