The Buffalo Bills of 2020 are not the Buffalo Bills of years past, not just because they are well on their way to making the playoffs and possibly even win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. The team has also found a lot more success on the offensive side of the ball than it previously did, with quarterback Josh Allen in particular making a tremendous leap in his third year in a system built by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
On Sunday, Daboll will go up against a familiar opponent: the New England Patriots, who gave him his start in the NFL and employed him a total of 11 years over two separate stints — including five seasons that ended in a Super Bowl win. Since 2018, however, Daboll is calling Buffalo his home and he has led a fairly productive offense this season that is ranked 18th in the NFL by averaging 24.9 points per game.
Those numbers may not stand out, but the Bills are ranked a lot more favorably when looking at advanced numbers: they are ranked fifth in the NFL in both expected points added per play (0.150) and success rate (49.9%), while also being in the top-five in plays (6.74; 2nd), yards (38.2; 4th) and time per drive (3:07; 4th). Buffalo also is 12th in DVOA (7.7%), with the team’s passing offense in particular responsible for the ratings.
New England, which will be without number one cornerback Stephon Gilmore, will have its hands full. Let us therefore find out what the Patriots can do to make life hard for the Bills.
Disrupt the Allen-Diggs connection
During the offseason, the Bills made a huge investment to bring wide receiver Stefon Diggs on board: Buffalo sent four draft picks — a first, fifth, and sixth in 2020, plus a fourth in 2021 — to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for the 26-year old and a seventh-round selection. The resources used to bring Diggs aboard were massive, but the dividends have looked promising seven games into the season.
At this point in his Bills tenure, Diggs is leading the team in every major receiving category: he has caught 48 passes on 69 targets for a combined 603 yards and three touchdowns. When targeting his new weapon, Josh Allen has a passer rating of 111.0, above his season-long average of 105.0.
Needless to say that the Patriots will need to find a way to disrupt the connection the two have established over the last few months in order fo slow Buffalo’s passing game down. The task will be a challenging one, though, considering that the aforementioned Stephon Gilmore will be out after tweaking his knee in practice on Thursday. With him gone, New England is expected to use a slightly different approach versus Diggs.
While there is a chance that J.C. Jackson takes on the Bills’ top receiver one-on-one on a regular basis, the team could also use a bracket on him with a cornerback playing him on the line of scrimmage and a safety luring over the top to take away the deep pattern — something New England did at times the last time it met Diggs back in 2017. The following play is an example from that game:
While Gilmore (#24) is aligned across from Diggs (#14) on this particular play, the Patriots also have safety Devin McCourty (#32) shaded to this side of the formation to provide help in the middle of the field against mesh concepts. This allows Gilmore to play Diggs with a cushion against the deeper route, while simultaneously giving the Patriots a numbers advantage versus crossers — something that is happening on this very play.
With Gilmore out, New England could try to bracket Diggs as well this week with Jackson or Jason McCourty over him when aligned on the perimeter, and Jonathan Jones taking him in the slot.
Depending on the alignment, the Patriots would follow a simple set of rules when using a bracket on the Bills’ number one wideout: the cornerback is responsible for out-breaking routes and go routes challenging him deep, while the safety takes over in-breaking patterns such as shallow crossers, deep over routes or posts. This, in turn, would also give the cornerback some security against double-moves, given that he knows he has help in the middle and only needs to worry about his own coverage areas.
Coverage concepts like these could help the Patriots tackle the challenge of slowing down Diggs, even with Stephon Gilmore sidelined.
Force Josh Allen into mistakes
Over the first two years of Josh Allen’s tenure as the team’s starting quarterback, the Bills won primarily because of a stifling defense and not necessarily due to the productivity of his right arm: while Allen did make his fair share of plays, he also was prone to mistakes while being one of the more inconsistent passers in the league. He was a gunslinger in every sense of the term.
While some of those elements are still part of his game, Allen has settled down in 2020 and is playing the best football of his career. His completion rate (67.6), passing yards per game (288.3), touchdown and interception percentages (6.2 and 1.5, respectively), and passer rating (105.0) are all better than they have ever been. While he is no longer relying on his legs as much to make plays, his passing has been impressive.
All that being said, Allen has slowed down a bit after a tremendous start to his season: while he completed 71 percent of his passes through the first four games for an average of 331.5 passing yards per contest as well as 12 touchdowns and just one pick, his completion percentage over the last three games sank to 63.1, while his yards per game went down to 230.7. He also threw just four touchdowns as well as three interceptions.
