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NFL playoff preview: 3 things the Patriots offense can learn from its regular season games against the Bills

The Patriots offense scored just four touchdowns in two games versus Buffalo. So, let’s find out what it can do to find success on Saturday.

Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The New England Patriots did split the regular season series with the Buffalo Bills, but their offense had a hard time consistently moving the ball on one of the best defenses in the game. In those two games, the unit found the end zone only four times combined: it scored 14 points in the first matchup in Buffalo and 21 points three weeks later.

The Patriots did win that first game with a final score of 14-10, but the windy conditions and game script played into their hands. New England ran the ball down Buffalo’s throat after taking an early lead and playing some stout defense.

The rematch, however, did not go that way. The Bills went into the half up 17-7, forcing the Patriots and rookie quarterback Mac Jones into more passing situations; after Jones had thrown the ball a mere three times in Week 13, he attempted 32 passes in the second game against Buffalo’s top-ranked passing defense. The Bills ended up winning 33-21.

Now, New England’s offense will face its division rivals a third time: the sixth-seeded Patriots will travel to Orchard Park to take on the third-seeded Bills, who are favored by 4.5 points, according to our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook. While the game is a new one, as head coach Bill Belichick pointed out, there is still a lot that can be learned from the previous two contests played in December.

Buffalo will try to take away the easy throws

Mac Jones was not asked to do much more than hand the football off in Week 13. The Patriots’ second game against the Bills three weeks later therefore gave us a clearer look at how they wanted to defend the rookie quarterback and New England’s passing attack.

The basic idea was a simple one: don’t make it easy on them.

In order to do that, the Bills concentrated on doing two things at virtually all times. They threw multiple coverage shells and post-snap switches at Jones — most prominently out of Cover 5 (i.e. Cover 2 man-under) and Cover 1 — and also attempted to take away the middle of the field by undercutting in-breaking routes and high-low concepts.

Buffalo kept the play in front of the defense, which in turn allowed their off-the-ball personnel to attack the underneath plays run by the Patriots. Even when able to complete passes like on the following Jakobi Meyers (#16) drag, the Bills were quick to the ball-carrier to limit yards after the catch:

The Patriots are running a two-man concept called “drive” out of their 1x3 formation with Meyers on the right-left crosser and Hunter Henry (#85) on an in-breaking route 10 yards down the field. Usually, Henry’s route would attack a bubble between the off-the-ball linebackers and deep safeties but the Bills were willing to give up space underneath by dropping their linebackers deeper.

Buffalo trusted its hole defenders — in this particular case linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (#49) — to quickly close in and make the tackle. More often than not, they did just that.

As a result, Jones had only one successful attempt on route combinations such as this one. He hit Jakobi Meyers on a play that saw Henry occupy Edmunds. Jones also drew a roughing the passer penalty to move the sticks on an incompletion.

Heading into wild card weekend, one has to expect the Bills to defend Jones and company similarly. Moving the young QB out of his comfort zone by taking away the middle of the field is likely high up on defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s priority list yet again.

In order to see different results this time around, the Patriots have to show they can find success in another way. Accordingly, it would not be a surprise to see Frazier’s counterpart — New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — call more out-breaking routes on Saturday.

In Week 16, the Patriots already found some success using outs, corners or comebacks:

On this play, Kendrick Bourne (#84) is running a so-called squirrel route — a double-move out-comeback that can adjust into a fade depending on the coverage. Here, Bills perimeter cornerback Dane Jackson (#30) is opening up the sideline to better position himself against a potential in-breaking route.

Bourne and his quarterback read the play correctly, with Bourne coming back at the top of his route. Mac Jones hits him for a 13-yard completion to move the chains on 2nd-and-10.

Here, Jakobi Meyers is running a return route on the three-receiver side underneath a Bourne clear-out down the field:

Those plays take more time to develop and are tougher to execute than crossers over the middle, but they appear to be a good antidote to what the Bills have been showing in the second matchup between those teams.

The Patriots will obviously not rely on these concepts alone, though. They will not change who they are and completely disregard their bread-and-butter concepts such “drive” just because the Bills played them well in Week 16. Mixing up route combinations and spreading the ball all over the field against Buffalo’s preferred coverages, however, goes hand-in-hand with those.

New England will still run shallow crossers and underneath routes to capitalize on the Bills’ tendency to play the sticks or drop their linebackers deeper. There will be some space in the middle of the field to gain easy if not necessarily significant yards. Sometimes, however, those can still be valuable — especially if used as a complement to those out-breaking routes.

Buffalo will not shy away from playing man coverage

The Bills have historically been a zone coverage team under Leslie Frazier and head coach Sean McDermott, taking advantage of their elite closing speed and experience within the linebackers and secondary. However, they have incorporated their fair share of man-to-man shells as well.

As noted above, the Patriots saw plenty of those in Week 16. The Bills ran two-deep man-under coverages on a regular basis with some single-high looks mixed in as well. Frazier and McDermott trusted their coverage personnel to win its matchups and more often than not it did.

Defeating man coverage goes beyond “my guy is better than your guy,” though. Having the right plan to put those players in the best possible situations against man coverage is key as well.

