As the old saying goes, revenge is a dish best served in Week 13 of the regular season.
Well folks, here it is, the New England Patriots’ chance to finally get a victory against the Buffalo Bills again. After going 1-2 against them last year — including a 47-17 blowout loss in the wild card round of the playoffs — the Patriots are now in a position to get at least some payback for what transpired in the last two contests versus their AFC East rivals.
It will not be easy, though. The Bills are one of the best teams in the NFL, and currently listed as 3.5-point favorites despite playing on the road (per DraftKings Sportsbook). They also are as well-balanced an opponent as New England will face all season, just ask Bill Belichick.
“It’s a really good football team. They do pretty much everything well,” the Patriots’ head coach said this week. “Good on offense, good on defense, good on special teams. Lead, or close to leading the league in a lot of categories, in all areas. ... We know we’re going to need to play our best game and that’s what we’re going to prepare to do this week.”
How can the Patriots play their best game, though, especially given that they have been inconsistent throughout the year so far? We took a look at the film to find out.
Patriots offense vs. Bills defense
The New England offense is entering Week 13 off its most encouraging performance of the season. The problem is that it still did not lead to a victory over the Minnesota Vikings, and also came against a defense significantly worse than the one the Patriots will be facing on Thursday night.
Buffalo is no longer relying on its defense to carry the team — something that was the case earlier in the Josh Allen era — but the unit is still one of the best in football in its own right. Just look at the numbers: the unit coordinated by veteran coach Leslie Frazier is ranked fifth in the NFL in points (18.1/game), 10th in expected points (-0.021/play) and 12th in yards (327.3/game); it also is ranked second with 20 takeaways.
Finding sustained success against the Bills has not been easy. Likewise, the Patriots themselves finding sustained success as an offense has not happened yet this year.
What can they do to change this on Thursday? It obviously all starts with the usual talking points — limiting negative plays, cutting back on turnovers, and consistent execution across the board — but a lot will also depend on the plan the coaching staff will draw up to challenge Buffalo.
Make no mistake, the team has lacked in this department; its offense is a rather simplistic one highly dependent on the aforementioned execution to work. That said, there will be opportunities to attack the Bills. That is especially true if they will use the same basic plan they had against Mac Jones and company in 2021.
What did that plan look like? A main focus was taking away the Patriots’ staple in-breaking routes. As a result, Jones will have to prove he can complete out-breakers and throws to the boundary 2hen trying to go downfield.
He was unable to do that consistently, but he did manage to hit several of those plays late in Week 16 and the wild card playoff round. The following — a 21-yard completion from Jones to Jakobi Meyers — is an example of that:
On this play, the Bills are in a one-deep man-to-man defense with Meyers (16) originally aligning in the left-side slot. Cornerback Dane Jackson (30) is playing off his man, staying square until the wideout breaks to the inside. At that point, the plan kicks in: defend the short in-breaking throw.
The Patriots, however, have a good counter drawn up with Meyers actually running a pivot route. He stops on a dime, reverses course, and breaks toward the boundary. With the perimeter receiver — N’Keal Harry (1) — having cleared out the space on that side of the field, Meyers had plenty of space for some yards after the catch.
This play is obviously just one example, but the gist remains: the Patriots need to be able to move outside their comfort zone a bit, because Buffalo will try to take away the staples of their offense. In-breakers and quick throws in the intermediate area were a focus for them last year, and Josh McDaniels had some counters at the ready.
Will Matt Patricia and Joe Judge have as well? They better, if the Bills operate with the same goal in mind.
New England might also use screen plays and its running backs to find success against Buffalo. Plays like these were the most consistently effective means of moving the football against the defense last season and considering these types of plays were a major part of last week’s game plan as well it would not be a surprise if a similar approach is used on Thursday as well.
Scheme plays will be important, but so will be trusting the matchups that present themselves. And looking at the Bills defense, New England and its young quarterback might feel confident targeting 1-on-1s in man coverage.
The play above with Meyers on a pivot route is one example, and he will again be heavily involved despite dealing with a shoulder injury. The fourth-year man is the Patriots’ most reliable target, after all, and their main man on crossers against man.
