When the Buffalo Bills took on the New England Patriots in Week 17 of the NFL season, the defense stole the show – and the ball – in the first half. The way Sean McDermott, Rasul Douglas, Ed Oliver, Terrel Bernard, and company attacked Bailey Zappe and the Patriots’ offense had tremendous results in just the opening 30 minutes alone. Let this line sink in; when Douglas intercepted Zappe for a pick-six early in the second quarter, the Patriots had more turnovers (three) than first downs (two). If the offense had been able to fully capitalize on the defense’s dominance, this game would have never been close.
The Patriots come out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) with a bunch formation to the offensive right. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is on the weak side of the formation next to Zappe in the shotgun. Tight end Mike Gesicki is attached. For the wide receivers, Devante Parker is on the line, Demario Douglas is wide offset, and Jalen Reagor is wide to the offensive left.
The Bills are in nickel – surprise – which they use 98% of snaps. They present a single high safety with Jordan Poyer deep. Micah Hyde is in the box on the bunch side with cornerbacks Christian Benford and slot defender Taron Johnson. Douglas is wide on Reagor in a press alignment. Linebacker Tyrel Dodson is off-ball over the weakside A gap, and Bernard is mugging the strongside A gap.
Prior to the snap, Douglas motions from the bunch and lines up in the slot, balancing the formation. Johnson travels with Douglas across, indicating man coverage to Zappe. Elliott takes two steps forward
The play is designed to go to Gesicki coming off of a pick set by Parker. At the snap, Parker immediately engages with Benford, and Gesicki starts his route as if he is going wide. As soon as Hyde moves in that direction, Gesicki redirects into a crossing route that Zappe is looking for first. The Bills are in Cover 1 Double Rat (thanks to Ant Prohaska for help deciphering this combination coverage), which is man coverage with two defenders that drop into the hook/curl zones, in this case, defensive ends Leonard Floyd and Greg Rousseau.
Floyd drops right into Zappe’s first passing lane, so he has to wait a beat, and this is where things get interesting.
At the snap, the Bills were showing a simulated pressure with four down linemen and Bernard mugging the A gap. The Bills are in a Race front with the following linemen’s techniques:
- Floyd – 6
- Jones – 4
- Oliver – 4i
- Rousseau – 6/9
Bernard spikes down hard across the center to the weak side A gap. With Bernard’s movement, Elliott moves up to help with the block. Jones’ second and third steps take him upfield and to his left, which draws Sow’s attention for a split second and four or five stutter steps toward Jones.
When Bernard spikes across, Dodson initiates the Double-A cross dog, meaning he crosses behind Bernard and rushes the A gap to the strong side. Sow realizes it too late, and Elliott is delayed by Bernard’s action and can’t get to Dodson in time to do more than throw him a little off course.
Dodson creates the initial pressure, and Bernard fights through to disrupt and hurry Zappe more. Seeing the broken play, Rousseau starts coming forward. By this point, Gesicki’s crossing route has cleared Floyd and Hyde is still trailing, but because of the havoc in the backfield, Zappe rushes the throw and makes an inaccurate attempt.
This was a good example of the marriage of rush and coverage. If Floyd’s coverage doesn’t interfere with Zappe’s first read, it’s a likely completion to the tight end. If Dodson and Bernard don’t create chaos for the Pats’ QB, then he would have time to make a better attempt to Gesicki after he had cleared Floyd on the crossing route. The Bills’ defense was working as a fully coordinated unit and it showed in how poorly the Patriots’ offense performed in the first half.