Welcome to Week Eight of the 2020 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’ eighth game of the 2020 season will take place in Orchard Park as they face the New England Patriots. Here’s what you should know:
PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE BILLS IN A MYRIAD OF WAYS
Over the years, the New England Patriots have changed their identity on offense numerous times. Having featured a power-running team centered around Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in the early 2000s, a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and an offense revolving around tight end Rob Gronkowski, head coach Bill Belichick has done it all with fantastic results.
For the better part of the last 20 years, the triggerman behind this attack was six-time Super Bowl champion and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed over the offseason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was replaced by former league MVP Cam Newton.
The results have been mixed so far. The ex-Carolina Panther has thrown at least one interception in each of his last four starts, and his passer rating has gone down in every start since Week One. Newton’s accuracy, while never great, has been declining and he is also playing slower, as if he is still getting used to playing in the team’s scheme. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has adapted to Newton’s presence on the roster, however, by applying more designed runs to take advantage of the 10-year veteran’s mobility, including read-options, RPOs (run-pass options) and QB sweeps, counters and power plays.
New England’s underappreciated offensive line is made up of Isaiah Winn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu, who is filling in for Marcus Cannon who opted out of 2020 due to COVID-19. The man usually 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 (Michel also needs the scheme to work for him because he’s not very quick and can’t quite create yardage on his own). But Michel has missed the last several games due to injury, and the players filling in for him have been career backup Rex Burkhead and second-year back Damien Harris.
One such old-school running play that the Pats have had success with over the last couple of years is Power-O – a man-blocking play which features double-teams at the point of attack and a guard pulling towards the side of the play. They 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 Newton is under center. Michel rarely lines up in the shotgun).
Those power plays, plus the designed runs for Newton, have been successful for the most part. The Patriots are currently seventh in the NFL in rushing and fifth in yards-per-attempt.
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 now-retired fullback James Develin – who was an elite blocker and a serviceable receiver – and his replacement, Dan Vitale, also being out for the season because of the virus, McDaniels certainly has had his hands full in adapting to what he has at his disposal.
The Patriots’ passing game is built around formations and motioning to dictate favorable matchups for their wideouts – 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 and running back James White, who excels in the screen game.
Beyond Edelman and White, however, there is a dropoff in reliability. Last year’s first round draft pick, N’Keal Harry (who boasts some raw ability) has struggled to adapt to the Patriots’ complex system, backup Jakobi Myers hasn’t proven himself at the NFL level yet and veteran Marqise Lee opted out of the season. Tight end Ryan Izzo is a better inline blocker than a receiver and rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have been developing slowly this year. Edelman and Harry are both out for Sunday’s game due to various ailments.
NEW ENGLAND’S DEFENSE IS CONSTANTLY EVOLVING
Early in 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.”
Recently the Patriots have gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rushing six players with stunts and twists out of a “diamond” front 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 usually pull off thanks to the talent in their secondary.
The leader of their defensive backs is cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore, the former Buffalo Bill and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, was once a talented but inconsistent enigma while playing in Western New York. Prone to giving up big plays and constantly shuttling between defensive systems, Gilmore now has better coaching than he had during his time in Buffalo and his play has taken off because of it. But the bad news for New England is that Gilmore is out for Sunday’s game with a knee problem.
Heady veterans Devin and Jason McCourty, Adrian Phillips (the replacement for the opted-out Patrick Chung and free agent departure Duron Harmon), Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson (who is particularly good at covering tight ends) also hold down the fort on the back end. Linebacker has seen the most change in the Patriots’ defense in 2020 with the versatile Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts bolting for Miami in the spring, athletic veteran Jamie Collins signing with Detroit along with Harmon and nose tackle Danny Shelton, and Dont’a Hightower opted out. They have been replaced by Shilique Calhoun, Anfernee Jennings and Ja’Whaun Bentley. John Simon, Lawrence Guy, Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart make up their defensive line.
All of these changes to their front-seven has resulted in the Patriots giving up 132 yards per game against the run – sixth-worst in the NFL as of this writing.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE REBOUNDED LAST WEEK
Over the last two years the Bills’ defense had become one of pro football’s elite units. Led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Ed Oliver and Jerry Hughes – and supplemented this year by the free agent signings of Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, A.J. Klein and Josh Norman – last year’s defense ranked third overall in the NFL. Additionally, they were 10th against the run, fourth against the pass, seventh-best on third down, 10th in sack percentage, 10th in interception rate, second in points allowed and 12th in sacks.
But at various times throughout this season, Buffalo’s defense had struggled to stop both the run and pass. Granted, the league as a whole has seen defensive play decline in 2020, but given the amount of resources that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott poured into creating more depth along the team’s front seven last offseason, it was jarring to see the Bills take too many penalties – they took 11 against the New York Jets last week, the most they’ve had this season – and create little in terms of a pass rush or be unable to fill gaps against the run.
Luckily for Buffalo their outing against the Jets was a godsend. They allowed just 191 yards of total offense and only four yards in the second half, the least they had allowed in a second half since 2000. They also blitzed much more last week, especially with their defensive backs coming from the boundary and the slot – resulting in six sacks, two interceptions and pressure in Sam Darnold’s face all day long.
Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap (mainly Cover Two and Four) 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).
This unit is a bit banged up going into Week Eight. Cornerback Josh Norman is out for a second straight week with a hamstring issue and Butler, Hughes, Hyde, Jefferson and Milano have all dealt with various ailments. The good news is that last year’s starter at cornerback opposite White, Levi Wallace, will return after missing three straight games with an ankle problem.
BILLS’ OFFENSE SLOWED AFTER HOT START
Going into Week 11 last year, 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 moved from the field up to the press box 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 paid off for the most part, as Buffalo got significant contributions from players like Josh Allen, Devin Singletary, John Brown and Cole Beasley over the last seven weeks of the season. The Bills also increased their usage of 11 personnel, resulting in better production as evidenced by the team employing the NFL’s eighth-best rushing offense.
The proof was in the pudding. According to Warren Sharp, before week 11 Buffalo had utilized 11 personnel on 63 percent of their snaps. From then on, that number increased to 81 percent, the most in the league. This year, Buffalo has changed that approach slightly by using 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers) more often, but staying with 11 personnel as their base grouping.
However, the Bills’ inability to score points consistently – they averaged just 19.6 points per game – caught up to them in the playoffs against the Houston Texans. To address that problem, they went out and drafted running back Zack Moss – a solid back who runs with power – and traded for wide receiver Stefon Diggs from Minnesota, who is an exceptional route runner, excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. Those acquisitions initially resulted in the Bills scoring 30 points or more in three straight contests in 2020, the first time they had done that since 2011, and 27 points or more in four consecutive games – the first time they accomplished that feat since 2004.
But Weeks Five and Six were perhaps Buffalo’s worst outings of 2020. Allen made some poor choices in the passing game – most of his struggles seemed to come when defenses would rotate their zone coverages and change the depth of their safeties at the snap, muddying what Allen was seeing from the pocket (expect the Patriots to continue this trend, they have used more zone coverage against mobile quarterbacks this season). He also stayed on his first read for too long sometimes and would sometimes run if his first receiver in the progression wasn’t open.
There was also some upheaval on the Bills’ offensive line. With Cody Ford and Brian Winters having replaced now ex-Bill Quinton Spain and the previously-injured Jon Feliciano, Buffalo struggled to create any sort of push along the line of scrimmage – culminating into one of the NFL’s least effective rushing attacks. The results did change somewhat against New York last week, with Allen connecting on 30 of 43 passes for 307 yards and the ground game producing 126 rushing yards on 27 attempts. But converting yards into touchdowns was a struggle, as kicker Tyler Bass produced all of the team’s points on the afternoon. It remains to be seen if they will turn things around against New England.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system that’s built upon concepts involving option and crossing 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/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They have also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly this season.
Not to be outdone by their defensive counterparts, the Bills also have some players on offense who are dinged up going into their outing with the Patriots. Tight end Dawson Knox is out with a calf injury and remains on the COVID-19 list. Ford and Winters are both nursing aching knees, but Brown should return to help Buffalo in the vertical passing game and Feliciano will make his season debut after missing the first seven contests with a torn pectoral muscle. Lee Smith is also back after spending last week on the COVID-19 list.
- Allen could surpass Jack Kemp’s team mark of 13 career games with both a passing and rushing score.
- Buffalo last defeated the Patriots in October of 2016 when Jacoby Brissett filled in for an injured Tom Brady.
- Diggs currently leads all AFC wide receivers in receiving yards and is tied for first in receptions.
- Newton and Allen each have the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback over his first three seasons in NFL history, with 28 and 20, respectively.
- The Patriots have turned the ball over 14 times in six games so far (three fumbles, 11 interceptions) – the second-most in the NFL – and are on pace for 37 over a full season, which would be the most they have had since 1994.
- According to Chris Brown of buffalobills.com, the Patriots have had less than 14 turnovers in an entire season four times – 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2017.
- New England’s defense struggled last week in adjusting to the myriad of motions in the San Francisco 49ers’ offense. Will they be able to adapt to the amount of motion in the Bills’ offense?
- According to NFL Research, last week the Bills became the first NFL team to win a game with no touchdowns and not punting once since 1941 when Washington defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers 3-0.
- Should Allen throw for 300 yards and rush for 50 again in the same game, he would join Steve Young (eight), Michael Vick (four), Newton (three) and Russell Wilson (three) as the only quarterbacks in the last 70 years to have more than two such games in their careers (Allen has done so twice in the 2020 season alone).
- McDermott surpassed Wade Phillips for fourth in team history in career victories last week with his 30th win. Ahead of Phillips are Chuck Knox (37), Lou Saban (68) and Marv Levy (112).
- Could Buffalo play more coverages with a single-high safety like Cover One and Cover Three to stack the box against Newton and company and take away the running game? It may depend on the health of safety Micah Hyde, who is usually the safety playing the single-high role. If he’s out, all bets are off.
- Last week Bass tied the franchise’s single-game record for most field goals in one contest set by Steve Christie in October of 1996 – coincidentally, both outings were against the Jets. Bass also set the team record for most field goals attempted in a game.