They also might try to get DeVante Parker involved on deeper shots, though. The Bills, after all, have relied more on man coverage since Week 6 due to injuries in their secondary. And with nominal CB1 Tre’Davious White likely to be on another snap count in his second game back from a torn ACL, opportunities might present themselves.
Opportunities such as the following:
On this play from the Week 11 game between Buffalo and the Cleveland Browns, the Bills play single-high man coverage against a 2x2 shotgun look. While the blitz might have opened up space underneath, Browns QB Jacoby Brissett (7) trusts his No. 1 target — wide receiver Amari Cooper (3) — in single coverage versus Taron Johnson (7).
Brissett’s trust was rewarded: Cooper was able to get superior position on Johnson, beating him at the catch point for a 25-yard touchdown. The Patriots trusting the big-bodied Parker in particular to do the same in situations like this one could very well happen.
What also should be expected: gap runs.
New England famously ran all over Buffalo in Week 13 last season, using a variation of gap-based run concepts — G-lead, wham, power, counter, fullback iso — to wear the defense down while throwing only three passes all game.
While this week’s game plan will likely not be as run-heavy, the Patriots should have opportunities to attack the Bills on the ground. Their run defense is ranked eighth in the NFL with a -0.112 EPA per play, but that number drops to a positive 0.030 when facing gap concepts.
Additionally, the Bills have struggled recently finishing tackles: since their Week 7 bye, they are the worst defense in football when it comes to giving up yards after contact to running backs. The Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson has, of course, thrived in this area.
So while Buffalo made some investments in stopping the run, the Patriots should have opportunities — which in turn should help them get their play-action game going as well.
Patriots defense vs. Bills offense
The Bills offense very much starts and ends with Josh Allen. And regardless of what narratives might be out there about his league-leading interception number — and they have been a problem, no question about it — this is very much a quarterback at the height of his powers.
As frustrating as it might be playing defense against him, Allen’s film is a ton of fun to watch. For one, he can make every throw in the book and his arm talent is nothing short of impressive. From that perspective, he is in the upper echelon of NFL passers right now together with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert.
Like those two, Allen can operate inside and outside the pocket and is able to make pin-point throws even when off platform. What is different, though, is his ability and willingness as a runner: once he gets going, the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder is like a freight train.
All of that makes him a true dual threat at the most important position in the sport and allows him, to borrow from Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, to turn every play into “street ball”.
New England has had its fair share of problems defending that. Not only has their defense struggled against the likes of Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields earlier in the year, Allen has also had plenty of success recently.
After starting his career against the Patriots with three straight losses that saw him complete just 48.4 percent of his combined passes for three touchdowns and five interceptions, he has turned up the heat significantly. The Bills are 4-1 over the last two years, with Allen going 104-for-156 (66.7%) for 1,241 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception. Oh, and he also had 227 rushing yards and a touchdown on 38 non-kneel-down carries.
So, what can the Patriots do against a player they have not really had any answer for the last two seasons? It all starts with keeping Allen contained in the pocket, something pointed out by linebacker Matthew Judon this week.
“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,” the NFL leader in sacks said. “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.”
Discipline in their rush lanes was something that killed the Patriots against Allen last year, especially in the two losses in Week 16 and the wild card playoff round.
Most of the Patriots’ issues keeping Allen in the pocket last season were due to an aggressive edge rush with insufficient support behind it. This play is no exception: Allen (17) has enough time to read the field and with insufficient backside contain — Matthew Judon (9) dropping out and Ja’Whaun Bentley (8) not filling the hole created — can simply escape around the offensive left-side edge for a 26-yard gain.
The coaching staff has stressed rush lane discipline this week, but the Patriots can also use their second-level personnel to help contain Allen. One player to watch might be Mack Wilson, who was not with the team last season.
The offseason trade acquisition can be employed as a spy behind more aggressive rushes or crash the pocket and ready to loop when Allen tries to bail — something he has done before this season.
While the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson (2) is nowhere near the level that Allen is on, the Patriots using Wilson (30) as a spy on him could be a sign of things to come. It would make sense, too: he is the most athletic off-the-ball linebacker New England has at its disposal, and his presence could help address some of the issues the team had last year.
