If there ever was a week for the New England Patriots to turn their fortunes around, this is it. Coming off three straight losses, the 2-4 team is heading into a pivotal Week 8 matchup against the 5-2 Buffalo Bills — a game that could very well determine who will end up winning the AFC East this season, and whether or not the Patriots can make it 12 division titles in a row.
In order to stay alive in the race for the AFC East crown, however, they will need a victory on the road against Buffalo. In order to do that, the team’s offense in particular need to return to form after two miserable outings against the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers the last two weeks. The Bills’ defense presents no less a challenge than those two teams’, but there will nevertheless be some opportunities for the Patriots to get back on track.
How could those opportunities look like? Let’s find out.
Attack a bad run defense
Ever since Sean McDermott took over as the Bills’ head coach in 2017, the team’s defense has been among the stingiest and most productive in football — in large part also because of the work of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Together, the two have created a one that has been stout against the pass year-in and year-out. That said, the unit has proven itself less successful versus the run. The 2020 season is a continuation of that.
The statistics reflect this as Buffalo’s run defense has been below average both when measured by conventional and advanced metrics.
Through seven games this season, the Bills have given up 887 yards on the ground (25th best in the NFL) for an average of 4.6 yards per carry (22nd) and nine touchdowns (t-23rd). Their DVOA (-0.2%; 26th) and their expected points added (0.049; 26th) are equally bad, but still better than the team’s success rate when it comes to stopping the run (49.4%; 31st). Long story short, Buffalo has had a hard time against opposing ground games so far.
New England could very much find openings in this area, considering that the team has been willing to build around the run all season long. While adding more nuance to the attack should be a goal, especially on early downs, the running game will still find openings if properly employed in order to take advantage of Buffalo’s shortcomings. Two areas in particular stand out in this regard.
First, the linebacker group and its susceptibility to fall for misdirection runs.
Tremaine Edmunds is one of the NFL’s most promising young linebackers, but he has had a comparatively mediocre season thus far. And he is not alone: fellow off-the-ball options Matt Milano and A.J. Klein have also had their fair share of issues when it comes to diagnosing run concepts and reacting properly to them. The following play from Buffalo’s loss against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6 is a perfect example for the group’s issues:
Edmunds (#49) and Klein (#54) were both aligning off the ball, and responsible to take away any run coming to the second level. However, neither of the two properly reacted to the movement up front and essentially found themselves in no-mans land.
Chiefs tight end Nick Keizer is the key here (#48): originally aligned off-set outside right tackle Mike Remmers (#75), he moved across the formation after the snap — a motion mirrored by wide receiver Tyreek Hill (#10). With defenders reading their keys on a potential run with Hill behind Keizer, they both moved to the right to follow the two. This, however, created a huge hole where Edmunds was supposed to be that the Chiefs’ Clyde Edwards-Helaire exploited for a 31-yard gain.
Not every run against the Bills defense will be successful, but the creative play design used by Kansas City on the so-called “sift” motion by the tight end challenged the linebackers’ play diagnosis skills and made this one a success.
The second-longest run the Bills surrendered versus the Chiefs also is an example of how the Patriots may be able to pick up yards on the ground against their defense:
While the first run above succeeded due to the misdirection element, this one is built around pure power and domination by the offensive line versus the defenders in front of them. The pull by right guard Andrew Wylie (#77) is executed perfectly, with the double-team on the left side of the line just overpowering Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (#61). Tight ends Keizer and Travis Kelce (#87) also held their blocks to spring Edwards-Helaire for another 17 yards.
Running power concepts from the shotgun formation could be another method employed by New England on Sunday to find success versus Buffalo’s defense: their own offensive line has shown that it can execute plays like this as well, even though the injury status of left guard Joe Thuney is obviously a key ingredient to the Patriots’ success. Still, from a schematic perspective, incorporating elements like these should help against the Bills.
Diagnose and stop the blitz
In years past, Leslie Frazier’s defense was generally able to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks with four pass rushers while rarely relying on the blitz to get the job done. During his first three years at the job, according to Football Outsiders, his defense attacked with five-plus defenders on just 22.9 percent of snaps. This year, however, that number has jumped to 35.3 percent as Frazier is utilizing the blitz more often.
