ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — the Patriots won ugly defeating the Buffalo Bills 16-10 at New Era Field on Sunday afternoon.
In an unpredictable league, the Pats and Bills delivered an extremely predictable game.
All week we talked about Buffalo’s defense and how it would be difficult for a banged-up Patriots offense, and seven three and outs tied for a Belichick era high.
All week we talked about second-year Bills quarterback Josh Allen, and how despite his development, he wouldn’t be ready to face a Bill Belichick defense.
And on both fronts, that’s what we go. So yes, the struggles on offense were more extreme than maybe we expected, but the game followed an extremely predictable script.
Before the overreactions poor in, let’s credit the opponent, and remind ourselves that Buffalo defense is one of the best New England will face this season. We expected this, now let’s live with it.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots improved to a perfect 4-0 on the season:
1. Tom Brady and the Offense Struggle in Buffalo
In the last decade, Tom Brady has only thrown for 150 yards or less six times in a game that he went wire-to-wire.
Here’s another one: that was the most attempts (39) Brady has ever had in a game that he failed to eclipse 200 passing yards or throw a touchdown.
Statistically, this was one of Brady’s worst games of his career, and that’s ominous.
After the game, I asked Brady if he felt like the Bills did what the Patriots expected and the six-time Super Bowl responded with, “yeah, they’re really good. They got a good defense. We can certainly play better than we did.”
Buffalo didn’t throw anything at the Patriots that they didn’t prepare for, so how did they slow down Brady and company?
On initial viewing, the focus for the Bills defense whether it was man or zone was on underneath throws between the numbers, a good plan against Brady.
Here, Brady targeted Josh Gordon on a slant over the middle from the slot. The Pats QB gave a quick play fake to try and hold Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, but Edmunds still slid underneath Gordon’s route and nearly intercepted the pass.
Buffalo only blitzed Brady ten times, or 25 percent of his drop-backs, dropping their linebackers into underneath zones over the middle.
Although Brady struggled, he still had a few GOAT-like throws, especially on the Patriots’ lone offensive touchdown drive of the game.
The first throw came on a third and nine conversion to James White. The Patriots ran HOSS Y Juke out of an empty formation with White running a hitch against off-coverage. Brady eludes the rush stepping up in the pocket and moves the Buffalo zone defense with his eyes focusing right before he comes back left. Brady’s eyes pull the boundary corner away from White, and he throws complete to pick up the first down.
A few plays later, Brady connected with White again on a wheel route for 26 yards. The Patriots cleared out the side to get White isolated on Bills linebacker Matt Milano, and Brady dropped a perfect dime to the Pats running back to set up a crucial touchdown.
The Patriots need to be better offensively, and Brady shoulders his share of the blame, but even in a bad game, Brady still drops reminders of his greatness.
2. Patriots Defense Exposes Bills Quarterback Josh Allen
In the first three weeks of the season, second-year quarterback Josh Allen showed signs of improvement, he really did. He was throwing on time from the pocket with better accuracy.
Well, that was fun while it lasted, Buffalo. The Patriots defense exposed Allen, and the Bills QB could’ve spiked the ball into the ground 28 times and had a higher passer rating than 24.0.
“He didn’t take what the defense was giving him,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said.
During the week, we talked about Allen’s tendency to put the ball up for grabs once he leaves the pocket, and his last of three interceptions was a perfect example of that.
Patriots defensive end Michael Bennett beat Bills right guard Jon Feliciano forcing Allen to roll to his right, and he heaved up an awful ball that eventually landed in the hands of JC Jackson.
The Patriots also confused Allen by playing their “playground” defense to disguise their intentions before the snap, and the Bills quarterback was overwhelmed.
With the New England offense struggling, the Bills had their chances, but Allen prevented the Bills from winning this game.
3. Patriots Adjust Pass Rush When Josh Allen Exited Game
Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones is one of the best guys on the team to cover, but his hit on Allen was dangerous and shouldn’t happen.
With that said, the Patriots did an excellent job of pressuring Allen when he was out there, and they adjusted nicely to close out the game when Matt Barkley took over.
“The offense really was the same on what they game planned for,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told me. “Maybe a couple of adjustments but I think the players handled it well. They were on top of it and we kind of know what adjustments we need to make and basically on the pass rush.”
Adding more context, Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who had himself a day, said that the Patriots defense turned up the heat on the less mobile Barkley.
First, let’s start with Allen. The key with any mobile quarterback is to pressure up the middle, contain on the edge and don’t chase him around the field.
On Jamie Collins’s first-quarter sack, the Pats linebacker maintained his outside leverage to keep Allen inside the defense and waited out the Bills QB until he ran into the sack.
Later on, Pats defensive tackle Lawrence Guy put Bills center Mitch Morse on skates walking him back into Allen, and Van Noy finished off the sack from his tuckus.
Once Barkley got into the game, the Pats got more aggressive, running a simulated pressure to come up with the game-clinching sack.
They walked seven men up to the line of scrimmage as threats to rush the quarterback, and three back off. But all eyes are focused on the middle of the defense leaving Van Noy unblocked off the edge. Van Noy hits Barkley as he throws and the ball lands in the hands of Jamie Collins.
Every chance he gets, Belichick talks about how the team needs to prepare for every player on the active roster, so they’re ready for situations like we saw on Sunday.
4. Patriots Outside Running Game Isn’t Working
As bad as the entire rushing attack is right now, the Patriots continue to force Sony Michel off-tackle, and the results are terrible.
