The message coming out of One Patriot Place all week long was simple: this is a different game.
The New England Patriots obviously are aware that their Week 13 matchup against the Buffalo Bills will have a limited impact on the high-stakes meeting in Week 16. Too rough were the conditions, too run-heavy the Patriots’ approach. Trying to attack the Bills again in similar fashion would be foolish, at least on offense.
That being said, there are still lessons to be learned from New England’s 14-10 victory in Buffalo three weeks ago — the team said so itself. So, with that in mind, let’s find out what the Patriots, who are listed as 1-point favorite per DraftKings Sportsbook, can do to complete the season-sweep and position itself in the best possible situation to win back the AFC East title.
Build on Week 13
In Week 13, the Patriots became the first team of the 21st century to throw just three passes in a game. Playing in windy conditions that made advancing the football via the pass a challenge, quarterback Mac Jones went 2-for-3 for 19 yards. New England, meanwhile, ran the football 44 times for a combined gain of 230 yards.
As noted above, the Patriots cannot duplicate this game plan and expect to beat one of the better teams in the NFL a second time. What they have to do is therefore build on what they showed in Week 13.
The goal ist to catch the a very good defensive unit off guard by breaking tendencies and staying ahead of the curve. How can this be achieved, though?
To be fair, that may be a bit of an overstatement. The Bills bolster one of the best pass defenses in the league, after all, and the Patriots need to be smart when it comes to attacking it. Flipping the script compared to Week 13 — spreading the field and dropping back to pass 40-plus times — is likely going to yield negative results.
For one, the Bills are a very good pass rushing unit that is ranked second in the league with a pressure rate of 28.7 percent. Furthermore, the defense coordinated by Leslie Frazier is tied for fourth-most in football with 17 interceptions. Add the fact that the Patriots’ wide receiver situation is murky after a) Nelson Agholor has been ruled out, b) Kendrick Bourne missed the entire week on the Covid-19 list, and c) N’Keal Harry is dealing with a hip injury, and you get why tirelessly throwing the ball is not the way to go.
Nonetheless, the Patriots should trust their rookie quarterback to throw the ball more than thrice. This is where the play-action game becomes important.
Buffalo will likely try to hone in on stopping the run, which in turn could create openings for New England to throw the football behind the linebackers. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has plenty of play-action concepts in his playbook, especially off of the heavy sets used regularly by his team in Week 13.
Let’s take a look at two examples.
The first play we look at is an under center heavy set that will try to suck the off-the-ball linebackers up the field to either free up space behind them or on the strong side of the formation:
This play, titled 0 Slot H-144 Max Y Flag Indigo, has the quarterback fake the hand-off before going through his progressions. He first looks at the Y — his in-line tight end — running a 12-yard flag route, before moving to the fullback, the X receiver on an 18-yard in, and finally the halfback as a check-down option.
Based on how the Patriots attacked Buffalo out of heavy sets in Week 13, a play like this could find success on Sunday.
The same goes for the following, which will also attempt to move the linebackers up by messing with their keys. New England, after all, will use one of its guards as a pull-blocker — usually an indication for a run to the opposite side of the formation.
In this scenario, left guard Ted Karras would be the move player; he would help clear the frontside of the play while the in-line tight end attempts to attack the bubble behind linebacker and safety levels. With the back chipping in before releasing into the flat, New England would have strong protection for Mac Jones to go through his reads.
Once again, the progression would start with the Y-tight end before moving to the flat and the backside X-receiver. Ideally, though, the post/wheel combination on the backside will only serve the purpose of clearing out the area for the crossing tight end to attack.
Obviously, those are just two plays McDaniels has at his disposal. There are multiple others and variations of each one depending on the defensive look. The goal, however, remains the same: to counter Buffalo’s aggressiveness against the run.
One thing the Patriots will also keep in mind when doing that is going after linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. While one of the better off-the-ball defenders in the game, and a stout player alongside teammate Matt Milano, Edmunds has had his issues in the passing game two weeks ago versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tom Brady and the Buccaneers attacked him tirelessly, and he had no answer. Whether it was crossing routes, screen plays, high/low concepts, man or zone coverage, the former first-round draft pick struggled. It will be interesting to see whether or not the Patriots will try to copy this approach and go after Edmunds in particular when running their play-action and more traditional drop-back plays.
The process of building off of Week 13 does not only include adapting plays to break your own tendencies, but also to keep the preparation for that first game in mind — preparation that pretty much had to be thrown out of the window once the weather.
Back then, we identified six areas the Patriots have to emphasize in order to find success:
- Get creative: Using misdirection and trick plays should have helped stress Buffalo’s defensive recognition skills, and possibly create better climbing angles for blocking linemen.
- Use your run game staples: Given the Bills’ disruptive style, running plays such as trap/wham or duo might have helped use Buffalo’s aggressiveness against itself.
- Be ready for coverage disguises: Buffalo is primarily a zone defense with Cover 4 as the most popular among the coverage. They also mix in Cover 3 looks, though, with safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer responsible for the pre-snap disguise.