The Patriots should also anticipate more rushers coming Cam Newton’s way on Sunday. Not only have the Bills shown an increased willingness to attack with more than the standard four pass rushers, Newton’s pocket presence and anticipation have been below-average ever since he returned from his positive Coronavirus test earlier this month: whether it is holding the football too long or throwing risky passes, New England’s starting quarterback has had some issues lately.
While the blitz has not been too big an issue for the Patriots early during the year, just like Newton’s passing in general it produced some negative results ever since his stint on the Reserve/Covid-19 list. Against Denver and San Francisco, Newton went 8-of-14 when blitzed for a combined 68 yards with two interceptions and four sacks. When not blitzed, he still threw three picks, but also completed 18 of 26 throws for 187 yards with only one takedown. His passer rating versus the blitz is also noticeably lower: 30.4 versus 50.2.
Buffalo will likely try to attack those weaknesses, which in turn means that both Newton and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels need to be up to speed when it comes to diagnosing blitz looks and countering them. Whether this means quick dump-offs to running backs, screen concepts or draw runs, the Patriots have to be ready for additional pass rushers coming their quarterback’s way.
Find holes in zone coverage
The Bills do play some man-to-man defense in select situations, but they are predominately a zone team — one that likes to mix things up quite a bit to make life hard on opposing quarterbacks. A popular way to accomplish that is by motion right at the snap as the following play against the Chiefs shows:
Before the snap Buffalo approached the down in a look that made it seem as if the defense was in a quarters coverage with four defensive backs responsible for the four deep zones of the field. However, safety Jordan Poyer (#21) motioned down just as the ball was snapped to take over one of the underneath zones and reveal the coverage not as a Cover 4 but a Cover 3. Poyer’s motion, however, created a structural problem for the Bills.
With the linebackers immediately charging downhill as soon as the football had been snapped, a hole opened behind them that tight end Travis Kelce (#87) was ready to exploit. He did not get a chance to do that courtesy of the football eventually being handed off, but the move to a disguised Cover 3 left Buffalo vulnerable nevertheless — despite the hook usually not being a weakness of that particular coverage.
New England can learn from all of this as well, be it through giveaways or some potential issues arising by motion and disguise.
What will be important for the Patriots, however, is that they come into the game with a clear plan to beat zone coverage — be it through the the threat of RPO concepts or zone read plays — and well-prepared to adjust on the fly if Buffalo’s defense adds some funky looks. Either way, just like the Chiefs on the play illustrated above, New England will get some chances to exploit holes.
It’s all about finding them, and every player on the offensive side of the ball being on the same page to take advantage. This has been an issue for the Patriots as of late, of course, but could be a key to successfully moving the ball through the air against Buffalo’s hybrid coverage looks.
Hold onto the football
If this may sound familiar, it’s because it is: we already said the same thing while previewing last week’ contest against the 49ers.
While it still may sound like a pretty obvious talking point, it is one that needs to be repeated yet again after New England turned the football over four more times last week and now has a total of 14 giveaway over its first six games of the season. The Patriots, based on their over the previous two weeks, know that taking care of the ball will be a key ingredient to improving as an offense after a string of disappointing performances.
Bill Belichick reiterated this during a media conference call earlier this week.
“I hope everybody that has the ball is thinking about not committing a turnover, whether that’s the center, the punter, the quarterback, or receiver, or running back, or tight end or anybody else that touches the ball,” New England’s head coach said. “Our number one thing is to have ball security. So, I hope everybody is thinking about that.”
Buffalo’s defense, meanwhile, is entering this week’s game ranked near the middle of the league when it comes to creating turnovers: the team has registered four interceptions for a rate of 1.7 percent (21st in the league), and has added five more fumble recoveries. All in all, the Bills are 15th in total turnovers and 13th with 13.2 percent of their defensive series ending in a takeaway.
New England knows the drill when it comes to taking care of the football: good decision making and good fundamentals. Now, it is about showing that the last three weeks — and the season as a whole so far, to be quite honest — are not the new normal but only a bump in the road.