FOXBOROUGH — If you thought this year was different, well, the Patriots aren’t done dominating the AFC East just yet.
Behind a strong all-around effort, New England clinched its 11th consecutive division crown with a 24-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night.
The Patriots offense is starting to turn a corner at the right time with a level of continuity and execution that we haven’t seen from this group in months.
Tom Brady and company averaged 6.3 yards per play against a terrific Buffalo defense, the most the Bills have allowed in a game this season (excludes kneel-downs).
We’ve discussed the struggles with the New England attack in every possible way, and although the talking heads want to tell you its talent, it was always about coaching and execution.
Over the last few weeks, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is highlighting his teams’ strengths and putting players in positions to succeed, and the overall operation is cleaner.
There’s always room for improvement, a failed fourth-down and a fumble by Rex Burkhead stand out, but the Patriots can win games in January with the offense we saw on Saturday.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots improved to 12-3 on the season:
1. Tom Brady Reintroduces Himself After Recent Struggles
Amid reports of an ailing throwing elbow, the GOAT had one of his best performances of the season against a legit Bills defense.
Based on my in-game charting, Brady had only two off-target throws after a season-high eight inaccurate passes a week ago in Cincinnati, which led to a season-best 78.8 completion rate.
Brady’s 8.2 yards per pass attempt were his best since Week 5, and you have to go back to Week 2 to find a game where he posted a better passer rating than Saturday’s 111.0.
To find his rhythm, Brady turned to the short and intermediate passing game; all of his throws traveled less than 15 air yards, and he was five-for-five on passes in the ten to 15-yard range.
If you think there’s any dropoff in arm strength for the 42-year-old, here’s proof on tape that you’re full of bologna.
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On this second and 16 play, the Patriots have a crossing combination out of a “nub” formation to give Brady a hi-low read over the middle and try to flood the zone with the back releasing into the pattern (nub = tight ends at the end of the formation). On the opposite side, Brady has an out from the slot (Meyers), and a clear-out fade on the boundary (Sanu). Brady sees the defense in quarters coverage and knows that if Sanu takes the outside corner, Meyers will be open. However, Tre’Davious White reads the quarterback, comes off Sanu, and nearly steps in front of Meyers, but Brady has enough juice on the ball to complete the pass.
Along with arm strength, Brady continues to make magical moves in the pocket to buy time for his receivers to get open downfield.
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Here, the Pats have a similar hi-low crossing combination with Sanu and Watson. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn gets caught peeking inside, opening his edge to Bills pass rusher Jerry Hughes. Brady steps up and to his right to find a soft spot in the pocket, and somehow fits the pass into tight coverage for a positive play on first down.
Although Brady didn’t complete a pass of over 14 yards in the air, his ball placement and decision making were tremendous, leading to a bounce-back day for him and the offense.
2. Patriots’ Rushing Attack Finding Its Groove
In a similar sequence of events as a year ago, the Patriots seem to be finding their stride on the ground late in the season.
If you read my game plan this week, you would’ve expected an emphasis on running the football against a Buffalo run defense that was 19th in DVOA entering Week 16, and that’s what we got.
The Patriots ran the ball 35 times, averaging 4.1 yards per rush, and the balance was something the quarterback immediately pointed out in his postgame press conference.
“I think it was more balanced than we’ve been, and we ran the ball well and effectively against a really good defense. So, that’s always good,” Brady said.
Leading the way for the Pats running backs, who all ran well in this one, was a tremendous performance by the Pats offensive line both in the running game and in pass protection.
Brady wasn’t sacked for just the fourth time this season, and the Bills only managed four quarterback hits on the GOAT.
But the offensive line, and two-way fullback Elandon Roberts, did it’s best work in the running game, which was the centerpiece of the Pats’ game plan.
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Let’s start with a 12-yard run by Michel in the first quarter. The Pats run a lead draw play with Roberts and Julian Edelman making blocks to the tight end side of the formation. However, right guard Shaq Mason makes this play happen. Mason takes the nose tackle shaded over his inside shoulder and bulldozes him out of the middle of the defense. Mason’s block lets center Ted Karras climb to the linebacker, and Michel follows right behind his stud right guard. Then, bounces off two Bills defenders and picks up a few more yards.
Along with the draw play, the Patriots relied heavily on their lead isolation play, where the line creates a clear shot for Roberts on the linebacker in the hole.
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The Bills are in their 4-3 over G front. In the over G, the B-gap depending on how the defensive line positions itself is open on the line of scrimmage, making it a juicy point of attack for the offense. This time, the B-Gap on the strong side of the formation is open. As the play rolls, you’ll see the left side “fan” out the defenders on the line of scrimmage, creating a massive hole, and all Roberts has to do is kick out the linebacker. Roberts does his job, and Michel bounces off Matt Milano to pick up some yards after contact.
For the Patriots’ running backs, yards after contact were a theme of the night. Michel’s contact balance was on display on the first two runs, and Rex Burkhead put the Pats in the lead with some hard running as well.
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The Pats ran their wide zone scheme where Roberts takes the force defender and kicks him out of the edge so Burkhad can go to the inside. The blocking breaks down, but Burkhead runs through two Buffalo defenders to find the end zone, one of his best runs as a Patriot.
