FOXBORO, MA — The Bills put a bow on their regular season by completing the season sweep of the Patriots in a 38-9 victory at Gillette Stadium on Monday Night.
Buffalo already won the AFC East, and Monday night’s game was more about seeding and bragging rights for the Bills, but the Patriots were an absolute mess with all three phases sputtering.
New England’s only saving grace was 110 first-half rushing yards that had little to no impact on the outcome. Outside of that, they were a disaster in all three phases.
Although a few issues were more a one-game blip, we confirmed our priors on Monday night regarding this Patriots team.
The Patriots’ passing game issues, which in contrast to Josh Allen’s four-touchdown performance, were excruciatingly telling, are nothing new.
Pats quarterback Cam Newton struggled with accuracy and timing, his receivers dropped several passes in the first half and did him no favors, and even the simplest of passing concepts were a challenge.
On defense, the Bills put together four consecutive touchdown drives where Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs did whatever they wanted. The Pats’ defensive front struggled to get pressure, JC Jackson played well in the first half and then lost control of his matchup with Diggs, and they still can’t cover the middle of the field.
New England’s top-ranked punt coverage unit even allowed a first down on a trick pass when they had a punt block on and didn’t cover the gunners. Other than that, everything was great.
If you are looking for one silver-lining, the Patriots’ loss moves them up to the 14th pick in the 2021 draft, and if they lose again next week to the Jets, they’re flirting with a top ten selection.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots fall to 6-9 on the season:
1. Patriots Must Address QB Situation This Offseason
There’s a middle ground with the Cam Newton discourse this season, but it seems we are too far lost into the abyss of bad quarterback play.
Those screaming that Newton never makes a good throw are hyperbolic, but his lack of improvement within the offense makes it difficult to hitch your wagon to him in 2021.
Instead of nitpicking every throw to study ball placement and blame someone for the result, we’ll focus on the things that matter while playing quarterback.
Here’s one example from the second third-down of the game for the Pats. The Bills bring a blitz from off the line. Instead of going to his quick answer on a shallow crosser by Damiere Byrd starting on his right, Newton tries to wait for his downfield routes to develop to his left and is sacked. Failing to recognize and know his answers to a blitz are repeat issues for Cam.
Another recurring theme in Newton’s season is that he no longer has his early-career arm strength where his footwork and throwing mechanics weren’t as important.
In this play before the half, Newton makes a great escape in the pocket to avoid a sack and step up into the vacated area. However, he decides to throw off one foot rather than resetting to fire downfield and bounces a pass into an open N’Keal Harry. Cam no longer has the physical tools to make off-balance throws easily, so he needs to get sharper with his footwork.
As much as Newton’s work ethic and leadership are embraced in the locker room, it’s the lack of improvement at this point of the season that makes it difficult to count on him moving forward.
2. Patriots Pass-Catcher Drop the Ball in Loss to Bills
There’s a chicken or the egg effect with Newton’s pass-catchers performing equally as bad as the Pats QB, which reared its ugly head from the jump on Monday night.
On New England’s opening drive, running back Sony Michel gained 29 yards on a toss play that put the Pats in Buffalo territory.
After a loss on the next play, the Pats tossed the ball out to Michel again on second down from the Buffalo 36-yard line. This time, Michel took a few steps towards his developing blockers like it was another crack toss but then threw it back to Newton. Newton hit a wide-open Damiere Byrd on a deep crosser on the second throw, but Byrd dropped a touchdown.
In so many ways, Byrd’s drop exemplified the issues with New England’s offense this season.
McDaniels set up the trick play beautifully. The first stage of the design was executed perfectly, but the play’s finish wasn’t, and thus, another opportunity lost for the Patriots.
Other plays where the Patriots’ receivers weren’t doing the right thing might come to light after review, and rookie tight end Devin Asiasi is still struggling with drops.
But the missed touchdown to Byrd stood out like a sore thumb in Monday night’s loss.
3. Pats Backup QB Jarrett Stidham Doesn’t Offer Much Hope Either
Although it’s challenging to judge Stidham when he’s replacing Newton in a blowout, nothing the second-year quarterback did offered much hope either in the Bills’ loss.
The Patriots lost 1.6 total points on Stidham’s 13 plays, his completion percentage over expected was in the negative (-18.3), and he is still struggling to read leverage.
One positive from Stidham’s performance was a 22-yard connection with Jakobi Meyers, the Pats’ longest completion of the night. But it was as basic a completion as it gets at this level, with Stidham hitting a wide-open Meyers on a coverage bust by the Bills. Hardly anything special.
Stidham handed Bills corner Levi Wallace an easy PBU on the next play when he threw a dig route to Meyers into Wallace’s inside leverage. Honestly, he was lucky Wallace didn’t pick that.
The 2019 fourth-round pick started that drive with a bad underthrow to Damiere Byrd, made an errant throw to N’Keal Harry along the sideline, then checked it down on third and ten.
Stidham bailed from a clean pocket on the ensuing drive and missed an open Jakobi Meyers crossing over the middle. Stidham had a chance at Meyers in the first window if he stayed in the pocket and definitely had Meyers in the second window. Nope, sack.
We can continue to push the narrative that Stidham would perform better with a full week of prep, but let’s face it, he has done nothing to prove that he’s “it” either.
With that said, he should probably get the start next week against the Jets in another meaningless game for the Patriots.
4. Pats CB JC Jackson Eventually Loses Battle With Stefon Diggs
Jackson took his Pro Bowl snub personally and wanted to prove to himself and his team that he was ready for the challenge of being the no. 1 corner without Stephon Gilmore.
