The New England Patriots defense has been one of the better units in the NFL this season, but the Buffalo Bills bested it in impressive fashion in Week 16. The Bills scored on five of their eight possessions, with the other three being a turnover on downs right at the goal line and the end of each half.
The first team to go through a game against a Bill Belichick-led Patriots defense without having to punt, Buffalo proved itself too much to handle. The team ended up winning with a final score of 33-21, in large part because it executed plays at crucial times and appeared to be one step ahead of its opponent throughout the afternoon.
It was a 180-degree turn from the first game between the two AFC East rivals three weeks earlier. Back then, New England’s defense held the unit led by quarterback Josh Allen and coordinator Brian Daboll to a mere 10 points — its second lowest total in a game this season — en route to a 14-10 victory. Obviously, though, the windy conditions and the ability to play from ahead worked in the Patriots’ favor.
While the third meeting of the season will take place at the same stadium as that Week 13 slugfest, the conditions will more closely resemble those at Gillette Stadium in Week 16. Despite single-digit temperatures in the forecast, the Patriots therefore cannot trust the weather to help them defend one of the best offenses in the game.
Luckily, they have 120 minutes of film and experience to fall back to. And there is a lot New England’s coaches and players can learn from those.
Buffalo will get creative against man-to-man looks
Brian Daboll knows the Patriots. The Bills’ offensive coordinator has coached again them twice this year, and eight times total since his arrival in 2018. Daboll also knows the team from his time with the organization: he won three Super Bowl rings as a defensive assistant (2000-01) and wide receivers coach (2002-06), and later earned two more after his return as New England’s tight ends coach (2013-16).
While Daboll gave up his keycard to One Patriot Place a pro-football eternity ago, but he still knows how his former team likes to create favorable matchups in man-to-man coverage by creating positive leverage situations. In Week 16, he was able to put his own unit in an advantageous position by using a variety of little tricks.
What Daboll and the Bills did was not necessarily ground-breaking, but it countered the Patriots’ own counter looks whenever they were in man coverage variations. The first, as mentioned above, was to use the Patriots’ leverage against them.
On the following touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs (#14), the Bills move him into the weak-side slot to put him in a favorable position against one of New England’s red zone tendencies:
Aligning Diggs in the slot might have given him a one-on-one matchup against Myles Bryant (#41), but the Patriots were having none of that. Instead, they used Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson (#27) — one of the NFL’s best players at his position — to shadow him. However, Jackson was unable to stop the play from succeeding because he was out-leveraged given the technique he is asked to play.
That coverage tendency mentioned above created a hole for Josh Allen (#17) to exploit, and he did: when New England’s defense gets inside its own 15-yard line, it oftentimes has Devin McCourty (#32) take away the deepest inside route against three-receiver sets. On this particular, McCourty was providing inside help against the strong-side slot to leave Jackson on an island against Diggs.
With Diggs running and in-breaking route — one of the preferred counters used against man coverage — he was in a better position if Allen was just able to get the ball over Kyle Van Noy (#53) and Kyle Dugger (#23) underneath. He did just that.
The use of leverage is also visible on this play:
A crucial 3rd-and-10 late in the fourth quarter, New England initially showed a two-deep safety look against Buffalo’s 11-personnel group. Not clearly tipping its hand right away, the unit eventually moved into a variation of Cover 1 once the ball was snapped — one that used Adrian Phillips (#21) as the deep man with McCourty as a hole defender underneath.
The Patriots’ use of this type of Cover 1 was aimed at taking away the deep crossing routes that gave them issues earlier in the game. Daboll was prepared, however, and used running Isaiah McKenzie (#19) on a shallow crosser against Myles Bryant (#41) that put the New England defender in a challenging position.
With McCourty and Phillips back deep, and Kyle Dugger unable to obstruct McKenzie’s crosser, the Patriots’ young DB was at a massive disadvantage from a leverage standpoint. He was left on an island playing a technique vulnerable against this type of route.
