The Buffalo Bills may currently only own the fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture, but make no mistake: they have a case as one of the most complete teams in football this year. Their scoring ranks — second on offense (29.6 points per game) and defense (16.4 points per game) — are a reflection of that, but it goes far deeper than that.
Buffalo is well-balanced on both sides of the ball, and effective in both the running and the passing games. Add a skilled special teams group and you get a team that is among the most talented in football despite its current position in the standings.
The New England Patriots are very aware of that. Not only do they enter their game in Buffalo on Monday night as three-point underdogs, per DraftKings Sportsbook, they also mentioned this repeatedly while speaking to reporters over the last week.
Numerous players spoke highly about the Bills, as did head coach Bill Belichick.
“From top to bottom, just a good football team that does everything well,” Belichick said about his club’s Week 13 opponent. “They’re statistically at the top of the league in categories in every area, and they deserve to be. Well-coached. They play smart football, and they’re tough. They’re very well-balanced. ...
“Just from top to bottom, good team. Good, solid team. Good as anybody we’ve played. We know it’ll take a good effort from us Monday night. That’s what we’re getting ready to prepare to do. Play well, coach well, be ready to go on Monday night.”
What do the Patriots need to do in order to find success against their upcoming opponent, though? Let’s find out.
“They’re a very veteran, talented, disruptive group,” Belichick said about Buffalo’s defense. “They lead the league in tackles for loss and things like that. They really do a good job of creating negative plays. Obviously, they haven’t given up a lot of points. Linebackers are very good. [Matt] Milano and [Tremaine] Edmunds are probably as good as anybody we play. Safeties. Secondary. Well-coordinated defense.”
Belichick mentioned two of the key players for Buffalo’s defense: off-the-ball linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds. The two rarely leave the field, aligning at the heart of a defense using a nickel look as its base personnel grouping.
The two are seasoned defenders — Milano is in his fourth season; Edmunds in his fifth — and have looked good against both the run and the pass this year. In order to get the better of them, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will need to get creative. The goal is two-fold: moving them within their coverage zones to create space underneath, and getting theme to either react or freeze to allow blockers to get to them in the running game.
Luckily for the Patriots, McDaniels is one of the most creative schemers and play-callers in the NFL. He also is not afraid to reach into his bag of tricks to get things done.
It would therefore not be a surprise to see New England add multiple trick plays to their usual staple of misdirection. If there is a way to limit the impact the Bills’ highly talented off-the-ball linebackers it is that — something the Indianapolis Colts showed during their blowout win in Week 11.
Granted, Tremaine Edmunds was inactive for that game, but the Patriots can still take some things away from the contest from a structural perspective. First comes the use of jet motion, as illustrated by the following play:
The Colts presented motion looks similar to this one right here — resulting in a 19-yard run by Nyheim Hines — multiple times during their 41-15 victory two weeks back. Buffalo usually responded by rocking its second-level defenders before the cross player even reached the center of the formation.
Indianapolis was able to use this to its advantage to create better climbing angles for its offensive linemen time and again. The Patriots, who have never shied away from using motion to either give clues about the coverage or serve as a misdirection tool, will likely also try to get the Bills to make pre-snap shifts at the second level.
Obviously, jet motion is not the only tool in McDaniels’ toolbox to use. For one, there are multiple possibilities stemming from this play alone ranging from jet sweeps and reverse runs to pitch passes. The goal remains the same at all times, though: make the defense vacate certain areas to attack either via the pass or the run.
Use your run game staples
The Patriots will use creativity to move the ball against a stingy Bills defense ranking first in the league with only 275.2 yards given up per game. However, if they try to copy the Colts’ run-heavy plan — something that could very well happen given its success and the weather forecast — Josh McDaniels will also get his fair share of chances to call the classics.
Two run concepts in particular come to mind after having served Indianapolis well in Week 11: duo and trap/wham.
As the name suggests, duo is all about creating double blocks to move the interior defensive linemen off the ball and create an opening for the running back to exploit. In a basic setting, it looks like this:
Here, we can see the left guard and center team up against the 3-technique defensive tackle; the right-side guard and tackle take on the 4i-technique lineman. Obviously, there are plenty of variations to this play, but the gist remains the same: it has given the Bills defense some issues the past couple of weeks both as an early-down and short-yardage option.
The Bills, after all, tend to slant their defensive linemen so that the linebackers can play fast and flow to the ball-carrier. This allows them to quickly get to the ball but it also can create cut-back lanes for patient running backs.
The trap/wham concept works similar in that it also takes advantage of an aggressive front:
The Colts used trap/wham numerous times to great success against the Bills. The play itself basically works like this: a skill-player — in this case the H-back— is asked to take on the 4i-technique defensive lineman who remains left unblocked by the right tackle and the right guard. In turn, both the right tackle and the center are freed up to get to the second level while all front-line defenders are still accounted for.
If run properly, the offense will get linemen down the field to help clear out the smaller second-level defenders. In this example it would be the center and right tackle; in New England’s case that would be David Andrews and Trent Brown — a solid 680 pounds of blocking power.
The Patriots will employ other run concepts as well, but those two in particular have potential to hurt the Bills’ solid but aggressive run defense.
Be ready for coverage disguises
“They basically play the same defense all the time. They’re in a nickel defense,” said Bill Belichick about Buffalo’s defense.
But while the looks remain mostly unchanged from the five-defensive back alignment, the Bills are not afraid to mix things up coverage-wise. Belichick himself said as much earlier this week.
