When you rank second in the NFL in points allowed, you have to do something right on defense — and the Buffalo Bills are doing just that. While the raw statistics show a team that is strong against the pass, does not give up a lot of yards, and regularly gets off the field on third downs, there is more to the unit than meets the eye in the form of numbers. It is something the New England Patriots need to be ready for as well this week: pre-snap disguises.
During a press conference earlier this week, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick touched on the topic when discussing two of Buffalo’s core defenders — safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. As Belichick pointed out, the two veterans are masters of the pre-snap motion and regularly incorporate disguise looks into a play, which in turn allows the Bills to win a considerable portion of the battles before their football is even snapped.
“They complement each other very well. They do a very good job with their disguise and pre-snap looks. They make it hard on the quarterback,” said Belichick. “Mostly as a coach or a quarterback, if you look at the safeties, that’ll pretty much tell you 80 percent of what’s going on defensively, based on their depth, or their rotation — your formation obviously, and then where they go in that formation, and then how deep they are and what kind of angle they’re taking.”
“So, I would say those guys do a good job of holding that until the last second,” Belichick continued. “Sometimes they give false keys, and start one way and go another way, so that as a quarterback, or as a coach, even if you’re looking at the game and you see something, and you think that’s what it is and your eyes go somewhere else, but then it starts one way and then it goes somewhere else, and then you’ve misread it.”
Hyde and Poyer both joined the Bills as free agency signings in 2017 — coincidentally on the same day — and have developed into one of the NFL’s better safety tandems since then. This season, for example, the two have led a defensive backfield that ranks eighth in the league in interceptions (13) and has also surrendered the second fewest passing touchdowns (13). The unit also ranks third in passing yards given up (2,667).
“Whether they’re blitzing, playing man coverage, playing different zone coverages and different responsibilities in the zones — they’re both instinctive players,” Belichick said about them. “Sometimes they kind of don’t go exactly, probably, where they’re supposed to go, but there’s a certain key, or indicator, or they recognize the play and don’t really get to where they’re supposed to get to because the play has developed quickly.”
“And so, you think they’re going to be one place, but they recognize it, and they’re quicker than you think they’re going to be and are in the way of the play,” he added before pointing out a key aspect of the Bills’ strong pre-snap disguise game, namely that it works well within the context of the entire defense: “They do all of those things well, and they do it well with the linebackers. I mean, they tie the disguises in with the linebackers as well, too.”
“Sometimes if the safeties disguise and the linebackers aren’t tied in with it, you’ve got all these guys over here together — somebody’s going to have to go somewhere else, so it’s, ‘Okay, they’re trying to disguise it, we can see they’re trying to disguise it’,” said Belichick. “But, these guys, they move one way, the linebackers move the other way. They kind of control their disguises. I mean, they do a good job.”
What helps the Bills do that is having some of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL on their roster. Belichick mentioned the speed of two in particular, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, who have the range to work well in the disguise game as well and therefore complement what Hyde and Poyer are doing. While not exactly the best players in coverage, in the grand scheme of things Milano and Edmunds perform very well for Buffalo.
For the Patriots, this means that they will need to be able to dissect any pre-snap motion or lineup change quickly and react accordingly — and as one unit. In the passing game particular, however, this has been somewhat of a problem as quarterback Tom Brady and New England’s receivers have oftentimes not been on the same page. More time together should help, but the question is whether or not this is enough to consistently challenge a defense as strong in the disguise game as Buffalo’s.