On 21 carries, Michel only has 36 yards on rushing attempts behind or outside of his offensive tackles. On runs between the guards, Michel is averaging 3.1 yards per rush.
Neither is good, but it’s becoming more and more evident that the wide zone concept that the Patriots like to run in the alley is not working at all with this group.
On this design, Michel is aiming to hit the outside leg of the tackle. In this case, the left tackle and tight end need to make a lane for him to get the edge and into the boundary. But the Patriots don’t have a tight end that can kick out the linebacker nor do they have the athleticism at left tackle to get to the outside. Everything about the play is too slow, and they need to throw it in the trash can.
In the fourth quarter, the Patriots had success rushing on the interior with fullback Jakob Johnson. The Patriots ran a power play with Mason pulling and Johnson leading through the hole to open a hole for Michel.
Less outside runs, more inside runs, and maybe the Patriots can get the ground game going.
5. Patriots Personnel Groupings: Return of 21-Personnel
With starting fullback James Develin on injured reserve, the Patriots put their 21-personnel grouping away in Week 3 with zero rushing attempts with a fullback on the field.
The Patriots brought the personnel grouping back this week with Jakob Johnson logging 18 snaps as the lead blocker, so the power running game might not be dead in that sense.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also utilized a six offensive linemen heavy package with a fullback, tight end, and only one receiver six times.
The Pats failed to get the running game going, but it wasn’t due to a lack of trying based on the personnel groupings. We’ll see if this team can rediscover its rhythm on the ground.
6. Patriots First and Second Down Offense the Real Issue
The box score will tell you that the Patriots were a putrid five-of-18 on third down against the Bills. However, the more significant issue was their struggles on first and second down.
The average third down for the Patriots was slightly over third and 8, and if you’re only gaining two yards per play on first and second down, the offense isn’t going to stay on the field.
The Patriots ran the ball 21 times on the first two downs for an average of 3.5 yards per rush and struggled even more throwing the ball averaging 2.0 yards per attempt.
Tom Brady and Julian Edelman can sometimes make up for those early-down struggles on the money down, but the Patriots were in third and long all day on Sunday.
7. Patriots Offensive Line Struggles in Buffalo
The legend himself, Dante Scarnecchia, has a lot of work to do with his offensive line. Yes, the Patriots have backups at left tackle and center, but the group needs to be better.
We’ve already discussed the running game, and it wasn’t much better in pass protection.
Brady wasn’t sacked because he gave up on plays to avoid getting blown up by the Buffalo defense, and some of the play-calling in the second half might’ve been because the Patriots couldn’t block anybody.
For example, many of the odd misdirection plays we saw in the fourth quarter are designed to move the pocket and slow down the pass rush. They didn’t work, but they were called in part because Brady was under siege when he was dropping straight back.
Last week, the offensive line was fine in pass protection. This week, it felt like a liability.
8. Bills Running Back Frank Gore Has a Day
The future Hall of Famer and 36-year-old turned back the clocks again with an excellent performance on Sunday afternoon (17 carries, 109 yards).
The Buffalo offensive line opened holes for Gore with a combination of their power running game featuring pullers and inside zone schemes that let Gore read the second level.
On his 41-yard gainer, the Bills ran one of those inside zone concepts. Gore’s read here is going to be linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley who’s scraping behind the line. When Bentley commits to the left, Gore hits the run to the right and gets a seal block from his tight end on Patrick Chung to get through the first level. Pats cornerback JC Jackson tries to shoulder Gore, a huge mistake against one of the sturdiest runners in NFL history, and Gore bounces right off of him into daylight. If Jackson wraps up, that’s the difference between an eight-yard run and a 41-yard scamper.
The Patriots missed Dont’a Hightower the most against the run, but luckily it didn’t cost them.
9. Bill Belichick Really Does Hate Analytics
On Friday, Belichick made headlines when he told me “less than zero” when I asked him how big a factor analytics were on his decision making.
NE decided to punt to BUF from the BUF 40 on 4th & 4 with 5:35 remaining in the 3rd while winning 13 to 10.
With a Surrender Index of 9.64, this punt ranks at the 96th percentile of cowardly punts of the 2019 season, and the 92nd percentile of all punts since 2009.
— Surrender Index (@surrender_index) September 29, 2019
Well, if Sunday was any indication, Belichick was telling the truth. The Pats coach opted to punt on fourth and four from the Buffalo 40-yard line and kicked a field goal from the Bills’ four-yard line. The Patriots won the game, but both decisions make the math nerds lose their minds.
Belichick backed up his words on Friday with his actions on Sunday.
10. Play of the Game: JC Jackson’s Blocked Punt, Matthew Slater Touchdown
The blocked punt that put the Patriots up 13-0 started on Wednesday.
“Just preparing on it all week. We were working on it in practice, and coach called, and I executed the right way,” Jackson said.
On the play, the Patriots sent an all-out rush at former Pats training camp invitee Corey Bojorquez. With ten rushers engaged, New England had two unblocked defenders with only eight Bills in to protect the punter. The Pats lined five rushers up to the right of the long snapper against only three blockers. Then, Adam Butler angled his rush into the long snapper after the snap forcing the personal protector to step up into the middle of the protection. With Butler occupying two blockers, including the personal protector, there was nobody left to block Jackson.
The Patriots players involved in the play tipped their caps to the coaching staff after they discovered a weakness in Buffalo’s protection.