In the first half, Jackson undoubtedly got the better of Diggs, but it was some smack talk between the two in the second quarter that woke the Bills Pro Bowl up for the final two frames.
The play that sparked the exchange was excellent coverage by Jackson on a go route to Diggs. Jackson stays square at the line of scrimmage, jams Diggs once, gets his hands back on the Buffalo wideout after he tries to clear the jam, and looks back for the ball once he’s in-phase (running with Diggs stride-for-stride down the sideline). That’s press-man teach tape.
However, Diggs then erupted and ended up finishing the game with nine catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns, and two of those scores came with Jackson in coverage.
On Diggs’s 50-yard score, Jackson tried to undercut Diggs’s crossing pattern. The Bills dialed up a post-over route combination where the deep post took free safety up the field. With Diggs filling in underneath on the crosser and the play-action sucking up the linebacker level, Jackson is helpless in man coverage. Diggs beats Jackson at the line in his release, but instead of playing the hands and trying to recover to limit the damage, Jackson gets greedy and tries to undercut the route to intercept the pass. Bills quarterback Josh Allen makes a good throw, and there’s nobody behind Jackson to tackle Diggs.
Jackson is far more streaky than a savvy veteran like Gilmore, who understands when he’s beat and lives to fight another down instead of giving up the big play by simply limiting YAC.
Jackson can be a number one corner on the depth chart talent-wise, but his rollercoaster ride with Diggs on Monday night showed that he’s still working towards that goal.
5. How Much is Coaching to Blame for Pats’ Issues?
The Patriots’ coaching staff continues to take a lot of heat for their lack of answers defensively and sometimes unimaginative play-calling by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. However, it’s hard to blame McDaniels or the defensive play-calling for shortcomings in personnel. Pats defensive play-caller Steve Belichick cycles through different coverages and pressure packages every week. They game plan different things on both sides of the ball that often work, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Certainly, the coaches need to shoulder some of the blame for poor execution, but it’s a small piece of the puzzle. If you want to blame anyone on the coaching staff, blame Belichick for the team he put together. Even if we give Belichick the benefit of the doubt with the opt-outs of Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung, it’s not fair to blame the play-calling for failing to turn water into wine.
6. Pats Running Game is Still Dynamic
The only positive takeaway offensively for the Patriots was the 110 first-half rushing yards at 9.2 yards per rush, as they had the run game going.
Pats running back Sony Michel led the way once again with Damien Harris inactive, running for 69 yards on ten carries. Sony rattled off runs of 29 and 21 yards off New England’s crack toss scheme.
On the 29-yarder, the Pats got a great “crack” block from Meyers that made it easy for rookie left tackle Justin Herron to pull along with fullback Jakob Johnson, clearing a path for Michel. From there, left guard Joe Thuney puts himself through to the linebacker level as well, and Michel makes a decisive cut to get north-south and take advantage of the gaping hole.
Along with Michel, rookie running back JJ Taylor was productive on his six carries and followed Michel’s second big run with a 28-yard scamper.
This time, the Patriots block GY counter, where the backside guard (Mason) kicks out the play-side defensive end, and a pulling Devin Asiasi inserts to the second-level. Herron shows impressive mobility on his climb to the linebacker level as well, and Taylor cuts upfield in a hurry.
Since returning from injured reserve, Michel’s decisiveness as a runner has really stood out, while Taylor’s explosiveness adds another dimension to New England’s backfield.
7. Pats Pro-Bowl Punter Jake Bailey Making Case for All-Pro Honors
Bailey was once again the best player on the field for New England. He punted seven times for an average of 51.7 yards, including a 62-yarder and four punts downside inside the 20. The second-year pro was already named to the Pro Bowl, but now Bailey is making a strong case for All-Pro honors, which is the far more prestigious award. Bailey leads the league in both total punts and percentage of punts downed inside the 20. He’s darn good.
8. Assessing Pats LB Terez Hall’s Future
Although a three-down role might be outside of his depth, the Pats are working through growing pains that could potentially lead to a future role for Hall.
Hall made a great play taking on the climbing left guard on an outside zone scheme where he went through the Buffalo lineman and made a huge stick on the ball carrier.
But he also has issues scanning at the second level, where he often over-commits to a gap.
On Zack Moss’s five-yard touchdown, Hall overreacts to the blockers’ movement and jumps to the strong-side A-Gap, where Adrian Phillips is filling. The Pats then have two players in the strong-side A and nobody in the backside A-Gap, and it’s an easy read for Moss.
Belichick always seems to find thumpers to play in the middle of his defense, and Hall is a better athlete than, for example, Elandon Roberts, but he’s still raw.
9. Bills QB Josh Allen, OC Brian Daboll Deserve Credit for Allen’s Development
We got to witness first-hand how far Allen has come as a passer. Allen’s last frontier in a terrific season was solving Belichick, and he did just that on Monday night.
Gone are the days where Allen was panicky in the pocket and turnover-prone, as he now looks like a quarterback that’s in complete control. He’s making throws within the scheme while also adding his own great plays on top of those in-structure completions.
On his third touchdown pass to Diggs, Allen broke the pocket to his non-arm side and threw across his body to hit Diggs in the back of the end zone. That’s not fair or easy.
The QB-needy Patriots, who did it once with a young Tom Brady, got an up-close look at an offense built perfectly around their young quarterback.
10. Play of the Game: Damiere Byrd Drops Would-Be Touchdown
There’s no better way to sum-up the Patriots’ season and loss to the Bills on Monday night than Byrd’s drop on the opening drive. McDaniels sequenced it together perfectly after Michel’s big run on a crack toss earlier in the drive. That’s how he had it planned all week, and Byrd just dropped it. I can only imagine what was going through McDaniels’s head on that one.