Before we start previewing Patriots-Bills III, New England has to look inward to address their current mindset after three losses in their final four regular-season games.
Whether it was the Bills, Bengals, or someone else on Saturday night, the Patriots team we’ve seen over the last month isn’t going to win the playoffs; starting slow leading to insurmountable deficits, sloppy penalties and execution, turnovers, and special teams snafus won’t cut it.
So here is the question for the 2021 Patriots: have they completely let go of the rope, or were they waiting for the postseason to flip the switch back on? It’s now or never.
The good news for the struggling Patriots is that they already know what not to do against their Wild Card playoff opponent in the Buffalo Bills.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his staff can throw out their Week 16 game plan, set it on fire, and start from scratch on both sides of the ball.
Another positive for New England is that, along with scrapping their last plan against Buffalo, they have a better idea of how the Bills will scheme them.
Buffalo’s brain trust laid a blueprint with these key elements that led to a clear victory in Week 16:
- Defense: man coverage with inside leverage and smother Mac Jones’s check downs to make Jones beat them by throwing into tight coverage downfield.
- Offense: Use QB Josh Allen’s ability to extend plays and draw defenders to defeat zone coverage & run crossing patterns to attack out-leveraged man coverage defenders.
Although Buffalo will have a few new wrinkles here and there, why fix it if it ain’t broke?
For the Patriots, this matchup comes down to Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels willingness to morph themselves into an operation better-suited to beat the Bills.
Yes, Belichick is known for being the best game plan coach in NFL history and doing that very thing to craft schemes for a specific opponent.
However, lately, we’ve seen the Pats go down with stubborn approaches (Myles Bryant on Isaiah McKenzie) and be out-scripted early in games while they slowly adapt once the team is in a hole.
The Patriots’ approach should be much easier to figure out now, facing Buffalo for a third time this season.
Saturday night’s showdown will come down if Belichick and McDaniels make the proper adjustments to put the Pats in winnable situations.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
There’s one element to New England’s plan in Week 16 that can stay, and that’s obviously the running game.
The Pats successfully ran the ball in both matchups against the Bills, and the running game should be featured prominently. But it would behoove them to first set up the run with early-down passes.
In Week 16, New England went one-for-ten on third down. A big part of that was poor early-down offense leading to an average distance on third down of eight yards for a first down. The Patriots faced eight third downs of seven-plus yards and five third downs of ten-plus yards. It was the difference in the game.
Although the Patriots should take advantage of their running game, the easiest way to avoid third down is to skip over it altogether with explosive plays, which is why they need to script those plays to beat the Bills’ early-down coverages on their opening drive. Hopefully, you’ll get a lead, and then you pound the rock.
To better understand how the Patriots can solve Buffalo’s pass defense, which has given them problems even in the Brady era, we must first dissect how the Bills shut them down in Week 16.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier knew the Pats’ staple concepts were levels, double digs or drive concepts, and crossing routes between the numbers.
The strategy for Buffalo was to play man coverage with inside leverage to cut off in-breaking routes and force Jones to beat tight coverage downfield.
The Pats ran their levels scheme here. When Jakobi Meyers motions into the stack, Bills slot corner Taron Johnson jumps inside him on his release to make him work through contact on his dig route. Buffalo also drops a low-rat defender into the passing lane, occupies the back (Bolden) with Tremaine Edmunds’ blitz, and Micah Hyde is all over Hunter Henry’s release into the right flat. There’s nobody open, and Mac throws into coverage.
Buffalo forgoes the low-rat defender to send a blitz at Jones in this example, which prevents the running back from releasing into the pattern (he stays in the protection). Then, the Bills used inside leveraged defenders to cut off the high-low crossing routes from the Pats’ two tight ends, and Jones forces a throw to Henry while under pressure.
Buffalo’s game plan held Jones to his lowest completion rate (43.8%), his third-highest average depth of target (10.4 yards), and his longest average time to throw of the season (3.18s).
As one would expect, a passing offense predicated on efficiency doesn’t like any of those statistics.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to go into his bag of complementary route combinations to New England’s staples to combat Buffalo’s man coverage strategy.
The Pats already dialed one of those up in the second half when Meyers attacked inside leverage in his stem and then broke outside on a whip or return route.
Earlier, we showed you Meyers motioning into a stack to run an in-breaking route smothered by inside leverage. Above, Meyers uses the same motion into the sack, stems like he’s going to run a crosser, and then breaks outside on a “burst” corner route.
The Patriots could attack Buffalo’s inside leverage out of single-high or two-man by spreading the field and running fades on the outside.
Meyers, in particular, creates plenty of separation in his releases for Mac Jones to drop throws in the bucket along the sideline to create explosive plays. Meyers moves Xavien Howard inside with a stretch release, then releases outside and puts the defender on his back. If he can beat Howard, Meyers can beat Buffalo’s corners too.
When the Bills went back to their bread-and-butter zones, the Pats nearly hit an explosive to Hunter Henry on their flood concept against a disguised quarters structure. The defense falls into a four-deep zone, and the Pats flood the sideline by running a clear out (Kendrick Bourne) to carry the outside corner and have Henry break into the void. Unfortunately, Mac either overthrows it or expects Henry to run a corner rather than an out. Either way, the space is there for a completion.