“They play a lot of zone, blitz zone. They play a little man, and they blitz a little bit, but not an extraordinary amount, but they’re effective when they do it. They’re good at everything,” he said. “It’s a very well-coordinated defensive unit. The players work well and adjust well with each other on things that come up. I don’t know if that’s exactly the way they want to cover or handle certain things, but they work it out, handle it, and it’s effective.”
As Belichick pointed out, 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: the two are “interchangeable,” as Belichick put it, meaning they can both align deep or closer to the box.
This, in turn, allows Buffalo to disguise its intentions until very late in the process. And those intentions are not exclusively zone-based: Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier also mixes in man-to-man coverage on occasion.
When the Bills switch to man they mostly run Cover 1 — a one-deep shell that is also frequently used by New England. Frazier calls for this look primarily on third downs and in the red zone, but no matter what he cooks up rookie quarterback Mac Jones needs to be ready to make quick decisions.
The Bills, after all, will not just line up and give him the clues that he needs. Hyde and Poyer in particular will move around, and Frazier throwing a curveball by running more man than usual would also not be a surprise.
Incorporate more zone coverage
Speaking of coverages, the Patriots also are no strangers to mixing things up. They 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 during their six-game winning streak.
The Bills’ Josh Allen is one of those mobile QBs, meaning New England could very well go back to more zone coverage again on Monday night. Incorporating more zone could also have another positive effect, though: Allen usually makes up for his mistakes with obscene talent and poise, but he has forced some throws this year when going against zone.
Two-high structures such as Cover 2 and Cover 4 in particular have given him some issues, as he sometimes misses underneath or backside defenders or simply trust his arm a bit too much. In those instances, plays can and have been made by opposing defenses.
The Patriots have run their fair share of two-high shells this year as well, but they will face a challenge nonetheless: with safety Kyle Dugger on the Coronavirus reserve list and unlikely to be activated before the game, they might have to find another player to team up with Devin McCourty.
Adrian Phillips is a candidate, but he is better suited as a box defender rather than an additional deep safety. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant would have some experience playing deep, but moving them from their original spots on the perimeter and in the slot, respectively, would leave both positions undermanned.
It will be interesting to see how New England will replace Dugger in the lineup. One thing is certain, though: running two-deep zones has become a lot more difficult with him unavailable.
Prepare for a versatile ground game
Buffalo’s offense is a pass-first attack, and for good reason: Josh Allen is playing at an MVP level and his receiving corps led by the three-headed wide receiver monster that is Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders is among the best in football.
But while the group presents an extraordinary challenge for a Patriots pass defense that has been stout during its six-game winning streak, the run game cannot be underestimated either. Not only did New England give up 271 non-kneel-down rushing yards to the Tennessee Titans last week, Buffalo also features a diverse group of backs.
The lead option is Devin Singletary, who compliments strong patience and vision on outside zone runs with dangerous cutback ability plus impressive contact balance. Joining him in the backfield are Matt Breida and Zack Moss: Breida is a straight-forward runner who likes getting to space outside, while Moss is more of a cutback runner in the mold of Singletary, but brings a more physical, downhill presence to the equation.
The traditional running game cannot be taken lightly by the Patriots, and the same goes for other ball-carriers. Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Isaiah McKenzie are dynamic players with the ball in their hands, while Josh Allen himself is still a major threat as a runner.
Allen combines size, strength and vision — a unique combination for a quarterback — and knows how to use them. Take his longest run of the season, a 34-yarder against the Miami Dolphins in Week 8:
The Bills run a jet motion similar to the one shown above, and it forces off-the-ball linebacker Duke Riley to react. Simultaneously, safety Brandon Jones moves to the far hash to help double-team Stefon Diggs. This, plus an undisciplined pass rush that leaves the backside B-gap open, gives Allen an opportunity he does not miss.
Allen carrying the ball for 34 yards is impressive, but so is his decision-making. Instead of further scanning his receiving options and waiting for a play to develop down the field, he takes off; showing tremendous confidence in his ability to read the play and to make something happen with his legs.
The results speak for themselves: on 26 rushing attempts classified as scrambles, Allen has gained 203 yards and scored two touchdowns. He is an averaging 7.8 yards per carry when scrambling from the pocket.
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, as the following example shows:
In this example from last week’s game against the New Orleans Saints, safety Malcolm Jenkins has a clear path towards the ball-carrier. However, the possibility of Allen keeping the ball as a runner forces him to play just hesitant enough; Devin Singletary takes advantage to gain 11 yards on the run play.
The Patriots need to play a disciplined game against the run, or else Buffalo will be able to take advantage.
Don’t show sloppy tackling form
The Bills offense is averaging 389.3 yards per game so far this season, good enough for fifth best in the NFL. The unit coordinated by former Patriots assistant coach Brian Daboll will move the ball on Monday, but the key from New England’s perspective will be keeping cheap yardage at a minimum.
What exactly is meant by that? Allowing Buffalo to gain extra yards through broken tackles.
The two running plays above — the 34-yard scramble by Josh Allen and the 11-yard run by Devin Singletary — both have the ball-carriers break tackling attempts. The two are obviously very good at that, with Allen and Singletary combining to force 49 missed tackles so far this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
They are not the only ones capable of eluding tacklers. Just take a look at the following play from the Bills’ win over the Saints last Thursday:
Stefon Diggs is running a short comeback route, and the Saints have a chance to stop him well before the sticks. However, not one but two defenders miss an opportunity to take the Bills’ WR1 down. He happily accepts the invitation to gain an additional 10 yards after the catch.
In total, Buffalo registered 113 yards after the catch versus New Orleans — almost half of its passing game total of 260 yards. While not all of those yards were the result of broken or missed tackles, the Patriots need to make sure that their tackling form is sound at all times.
The Bills, after all, have a powerful offense even when it is not getting extra opportunities to add yards.