The old sang in boxing goes styles win fights, and that holds true for the 2020 New England Patriots.
New England has a winning formula with complementary football: run the crap out of the ball, play good pass-coverage, and win field position battles on special teams.
However, Bill Belichick’s team is not as flexible as usual on either side of the ball to morph week-to-week based on their opponent.
The Patriots offense needs to play “bully ball” with Cam Newton, meaning they can’t dig themselves into holes on the scoreboard and need to lean on their rushing attack offensively.
New England’s defense is built perfectly to slow down spread passing attacks with extra defensive backs on the field. But as the 49ers showed last week, they’re at a significant disadvantage against more physical offenses.
The Pats played their first snaps of the season in a base defense against the Niners, and San Francisco accumulated an excellent 0.27 expected points added per play on those 23 snaps.
New England, as they showed in their two victories, has a winning formula. But that might be the only way they can win games, which brings us to this week’s opponent, the Buffalo Bills.
Belichick built his defense with pass-happy teams like the Bills in mind, who also happen to be the 26th-ranked run defense by DVOA through seven games this season.
Buffalo’s offense is now a pass-heavy attack that throws more on early-downs than any team besides the Seahawks, plays nearly 80 percent of their downs with three wide receivers, and Allen was near the top of the league in air yards before his recent slide.
If the Bills stick to their formula and throw it down the field, the Patriots can stick to theirs. With the Bills remaining aggressive, assuming the Pats secondary holds up its end of the bargain, the Patriots can get into their “bully ball” combined with good defense game-script.
The game in Buffalo will be decided by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s willingness to craft a game-plan that will expose the Pats’ weaknesses against short passes and motion-heavy offenses.
The Bills ran the same “tap” passes last week as the 49ers did in their win at Gillette Stadium to gadget receiver Isaiah McKenzie. Speedster John Brown is another option for jet motion, and they have decent depth at tight end to put two on the field.
Still, it’ll go a little against what’s working for Buffalo this season as they sit atop the AFC East with a 5-2 record.
Here’s a game plan for the Patriots on both sides of the ball in what feels like a must-win game for New England:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
In a typical week, we’d break down how the Patriots can attack Buffalo’s defense based on their schemes and tendencies.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier run a 4-3 system that leans heavily on cover-1 man (32.7%), cover-3 (26.3%), and quarters structures (19.7%).
Although New England ought to game plan to attack the Buffalo run defense, this week’s passing script should focus on getting Cam Newton back into a rhythm.
The Pats’ passing plan is way more about Newton and their own issues than Buffalo’s scheme right now.
With that in mind, my focus was studying Newton’s completions this season to see which passing concepts were working for him.
Although their entire plan could be greatly altered by injuries to wide receivers Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got too far away from adapting the scheme to Cam’s abilities and instead turned back to Tom Brady’s offense too often in the last few games.
Newton’s strengths aren’t the same as Brady’s, starting with slower processing and less consistent accuracy, making it difficult for Cam to string together productive plays in that style of offense.
The Pats quarterback deflected blame from McDaniels and the coaches this week, as he continues to say all the right things, but there was one quote that I found interesting:
“For me it’s just about allowing plays to linger. When I say that, I don’t mean it just by the bad plays, I mean by good plays too. Success, in many ways, can be the biggest distraction. I think the fact when you have learning curves like I’m having now, or this team so to speak, you can kind of really go in depth and see what the issue is. But yet, I think the thing for me, this offense is so advanced and so schematically driven by a specific reaction of how the defense, or what the defense is doing, and I just have to be accessible to understanding the play-caller’s purpose and being able to execute at hand – whether we went over it or not. Josh does a great job with game-planning. These last two games, it’s been one after another, that I’ve been more thinking more than playing and reacting; what I pride myself on doing. He’s been great throughout this process. Jedd as well as Coach Bill. But I do understand that type of football play is unacceptable. By no means. I’m all about putting the team in the best situation to win and that’s what I have to do moving forward.”