Long story short, Josh McDaniels better have his man-beaters at the ready despite the Bills’ usual coverage tendencies. Three in particular are worth taking a look at, especially if Buffalo goes back to the Cover 5 looks that created some issues for New England in Week 16.

The first is the usage of pick plays. The following concept used by the Patriots in their Week 4 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a good example:

The Patriots are actually running two potential picks on this play. The first is the pair of crossing routes over the middle, the second the in-route run by the strong-side receiver.

Against the Buccaneers, who played a two-deep man coverage on this particular play, the second of those picks allowed the Patriots to free up Brandon Bolden (#25) on a wheel route. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (#84) obstructed the way of the linebacker, which in turn gave Bolden plenty of space to work with.

In action, the play looks as follows:

The Patriots also use pivot routes similar to the one run by Jakobi Meyers above. They had success on such a concept versus the Bills in Week 16:

The weak-side slot receiver — in this case Jakobi Meyers again — sells the inside release before cutting back to the outside if the leverage favors such a move. With the X-receiver running off the coverage to his side of the field, the route run from the slot should be open either way: if the cornerback commits to the crosser, the return is the way to go; if he plays outside leverage, the receiver continues towards the middle of the field.

The Patriots were able to gain 21 yards this way versus Buffalo’s Cover 1 scheme:

Finally, Josh McDaniels might try to make life hard on the Bills via the use of bunch formations. Bringing receivers close together on one side of the formation stresses the defensive communication and creates those natural picks that could help free up one player.

Schematically, those plays could look like the following from New England’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers:

The Patriots are bringing the perimeter receiver — in this case Kendrick Bourne — back into the formation to create a three-player bunch. The defensive communication gets messed up and Bourne eventually gets free on a wheel route:

McDaniels obviously has more man-coverage beaters at his disposal. Plays such as running back iso or tight end iso, jet sweeps or shield screens have all proven to be successful through the years and are staples of New England’s attack.

Those three are therefore just a fraction of what he might call. They do show, however, that there are various ways to find success against a defense playing man coverage — even if it is one as talented and experienced as Buffalo’s.

Buffalo will still offer opportunities in the run game

Not counting kneel-down plays, the Patriots ran the ball a combined 71 times for 379 yards, four touchdowns and an average of 5.3 yards per carry in their two games versus the Bills defense this season. Those are some solid numbers, and certainly what New England wants out of its rushing attack against front such as Buffalo’s.

The Bills, after all, are not quite as good against the run as they are against the pass. Granted, they are still an above-average run defense but the numbers are not quite as impressive.

Whereas the unit is ranked first in the NFL in both EPA (-0.114) and DVOA (-23.0%) versus the pass, it checks in at eleventh in both categories — -0.107 and -11.9%, respectively — against the run. There are multiple factors contributing to this, including game scripts, but the Bills’ defensive makeup both in personnel and mentality certainly cannot be excluded from the conversation.

In pretty basic terms, Buffalo’s defense is one built to defend a pass-heavy team like the Kansas City Chiefs rather than a smash-mouth attack such as New England’s. The front seven players are aggressively pushing up the field, which in turn creates opportunities for counter plays; the group also is at its best when having lighter nickel personnel on the field — something the Patriots were able to stress in Week 13.

Six weeks later, little has changed. While the defensive personnel does look a bit different with the emergence of Harrison Phillips along the interior defensive line, the gist remains the same: the Patriots will find opportunities to gain yards on the ground.

If those present themselves, New England will likely go back to one of its favorites calls and a go-to play in the first two games versus the Bills:

The Patriots ran multiple toss plays out of this two-back set behind a six-man offensive line (plus extra blockers on the outside), and it would not be a surprise if it was brought up again on Saturday. New England found success getting to the perimeter both in Week 13 and 16, playing power football against Buffalo’s attacking front.

McDaniels called a wide variety of run-game concepts in those two games, though, to take advantage of the Bills’ aggressiveness and keep the defense on its toes. One area he stressed especially in Week 16 was the linebackers’ tendency to follow the pull blockers and disrupt the point of attack.

Whereas they were simply overpowered in Week 13, they were taken out of the play differently three weeks later. The following Damien Harris run is a good example:

With off-the-ball linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (#49) flowing with the play, they vacate the middle of the field and make it vulnerable for cutback lanes. Here, Harris (#37) takes advantage by initially following the lead but quickly cutting across the formation as soon as a chance presents itself.

The Bills will address this issue in their pre-game preparation, but the way their front seven has been built the Patriots will still find opportunities. Be it the run-game staples such as trap/wham, duo or toss, or comparatively rarely used concepts such as G-lead, New England finding success on the ground again would not be a surprise.

The bigger question, of course, is whether or not the team can stick to this script. It did so in Week 13, when the weather and early lead played in its hands. In Week 16, however, the Patriots were down 10 points at the half and had to mix in more pass plays versus as good a pass defense as any in football.

Ideally, though, the Patriots will be able to keep pounding the rock to take pressure off Mac Jones and set up misdirection plays versus a defense that lives through its aggressiveness — and at times died through it as well.

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