The Week 16 stat-sheet is not kind to Myles Bryant. The New England Patriots’ slot cornerback, who took over the role after Jonathan Jones was lost for the season in October, surrendered six catches against the Buffalo Bills on just seven man coverage targets.
The Bills repeatedly found success against Bryant, with wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie getting the better of him throughout the day. Buffalo’s fifth option that was elevated to a starting role due to a pair of positive Covid-19 tests, McKenzie served as a reliable chain-mover for Josh Allen. The quarterback went back to the well repeatedly.
McKenzie finished the game with 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. On eight of those catches regardless of coverage shell, Bryant was the closest defender to him. When going one-on-one against him in man coverage, the second-year defensive back simply could not match his speed and was outrun time and again on crossing patterns.
As always, though, the numbers tell only part of the story. Fact is that the Bills were able to exploit the matchup in large parts due to the Patriots defense as a whole, and not only because of Bryant being ill-equipped to handle McKenzie.
Sure, having Jonathan Jones’ elite closing speed would have helped on some of the plays. However, New England’s coverage scheme in combination with a lack of pressure and some very good throws made by Josh Allen all played a part.
Let’s use one particular play as an example.
3-10-BUF 25 (7:26) (Shotgun) J.Allen pass short left to I.McKenzie to BUF 42 for 17 yards (M.Bryant)
Down 26-21 midway through the fourth quarter, the Patriots defense put itself in a promising position. The unit had forced back-to-back incomplete passes for just the fourth time all game, setting up a 3rd-and-long. A stop would have given the ball back to New England with plenty of time to score the go-ahead touchdown.
New England approached the down in a two-deep safety look against Buffalo’s 3x1 11-personnel group. While not showing its intentions right away — the Patriots could have been in either zone or man coverage based on the pre-snap look — the unit moved to a single-high man-to-man scheme right at the snap: Cover 1.
The idea behind Cover 1 is to force receivers into the middle of the field where the safeties or off-the-ball linebackers are hovering. Like every defense, however, it has some weaknesses.
The Bills were able to exploit those for a gain of 17 yards that would keep the drive alive:
With the Patriots using Adrian Phillips (#21) as the deep middle-of-the-field safety and Devin McCourty (#32) in a robber look against Bills WR1 Stefon Diggs (#14), Bryant (#41) was left on an island against McKenzie (#19). He actually reacted well versus the wide receiver’s crossing route but was put at a schematic disadvantage.
Playing outside leverage as he is told, Bryant simply had no help.
For one, the lone underneath defender — safety Kyle Dugger (#23) — did little to get in McKenzie’s way. One of the problems from his perspective, however, is the depth of the route: any intentional contact made with the crossing receiver would likely have been flagged to automatically convert the third down. As a result, Dugger played it safe and did barely touch him.
Bryant also had to trail McKenzie without any deep help. With New England playing man free with a safety in the middle of the field, he was left on an island playing a technique vulnerable against this type of route.
That might not have mattered had the Patriots been able to either properly swarm the underneath zones or get some pressure on Josh Allen. However, they did neither. New England did have five players attack the pocket to leave Dugger as the lone man underneath: three attacked the pocket right away, with Dont’a Hightower (#54) joining in late after releasing from tight end Dawson Knox (#55).
Using what was effectively a three-man rush put pressure on the coverage to hold up long enough. However, the scheme in the backend plus the quality of the opposing quarterback made this a challenging assignment.
Bryant fell victim to all of these circumstances. Could he have done anything better? Hardly. Defending a crossing route from a bunch formation while playing outside leverage in Cover 1 is simply a near-impossible task. Buffalo just had the right pattern ready for this type of coverage look, the protection held up well against an insufficient pass rush, and Josh Allen made a good read.
Obviously, one play is the smallest possible sample size. However, the Patriots’ issues were not limited to this particular third down. Buffalo repeatedly found success against New England’s Cover 1 look by running McKenzie on crossers at the perfect depth:
Time to squash some Myles Bryant slander.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 26, 2021
Crossers, flats from stack/bunch are nearly impossible to defend from C1 without help, especially if the WR has time to run away from coverage
NE's help was too shallow (Bentley in low hole) or non-existent (blitz/robber toward Diggs) pic.twitter.com/ll35bXkmHv
The biggest issue for the Patriots was the lack of adjustments, something safety Devin McCourty noted after the game.
“We didn’t adjust and I felt like I could’ve made some adjustments on the field that would’ve helped us,” he said about defending McKenzie. “We just didn’t get it done.”
With the NFL being a copycat league, the Patriots can be sure other teams have noticed those coverage issues. While few have a quarterback of the same quality as Josh Allen able to exploit those matchups repeatedly and make the correct decision with the football, teams will try to exploit the crossers whenever they find New England move to a man free scheme with a single-high safety.
The Patriots better be ready to make some adjustments. Moving away from Myles Bryant as their slot cornerback should not be one of them.