Since Newton won’t say it himself, I’ll say it for him: if Newton is publicly admitting to having issues reading out certain plays in the offense, then the offense needs to adapt to make it easier on him. Yes, the foundation of the Patriots offense remains the same, but if Cam is struggling to read the field then the coaching staff should be adjusting.
Newton’s processing struggles don’t mean he’s a bad passer, he’s just different than Brady, so let’s start by getting back to the Newton adaptions in the playbook.
SIDELINE THROWS (STOP-OPTION/KNIFE OR LEVELS)
Until Cam looks more comfortable reading the middle of the field, his best downfield passes are outside the numbers against single coverage.
One of the most successful ways Newton has thrown the football this season is on stop-option routes to Damiere Byrd along the sideline. Byrd has a choice to either stop his route down against off-coverage and soft-press or run a go ball against aggressive press coverage. Buffalo incorporates a lot of man and zone (bail) coverage on the outside, which means the comeback routes against single coverage will be available to Newton this week.
Newton also looks okay throwing deep dig routes either on a levels concept or New England’s middle-read “knife” concept where he can attack single coverage on the outside.
The Pats ran levels here with Julian Edelman’s shorter dig route taking the underneath coverage out of the passing lane for Jakobi Meyers’s deep dig route, and Newton makes a good throw.
Newton uses good arm strength on sideline passes and reads of outside corner’s technique as easy completions for good yardage.
Another play design the Patriots must get back to is the run-pass option, or RPOs, which have been non-existent in Cam’s last three starts.
In the first two games of the season, Newton was 10-of-10 with a success rate of 60 percent on those plays. But he has only attempted one RPO throw in his last three starts.
Run-pass options are a staple in Newton’s arsenal dating back to his Auburn days and fit him more than standard play-action.
Only McDaniels and Newton know why they got away from RPOs, but Cam is clearly comfortable with them and they could find big plays.
Here, the Patriots ran an RPO glance with power-read. Newton is reading the two defenders to his right, and when both step up to play the run, he throws to Harry on the “glance” route, which is an eight-yard skinny post. Although Harry takes a big hit, Cam is throwing in-rhythm and puts the ball in a good spot for a first-down plus a 15-yard penalty.
New England also ran RPO bubble screens off inside zone and produced positive plays both through the air and on the ground.
There could be some football reason that I’m missing like an injury or something schematically that defenses are doing to take away those plays.
Newton hinted at adjustments defenses made to what the Pats were doing at the beginning of the season, but they need to find ways to incorporate things they’re good at as an offense.
Lastly, we’ve discussed the lack of motion in the Patriots’ offense several times, a troubling trend that needs to be corrected.
Motion works in the offense’s favor in many ways, including coverage indicators, getting receivers a head start to get places faster, and it creates favorable matchups for the offense.
Here, the Pats ran a motion screen to James White, where he starts early out of the backfield and picks up an easy nine yards. Those are simple throws for Newton, and could lead to even bigger gains if they can get White in space again.
The Patriots came back to that backfield motion several times and ran Newton out of empty formations as well, which we’ll get to later.
When it comes to passing this week, the Patriots need to ask themselves what Newton does best and focus on those concepts.
The Patriots will run plenty on Sunday with the Bills defense’s weaknesses, bad weather in Buffalo, and possibly no Edelman or Harry for New England.
Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane built the Bills defense similarly to how the Pats constructed theirs, focusing on pass coverage.
Beane’s move was to invest in an elite secondary while adding pass-rushing talent to supplement the backend, which led to lighter personnel vulnerable against the run.
Although Buffalo’s secondary is showing its warts this season, their far bigger weakness is against the run, where they rank 26th in DVOA and dead-last in PFF grade (37.4).