If the Patriots can run the ball like they did against Buffalo moving forward, the narrative about the offense should change significantly.
3. Julian Edelman’s Injuries Don’t Stop Him From Dusting Bills Secondary
We all know that Edelman is dealing with a pretty severe right knee injury, and then left the game briefly with a possible concussion, but those ailments didn’t slow him down on Saturday.
Edelman caught five of his six targets for 72 yards and ran some great routes, showing significantly better short-area quickness and explosiveness than last week.
On his third reception, it comes as no surprise to anyone that Brady went to the reigning Super Bowl MVP on third down.
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The technique and attention to detail on this route are tremendous and vintage Edelman. First, he’s going to run his route stem angled at the inside shoulder of Taron Johnson, to attack inside leverage by the Bills cornerback. He then goes into a hop-step at the top of his route, which gets Johnson to slide over to block an inside break. Edelman uses a swim move to get back on to Johnson’s outside hip, gets over the top of the Bills corner, and explodes out of his break to create plenty of separation for Brady to get him the ball. Teach tape and absolutely filthy.
Edelman’s 30-yard reception was one of three Brady throws that traveled 14 yards in the air and was also the second-longest play from scrimmage for the New England offense.
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On the play, the Patriots dialed up one of their most consistent routes in the playbook: an over route to Edelman off of play-action. The Pats bring Edelman in motion before the snap, and nobody follows, indicating zone coverage. Then, both Bills linebackers, Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, bite hard on the play fake, crashing into their gaps to defend the run. Edelman crosses the field right behind those backers, hauls in a wide-open grab, and then eludes the safety to tack on some extra yardage.
“That comes off the run,” Edelman said after the game of the play. “We ran the ball well and when you run the ball well those types of plays work very well. You’ve got to tip your hat to the line. The running backs were over here running their tails off.”
The way Edelman moved around against the Bengals was scary, but he looked like his usual self out there against the Bills.
4. Patriots Defense Gets Last Laugh Against Josh Allen, Bills Offense
On the defensive side of the ball for the Patriots, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen surprised me with how well he played on Saturday night, making several “wow” throws in defeat.
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Allen made two great throws to set up Buffalo touchdowns, and his 53-yard bomb was to John Brown for six was a tremendous display of arm strength and operating under pressure.
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However, it was an even better route by Brown. Brown beats Stephon Gilmore in man coverage with a terrific post-corner route, getting into Gilmore’s blindspot before breaking off on the post. Gilmore was expecting Devin McCourty to help on the post, but took the blame for the touchdown as he was in man coverage on Brown, and said Brown got him on a great route.
Although Allen made some impressive downfield passes, the Patriots defense got the last laugh, and disguising pressure and coverage against the young QB was a big reason why.
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On John Simon’s fourth-quarter sack, the Patriots ran a zone coverage that they refer to as their “tomahawk” zone. The Pats will put seven defenders near the line of scrimmage and take the safety out of the middle of the field, signaling to the quarterback a zero blitz. Then, they’ll drop out of it, with McCourty retreating to centerfield and the rest of the defense dropping into a cover-3 zone. The post-snap movement causes Allen to hold the ball, and Simon and Lawrence Guy eventually bring Allen down for a sack.
As they did in Super Bowl 53, the Patriots cycled through their “tomahawk” zone bluff and cover-zero pressure to give Allen different looks throughout the game.
Along with “tomahawk” and zero pressures, the Patriots also dialed up stunts up front with different forms of man coverage in the secondary.
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On JC Jackson’s second-quarter pass breakup, the Patriots ran a TEX stunt up front with Kyle Van Noy wrapping around the defensive tackle and “one cross” in the backend, cutting the crossing routes with the robber safety between the numbers. The throw from Allen is late and too far inside, giving Jackson a chance to drive the hands from out of phase to break up the pass. JC also had great technique and closing speed on the play.
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Dont’a Hightower’s sack also came on a stunt scheme. The Pats are in man free with the free safety playing centerfield, and Hightower comes around penetrators to get a free run at Allen.
The Patriots sacked Allen four times and registered seven quarterback hits, and although he made some plays, the boom-or-bust nature of Allen’s game led to a New England victory.
5. N’Keal Harry Is a Weapon, Growing More Comfortable Each Week
Although his stat line was once again modest (four touches, 39 yards), first-round pick N’Keal Harry continues to string together performances where the flashes of his talent are apparent.
Harry’s contact balance and comfortability as a ball carrier are superb, and McDaniels continues to find ways to get the ball in the six-foot-three wideout’s hands in space.
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Here’s a play that’s becoming a staple of N’Keal’s rookie season. The rookie motions into the backfield behind Brady with the back offset to the quarterback’s left. Then, Brady fakes the handoff to White, and Harry runs a little swing route in the opposite direction. This time, Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson gets in the passing lane initially, but Brady looks away and comes back to Harry to convert on third down.
Harry absolutely loves the play design and said it’s something that he has never done before but feels great when the play is called in the huddle.
Although the schemed plays are nice, Harry is also improving as a route runner and his timing with Brady.