Using leverage in his favor was just one wrinkle Daboll and the Bills used to attack New England’s man-to-man looks in Week 16. The team also played off of Josh Allen’s abilities as a runner.
The following touchdown pass to tight end Dawson Knox (#88), for example, saw Buffalo use a zone read/RPO hybrid that gave Allen two options:
The first option was whether to hand the football off to running back Devin Singletary (#26), or keep it based on edge defender Matthew Judon (#9). Judon does not overextend either way, but Allen is still in a favorable position to keep the ball and move to his left.
There, he had to make a decision based on whether or not Kyle Dugger would come up and play him or stick to his coverage. If Dugger followed Knox in New England’s man-to-man defense, he would keep the ball and try to outrun Judon to the end zone; if Dugger moved up, he would simply throw the ball to a now-open Knox. That is exactly what happened.
The Bills also were able to create space down the field by running traditional play-action concepts:
On this play, Myles Bryant runs himself out of position against Jake Kumerow’s (#15) delayed corner route by biting hard on the run. With Jalen Mills (#2) caught between stepping up against the threat of Allen running and dropping back deeper into coverage, the play was left wide open.
Fortunately for New England, Kumerow dropped the ball to bail the defense out. Still, a lack of awareness and overaggressiveness nearly cost the team on this play.
The threat of Allen as a ball-carrier was also used on the following pop pass in the deep red zone:
Allen takes the shotgun snap but immediately proceeds to take off through the offensive right-side B-gap when Kyle Van Noy vacates the area in man-to-man coverage of the running back. The Patriots are still able to get a positive result, though, thanks to Adrian Phillips moving up into the hole but staying patient against the option pass; he ends up tipping the ball for an incompletion.
That play-call and design, however, is just another challenge the Bills offense under Brian Daboll presents. Not only is he able to stress man coverage by adapting his route distribution to attack tendencies or react to defensive counter calls, he also knows he has a quarterback capable of stressing a defense with both his arm and his legs.
The Patriots knew all that coming into their Week 16 game, and as a result played more zone coverage. With the Bills successfully and patiently moving the ball down the field time and again, however, they did incorporate more man shells especially out of Cover 1.
As can be seen, however, Buffalo is well prepared to attack man coverage. New England keeping its usage at a comparative minimum while relying primarily on zone looks — in particular on early downs — could therefore be the mode of attack once again.
Buffalo will exploit zone coverage, if it is insufficiently run
Why were the Bills able to find success against New England’s zone coverage in Week 16 to begin with? There were three factors at play that all tipped the scales in Buffalo’s favor, the “three Ps” if you will: patience, personnel, pass rush.
By running zone early in the game, the Patriots dared Josh Allen to beat them by identifying the weak-spots in coverage and stringing enough plays together to march down the field one short throw or run at a time. Allen and the Bills had to be patient versus New England’s zone looks, and needed to be smart with the football.
They did all of that by attacking the underneath areas and finding yards between zones. The following play is a good example of that:
The Patriots dropped seven defenders back into coverage to overpopulate the deep parts of the field. With off-the-ball linebackers Dont’a Hightower (#54) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (#8) dropping 5-10 yards deep, however, space opened up between them and the line of scrimmage.
On this play, Josh Allen (#17) hit Devin Singletary (#26) for an easy pitch-and-catch to gain eight yards and move the chains on 2nd-and-7. Allen took what the defense gave him, and he and his team methodically marched down the field.
The second factor mentioned above is actually also on display on this short throw. The Patriots were in a nickel defense, but had their bigger off-the-ball linebackers on the field — two players that are stout against the run and when attacking downhill but are less dynamic in terms of their coverage abilities.
There are multiple ways to address this issue without giving up run-game integrity. The Patriots could use a player such as Jamie Collins to replace either Hightower or Bentley, move to a 5-1 front instead of the 4-2 New England played here, or run dime defense instead of nickel while employing a player such as Adrian Phillips closer to the box.