- Incorporate more zone coverage: The Patriots are primarily a man-based defense, but recently have shifted towards more of a zone approach to counter the mobile quarterbacks and outside-zone-based rushing attacks they have faced this season. The Bills’ Josh Allen is one of those mobile QBs.
- Prepare for a versatile ground game: Whether it is Allen or one of the team’s running backs, the Bills have plenty of tricks up their sleeve to stress run defenses. New England has obviously struggled in this area as of late; Buffalo will likely try to take advantage.
- Don’t show sloppy tackling form: The Bills are a potent offense as is, and allowing them extra yards by taking bad angles or showcasing sloppy technique is a recipe for disaster.
Those six areas are still relevant heading into Week 16, despite New England repeatedly pointing out that the game would be a different one. The Bills, after all, are still the same team from a conceptual perspective.
For more on that Week 13 preparation and points of emphasis, please click here.
Throw some curveballs
The Bills offense is one of the best in the game, ranking second in the NFL with a scoring average of 27.6 points per game. New England, however, was able to hold it to just 10 points in Week 13 — Buffalo’s second lowest total of the season — by taking advantage of the elements but more importantly by throwing some curveballs.
Teams have been able to find success against Buffalo this season by playing some two-deep coverage shells and forcing Josh Allen and company to go for the underneath plays rather than any deep shots. The Bills are still very much capable of playing successful football that way, though, which is why New England opted for a different approach: the Patriots played a lot of one-deep looks, primarily out of their preferred Cover 1 defense.
Using different coverages compared to other teams was not the only change-up the Patriots ran three weeks ago. The team also used lighter boxes, thus daring the Bills to run the ball against a line featuring big-bodied tackles such as Davon Godchaux — playing arguably the best football of his career — as well as Lawrence Guy and Carl Davis. Buffalo couldn’t do it, with its running backs gaining just 60 yards on 19 carries.
The Patriots going back to those wells in Week 16 might happen, but as we have mentioned above changing things up and building on the foundation laid in Week 13 will be key.
So, what kind of curveballs can we expect on Sunday? How about blitzes, for example?
New England blitzed Josh Allen on nine of his 37 dropbacks in Week 13, and he completed just two passes when facing extra rushers. Given that the Bills will be without their two starting guards — Jon Feliciano and Cody Ford are both on the Covid-19 reserve list — and that left tackle Dion Dawkins just returned from the Coronavirus list on Saturday, stressing the communication up front might be one way to challenge Buffalo.
Treat Josh Allen as RB1
Back in Week 13 we spoke about the Bills successfully using Josh Allen as a ball-carrier, and how the team’s use of RPO concepts and play-action has been one of the keys to its offensive success in 2021 thus far:
Allen combines size, strength and vision — a unique combination for a quarterback — and knows how to use them ... New England needs to be disciplined not to give him any escape lanes. However, Allen’s abilities as a runner also have another impact: the threat of him running from shotgun also helps hold defenders and get running backs cheap yards near the sticks. Mixing in RPO looks further helps freeze pursuit players.
Since that Week 13 game, Allen has not been used any less as a runner. In fact, an argument can be made that he is the best ball-carrier Buffalo has at its disposal at the moment — one it has not been afraid to use recently.
Take the Week 14 matchup with the Buccaneers. While Devin Singletary and Matt Breida combined to receive only seven carries, Allen ran the football 12 times for 109 yards and a touchdown. He added a different dynamic to Buffalo’s ground game, and offensive coordinator (and former Patriots assistant) Brian Daboll was not afraid to use him.
Take the aforementioned touchdown run, which saw Allen (#17) find the end zone form 18 yards out:
The Bills’ quarterback faked the hand-off on a supposed stretch run to the right side of the formation. However, he kept the ball and found an opening around left tackle Dion Dawkins (#73). That opening was created by Dawkins successfully blocking down against Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (#9), and by the left side of the line pulling around.
Right guard Daryl Williams (#75) and right tackle Spencer Brown (#79) served as the lead-blockers for Allen on the designed run. Williams cleared the edge while Brown moved down the field to take on any off-the-ball defenders or defensive backs coming down.
With Cody Ford out against the Patriots, the team might have to get ready for Williams and Brown to serve as the starting blockers on the right side of the line yet again — and for Allen to see plenty of action as a de facto lead running back.
Daboll schemed Allen open, but the dual-threat QB also made plays on himself. The following run from the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay is an example of that:
Allen appeared to go for either a dump-off pass to running back Devin Singletary (#26) or a quick pass to one of his three wide receivers on that side of the field, but he instead kept the football himself. His little head-fake sold the defense on the idea of a pass, and he took advantage: Allen found an opening through the left-side B-gap and outran the defenders in pursuit.
To make matters worse for the defense, he also was able to run by safety Andrew Adams (#26). The defensive back started coming down as soon as he saw Allen take off, but he took too aggressive an angle and ended up in a bad spot.
The Patriots have to diagnose plays well and be disciplined in keeping him in the pocket — something that did not always work in Week 13. However, they also need to make sure to get a hold of Allen if he is able to get through the line of scrimmage and into the open field.