The first time the New England Patriots went up against the Buffalo Bills this season they called only three pass plays. Windy conditions at Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium in combination with a favorable game script allowed the team to rely on its running game to shorten the contest and keep the pressure away from rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
The second matchup between the two AFC East rivals, meanwhile, went differently. Buffalo started hot and by the half held a 17-7 lead. The Patriots were forced to throw the football against one of the best pass defenses in football, and it did not go well.
Jones completed only 14 of 32 pass attempts for 125 yards and two interceptions. New England was able to fight its way back into the game but eventually ended up losing 33-21.
Now set to face the Bills again, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is well aware that passing will again not be easy. Earlier this week, he explained what exactly makes Buffalo so good versus the pass.
“Number one, they’re really well-coached,” he said. “I think Sean [McDermott] and Leslie [Frazier] have done a tremendous job ever since they’ve gotten there. It’s a huge challenge to diagnose what they’re doing defensively.
“They have two really, really good safeties who are very smart; they understand the difference in terms of disguise; they’re in sync always with the rest of the unit; they hide their intentions; and they’re very disciplined. Whenever somebody’s supposed to defend the deep part of the field, that’s what they’re doing. There are very few snaps where you can find somebody behind them, where they don’t force the ball to be thrown in front of them.”
Not counting scores given up by the offense or special teams, the Bills defense is ranked second in the NFL this season. The group is surrendering only 16.5 points per game.
While it has had success against the run as well, the main reason for that has been the unit’s ability to be stout in the passing game: Buffalo is ranked first in both EPA and DVOA, and third with 19 interception. For comparison, opponents have thrown only 12 touchdowns versus the group.
“When you get into the red area, they do a really good job of mixing a couple of different coverage families down there, once again trying to hide their intentions from you a little bit,” McDaniels said. “They do a good job of forcing you to throw the ball in front, and then they try to rally and tackle. And they have a lot of eyes on the ball.
“This is a really good zone football team that has increased its man-to-man percentage as well and plays really when and physical when it’s in man coverage. And they have the ability to mix in pressures as well. And those safeties that I just talked about are two of the bigger blitzers. They don’t have a bunch of mistakes in coverage. They’re almost always in unison and they play together very well. You can find some places to throw the ball, but not generally behind them.”
Led by safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the Bills had their way with Mac Jones and the New England passing offense in Week 16.
The Patriots again found success on the ground turning their 27 runs into 149 yards and three touchdowns, but the slow start forced McDaniels to call more pass plays than he probably would have liked. Jones dropped back to throw 36 times, and he was pressured on 11 of those plays while failing to build any sort of rhythm.
The Bills made the Patriots earn every yard that day, something McDaniels said would be their M.O.
“You have to work for it,” he said. “They make you earn it in the red zone, that’s why they’re one of the best red zone defenses for a long time, because they don’t give up a bunch of easy touchdowns from the high red zone or the fringe. They make you drive the ball, convert first downs, get into the low red zone, and then try to keep you out when you get inside the 5. It’s a big challenge.
“Like I said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for this staff and this group of players. It’s always a huge burden to trying to figure out how to get that done, and we’re going to be hard at work those next few days trying to crack the code.”