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TONY’S TAKE – FIVE THINGS TO KNOW FOR BILLS-PATRIOTS

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PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA – DECEMBER 15: Head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills looks on during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on December 15, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Welcome to Week 16 of the NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The Bills’ 15th game of the 2019 season will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough as they face the New England Patriots. Here’s what you should know:

CINCINNATI, OHIO – DECEMBER 15: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws a pass during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals in the game at Paul Brown Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE BILLS IN A MYRIAD OF WAYS

Tom Brady has played in a bunch of different types of offenses in his career. From a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to an offense revolving around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.

The Patriots’ passing game is built around formations and motioning to dictate favorable matchups for their inside weapons – check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here (http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/). Their premier pass-catchers are slot receiver extraordinaire Julian Edelman, who is still as quick and shifty as ever but questionable for Saturday’s contest with a knee issue and running back James White, who excels in the screen game.

Beyond Edelman and White, however, there is a dropoff in reliability. Although Philip Dorsett is solid in the deep and intermediate parts of the passing game, both shifty trade deadline pickup Mohamed Sanu and rookie N’Keal Harry (who has plenty of raw ability) have struggled to adapt to the Patriots’ complex system.

New England’s offensive line has been in a state of flux since Week One. Left tackle Isaiah Winn has recently returned from an injury and has been up and down, while center David Andrews is out for the season – leaving Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon from last year’s underappreciated unit. Running behind them is Sony Michel who operates well with a power-blocking scheme that is reminiscent of the Pats’ ground game utilized earlier this century (yet Michel’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry so far in 2019 – a sophomore slump due to the different faces blocking for him and needing the scheme to work for him because he’s not very quick).

One such old-school running play that the Pats have had success with over the last year or so is Power-O – a man-blocking play which features double-teams at the point of attack with a guard pulling towards the side of the play. The Pats also succeed with play-action off the same scheme. Pulling guards in play-action can influence linebackers’ coverage responsibilities, and New England could certainly apply it this week (side note – when Michel runs, it’s normally when Brady is under center. Michel rarely lines up next to Brady in the shotgun).

In fact, no team has used more 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) over the last four years than New England – forcing defenses to play more predictable coverages. Without the now-retired Gronkowski and injured fullback James Develin – who has emerged as an elite blocker and a serviceable receiver – offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels certainly has his hands full in adapting to what he has at his disposal.

With all of these changes within the last calendar year, it’s not surprising to see that Brady hasn’t played well in his last six outings – completing just 54 percent of his passes and averaging just 5.4 yards per attempt – and the Pats’ offense has averaged just 20 points a game after scoring at a clip of 31 per game in their first eight contests. Along with the previously mentioned shuffling on the offensive line and at wide receiver – making it hard to build continuity and trust with Brady – maybe, just maybe, age could also be catching up to Brady at 42.

Recently defenses have been able to put a clamp on New England’s passing game by utilizing double coverage on Edelman, lining up a cornerback or safety on White and taking their chances elsewhere. Could we see this trend continue on Saturday? Time will tell.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 08: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on against the Kansas City Chiefs in the game at Gillette Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

NEW ENGLAND’S LEAGUE-LEADING DEFENSE IS CONSTANTLY EVOLVING

Early in Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England his defenses were versatile and unpredictable, with intelligent veterans carrying out his voluminous schemes. But it has done a complete about-face over the past decade.

According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “(Belichick’s) Patriots were known for being a certain defense one week and a totally different defense the next. They could run any coverage, play out of any structure – be it 4-3, 3-4 or a blend – and disguise pressures and post-snap rotations like none other.

“Belichick’s defense is, and has been for roughly 10 years, a simple bend-but-don’t-break unit….. They play a lot of straight man coverage, often with one safety deep and the other robbing over the middle. They blitz rarely….. even presnap disguises can be few and far between. When the Patriots do get aggressive is usually when the offense approaches scoring range. That’s the ‘don’t break’ part.”

Lately the Patriots have gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rushing six players with stunts and twists when opposing offenses show a five-man protection scheme – often with man-coverage across the board and no deep safeties (also known as Cover Zero). It’s a highly aggressive scheme, but one that New England can pull off thanks to the talent in their secondary.

Leading that secondary is cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore, the former Buffalo Bill and the perceived favorite to be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, was once a talented but inconsistent defensive back while playing in Western New York. Once prone to giving up big plays and constantly shuttling between defensive systems, Gilmore is now surrounded by improved stability and better coaching than he had during his time in Buffalo and his play has taken off because of it.

Heady veterans Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Devin and Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson (who is particularly good at covering tight ends) also hold down the fort on the back end, while the versatile Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts and athletic veteran Jamie Collins are their starting linebackers. John Simon, Danny Shelton and Lawrence Guy make up their defensive line.

One matchup that bears watching is who will be responsible for taking away Cole Beasley. The Patriots’ normal nickel cornerback, Jonathan Jones, is out due to injury and the Bills love to use Beasley on crossing routes in order to beat man coverage – which is New England’s foundation on defense. Perhaps Belichick will be inclined to use more zone coverage if both Jones and Jason McCourty (who is also questionable) are ruled out.

PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 15: Levi Wallace #39 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with his defensive teammates after catching an interception in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 15, 2019 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE DOMINANT AS EVER

The Bills have had a top-three defense all season long and continued to show why it was highly regarded last week against Pittsburgh. Buffalo forced the Steelers to go three-and-out three times on Pittsburgh’s last six drives and intercepted quarterback Devlin Hodges on the other three drives.

Buffalo also forced five turnovers on the night, continuing a recent trend for the franchise. In their last five games, the team has piled up 20 sacks (they have had 42 all season) and have taken the ball away nine times in their last four games, increasing their total number of turnovers to 21 on the year.

Schematically, the Bills’ third-ranked defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap, but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott’s calling card (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers – for more info on McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s unit, please read: https://fromthe300level.com/2018/08/pressure-package-how-the-late-buddy-ryan-has-influenced-the-buffalo-bills-defenses-for-over-20-years/?fbclid=IwAR3iYcnJ5qvl8shWHkZJVNO50VJXPeaEx8k0-Rk1VWV_Qx2OEfsAn2NY_ys).

The Bills can create pressure with a four-man rush, which is generally the right idea in order to try and stop Brady and company. More often than not, the blueprint league-wide has been to eschew blitzing and play stifling coverage behind the rush – especially in press-man, in order to not allow New England’s wide receivers to use their leverage against defensive backs in their vaunted option routes. The best examples of this came in the Patriots’ three Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants (2007, ’11) and Philadelphia Eagles (2017), and in the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos. Buffalo also used more man coverage in their first matchup with New England back in September to resounding results (the Patriots converted just five times on 18 third down attempts) and could do it again on Saturday.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA – DECEMBER 15: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a pass during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the game at Heinz Field on December 15, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE NOT GREAT, BUT GETTING TIMELY SCORING

Going into Week 11 the Bills’ offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every major offensive category. To address this lack of production, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll decided to move from the field to the press box in order to call plays and get a bird’s eye view of what was happening on the field.

The decisions to go upstairs and use more of an up-tempo attack have paid off for the most part, as Buffalo has gotten significant contributions from players like Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, John Brown and Beasley over the last five weeks. The Bills also increased their usage of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), resulting in better production both through the air and on the ground as evidenced by the Bills now employing the NFL’s fifth-best rushing offense (however, the Bills did use more two tight end sets along with fullback Patrick DiMarco quite a bit last week – they might return to more 11 personnel looks with the Patriots banged up a bit at corner).

One area in which the Bills need to get better at is connecting on deep shots down the field. For all of Allen’s arm strength – and he has one of the strongest arms of any quarterback in the NFL – for some reason he’s continually overshot his receivers on long patterns throughout the season. Whether it’s a matter of not putting enough touch on his passes, the angle of his release or if it’s related to his footwork in the pocket, Allen needs to clean up this area of his game.

Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system that’s built upon concepts involving option routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie).

MUSINGS

  • The Bills’ defense has given up less than 400 yards of offense in 25 out of their last 26 games dating to last year, the best such mark in the NFL.
  • Last week Devin Singletary became the first Bills rookie to pile up five straight games of at least 75 yards from scrimmage since Marshawn Lynch accomplished that feat in 2007.
  • Allen has accounted for at least one touchdown in 20 straight games, which is tied for the longest streak in franchise history (Doug Flutie had a streak of 20 games between 1998 and ’99).
  • Additionally, Allen has 18 passing touchdowns and nine rushing scores, and could become the third quarterback in league annals to finish a season with 20+ passing touchdowns and 10+ rushing touchdowns (joining Cam Newtown and Kordell Stewart).
  • The Bills have clinched a playoff berth with two games remaining in the season for the first time since 1991.
  • Buffalo’s 10-4 record is the team’s best through 14 games since 1993. Their sixth road win of the season marked the first time they have reached that accomplishment also since 1993.
  • For the Bills to have a shot at winning their first AFC East title since 1995, Buffalo would need to win against both New England and the New York Jets next week, and the Patriots would need to lose this week and next week against the Miami Dolphins.
  • Tre’Davious White is tied for the league lead in interceptions along with Gilmore and is the first Bills defensive back to record six picks in a season since Jairus Byrd 10 years ago.
  • John Brown has become the first Bills wide receiver to notch 1,000 yards in less than 15 games since Lee Evans in 2006 and is also the first wideout since Stevie Johnson to record 70 catches in a season for Buffalo.
  • Brown and Beasley have had defined roles this season. Brown has 52 catches on first down this year – ninth most among NFL wideouts – and Beasley has 21 receptions on third down, which is tied for seventh-most in the league.
  • This will be the first matchup between the Bills and Patriots while both have double-digit wins since 1964.
  • Since McDermott took over the Bills, Brady’s numbers against the Bills have been pedestrian (61.4 completion percentage, three touchdowns and five interceptions). But the Bills have scored just 9.4 points per game in those matchups. Buffalo’s offense will need to step up in this matchup.

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