Due to linebacker Matt Milano’s injury and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei’s opt-out, the Bills run defense took a significant step back, as did third-year linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Edmunds is an athletic freak at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds who moves like a box safety, but he’s struggling without Milano.
Teams are feasting on Edmunds’s over-aggressiveness by running misdirection plays that give him false keys.
(via Inside the Pylon)
One of the most successful schemes against the Bills run defense is split-zone, which usually motions a tight end across the formation to block the backside edge defender with the line zone-blocking in the other direction.
Here, the Chiefs ran split-zone with orbit motion and the tight end’ “sift” blocking, causing the linebacker level to flow towards the moving pieces. Edmunds runs himself out of his gap, and KC running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has a massive hole.
In this play, the Jets ran split-zone as well, with quarterback Sam Darnold mimicking a bootleg-action. Edmunds keys to Darnold and the wide receiver sliding across, usually a route off play-action, and retreats to his coverage assignment rather than playing the run.
The Pats incorporate split-zone when they feel it’ll be successful against an opponent, and it’s hard to watch Buffalo tape this season without picking out the scheme.
Another way to get Edmunds and the Bills linebackers out of position against the run is with crack tosses, which the Raiders successfully ran several times against Buffalo in Week 4.
Edmunds continuously over-ran the ball carrier on crack tosses trying to make splash plays. Above, he is responsible for pushing the runner towards the sideline while the outside corner and nickel collapse on the ball. Instead, Edmunds goes outside of the climbing guard, and Josh Jacobs hits it right where he should be for a 17-yard gain.
Assuming a potential Milano return doesn’t fix Edmunds, the Pats need to manipulate the Bills linebacker every chance they get.
The Patriots will always feature a heavy dosage of power runs with pullers as lead blockers, and double-teams on the line of scrimmage are proving extremely effective against Buffalo.
Here, the Chiefs ran one-back power from the gun, and the left tackle and guard dominated no. 61 Justin Zimmer on their double-team to move the Buffalo front backward. From there, the backside guards pull to the MIKE, and it’s another big gain.
Earlier, we talked about motion screens with James White firing out of the backfield before the snap. This week, I’d love to see that motion sequencing again to get Cam going on power plays out of empty.
On this play, White brings a linebacker with him as he motions out, leaving only four Miami defenders in the box. With Newton’s running abilities, the offense can still go to the ground, and the Pats ran power with Cam as the ball carrier for a first down.
The Patriots no longer have the luxury to limit Cam’s designed runs with a 2-4 record against a divisional opponent ahead of them in the standings.
Let Newton loose as a runner with their season is on the line.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
The story of the game with the Buffalo offense is how Daboll plans on attacking the Patriots defense, which matches up very well against the Bills passing game.
Buffalo is throwing the ball like it’s going out of style while trying to attack downfield, which is exactly what Bill Belichick wants them to do against the strength of his team, the secondary.
In the first four games of the season, defenses tested Josh Allen’s inconsistent deep ball accuracy. Although Allen’s arm is strong, he was extremely inaccurate over 20 yards in his first two seasons.
Whether it was the addition of Stefon Diggs, improvements by Allen, or both, the Bills quarterback was reading the field well and delivering dimes downfield to his playmakers.
Josh Allen passing DVOA
Weeks 1-4: 44.5%
Weeks 5-7: -2.8%
Has he shown regression in the last three weeks? Yes.
Is that still an improvement over his first two seasons? Also yes.
— Aaron Schatz 🏈 (@FO_ASchatz) October 27, 2020
In their last three games, defenses started to mix in more two-high safety coverages to limit big plays, and Allen’s numbers are regressing. Not back to his first two seasons, but nowhere near as prolific a pace as the first month of the year, which wasn’t sustainable.
The blueprint on Allen is to play two-high shells, mostly quarters or cover-two, forcing him to remain patient and hopefully get the Bills QB to be too aggressive in spots.
