The New England Patriots have not been swept by a division rivals in 19 seasons, but in order to keep that NFL-record streak alive they will need to find a way to beat the newly crowned AFC East champions on Monday Night Football. The 11-3 Buffalo Bills will visit Gillette Stadium in a prime time setting, trying to stay alive in the race for the number two playoff seed in the conference.
The 6-8 Patriots, at best, can play spoilers today given that they are already eliminated from postseason play. In order to do that, however, they will need to do something they have neither done the last two weeks nor in the first game against Buffalo: play consistent football on both sides of the ball.
In Week 8, when the team traveled to Western New York to take on the Bills, New England failed to do just that. While the defense competed well against Buffalo’s impressive passing game, and the offense started to find some groove in the second quarter, the Patriots eventually came up short when a potential game-tying or even game-winning series ended on a lost Cam Newton fumble in the opposing red zone.
So, what can Bill Belichick’s team do to prevent a different outcome this time around? It needs to win most if not all of the key matchups that could end up making a crucial difference.
Cam Newton vs the blitz
Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is not afraid to bring additional pressure to throw opposing offenses off their rhythm, even though his blitz-happiness grew over the last few seasons. During his first three years in Buffalo, according to Football Outsiders, his defense attacked with five or more defenders on 22.9 percent of snaps. This year, that number has jumped to 36.6 percent — the sixth highest rate in the NFL.
The Patriots also got a taste of Frazier’s willingness to call the blitz during their Week 8 game in Buffalo. Cam Newton was blitzed on 11 of his 28 total dropbacks that day, with his final stat line against extra rushers being disappointing: Newton went just 3-for-10 for 38 yards with a sack and a pair of throw-aways.
For comparison, Newton completed 12 of 15 pass attempts for 136 yards with one sack and a 5-yard scramble when not blitzed.
Needless to say that the veteran quarterback and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should also anticipate more rushers coming the offenses way again on Monday. 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 in October: whether it is holding the football too long or throwing risky passes, New England’s starting quarterback has had some issues this year.
All in all, Newton was blitzed on 167 of 373 dropbacks this season (44.8%) and fares noticeably worse versus extra rushers than against standard pressure: his completion percentage (60.4% vs 70.1%), yards per attempt (5.8 vs 8.4) and passer rating (71.3 vs 86.1) are all noticeably lower. Newton did throw four of his five touchdowns this year versus blitz looks, but he also was sacked 19 times and threw five interceptions.
Buffalo will likely again try to exploit 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 — something that was not always the case in Week 8.
Patriots’ misdirection concepts vs Bills’ off-the-ball linebackers
The last few years, Buffalo’s defense was the foundation upon which the organization was able to build its success. 2020 is not necessarily a continuation of that, with the team’s offensive firepower largely responsible for the team’s position atop the AFC East and as one of the best teams in all of football. The defense, on the other hand, has been comparatively mediocre.
Buffalo is ranked just 18th in points allowed (24.3/per game) and rather average in DVOA (-0.2%; 14th), EPA per play (0.051; 20th) and success rate (48.4%; 28th). No matter if it is the run defense or pass defense, the Bills have shown some weaknesses — weaknesses that even an offense as inconsistent as the Patriots could exploit with some improved execution and consistency. Yes, that is far from a given, but chances could present themselves nevertheless.
Take the two teams’ game in Buffalo in early November. The Patriots came up short in the end, but they play their best offensive football up until that point since before Cam Newton’s positive Coronavirus test one month before. The run game was a major reason for that — New England gained 188 yards on 34 carries for an average of 5.5 yards per attempt — but so was the concepts that built off of it.
Take the following 16-yard pass from Newton to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers in the first quarter:
New England has an 11-personnel set on the field with Newton (#1) aligning under center and tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) in the H-back position as a potential lead blocker for Rex Burkhead (#34). Instead of the Patriots using a run from this formation, however, they merely faked it and the deception had the desired result in that it occupied off-the-ball linebackers Tremaine Edmunds (#49) and A.J. Klein (#54).
The two stepping up to play the run allowed Meyers (#16) to get behind the pair on an over route. With him attacking the crease between the linebacker zones and deep-field safety Jordan Poyer (#21), the Patriots easily gained 16 yards.
Play-action concepts are just one of the ways New England could try to take advantage of what has been a linebacker group that, at times, has been too aggressive. Take the following play against the Kansas City Chiefs that we already looked at in our Week 8 preview:
Edmunds and Klein 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 was the key on the play (#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 misdirection play against the Bills defense will be successful, but the 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. Similar pull and fake-pull concepts could also be in the Patriots’ game plan heading into Week 16.
Josh Allen vs Patriots’ pressure
“Like most players, as they gain experience and gain confidence and get more familiar with the system and the defenses that they see, they improve. He’s done that,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about Bills quarterback Josh Allen last week. “It’s a well-balanced team. They have a lot of good players at a lot of positions and they utilize them in multiple ways; they are hard to defend. He’s done a good job of orchestrating it and being a key playmaker in the offense.”
Allen has been impressive this season, and playing at a very high level throughout the year — a clear improvement from the at times erratic quarterback he was during his first two seasons with the Bills. Accordingly, the former first-round draft pick is now one of the most effective throwers in all of football: Allen has a completion rate of 68.7 percent, while gaining 4,000 yards through the air and posting a 30-to-9 touchdown-to-interception rate.