The Patriots did have some success using all three of those methods in Week 16, but it will not be easy to do the latter on Saturday. New England, after all, will be without starting perimeter cornerback Jalen Mills. With Mills still on the Covid-19 reserve list, the team’s depth in the secondary takes a major hit, especially at the cornerback position.
The Patriots could react to this by placing a higher focus on the pass rush, something they should do in general if they want to use a zone-based coverage approach against Buffalo. In Week 16, after all, they were too inconsistent up front to keep Josh Allen from buying time and allowing his receivers to get open between New England’s zones.
Allen is a master at maneuvering around the pocket and finding escape lanes. Playing zone can help a bit as far as countering his escapability is concerned — the defenders are usually faced towards the quarterback rather than away from him — but New England cannot get sloppy up front or give him easy outs when under pressure; overrunning the pocket or getting pushed out of gaps can be lethal against a dual-threat such as Allen.
With all that said, why would the Patriots rather play zone than man-to-man coverage against Buffalo (with the exception of select situations)? Because if run efficiently and in cooperation with the pass rush, it can help limit two of the things the Bills do as well as any team in the NFL: hit the big play over the top and hurt defenses due to Josh Allen’s abilities as a runner both in and out of structure.
For the reasons mentioned above, the Patriots zone defense was unable to consistently put itself in high-percentage down-and-distance situations in Week 16. If the unit is able to execute better in two of those three areas — getting faster personnel onto the field and solidifying the pass rush — it should be able to make more positive plays.
Buffalo will exploit sloppy rush-lane integrity
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick preaches complementary defense, meaning that the pass rush and coverage go hand-in-hand at all times. That is especially important against an offense as potent as Buffalo’s, and a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback like Josh Allen.
The Patriots did a good job of that in Week 13, but they were burned repeatedly three weeks later when the Bills exploited their sloppy rush-lane integrity. Whether it was buying extra time to move away from the pressure — thus giving his receivers more time to get open as well — or bursting through holes on designed runs or scramble drills, New England failed to contain Allen.
The former first-round draft pick gained 36 yards on two scrambles; he also added 29 yards on eight scripted runs. His 6.5 yard average as a ball carrier is obviously not good enough, and neither is allowing him to regularly climb or escape the pocket to evade the rush in passing situations.
Take the following play as an example:
Matthew Judon (#9) attacks left tackle Dion Dawkins’ (#73) outside shoulder but gets pinned to the ground, effectively getting taken out of the play. Allen (#17) reacts quickly to burst through the hole, which in turn forces Kyle Van Noy (#53) to vacate his coverage zone and charge for the QB.
With Van Noy moving forward, Allen flips the ball to a wide open Stefon Diggs (#14) for a gain of 19 yards to convert a 3rd-and-10. Diggs had found space in New England’s secondary due to a miscommunication between J.C. Jackson (#27) and Myles Bryant (#41).
The Patriots need to find the proper balance between attacking and sitting back when rushing Allen, something Belichick pointed out earlier this week.
“It’s rushing, but pass rushing with discipline and awareness,” he said. “If you miss him and he gets loose, that’s going to be a big problem. You just can’t stand there and watch him throw. That’s not the answer, but being undisciplined and just running around back there, letting him run, that’s not the answer either.”
The Patriots did strike that balance in Week 13 but were more inconsistent during the rematch at Gillette Stadium. That said, they did have some success when pushing the pocket but also keeping Allen confined:
On this play, the Patriots bring a five-man pressure with both Judon and Dont’a Hightower (#54) setting a firm edge to shut down any escapes to the perimeter. With the line games in the interior, meanwhile, they were able to stress the communication up front.
Kyle Van Noy eventually got through to put the heat on Allen and force a throwaway. There were multiple instances like that during the game, but the results were still uneven at times from New England’s point of view. Allen is simply one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the game and able to deliver pin-point throws downfield even when playing on a messy platform.
That said, the Patriots cannot make life easier on him than they have to. Putting him into such off-platform or high-pressure situations tips the scales in their favor ever so slightly. In the playoffs, sometimes that might be all that is needed.