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#PostPulpit Mailbag: How did Buffalo attack New England’s Cover 1 defense?

Related: Patriots’ coverage issues against Bills went beyond Myles Bryant

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots saw their AFC East division lead wash away after suffering a 33-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. As the Patriots offense struggled to move the football through the air, Josh Allen and Brian Daboll schemed and executed a great game plan against New England’s top rated defense on the other side.

Allen and Daboll found much success attacking New England’s Cover 1 defense — a scheme the Patriots run the second most in the NFL. On Sunday, the Patriots were in Cover 1 on 47.4 percent of their coverage snaps against Buffalo, and the Bills took advantage, converting 11 first downs against the look.

Cornerback Myles Bryant took most of the blame, as he was consistently beat by wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie throughout the afternoon. McKenzie, who was only playing due to multiple Buffalo receivers being sidelined due to Covid-19, had a career-high 11 receptions for 125 yards. He entered Sunday without recording more than two receptions in any game this season.

When reviewing the game, Bryant was not solely responsible for the defensive struggles, as the Bills attacked New England’s system. DaBoll did a strong job scheming multiple crossing routes and leaving Patriot defensive backs out leveraged. In the play below, you can see both Stefon Diggs and McKenzie cross from the top of the screen. As Devin McCourty replaces J.C. Jackson as the “robber”, Bryant is then left with no help on McKenzie.

Asking any NFL corner, Myles Bryant, Jonathan Jones, etc., to keep up with a player on a crossing route with no help, let alone a player like McKenzie (4.42 40-yard dash), is an impossible task. New England could have benefitted from having Kyle Dugger jam or disrupt McKenzie as he crossed his face, allowing Bryant more time to catch up.

Another instance of a similar play comes on Buffalo’s previous touchdown drive. Tight end Dawson Knox is sent on a shallow cross from the bottom of the screen, leaving safety Adrian Phillips out-leveraged in man coverage. As Myles Bryant passes McKenzie to Devin McCourty, Phillips is alone on Knox in an impossible foot race.

Again, the result of this play could have been extremely different in Matthew Judon does not allow Knox a free release off the line of scrimmage.

Moving forward, New England could shift to a Cover 2 look if teams try to replicate Buffalo’s success. That would leave two safeties over top to assist with crossing routes — something they likely didn't do against Buffalo in order to try to contain Josh Allen, another issue that hurt the defense on Sunday. If the Patriots are content with continuing running their Cover 1 defense at high rates, the answer then just may be to get more physical at the line of scrimmage.

Now with two games left in the regular season, New England now sits in one of the three AFC wild card spots as they prepare for a Week 17 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars. So, let’s hop into the rest of this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag.

@CheyenneSulli14 Do you think Mac jones plays good at the end of they year against good teams?

@harvwilkinson Have defenses figured out Mac Jones and the Patriot offense or is the offense playing poorly?

We’ll lump these two questions together and break down the recent struggles of the Patriots’ offense. The Patriots’ passing attack was hitting it’s stride during New England’s win streak, but the wind storm in Buffalo and Week 14 bye has appeared to knock them off their tracks.

Since the bye, Jones’ accuracy and decision-making has not been the same in the Patriots’ last two losses. After posting a +4.8 completion rate over expected (CPOE) through the first 13 games — which ranked sixth best in the league — Jones has posted a -9.7 CPOE in his last two games.

Reviewing the passing offense the last few weeks, it hasn't been pretty beyond Jones. Receivers struggled to create separation against Buffalo last week, as the Bills basically dared Jones to beat them outside the numbers or by driving the ball into tight windows downfield. Plus, going 1-for-10 on third down is a recipe for losing football games.

Now, it should be noteworthy the Patriots were without Nelson Agholor Sunday, who is the one receiver on the roster who challenges opposing defense with his speed down the field. Also, Kendrick Bourne did not practice throughout the week and played just 47 percent of snaps as he was activated off the Covid-19/reserve list on Saturday. Credit should also be given to Buffalo who boasts a top-rated pass defense and executed their game plan successfully on Sunday.

Going forward, the Patriots offense should be better than it has been the last two weeks as they get healthy and get back on the same page. But, this unit still lacks talent at the receiver position and will always need to play a perfect game to keep the Patriots in games. As for Jones, he needs get back to how he played earlier this year, making stronger decisions with the football and taking smarter risks.

We’ve seen better performances from this unit that should leave us optimistic, but there is no question this offensive unit has a limited ceiling.

@TuckerRossCon Has Hightower lost a step in your opinion? Or is just the year off. He missed tackles last week.

Dont’a Hightower is obviously not the player he once was. Now, for a player that was never known for his speed, it’s about what you’d expect for a 31-year-old coming off a season in which he sat out. On his performance, last week’s loss to Buffalo was the worse we’ve seen Hightower since back in September. He looked as slow-footed as he did back in the opening month and was credited with two missed tackles. Perhaps he’s dealing with some late season wear and tear, but the Patriots can't afford too many more games like that.

@MilkyD79 Will the Pats rest any starters in Miami (week 18) if they clinch a playoff berth on Sunday?

To start, let’s look at how the two obvious ways the Patriots can clinch a playoff berth this week (any other result involves a New England tie):

  1. NE win + MIA loss or tie OR
  2. NE win + LV loss or tie

As the Dolphins travel to face the Titans and the Raiders also are on the road against the Colts, there’s a favorable chance the Patriots do clinch a spot this Sunday — assuming they take care of the 2-13 Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. If that is the case, I find it unlikely they would rest starters in Week 18, as they will still have seeding to fight for in a crowded AFC, as well as the division to potentially play for if Buffalo drops one of their final two games.

@patsdowney If all of the legal matter were resolved, would you take a trade that involved Mac Jones for Deshaun?

I’ve seen this question going around on the bird app lately and not sure why we are asking it. But, I am for the people so will answer. My answer almost took no thought as well, especially since you added no issue legally for Deshaun Watson. Watson is a better quarterback than Mac Jones and has athletic ability that Jones will never have in his career. It’d be an easy swap for me.

@ryanmullzy If Bill Belichick could only do 1 thing, what would he do to fix the Celtics? Yes, a ridiculous question but man do they underachieve

We want to talk about a mess, check in on those Celtics, folks. I don't even know how Bill Belichick could help them at this point. Maybe bringing his winning culture to the Garden would prevent them from blowing just one double digit fourth quarter lead.

@qtashraf how many ppl run this page

That’s a great question and one I'm not even sure of. I’m just here to post memes.

@Jeff84253469 What is your favorite Macho Man Randy Savage gif?

“On balance, off balance, doesn't matter I’m better than you are.”

@kevsnotheree What % of your tweets are serous?

We should all know this by now. 28.3 percent. Duh.

@ReadNFLtweets Any New Years resolutions?

“‘No, not right now.’ -Bill Belichick” — Brian Hines.

Side note, I still can't believe that question was asked following the Bills game. I audibly gasped.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag, hope everyone has a safe and happy New Years! If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!