For the most part, Allen has done a nice job of taking what the defense is giving him, but it goes against his nature to avoid the deep ball and forces the Bills into longer drives where he needs to string consecutive accurate throws together.
With Allen forcing some downfield throws, it’s also leading to more turnover worthy plays, and the numbers reflect Allen’s struggles against two-high shells over his last three games.
Here, Daboll tries to give Allen a two-high beater by high-lowing the cover-two cornerback at the bottom of the screen. The outside corner recognizes the flat-corner route combination and, combined with pressure in Allen’s face, nearly intercepts the ball.
In this play, old friend Malcolm Butler did pick off Allen. Butler disguises his drop just enough that Allen thinks he’s going to jump the underneath route. Instead, Butler drops into the void along the sideline, and it’s an interception.
Daboll started to call more RPOs and two-high beaters to give Allen answers, but the Bills QB is still trying to figure out the balance between being aggressive and taking what’s there.
Another way the Patriots will likely try to confuse Allen when they go to single-high shells is by using post-snap coverage rotations.
Although he’s improving as a processor, there are still times where Allen isn’t seeing safety rotations and fails to account for zone-droppers.
In this play, the Titans show a two-high shell before the snap that Allen likely assumes is quarters. The defense then inserts a safety into the box as a strong hook defender. Allen doesn’t account for the slot corner dropping into the flat and throws the comebacker anyway, and it’s nearly picked.
The Pats mostly played single-high with different post-snap rotations in Allen’s first four games against Belichick. New England won’t play the entire game in two-high shells.
BILLS RUNNING GAME/MOTION
As we mentioned earlier, it would behoove the Bills to test New England’s run defense and adjustments to motion after the 49ers’ success last week.
Buffalo’s most successful rushing game-plans featured gap runs with pullers like the Patriots, and they do use motion or shifts on 52 percent of their plays (13th in the NFL).
The Bills use gadget receiver Isaiah McKenzie and John Brown on different types of motions already, but they might be even more motion heavy this week until the Patriots prove they can stop it.
Again, if Buffalo tries to spread it out and air it out on the Patriots defense, they’re playing directly into Belichick’s hands; game-plan specific wrinkles are a must for the Bills this week.
1. Patriots/Bills vs. the weather: the forecast is calling for 40-plus mile an hour winds and a chance of precipitation for Sunday in what could be a muddy affair. If the storm hits during the game, ignore everything I just wrote about throwing the ball downfield. At that point, it becomes a run game, ball security and tackling game, which could also favor the Pats.
2. Patriots interior OL vs. Ed Oliver: neither Oliver nor the rest of the Bills defensive tackle depth chart is productive against the run, but he’s an explosive player that can wreck plays. Andrews, Thuney, and Mason are the back-bone of New England’s entire operation. To get back in the win column, they need their interior three to play like studs.
3. Stephon Gilmore vs. Stefon Diggs: a heavy-weight matchup at its finest, Gilmore and Diggs previously went one-on-one two seasons ago when Diggs was in Minnesota. Gilmore covered Diggs on 85 percent of his routes, allowing only four catches for 31 yards back in 2018. Diggs is particularly dangerous at the top of his routes, so Gilmore smothered him at the line of scrimmage to avoid those situations. Expect a similar approach.
4. JC Jackson/Jon Jones/Jason McCourty vs. John Brown: the other half of Buffalo’s prolific wide receiver duo, Brown is another guy you want to smother at the line. As Gilmore found out last season, if you allow Brown to get upfield, his speed and vertical breaks are tough to handle. Expect the Patriots to provide inside/deep crosser help on Brown and Diggs as well.
5. Jakobi Meyers vs. Taron Johnson: Johnson catches a break with Julian Edelman’s injury, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s struggling this season. Buffalo’s nickel corner has allowed the sixth-most yards into his coverage among all defenders in the NFL this season. His decline is another reason why the Bills defense is regressing.
STATS PROVIDED BY PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS AND SPORTS INFO SOLUTIONS