The New England Patriots defense has faced some good quarterbacks so far this year, but the biggest challenge of the entire season awaits in Week 13. The Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen is one of the league’s best players regardless of position, and a top-three QB who is firmly in the MVP conversation.
The Patriots have plenty of familiarity with Allen, having faced him eight times since he entered the league as a first-round draft pick in 2018. While they found considerable success against him early on in his career, the tables have since turned.
Starting his career with three straight losses that saw him complete just 48.4 percent of his combined passes for three touchdowns and five interceptions, he has since been nearly unstoppable. Allen and his Bills have gone 4-1 against the Patriots the last two seasons, including a 47-17 blowout in the wild card playoff round back in January.
Him making plays with his legs on top of his rare arm talent has allowed Buffalo to recently exert its will on New England’s defense. So, what can be done to reverse course this time around?
“Good passing lanes, and be faster than him to the first down,” linebacker Matthew Judon told reporters on Monday. “You have to continue to chase. You see what he does in the open field and when he gets to the second level, he’s a tough tackle — very tough tackle — and we all have to converge. We all have to come bring our hard hats.”
Most importantly, though, Judon added, the Patriots need to stay disciplined in their pass rush.
“All four of us, whoever’s rushing, just have to work together,” the NFL’s leader in sacks said. “We have to work together up front, try to keep him in front of us, force him to be a passer — he’s a very dangerous passer but I think we can stand with that instead of him running all over us. We just have to be disciplined in our rush lanes and try not to just run past him, and keep him in front of us.”
That sentiment was also shared by the Patriots’ No. 2 pass rusher, Deatrich Wise Jr. Like Judon, he too has considerable experience going up against Allen; and like his teammate has seen him do damage both as a passer and on scramble-drill plays.
“Just get after him, honestly, is what it is. Keep him in the pocket, and affect his throws. And then when we tackle him, bring him down,” Wise Jr. said.
“We have to do what we’ve been doing this whole year, and that’s rush together. Containing the quarterback is hard but everybody has to work together. Can’t just have one person rush and lose contain, or one person get too wide, because when there are lanes, Josh likes to run. So, we all have to rush together and mirror or rush up with the coverage.”
Wise Jr. added that the Patriots need to keep following their quarterback rules even when he is escaping the pocket — he can throw it with the best of them, after all — but if he tucks the ball in, he becomes a running back of sorts. Of sorts that is because Allen is listed at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds.
His size in general presents a problem, and makes him a different challenge than other dual-threat QBs the Patriots have faced so far this season.
“He’s able to scramble anywhere,” said linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. “He can scramble through the B-gap, he can scramble outside. And I would also say his size is a major difference to those other guys.
“Lamar [Jackson] is a quick guy, [Justin] Fields has great top-end speed. I would say Allen has a combination of all those things. He may not be as quick, but you add an extra 50 pounds to a guy he’s definitely tough to bring down. And his arm is incredible, he can throw the ball from anywhere. His feet don’t even have to be set and he can still be accurate. He’s definitely a talented player.”
Judon echoed his position coach’s remarks.
“Josh is a really good player, a special talent in this league,” he said. “You usually don’t see those type of players with that skillset with the ball in his hands at quarterback. There are only a certain few that are will to take the hits how he does and bounce right back up, and laugh and giggle about it, and then go throw a bomb the next play.”
While the Patriots did contain Allen in a Week 13 meeting last year, coming away with a 14-10 victory, he got his revenge over the next two games. Buffalo won 33-21 and, as mentioned above, 47-17, while not punting even once while on offense.
His ability to distribute the football with his arm was a big reason why: Allen completed 70.8 percent of his throws over those two contests, gaining 622 yards and throwing eight touchdowns with no interceptions. However, he also found success as a runner and on several occasions successfully escaped the pocket to keep plays alive.
In total, he carried the ball 16 times on non-kneel-down plays those two games, gaining 131 yards for an 8.2-yard average. Needless to say the Patriots are putting an emphasis on making Allen one-dimensional this week.
“Allen’s the leading rusher, so that tells you all you need to know about what you have to defend every time he touches the ball,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “It could be any number of things and does them all well. Great player, certainly an MVP candidate. He does a lot for their team in a lot of ways.”
Jerod Mayo sang the same tune earlier this week, but he also expressed confidence in one of the NFL’s best defenses to rise to the occasion.
“Allen has the ability to extend plays and turn it almost into street ball on any given play. Definitely a challenge, not only for the front but also for the backend,” he said. “But I think the guys will be ready to go.”