Another early-down scheme against zone that should’ve hit in part II was the Pats’ post-cross combination against cover-three. Mac passes up an open Jakobi Meyers on the crosser to throw the post when he doesn’t recognize the backside corner replacing the post-safety in the middle of the field. But, again, the play was there.
The Bills are known for playing more zone coverage than man coverage, and still stuck with zone on early downs, but they matched up against New England in man in part two more than expected.
McDaniels is familiar with Buffalo’s zone coverages and will have zone beaters in his bag if McDermott goes back to zone (flood, post/cross, etc.). But the Pats will need to be ready to attack inside leverage against man as well.
RUNNING GAME SCRIPT
Patriots running back Damien Harris was their only consistent offense a few weeks ago, with New England feasting on the aggressive nature of Buffalo’s one-gap, four-down system.
Here, the Pats ran a G/TE counter scheme knowing that the Bills linebackers would flow to the pullers. Ted Karras (LG) and Isaiah Wynn (LT) create the cutback lane for Harris on the “fold” block, and Harris works off Wynn’s combination block to burst into the secondary for a 31-yard gain.
New England also used a fake power scheme to get the linebacker level flowing towards the lead blockers and then tossed the ball out to Harris in the opposite direction for a touchdown.
In their first two matchups with Buffalo, the Patriots averaged 5.1 yards and added +0.07 expected points per rush on 73 carries. We’ll see plenty of handoffs by Mac Jones, especially in single-digit temps.
Still, it’s highly unlikely that New England will win again solely handing the ball off to their backs.
OFFENSIVE LINE OUTLOOK
Another storyline that’ll have a major outcome on Saturday night’s game is the health of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn and who the Patriots turn to on Mac Jones’s blindside if Wynn cannot play.
There’s no debate about the Patriots’ best starting five but we’ve seen reluctance in the past with massive shakeups. Still, this is the playoffs, win or go home, and Justin Herron at left tackle is a scary proposition.
Clearly, the best starting five is: LT- Brown, LG – Karras, C – Andrews, RG – Mason, RT – Onwenu. Will wee it? Or will the Pats sub Herron in for Wynn as they did in the second half in Week 18? We’ll have to wait and see.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
New England’s plan against Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen had several problems in Week 16.
The Patriots’ decision to roll with only three cornerbacks, deactivating Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade while leaving D’Angelo Ross on the practice squad, left them without options or depth in the secondary against an offense that uses primarily three wide receiver sets.
Due to being short-handed in the secondary, the Patriots played mostly with five defensive backs and started with thumpers Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley on the field in the first half.
When the Patriots played early-down zone coverages, their linebackers got caught too far downfield in their zone drops, and Allen gained easy yards underneath on check-downs.
Allen also moved zone coverage by extending plays with his legs, eventually pulling the Pats’ linebackers out of their zones and beating them with his arm on playground plays.
The Bills gained 7.3 yards per play with a 63.3% success rate on 32 drop-backs vs. the Pats’ nickel defense. The Pats held Allen to six yards per attempt and a 50% success rate in their dime package.
Along with exposing linebackers in coverage, Buffalo won on third down against man coverage with four conversions on six attempts, three of which went to slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie.
Buffalo stressed New England’s man coverages by running two in-breaking routes into the middle of the field. When the help defender went to Stefon Diggs, it left Myles Bryant in single coverage on McKenzie without help from the robber, so Allen attacked that matchup.
There are ways to provide more help to man coverage defenders with two-high structures or double-robber schemes, but zone coverage is more effective every time we study Buffalo’s offense.
By playing zone, the Patriots can leverage crossing routes and sink underneath them from the second level, but the key is keeping Allen in the pocket more than they did in Week 16 (more on that later).
But it’s not as simple as just playing more zone. The Pats also need to disguise their zone structures, rotating from post-safety (one high) or split-safety zone (two-high) and blur the lines between man and zone coverage.
“They did a good job of scheming us up and figuring out what we were in and taking advantage of the weak spots in that (coverage),” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said following the loss in Week 16. “Allen did a good job of taking what we gave him and not forcing a lot of stuff. Then, he did what he’s good at. Scrambling, making the play a little longer, and finding holes in the zone defense.”
To avoid a similar outcome as part II, the Patriots can’t give Allen a clear pre-snap picture of their coverage shell.
For instance, in Week 13, the Pats had some great reps in cover-three match zones. They play this down out of nickel defense, but instead of Hightower and Bentley as the linebacker pairing, they subbed a more athletic coverage player in Jamie Collins in for Hightower.
Buffalo runs their drive concept trying to clear out the middle of the field for a slant/flat combination at the top of the screen. First, safety Adrian Phillips motions with tight end Dawson Knox before the snaps, which tells the QB that it’s man coverage. However, the Pats are in a three-deep zone scheme, so when the ball is snapped, Phillips falls into the slant window to take away Allen’s first read (Diggs). At the bottom of the screen, Jalen Mills drops on the deep third when Emmanuel Sanders runs a drag route (zone). Mills helps leverage the deep crosser from the backside by falling off the drag route, while the underneath zones help Jackson (match on vertical stem) take away Diggs, and Allen has nowhere to go.
