At the beginning of the season you probably looked at the schedule, saw the December 3rd matchup against the Patriots, and chalked it up as a loss. Who could blame you? Tom Brady and the Patriots have completely dominated the matchup so often that you really can’t call them a divisional rival.
But for most of the first half, the defense really held up their end of the bargain when it came to slowing Brady down. While the Patriots were able to dominate on the ground with 130 yards rushing in the first half, Brady was sacked three times, finishing the half with 98 yards and a 78.3 QB rating. This kept Buffalo in the game early on.
As the Pats drove down the field on their first drive, they utilized a variety of personnel groupings to see how the Bills were going to match up. Brady efficiently moved the ball down the field, and he got one explosive play out of a very difficult 21 personnel grouping to match up with. This specific 21 personnel set was with two diverse running backs in Rex Burkhead and James White, often aligned in a split back set with TE Gronkowski as the slot receiver.
On this 2nd-and-15 play Amendola runs a corner route, Gronkowski a deep curl in the middle of the field, and White a check release to the flats. The Bills appear to drop into a Tampa 2 coverage to keep everything in front of them. Cornerback EJ Gaines, to the top of the screen, drops into his zone, but the release by White to the flats causes him to hesitate, play too shallow, and allow the route by Amendola to get behind him. Given the down and distance, he should play high-to-low, deter the deep shot, force the underneath throw, and rally to make the tackle. His spacing is slightly off, so and it doesn’t deter the throw deep. Brady threads it for 27 yards.
It’s no doubt a tough assignment, and the route concept is one that attacks this specific coverage, but take a look at the zone spacing displayed by CB Tre’Davious White. That’s how it should be played.
A few plays later on 3rd down, Buffalo again drops into a Tampa 2. Gaines eyes the #2 threat out of the backfield, plays the coverage the best he can, but Brady stares down the trips portion and subsequently misses the deep corner to Amendola. Instead, he throws to the dig route run by Cooks, but it goes incomplete. Given the two high shell, Brady would have been better off targeting the routes to the top of screen, especially considering how much respect Gaines gave White on the check down a few plays prior. The Patriots settle for a field goal on the next play.
New England entered the red zone two times in this game and were denied touchdowns both times. This was due to some very good coverage in that quadrant of the field. McDermott is known for protecting versus deep plays AND defending the middle of the field. Of course, he had arguably the most athletically gifted linebackers in the league in Carolina, so play calling was much easier. That isn’t the case in Buffalo, so the staff has to devise ways to accomplish that task. That is typically done with bracket or in/out coverage, like the call on this third down. The Patriots go empty and attempt to run an out route with White from a stacked look. They are hoping the stacked look will confuse the coverage or, at the very least, the off coverage of White vs. whoever will give White space to get the TD. In this coverage, if White were to run an in-breaking route, Humber would have him and Poyer would sit in the zone.
So the in/out coverage is called to prevent the offense from getting an advantageous matchup. Post-snap, Poyer easily takes away White as he runs to the flats, so Humber stays home. From the trips side the Bills use similar thinking. To protect over the middle, they man up against the trips, but assign LB Brown to wall off or redirect any crosser. This will throw off the timing of the play, give Johnson help over the middle and, with Humber staying home, ultimately deter Brady from hitting what appears to be his third option in the play. It leads to a sack by defensive tackle Kyle Williams and a field goal.
But the final drive of the half by New England is when they pinpointed in on what Buffalo was doing in coverage, and were able to use it later. The Patriots send out 21 personnel in a split back alignment with Gronkowski in the slot. So, of course, Buffalo sends a slot corner to the passing strength.
The Bills play their normal quarters coverage protecting any deep shot. The safeties squeeze the deep post by Gronkowski and force the check down. But make note of the route by Cooks to the bottom of the screen and the route by Gronkowski. Post-snap, Brady checks it down and they get the first down, but the drive ends in another field goal.
Fast forward to the second half when teams put their adjustments into action. Buffalo absolutely lost this game coming out of halftime. While Brady was confused and held onto the ball longer than usual in the first half, he was tuned in coming out of the half. This was due to some bad play calling on the defensive side. In the first half when the Patriots ran 21 personnel with Burkhead and White, they had slot CB Leonard Johnson to the passing strength (side with Gronkowski). On this third down call, Johnson was on the line of scrimmage to the weak side of the passing formation, whilie Humber was aligned to the passing strength with safety Micah Hyde closer to the box.
Brady immediately knows something’s up. It alerts Brady that some sort of pressure is coming, but it’s even sweeter for the Patriots’ offense when they bring Hyde off the edge, as well. Post-snap, Brady sees Hyde, Humber, and Johnson blitz, which means that, instead of a man blitz with Hyde covering Gronkowski, it’s a zone blitz, and there is no way Hughes can undercut that vertical route down the seam. Bringing a zone blitz on 3rd-and-11 is too aggressive, and Brady is just too smart. This drive ended in a touchdown, and this play was really the turning point in the game. It was also discouraging because they had played very good coverage-based defense in the first half. Gronkowski gained 50 of the 70 total yards on this drive.
On the very next drive, New England attacks the quarters coverage again with an empty set. Brown is matched up against Gronkowski, but not in man coverage. He is supposed to redirect wide, turn, and sit in the zone as the safety takes Gronk over. He is unable to redirect, get into a position to deter the throw, or help his safety out. Brady and company can beat your coverage or win with 1-0n-1 matchups. Brown gave up three receptions for 50 yards to Gronkowski. This drive ended in another touchdown.
Then, finally, a play that really shows that you can only hold Brady down for so long. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sends out his 21 personnel again with Burkhead and White split in the backfield. It’s the same alignment they utilized at the end of the first half, but this time they run the #1 WR to the post. With CB Lafayette Pitts in the game, Buffalo runs their quarters coverage to help protect against anything deep.
So, as the #1 WR runs a deep post, Hyde robs it and helps double cover the receiver.
But this leaves quite the hole underneath. Instead of Gronkowski running the deep post, he runs a deep dig under the safeties but behind the linebackers. Brady knows that slot corner EJ Gaines and linebacker Matt Milano are going to widen with the running backs, as that is what occurs in quarters coverage and that’s what they did in the first half. In quarters coverage those alley defenders typically have hook-to-curl to flats. So, as the RBs run to the flats, they widen with them. In the first half, Brady checked it down for 11 yards to Burkhead. On this play, Brady shows off why no one can rival his ability to manipulate a pocket. His primary receiver is Gronkowski, and Brady just needs to slide in the pocket to let the route develop, to let Gronkowski come uncovered from LB Brown. This is just too much green for Brown to cover, especially without any help from the pass rush. Brady finds Gronkowski, and he gains 19 yards and gives the Patriots another set of downs. The routes were adjusted by the staff, and it led to a big play for one of the premier tight ends in the game.
The defense executed the gameplan rather well in the first half. They conceded the run game, willingly or not, but were able to confuse or slow down Brady’s processing, especially once in the red zone, where they held them in check. But the offense was not able to put enough points on the board, and Brady and the Patriots’ coaching staff deciphered what DC Frazier was attempting to do on defense. The Patriots’ offense was able to get some big plays out of the passing game due to halftime adjustments, then they just pounded the rock to get into the end zone on two out of their three second half red zone drives. From halftime on, they were able to completely control the game, much like they have the series.