It’s been a long time since the New England Patriots have had a meaningful late-season game like they’re hosting this weekend in Foxborough. Their division rival Buffalo Bills head into town, and it sounds like they are prepared for the task at hand. “It’s a big game for us,” former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “They’ve got a good football team. It’s for the division. So it’s a playoff game.”
The Bills also understand what is at stake here late in the season, even with their tickets already punched to the big dance. Sean McDermott attempted to downplay the hype of this week 16 game by saying “It’s the most important game because it’s the next game on our schedule. So, we try and keep perspective all the way through the season, whether it’s this game or whatever it was.” But with that said, all Bills fans feel that the first matchup earlier this season was an opportunity that slipped away, considering they made QB Tom Brady appear human.
Quarterback Josh Allen struggled mightily and exited with an injury in the fourth quarter, but many fans feel that if he hadn’t suffered a concussion, the game could have ended much differently.
Knocking off big brother on Saturday comes down to one thing: pride — the type of character trait that General Manager Brandon Beane and Head Coach McDermott have tried to weave into their team’s DNA. Don’t let McDermott’s coach-speak fool you; you know damn well what he is using it to motivate his team this week.
“Listen, I think our guys and the people of Buffalo, you come here and you spend time in Buffalo, they understand and I understand. It’s been years since the team has been able to beat the Patriots and be in this position with the division looming in the balance at this point in the season. We understand that, I fully acknowledge that . . .”
We can feel and hear what this game means to the players and us as fans. Now let’s dive into some of the things we should watch for.
Showing Brady a Different Look
In their week four game, the Bills did a number on Tom Brady. Brady had one of his worst games as a pro, going 13-for-24 for 126 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. But the Bills’ stingy defense, for the most part, played their game. There weren’t any drastic schematic changes installed by Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier, just discipline and a great job by the defense of disguising their intentions, and that earned praise from Bill Belichick this week. Belichick raved about the job safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer do at disguising the coverages. “They complement each other really well,” stated Belichick, “they do a very good job with their disguise and pre-snap looks.”
This can make all the difference in the world when playing against Brady, a quarterback who has seen it all. But what I found most interesting about what Belichick said this week is how sometimes Hyde and Poyer are disguising and the linebackers aren’t typically involved. So a quarterback may decode the coverage by diagnosing the linebacker level. “You’ve got all these guys over here together,” Belichick stated, “somebody’s going to have to go somewhere else. So it’s, ‘OK, they’re trying to disguise it. We can see they’re trying to disguise it.”
That’s why I think one way to disguise the back end of the coverage, while still maintaining some symmetry between the front and back ends, is to utilize more 3-3-5 looks, sort of like what we saw on third downs last week against the Steelers. Buffalo broke out the ‘diamond’ front for the first time this season on two separate third down occasions, and on both plays the Bills had a free runner at the quarterback.
On both plays, Edmunds, then Hyde later, flushed the quarterback out of the pocket to his left and forced incompletions. The five-man surface can create issues for the offensive line because, at the very least, those five rushers on the line of scrimmage have to be accounted for. Once that protection is set and the ball is snapped, the defense can change how many rushers come, mix in an array of stunts and games, and even insert a rusher from the second level.
As Patriots coach Bill Belichick has said of the five-man diamond front, it “changes a lot of protection rules, particularly for the back and the quarterback, especially if you have players on the line of scrimmage who can drop into coverage. If an offensive tackle goes out to block [one of those five players], but then the defender drops into coverage and you blitz up the middle, you create some mismatches.”
I scoured through all of the sacks against Brady this year and counted that at least four out of his 26 sacks have come from this sort of defensive structure. The Chiefs, Texans, Bengals, Redskins, Giants, and Dolphins all used it to create pressures and/or sacks in recent weeks.
The Bills ran this against Brady back in 2017 when Milano was just getting his feet wet in the defense. It was one of the first games that not only put his athleticism on display, but showed how he could open up the defensive scheme. The 2019 version of this front has a lot more talent on it. There are more guys who can rush or drop into coverage, which could wreak havoc on the Patriots’ shaky offensive line, an offensive line that struggles to win one-on-ones and surrenders a lot of pressure to teams that run two- and three-man stunts.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 19, 2019
The Bills forced the Patriots into 18 third-down situations back in week four, which was the most they faced all season. They converted 27.78% of those third downs, which was their third-lowest conversion percentage of the season. If the Bills can have success on early downs like they did in week four and use this personnel and front on third downs to fluster the Patriots’ offensive line and disguise just enough on the back end, they should be able to minimize one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
All Eyes on Allen
As everyone knows, the Patriots love to play man coverage. Only the Lions play man coverage at a higher clip than the Patriots. But playing man coverage against a quarterback like Josh Allen can be risky. Allen leads all quarterbacks in QB scrambles with 45 for 319 yards and three touchdowns, and he’s converting 33.3% of those attempts into first downs. So the Patriots will incorporate a spy or ‘rat’ defender to keep tabs on the mobile QB.