That said, Allen has still had some lows to go along with his many highs. His first game against the Patriots was one of those as he posted the worst passer rating of his season (65.5) while not throwing a touchdown and turning the ball over on a J.C. Jackson interception.
The key to New England’s success that day was some tight coverage from a secondary that was missing Stephon Gilmore, but also a run defense that did not make the necessary stops to force Buffalo into obvious passing situations. When they did take to the air, however, the Patriots were ready for the Bills. How? By pressuring Allen both physically and mentally.
The Patriots mixed man and zone coverage calls, and also used the blitz extensively to make life hard on the young passer: New England used extra rushers on 13 of 22 dropbacks. Allen did go 8-for-11 versus the blitz, but its use still allowed the defense to throw the Pro Bowl passer off his rhythm.
Accordingly, the Patriots will likely play a similar game in Week 16. The goal certainly has to be the same: make Allen uncomfortable by messing with his expectation and rhythm from the pocket.
J.C. Jackson vs Stefon Diggs
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 early dividends are promising from the Bills’ point of view.
Diggs is leading the team in every major receiving category, and is among the most productive receivers in football this year: he has caught a league-high 111 passes on 147 targets for a combined 1,314 yards and five touchdowns. When targeting the Pro Bowler, Josh Allen has a passer rating of 110.8; he is posting a 102.7 when throwing to the other members of his receiving corps.
“He’s the leading receiver in the league; he’s targeted a lot,” said Bill Belichick about Diggs during a recent media conference call. “He’s made some great individual plays. At times, he’s gone up and taken the ball away from defenders and plays that you think are going to be incomplete passes and he ends up with the ball.
“He’s a very competitive player. He’s good after the catch. He has strong hands and certainly can get open with his quickness and separation and his savvy, and his competitiveness. He’s a tough kid. He’s added a lot to that team.”
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, especially considering that the aforementioned Stephon Gilmore will be out again after suffering a season-ending partial quad tear last week versus the Miami Dolphins.
With the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year absent, New England is expected to once again use J.C. Jackson as the primary coverage player to take on Diggs.
Jackson certainly was competitive in the first matchup, despite Diggs finishing the game with six catches on nine targets for 92 yards. The Patriots’ new number one cornerback, after all, gave up “only” five passes for 84 yards on eight targets while also registering an interception. As expected, the Bills’ top wide receiver did win his fair share of battles, but Jackson stood his ground to further prove why he was a starting-caliber cornerback even when drawing difficult assignments.
On Monday night, the Patriots will need more of the same: Jackson regularly getting beaten by Diggs could spell doom for a New England defense that was much better against the pass than the run this year.
Patriots front-line vs Bills’ zone run
While the pass defense had a good game against Buffalo in Week 8, the Patriots were gashed on the ground: New England surrendered three touchdowns and 195 rushing yards on 33 attempts for an average of 5.9 yards per carry. The Bills had no problems consistently gaining positive yardage on the ground no matter if Devin Singletary, Zack Moss or even Josh Allen carried the ball.
The main problem for the Patriots that day was their familiar inability to slow down zone concepts. The first touchdown given up by the team — an 8-yard scamper by Zack Moss — illustrated this:
Playing a dime defense behind a small defensive line, New England simply lacked the power to close all the gaps: Nick Thurman (#92) and Terrence Brooks (#25) were easily moved off the ball, John Simon (#55) failed to set a stout edge, and Devin McCourty (#32) was slow to get over on the second level where you would expect an off-the-ball linebacker to play.
The Bills saw the Patriots’ structural weaknesses all day in Week 8 and exploited them. New England cannot allow the same thing to happen on Monday night, or else the defense will be in for another long day on the ground.
What could be done to prevent this? For one, having Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips good to go and fully acclimated to the defensive system should help — they have played some encouraging football, even though the run defense as a whole has continued to struggle in recent weeks. Ja’Whaun Bentley playing more than 60 percent of the snaps, regardless of his inconsistency, also would give the team another big body up front to possibly fill gaps from the second level.
That all said, there is no way to sugarcoat it: the Patriots’ run defense in 2020 is just not good enough to win its battles on a consistent basis. It did so against the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals, but as the last two weeks have shown those performances were exceptions rather than a new norm. It will be tough against the Bills.
Jake Bailey vs Andre Roberts
Two Pro Bowlers will go up against each other on special teams: Patriots punter Jake Bailey and Bills return specialist Andre Roberts. Both have been among the very best at their respective positions this year, and their battle will be a pivotal one when it comes to field position.
Bailey and New England’s coverage crews on both kickoffs and punts have been outstanding this year. While his gross punting average of 48.7 ranks “only” fourth in the league, his net of 46.1 ranks first — a sign for not just his leg strength, hang-time and ability to place the football, but also for the coverage unit as a whole led by fellow Pro Bowler Matthew Slater and veteran Justin Bethel. The same is true on kickoffs.
Roberts, meanwhile, leads the league in kickoff return average (29.4) and is fourth on yards gained per punt runback (10.4). Together with a very good special teams group coordinated by Heath Farwell he has been able to flip field position in an instant — something the Patriots need to prevent on Monday to put their defense in a good position. New England needs to play complementary football.
The team did that in Week 8: Roberts was still able to gain a combined 48 yards on his two kickoff returns, but Bailey’s ball placement and hang-time limited him to one fair catch. The other three punts landed out of bounds, were downed by New England, and found the end zone for a touchback. While the latter was obviously not the preferred outcome, it still limited Roberts’ opportunity to do damage with the ball in his hands.