The New England Patriots (6-1) and their 14th ranked defense come to town with a chip on their shoulder this week, as the Bills’ offense got the best of them in a week four shutout. Although quarterback Tyrod Taylor and company only got into the end zone one time, I think the Bill Belichick’s pride took a hit in the 16-0 loss.
The Pats’ defense allowed Tyrod Taylor to pass the ball almost at will, which is something that he hasn’t done much of to this point in his career. Taylor only finished 27/39 for 246 yards and one touchdown, but he was able to distribute the ball to his receivers at will.
Of course, he did have help from his run game. The offense ran the ball 32 times for 132 yards, which boils down to 4.2 yards per attempt. The Bills’ offense was balanced, and it kept the Patriots’ defense guessing. This matchup, however, is shaping up to be completely different.
The Bills are going to be seriously hampered on offense; LeSean McCoy and Marquise Goodwin are both doubtful to play. Robert Woods and Charles Clay have practiced and appear to be on track to suit up. First-year offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has a tall task this week: devising a game plan to outsmart defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick.
Lynn will look to use his lacking personnel and formations to get the upper hand on any particular play. After watching several games on film, I believe that the Bills can attack the 19th-ranked passing defense with certain formations, including empty WR sets and trips looks.
After watching every pass from the Patriots’ last two games and their first matchup with Buffalo, I noticed that when teams go to an empty set the Patriots typically play some form of man coverage. In their game against the Bengals, the Pats played cover 2 man. Quarterback Andy Dalton finds the matchup he wants (RB Bernard vs. LB Barkevious Mingo), and he exploits it. Bernard runs a double move, and Dalton hits Gio down the near sideline.
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As you can see from the tight camera angle on the last play, spreading the defense out allowed Dalton and his offensive linemen to identify how many rushers were coming. Due to the empty set and the Pats’ man coverage, only 4 defenders were available to rush the passer. The Pats’ defense can throw different twists and stunts at Taylor, but such a reduced pass rush will definitely help Taylor to more clearly read the defense.
The Bengals weren’t the only team to attack the Patriots’ defense with the empty set. The Steelers and backup QB Landry Jones did, as well. This time, they used it in the red zone. Using this formation in the red zone almost always dictates man coverage. Jones motions his receiver to get an idea of what coverage the defense is in. On the snap, he hits Darrius Heyward-Bey on the crossing route, and he runs freely into the end zone. The touchdown is nullified because of a penalty, but even so, the formation and the area of the field dictated the coverage.
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But there are fans that don’t believe we can execute passes out of the empty set or that we don’t have the players to succeed. That may be true, but rather than limiting the playbook because of the lack of starting talent, Lynn has to flip the script and put those players in a position to succeed. Shady’s out, but you still have a back who can do some similar things in Reggie Bush. If there is anything Reggie can still do, it’s catch the ball. Why not put him in the slot like the Bills did with McCoy on this play? Get him one-on-one with a defender, and let him do his thing.
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Remember this pass from last season? The Bills come out in an empty set and send Shady deep on a wheel route. The ball falls incomplete.
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Buffalo, like most teams, has empty set packages. How often teams use it varies, but every team has it installed. The Bills utilized it several times in their last matchup with the Patriots. New England settles into man coverage and Taylor finds Robert Woods as he breaks back to the middle of the field.
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Bill Belichick is undoubtedly one of the best coaches ever, in part because he gets the most out of his players and coaches. This Patriots defense is no different; they are a very well-coached unit. There aren’t many athletically gifted players on this defense, other than standout linebacker Jamie Collins. The defense is solid, but if schemed properly, then they can be beaten with high percentage passes quite easily. The pride of Artesia, New Mexico, Landry Jones, took the easy yardage on this 3×1, trips bunch formation. This was another formation that the Patriots defended with man coverage.
Wide receiver Heyward-Bey runs a route to the flats, and corner Eric Rowe is unable to work through the traffic to stop the receiver from picking up the first down.
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If Anthony Lynn can figure out ways to dictate coverages by using his formations, then he can get guys like Walt Powell or Justin Hunter open. Both players are guys who can beat man coverage if given the opportunity. Powell did just that against the Patriots the first time around. The Bills come out in a trips bunch to the boundary and isolate Powell to the top of the screen against the Patriots’ best corner. Powell wins on the release. They are a good defensive unit because of their scheme and discipline, but you can win one-on-one matchups if you can find them.
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One player that the Bills should most definitely target regardless of whether the Pats show man or zone is corner Logan Ryan. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan allows a reception every 6.6 snaps. That is tied for the 2nd-worst in the league.
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Logan has been targeted 52 times this season, which is the 2nd-most, has allowed the most receptions (38), 2nd-most yardage (414 yds), and 2 touchdowns. To boot, opposing QBs have a 109 rating when they target him. Buffalo should target him often, much like they did in their first matchup.
In that week four game, Anthony Lynn attacked Logan Ryan 16 times, and Ryan allowed 12 catches for 101 yards. Five different receivers caught at least one ball on Ryan. Of those five receivers, Robert Woods led the way with 6 catches against Ryan for 67 yards.
One of my favorite plays this year. Great route and separation by Woods. TT half rolls gathers and throws it as Woods breaks. pic.twitter.com/ktSpxakzIm
— Cover 1 (@Cover1Bills) October 28, 2016
The corner opposite of Ryan, Malcolm Butler, has had some struggles of his own this season. He has been targeted the 3rd-most (51 targets), and has allowed 26 receptions and 382 yards, good for 10th-most in the NFL. He has given up one touchdown, but also has also notched one interception. One of his weaknesses is his tendency to give up yards after the catch. In fact, through 7 games he has allowed 133 yards after the catch, which is the 11th-most in the NFL.
Anthony Lynn not only had to know what kind of coverage the Patriots were going to be in on certain down and distances, but he also had to have a play designed to defeat that coverage. Lynn knew that the Patriots liked to play cover 2 on second down. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots are towards the bottom of the league (23rd) on second down. They are especially bad on 2nd and medium (3-6 yards), ranking 30th in the league in that category. Anthony Lynn exploited that weakness a few times with the Smash concept.
Lynn also knew that certain formations would dictate man coverage, so he called this twins formation and ran a mesh concept.
In their last matchup against the Bills, the Pats only blitzed Taylor 13 times. He averaged 8 yards per attempt against the blitz, completing 81.8% of his throws and a touchdown.
The inability to pressure Taylor when they blitzed or when they only rushed four kept Taylor comfortable in the pocket and allowed him to read the defense. I expect Belichick to blitz Taylor more this time around. Taylor has the 6th-worst completion percentage in the NFL (40.6%) and is middle of the road in accuracy percentage (58%) when under pressure. This is another reason why spreading the Pats’ defense out will benefit the Bills.
It’ll help make his reads easier, increase his ability see the blitz when it is coming, help get the ball out of his hands sooner, and most of all open up running lanes if coverage holds strong. Mobile quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor are a nightmare for teams who play man coverage.
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When it is all said and done, I think the Bills can only win if Taylor carries them. The offense will be without their most productive player in LeSean McCoy, so I don’t foresee the Bills being able to run the ball with much success. The only runs I can see working are scrambles and/or designed QB runs.
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The Bills are without two of their biggest deep threats in Sammy Watkins and Marquise Goodwin, so I expect the defense to load the box. That is, unless Lynn decides to spread the defense out, dictate the coverage, and use short, high percentage throws to not only move the chains, but also to control the clock. The Bills will need a complete game by all three units in order to beat this New England Patriots team.