In their first meeting this season, Allen had a spy on him on 26% of his dropbacks. The extra set of eyes responsible for Allen was typically linebacker Jamie Collins, and that task took place 17% of the time on first down. The Patriots made Allen primarily work from the pocket, which early in the season is what this staff wanted of their QB. So on early downs, they spied him, followed his eyes, and forced him to make throws from the spot. The result: all off his interceptions occurred on 1st down.
Now, once they got the Bills into third down situations, they used safety Devin McCourty as a ‘rat’ defender. A ‘rat’ defender is simply a middle-of-the-field player that does a lot of similar things a spy would do near the line of scrimmage. They let the quarterback’s eyes take them to the ball. So what McCourty would do is typically drop into the middle of the field within 2-3 yards of the first down marker. Belichick did this on 57% of the Bills’ third downs in week four. This puts a safety who reads route combinations with the best of them smack dab in the middle of the field, which can deter Allen from throwing there. This makes sense. Don’t forget, McCourty is second in the league in interceptions with five, trailing only teammate Gilmore and Bills corner Tre’Davious White.
Fearing a turnover, Allen was then forced to make throws along the outer thirds of the field. That works right into the Patriots’ wheelhouse and their talented corners.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 17, 2019
It also didn’t help that Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll called passes on 69% of the plays in that first meeting, which is far too much. With tight coverage across the board, Allen had very few options and ended up taking four sacks out of seven of those third down situations. I expect Daboll to run the ball more than he did in the first matchup. It’s not like they didn’t have success doing it; they rushed 22 times for 135 yards, which is 6.1 yards per carry. Only Cleveland and Washington rushed for more yards per carry against the Patriots. While it has become a passing league, if the Bills’ defense can hold Brady down like they recently have, the Bills’ offense should be able to stay two-dimensional. This means Devin Singletary is going to be a huge part of this game plan, as has been the case recently.
Rookie running back Devin Singletary has taken over the starting running back gig, and what a revelation he has been. Singletary’s 5.3 yards per attempt leads all running backs with 50% of the snaps, and is just ahead of Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb (5.3 yards per attempt). But the rookie from FAU did not play in that first meeting against the Patriots, which should have Bills fans extremely excited because his big-play ability has been a catalyst for the Bills’ offense.
Explosive plays can change the momentum of a game! These teams have had the most so far this season. #GoNiners #GoBucs #DallasCowboys #LARams #RavensFlock #Seahawks #Skol #Browns #GoBills #ChiefsKingdom @gregcosell | @MattBowen41 pic.twitter.com/kbrsSoKnq9
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) December 16, 2019
Even with some of the success on explosive plays, the Bills’ offense averages 5.84 plays per drive and are ranked 22nd in three-and-outs. So getting chunk plays is absolutely crucial to their success, and no one has made a bigger impact in that area than Singletary. Per Pro Football Focus, Singletary’s 14 runs of 15 yards or more ranks fourth in the league, and his 38.7% breakaway percent is second only behind Chubb. This means that 38.7% of his rushing yardage (282 yards) have come on these explosive runs, and his play has caught Belichick’s attention.
“He’s got some speed to the outside, good quickness to make guys miss,” Belichick told reporters this week. While the Bills’ offense needs him and his mentor Frank Gore to control the game, Singletary’s versatility has opened up the offense in a way that really wasn’t afforded to them in the first matchup.
“[Singletary’s] involved in the passing game. He’s a three-down player, he has good quickness. He’s in there on all downs,” Belichick added. “When they’ve been going no-huddle, which they’ve done that in some games, then certainly it benefits you to have the same back on the field and not have to sub backs situationally.”
Singletary’s presence is much more of a threat than T.J. Yeldon was the first time these two teams met. In fact, it could very well dictate a large portion of the game. In week four, any time Gore was in on passing situations, the Patriots paid very little attention to him. Heck, Daboll paid very little attention to him, typically keeping him in as a blocker or just running stop routes when they went to their empty sets. So the linebacker they put on Gore really didn’t matter. The Patriots were comfortable putting thumper Ja’Whaun Bentley on Gore. But in the second half, Yeldon was inserted, and on their first drive out of the tunnel, Bentley was caught on Yeldon, who caught a 23-yard pass up the sideline. That forced Belichick to put Collins on Yeldon any time they were in the game and playing man coverage.
This was important because then he was periodically taken out of his spy role, a role that was then filled by reserve linebacker Elandon Roberts. How the Patriots defend Singletary in the passing game could play a huge part in this game. Roberts is a semi-athletic guy but not the athlete that Collins is. Plus, the Patriots will be down at least one defensive back in Jonathan Jones. Would they use an extra corner or safety to defend the rookie running back? Probably not, so we could see a different spy player on Allen than we saw in the first matchup, which could open up some lanes for him to extend drives via his legs, not just his arm.
Belichick understands how important Singletary is to the Bills’ offense. If he can eliminate the elusive running back, then the Bills’ offense will become one-dimensional, and we saw what happens when Allen is forced to carry the load in the first matchup with New England.