Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you, the fans. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ 24-21 loss against the Buffalo Bills and the worst moment for an offense that otherwise was able to play some solid-looking football again.
Before finally turning the page to the New England Patriots’ upcoming matchup versus the New York Jets, we will have to take one final look back at the team’s Week 8 game versus the Buffalo Bills. One play in particular stands out above the rest, of course, happening in crunch time in the fourth quarter: the fumble by quarterback Cam Newton that ended the game in the Bills’ favor and pushed the Patriots to 2-5 on the season.
Leading up to this disappointing ending, New England’s offense had a pretty good day compared to the previous two weeks. While it struggled once again to build some rhythm in the first half, it found its groove in the second and scored back-to-back touchdowns heading into a possible winning or at least game-tying series. That drive started with just over four minutes left in the game and saw the Patriots try to come back from 24-21.
So, what happened on that ill-fated final play? Let’s take a look.
2-10-BUF 19 (:37) (Shotgun) C.Newton left tackle to BUF 14 for 5 yards (J.Zimmer). FUMBLES (J.Zimmer), RECOVERED by BUF-D.Marlowe at BUF 13.
New England started its final drive against Buffalo at the 21-yard line but was able to drive into the Bills’ red zone behind a healthy mix of run and pass. After an incomplete pass on 1st-and-10 stopped the clock with 37 seconds remaining, the Patriots again lined up in their two-minute offense: they had an 11-personnel group on the field with the downfield receivers spread out and Cam Newton (#1) and Rex Burkhead (#34) in the backfield.
When the football was snapped, the team’s alignment looked as follows with Buffalo on the other side playing a man-to-man defense with one safety deep:
While the Patriots spread out their personnel in a 2x2 lineup, and had no additional blockers up front, the play itself did not include a pass option: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a quarterback run to the left side of the formation, which was partially dependent on the skill position players aligned there — Burkhead, Jakobi Meyers (#16), Damiere Byrd (#10) — holding their blocks down the field and supporting the offensive line.
Up front, meanwhile, the Patriots were running a zone blocking scheme. This means that the offensive line did not attack previously defined players as their assignments, but rather specific zones down the field while trying to clear a path for the ball carrier behind them. In motion and combined with the rest of the play, this looks as follows:
Given how the play itself unfolded down before the fumble, every single blocker up front needs to be analyzed in order to get a clearer picture of it:
RT Mike Onwenu (#71): The Patriots’ right tackle did move to his left alongside the rest of the line at the snap, but he quickly reset course when Bills defensive lineman Trent Murphy (#93) attacked with a swim move to his outside shoulder. Onwenu rebounded very well and was therefore able to take Murphy out of the way — all while also slowing down linebacker A.J. Klein (#54). An impressive play by the rookie.
RG Shaq Mason (#69): At the snap, Mason also moved to his left to cut off Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer (#61). However, he eventually got lost in the traffic a bit. This was not necessarily a fault of his, though.
C David Andrews (#60): The team captain’s role on this play is an interesting one. He too moved to his left, but once he reached the second level did not charge further downfield but instead stopped and turned around. What triggered this can only be speculated, but had he not turned around and continued to move further down the field, he could have prevented the aforementioned Justin Zimmer or safety Dean Marlowe (#31) from impacting the play later on. We do not know Andrews’ motivations behind stopping his tracks, though, so blame cannot be assigned.
LG Joe Thuney (#62): New England’s best offensive lineman this season originally took on defensive tackle Harrison Phillips (#99) but at one point seems to have lost his balance, possibly after tripping over the leg of edge rusher Darryl Johnson (#92). While this put Thuney in Justin Zimmer’s way, it was not enough to stop him from later forcing the fumble.
LT Isaiah Wynn (#76): While originally aligning over Johnson, Wynn did not block him but instead moved around the corner to get to the second level. There, the former first-round draft pick helped block linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (#49) — despite stumbling while pressing around the edge. Wynn did perform well, but he could have tried to peel off Edmunds when it became clear Rex Burkhead had him engaged to take on Dean Marlow further down the field to possibly prevent the game-ending fumble recovery. That said, the linebacker was starting to get free, so Wynn cannot really be blamed for not doing that.
WR Jakobi Meyers (#16): Originally aligned on the offensive left-side slot, Meyers did not take on the cornerback on the other side of him — Taron Johnson (#24) —but rather move to the inside to chip Darryl Johnson. Despite Johnson being listed at 50 pounds more than Meyers, the second year wide-receiver was able to get him off his tracks to effectively take him out of the play.
WR Damiere Byrd (#10): Byrd also moved to the middle of the field, taking on the vacant Johnson in the process. And like Meyers, he did a good job of rerouting his assignment to free up the edge around Wynn and Rex Burkhead. Speaking of whom...
RB Rex Burkhead (#34): While not a fullback, Burkhead was basically filling the role of lead blocker on this play. As mentioned above, he took on Tremaine Edmunds at the second level and initially did a fine job holding his ground against Buffalo’s starting linebacker.
So, with all that said, let’s return to the bigger picture and the man central to this play: Cam Newton. The path he was to take was clear, and the Patriots did a good job of providing it for him despite some problems along the way that simply have to be expected on such a play call. The fact that Newton was able to gain five yards before being taken down reflects this. Unfortunately for New England, of course, he lost the football in this process.
And that is the key takeaway from this play. The call and the blocking worked well, but two factors still forced it to end in a negative result: Justin Zimmer’s impressive hustle to stay alive, and Newton not taking care of the football properly enough. Yes, he was tackled from behind, but he had to expect this to happen. The problem was that the Patriots’ starting quarterback was holding the football in his field-side hand, giving it an increased exposure.
Newton, however, gave an explanation for this during his post-game press conference.
“In that situation, with the game on the line, I’m dominantly right-handed,” he said. “So, prior to me putting the ball in my left hand, which is my weakest arm, I felt more comfortable with the ball in my right hand. I usually almost always tend to run with my right hand, just for comfort.”
At the end of the day, that is what made the difference. The Bills just made one play more than the Patriots. For a team with as slim a margin for error, this can be devastating. On Sunday, it was.