Of course, Allen running wild was not the only problem for the Patriots against the Bills in 2021. They also had to deal with the other half of his game, his aforementioned otherworldly right arm and the big-play potential it presents.
Last year, the Patriots used Cover 2 as a solution against limiting big shots over the top (something that was a problem in the previous year’s matchups). As annoying as it was watching short throws turn into first downs, using that coverage was an excellent solution to the Bills’ explosive passing game for New England in 2021.
Using a second-down play from the two team’s Week 16 matchup as an example, here is what this approach looked like — with Kyle Dugger (23) eventually dropping out to transform the look into a two-high shell:
The Patriots used these Cover 2 zones primarily on early downs, and nearly always disguised with a single-high look pre-snap. They basically asked Allen to a) make the right read on the coverage, and b) not be afraid to take what the defense gave him.
More often than not he did just that, but the general idea was still a good one: forcing Buffalo to string positive plays together, and not giving up any deep plays over the top.
The Patriots did not go full zone against the Bills, though, but also incorporated their fair share of man-to-man coverage particularly on third downs. The problem was that Buffalo consistently exploited those matchups last season using crossers or cross-out routes — you can probably still see Myles Bryant unsuccessfully trying to keep up with Isaiah McKenzie.
It will be interesting to see which cornerbacks New England will use against the matchups the Bills present. Their top five at the position are Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills and Jack Jones on the boundary with Bryant and seldom-used Marcus Jones in the slot.
Jonathan Jones, the nominal CB1, will be a player to watch. The Patriots could opt to move him back to the slot to have him replace Bryant in a three-cornerback set with Mills and Jack Jones on the outside. Of course, they also could use him on Buffalo’s most productive pass-catcher and one of the best wide receivers in all of football, Stefon Diggs.
Much like Josh Allen, Diggs has been nearly unstoppable against New England as of late. Despite regularly going up against a Pro Bowl cornerback — ex-Patriots J.C. Jackson — he put up huge numbers: in the last five games going back to 2020, Diggs has caught 29 passes for 433 yards and four touchdowns.
Limiting him will be key, and the right personnel choice is a good start. And here is the thing: Jones might actually be a better matchup against him than Jackson was.
Diggs’ game is mostly about patience and quickness underneath, which are both strengths for Jones. While the Bills’ wideout may out-physical him at times, he should be able to keep the matchup competitive — something no other cornerback on New England’s roster might be able to do. This, in turn, might limit the ability to move him elsewhere in the formation.
Finding the right matchups is not the only thing the Patriots defense has to do, though. It also needs to be able to correctly identify personnel packages and tendencies.
They are there, when you look for them:
When Stefon Diggs aligns wide to the 2-receiver side, often as the “Z” next to a TE, expect a quick in-breaker/hitch.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 30, 2022
Diggs and Allen are automatic on these bc the YAC threat can win vs any coverage. He’ll sit in the soft spot of zones or use patience + physicality to beat press pic.twitter.com/XLoS5xg762
In addition to those quick-hitters, the Bills have also tipped their hand at times by using pre-snap motion. A few of Diggs’ deep targets, for example, have come with him on the move — something also worth watching out for on Thursday night.
Going back to those in-breaking routes illustrated above: the Bills have scored on one of those each time they played the Patriots last season. They were able to do that by exploiting outside leverage versus the strength of the defensive formation — i.e. throwing away from safety Devin McCourty’s inside help.
New England did not really find an answer for that, but the Bills will attempt to hit those again if given the opportunity. What is the solution? Cornerbacks breaking more aggressively on the ball might be worth a shot if the formation might hint at such a play, or linebackers attempting to drop into the throwing lanes outside the deep help.
Regardless of what the Patriots will do against these type of plays, or anything else the Bills will throw at them, the key has to be to a) contain Allen and b) disrupt his connection with Stefon Diggs. If Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie or running back Devin Singletary beat you, so be it. But Allen and Diggs being allowed to do their thing is almost guaranteed to lead to New England’s demise.