So, what can the Patriots do to get this Allen instead of the other one? Force him into making errors by playing more two-high coverage shells.
Allen has had issues against them quite a bit recently, as CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar recently pointed out: over the last three games, his completion percentage (56.1 vs 63.0), yards per attempt (6.0 vs 6.8) and expected points added per play (0.002 vs 0.135) are all significantly lower against two-high looks compared to single-high defenses. Furthermore, he threw one touchdown and three interceptions against two-high, while tossing no picks and two scores versus single-high defenses.
The Patriots will likely try to also take advantage of this trend by playing their fair share of defenses built around Cover 2 or Cover 4 principles. This is especially true considering that Allen likes to take his fair share of downfield shots even as he has become less of a gambler on those attempts.
Another proposed attack plan to force Allen into negative plays is the blitz, as Corey Giacovelli of Buffalo Rumblings pointed out earlier this week.
“Allen is an emotional player but sometimes his adrenaline is pumping so fast that he is prone to making some pretty big mistakes. We saw this in the home game against New England last season with all of the interceptions in the first half,” he said.
This is an interesting proposal because Allen has actually posted some very good numbers against the blitz this year. According to Pro Football Focus, he has completed 60.9 percent of his pass attempts for a combined 529 yards and seven touchdowns on the 96 drop-backs that saw him get attacked by more than four pass rushers. When not blitzed, meanwhile, his completion percentage is 70.9 percent for 1,491 yards as well as nine scores and four interceptions.
As can be seen, the former first-round draft pick has been quite good no matter the amount of pass rushers he faces. That said, the Patriots’ blitz packages have been relatively successful so far this season. While Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers had success against them, the general trend goes in the opposite direction: opposing passers have been blitzed on 55 occasions, with them completing 32 of 49 throws (65.3%) for 436 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
Allen has been better against the blitz this season, but as Corey noted the Patriots could still find a way to impact him by sending extra rushers on select plays.
Be prepared for quarterback scrambles
The Bills’ running game has not hit its stride just yet this season. The team is ranked in the bottom-third in every major statistical category, with the advanced numbers not looking much better: Buffalo is ranked 27th in the NFL in run game EPA per play (-0.123), 27th in success rate (37.0%) and dead last in DVOA (-29.0%). That being said, Buffalo does have a weapon on the ground that cannot be underestimated: Josh Allen himself.
Yes, this is turning into a rather Allen-based analysis, but he is the key to the Bills’ offense much more than any other individual player. This creates opportunity for the Patriots, especially when it comes to the quarterback’s abilities as a ball-carrier.
While Allen is no longer as big a threat to run the ball as he is continuing his development into more of a traditional pocket passer, he still knows how to challenge defenses with the ball in his hands: the third-year man has not counting kneel-downs, he has carried the football 39 times so far this season for 212 yards and three touchdowns. His 5.4 yards gained per carry are the second highest on the team behind only T.J. Yeldon, who has played a limited role this season as the number three running back behind Devin Singletary and Zack Moss.
Designed quarterback runs are one tool the Bills use, but Allen is at his most dangerous when scrambling: on 15 runs that have been categorized as scrambles, Allen has gained 110 yards for an average of 7.3 yards per run. He has also found the end zone once. The following play from last week’s game against the New York Jets is a good example of the threat Allen poses on the ground:
The Jets were rushing four defenders at the snap, but the Bills picked them up well despite 2i-technique John Franklin-Myers (#91) getting around center Mitch Morse (#60) and into the backfield. The play could have turned into a positive one for the defense, but Allen (#17) was able to exploit an opening in the defensive line that was created when linebacker Avery Williamson (#54) pulled to the inside and edge rusher Tarell Basham (#93) was forced to run the loop by right tackle Daryl Williams (#75).
Buffalo’s quarterback showed some tremendous vision on the play, seeing that the gap had opened up and that the nearest off-the-ball linebackers were all being pulled away through the route concept and coverage call. With the Jets not using a spy on Allen and being unable to fill all the gaps up front, he had enough space to take the ball for a season-long gain of 17 yards.
The Patriots are aware of Allen’s abilities as a scrambler, having played him three previous times and seeing his athletic abilities up close. In order for them to leave Buffalo victoriously, keeping him confined in the pocket by playing structurally sound football up front and possibly employing a spy — safety Adrian Phillips or rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings are possible options — over the top.