The last time the New England Patriots played a game in Buffalo, the team’s offense had a hard time moving the football consistently against a strongly performing Bills defense. The unit had scored only 12 points on four Stephen Gostkowski field goals through three quarters, before a James White rushing touchdown early in the fourth period put the team up 18-6. A Devin McCourty pick-six finally sealed the deal in the visitors’ favor.
The Patriots will return to New Era Field on Sunday, and when listening to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels one gets the impression that he knows his club might be in for yet another dog fight — it would be the first of the 2019 regular season after New England won each of its first three games of the year in blowout fashion: “This is certainly one of the best defenses in the league and it has been for a while,” he said.
“They got a lot of players back, first of all,” continued McDaniels. “I think Coach [Leslie] Frazier and Coach [Sean] McDermott, they do an incredible job of coaching this unit. They’re on the same page, very rarely out of position, they communicate well, they defend the deep part of the field and very rarely give up big plays, which forces you to have to drive the ball eight, 10, 12 plays without making an error or a negative play to score.”
The Bills’ approach to defense — forcing teams to string together positive plays in order to march down the field — is reminiscent of another defense the Patriots offense is familiar with: its own. For years, New England has used a similar philosophy that made teams patiently attack in order to find success. While this year’s Patriots defense is more proactive, McDaniels and company are no strangers to the bend-don’t-break approach.
“It’s a group that forces you to be patient, disciplined and execute,” the veteran assistant coach said about Buffalo’s defense during a conference call earlier this week. “They don’t make mistakes, they challenge you for every yard and they’re not going to give it up in one play. And, it’s on the road in a place that’s as hard to play as we play in, with the noise and the atmosphere, and I’m sure it’ll be incredible on Sunday.”
Buffalo’s qualities on defense go beyond a patient approach in combination with one of the NFL’s better home field advantages, however, as McDaniels was quick to point out. He also noted that the unit would be among the best in the entire league when it comes to forcing turnovers through opportunistic coverage and aggressive technique when pursuing ball carriers. On top of it all, he pointed out the Bills’ historical qualities in the red zone and on third down.
The numbers back McDaniels’ statements about the unit. Buffalo has allowed scores on just 16.7% of defensive drives, the second best number in all of football behind the Patriots’ ridiculous 2.7%. The team furthermore has a turnover percentage of 19.4%, which ranks third in the NFL — and is actually better than New England’s 16.2%. On third down, meanwhile, the Bills come in eighth with an offensive success rate of 32.5% (the Patriots sit at 12.8%).
The one statistic that does stand out for all the wrong reasons is red area defense: teams have driven into the Bills’ 20-yard line on four occasions so far, and all of them ended in touchdowns. Buffalo is therefore the only team in the NFL to not yet register a red zone stop through three games this year. The numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, however, as only one club — the Patriots — has been in fewer red zone situations to begin with.
“We’re going to be dealing with [the crowd] and having to do a good job of stringing a lot of positive plays together to move the ball down the field and put it in in red zone and score points on Sunday,” added McDaniels when discussing the challenges the Bills’ defense present. “Talented guys at all three levels, very well coached, tremendous respect for the way they play and really, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Bill Belichick shares this opinion about Buffalo’s defense with his offensive signal caller. However, New England’s head coach also pointed out another strength of the unit that McDaniels did not mention: its ability to disguise coverages, which is possible in part because of the presence of veteran safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer — two players Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will have to keep a close eye on on Sunday.
“It looks like they’re in one coverage and they flip it around to something else, or it looks like they’re in two-deep and they’re in non-two deep or vice versa. They disguise very well together and are very instinctive,” said Belichick. “There’s definitely a level of interchangeability so it’s hard to key on one guy, and really both guys, they complement each other well. You’ve got to see it post-snap, they’re not going to give you much pre-snap.”
“They time up their blitzes well with the cadence and motions, things like that that come with the formations,” he continued. “This is a very savvy defense. I wouldn’t say they’re over-complicated but they’re very good at what they do. They have enough variation and, I would say, unpredictability within their system that it’s hard. But I’m sure whatever they call, they’ve run many times before and they have a lot of confidence in and they play with it.”
Judging by Belichick’s and McDaniels’ statements, and the season so far, the Patriots’ offense will face its biggest test of the season on Sunday. It better be ready in order to leave Buffalo victoriously for the ninth year in a row.