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On second and long, Harry comes hard off the line and stops down on a hitch. Brady hits him quickly, and the rookie breaks a tackle to create a manageable situation on third down.
We’ll get to the final piece of the Harry puzzle later, but he continues to make positive strides and is emerging as a matchup and scheme-based weapon for the Patriots down the stretch.
6. Pats OC Josh McDaniels Has Near-Perfect Game Plan
For the second straight week, Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels deserves credit.
McDaniels saw a vaunted Buffalo pass defense that doesn’t surrender big plays, so they took what the defense gave them in the passing game, and designed a tremendous rushing attack.
Since we covered the running game, we’ll focus on some of McDaniel’s other wrinkles here, starting with one of his best schemed plays we’ve seen all season.
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On the play, Brady expertly pulls off an exaggerated fake on a jet motion to Mohamed Sanu. The fake draws the attention of the defense, and Burkhead lulls his man, Tremaine Edmunds, to sleep with a delayed release, and then breaks upfield on a wheel route. He’s wide open, and Brady hits him for the longest play from scrimmage in the game for the Patriots.
Along with misdirection, McDaniels also feasted on an aggressive pair of Bills linebackers with screen passes, and as we’ve shown, play action.
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This time, we’ll highlight a screen, where once again, jet motion is a factor. Harry comes in motion, and all eyes are on him as the Buffalo defense bumps over a gap in zone to cover Harry. With the defense flowing in the wrong direction, Brady comes back to Burkhead on the screen, and Rex has a trio of linemen out in front to pave the way for a big gain.
Over the last two weeks, McDaniels has incorporated Harry in several ways that fit his skillset perfectly, designed schemed or game plan wrinkles to feast on opponents’ weaknesses, and incorporate misdirection in the running game with wide receiver carries.
The Pats OC deserved blame when things weren’t going well, but he’s scheming his ass off as we head towards the playoffs.
7. Lawrence Guy Dominates Up Front For Patriots
One of the unsung heroes of the Patriots defense, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy quietly dominates his opponents with excellent technique and play recognition every week.
Known as a run-stuffer, Guy’s ability to play with proper pad level and leverage, especially against combos and doubles, is flat out ridiculous.
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Here, he takes on the combo block, and you see how he engages with his pads down to get underneath the blocks and tackles the running back for a minimal gain.
“It’s all about the game of leverage, whoever has the leverage is going to win; it doesn’t matter how strong you are,” Guy told me. “That’s just working technique, and we harp on technique. That’s one thing I know that I’m going to get a double, so I try to play with great leverage and extension.”
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On top of his run stops, Guy also added a sack with a sweet pin-pull rip move to get to Allen. He told me that the play before he read run, and it was a pass, but the Bills didn’t fool him on the next play.
The Patriots have a lot of underrated players on their team, but Guy might be the most underrated defender on the New England defense.
8. Mohamed Sanu Has a Rough Outing Against Bills
The Patriots traded a second-round pick at the deadline for Sanu, and although he’s a tremendous teammate and worker, the results aren’t showing on the field; he’s hurting the team.
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First, Sanu still isn’t on the same page as Brady when it comes to route running. Brady expects Sanu to curl his route outside with the corner playing off and with inside leverage. Instead, Sanu curls inside, and Brady’s throw goes to the wrong spot.
Sanu is also struggling to find the sticks on some of his routes, breaking them off too early.
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Before the half, Brady goes to him on third down against the blitz. The Bills telegraph the blitz off of the left side, so Brady knows he has Sanu on the speed out to the same side as the blitz. Sanu catches the ball but fails to get past the sticks to pick up the first down.
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Finally, Sanu’s missed block on a fourth-down sweep to N’Keal Harry caused a crucial turnover on downs. Sanu doesn’t even engage Bills corner Kevin Johnson, and Johnson goes right around him to blow up the play.
With only one game remaining in the regular season, Sanu is running out of time to make an impact on the 2019 team.
9. Personnel Groupings: the Fullback is Back for the Patriots
The game plan was to run the football, and the Patriots did so by leaning on Elandon Roberts. In all, Roberts played 21 snaps as a lead blocker, and as a result, we saw a heavy dosage of two-back sets for the Patriots. Some of those two-back packages were “pony” sets as well with two running backs on the field, but the 21-personnel grouping, which carried New England to a Super Bowl a year ago, was almost exclusively with Roberts. The 11-personnel packages with three wideouts on the field were a significant part of the offense still, but we are starting to see more unique formations with multiple backs and tight ends.
10. Play of the Game: N’Keal Harry’s 18-Yard End Around
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We’ll end things with N’Keal Harry carrying the football on a well-designed end around scheme by McDaniels. Brady hands the ball off to Burkhead, who flips to N’Keal, who gets a lead block from Brady on Tre’Davious White to spring Harry.
“I’m pretty poor at just about everything other than throwing the ball,” Brady said. “So I was trying to just get in his way. But it was a good, hard run by N’Keal and it was a good play in the game.”
As the GOAT said, Harry’s run is pretty great, as he runs through two tackles at or behind the line to turn the play into a first down.