Ideally, the Pats would play more three-safety dime in part three, but they might find themselves short-handed again at defensive back with Jalen Mills on the COVID list and Kyle Dugger (hand) on the injury report.
Still, the Pats had good zone coverage reps against the Bills in nickel with Collins in for Hightower. As much as we all love Hightower, Buffalo throws the ball more than any other team in the league; this is not a game for the thumpers.
As they always do, New England will play some man coverage on Saturday night. But we are imploring them to be zone-heavy and get the slower linebackers off the field. And when they do play man, the Patriots must get physical with Buffalo’s receivers at the line of scrimmage.
PASS RUSH PLAN
Along with a zone-heavy approach in the backend, the Patriots won’t stand a chance against Allen and company if they rush the quarterback as horribly as they did in Week 16.
There’s a fine line to walk with a quarterback like Allen, who burns defenses on extended and scramble plays with his legs, where you have to apply pressure to force Allen to make throws but also contain him in the pocket.
“It’s rushing, but pass rushing with discipline and awareness. If you miss him and he gets loose, that’s going to be a big problem. You just can’t stand there and watch him throw. That’s not the answer, but being undisciplined and just running around back there, letting him run, that’s not the answer either,” Belichick told me this week.
“He’s a hard guy to defend. We’ll have to try to balance aggressive rush with vision and an element of containment on him.”
In Week 16, the Patriots had a mixed bag of suck where some reps were standing there and watching Allen throw while other plays were too aggressive and lost contain. Above, Allen has all day to find McKenzie as he works open against zone coverage on a critical fourth-down score in the red zone.
Then, the Pats also were pinning their ears back and compromising their rush lane integrity, allowing Allen to escape the pocket and make plays on the move.
In part one, the pass rush was night and day compared to the reps from Week 16. The Pats use bull rushes to collapse the pocket around Allen, and when he looks to escape, Kyle Van Noy keeps him in the pocket with good discipline on Allen’s arm side. Ultimately, the coverage and rush led to a sack.
As Belichick said, striking a balance between pressuring and containing is a tricky balancing act, but it’s critical against Allen. The analogy we like to use is putting Allen in the Star Wars trash compactor. You want to collapse the pocket using power moves (bull rush) rather than finesse or speed rushes where you’ll find yourself behind the quarterback or leaving your gap unoccupied (looking at you, Mr. Judon).
If the Patriots don’t rush with a more coordinated plan this time around, they’ll be one-and-done.
1. Pats LB Matthew Judon vs. Bills LT Dion Dawkins
Arguably the biggest matchup in the game on either side of the ball, with Dawkins having the upper hand last time out. Clearly, opposing tackles are sitting on Judon’s speed rush and ushering him past the quarterback. The Pats need Judon to have a smarter rush plan, one that focuses on power/bull rushes to walk Dawkins back into Allen rather than trying to turn the corner. They need to put Allen in the Star Wars trash compactor, which starts on the edge.
2. Pats CB J.C. Jackson vs. Bills WR Stefon Diggs
Round three: fight! Although he was more competitive against Diggs this season, the Bills’ wideout gives Jackson a hard time. Diggs’ explosiveness through his route breaks makes him a tough cover for anyone, and when Jackson doesn’t get his hands on him, it gets shaky at the top of the route. The Pats need Jackson to have an All-Pro performance on Saturday night.
3. Pats CBs Myles Bryant/D’Angelo Ross vs. Bills WRs Cole Beasley/Isaiah McKenzie
I’m fascinated to see how the Patriots defend Buffalo’s slot receivers in part three. Since his breakout game in Week 16, McKenzie only has three targets on 29.5% of the offensive snaps. Unless the Bills want to work the same matchups again, because why not? Then it’ll be Beasley back in the slot most. Regardless, I’m interested to see if the Pats saw enough out of Ross to give him the nod over Bryant in the nickel role. Ross had some good reps against Jaylen Waddle, has the same S/CB versatility as Bryant, and is bigger. The team likes Bryant’s instincts in coverage. But Ross might’ve taken his job while he was out with COVID.
4. Pats WR Jakobi Meyers vs. Bills CB Taron Johnson
We have to get one key matchup in there for the offense, and although it’s tempting to go in the trenches, Johnson blanketed Meyers for most of part two, which was huge for Buffalo. We’ll have discussions in the offseason about upgrading at wide receiver, but, for now, Meyers is the guy. McDaniels needs to let him run routes that break away from Johnson’s leverage.
5. Pats & Bills vs. the Weather
The great equalizer in part one might do the Patriots some favors again in part III. Although the forecast predicts single-digit temperatures, the wind should be mild, and there’s no precipitation expected. McDaniels told CLNS Media this week that freezing temperatures won’t deter him from calling passes in the same way that wind did in Week 13. On the other side, Allen has terrible numbers when the weather drops below 32 degrees in three games since 2019: 50.6 completion rate, four touchdowns, five interceptions, 58.4 passer rating. Advantage, Pats, if the weather is a factor.