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Game Observations: Defense dominates in Buffalo

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Monday night in Buffalo is not for the faint of heart, and the Bills certainly came to play in prime time – at least on defense. The Bills frustrated New England for large portions of the evening, but in the end it was the solid play of the defense that allowed the Patriots to come away with the 25-6 victory.

The win improved the Patriots to 6-2 and allowed them to remain comfortably atop the AFC East standings. Here are some observations from New England’s sixth victory of the season.

-The Buffalo Bills offense entered Monday night’s game with just seven touchdowns in the first seven games. The Patriots defense made sure that number didn’t increase. Buffalo moved the ball at times but more often than not the much-maligned New England defense kept a lid on Derek Anderson & Co. The Bills finished the night with just a pair of field goals while the Patriots defense created a pair of key turnovers that led to 10 points, allowed only 333 yards, just 4 of 14 third downs and stopped both fourth downs. New England also sacked Anderson three times.

-While the defense put in a solid four quarters of work, there were a couple of key junctures that particularly stood out. All of them came in an uncomfortably tight game in the second half, the first with the Patriots leading 9-3 in the third quarter. Buffalo’s Micah Hyde returned a Ryan Allen punt 31 yards to the Patriots 35, giving the hosts a golden opportunity to take the lead with a short field. Instead Buffalo managed just 2 yards before Stephen Hauschka kicked a 51-yard field goal.

-The other two plays were equally important, the first coming when Kyle Van Noy came clean off the blind side and strip sacked Anderson for a key turnover. The Bills trailed just 9-6 late in the third quarter when Van Noy raced around left tackle Dion Dawkins untouched, knocking the ball away as Anderson threw. Patrick Chung recovered at the Buffalo 29, leading to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal that allowed the Patriots to regain momentum. Down the stretch the Bills still had life trailing 18-6, and they appeared to score their first touchdown on a pass to backup tight end Jason Croom. Replays overturned the play, however, and the Bills faced a third-and-10 from the Patriots 25. A false start penalty pushed Buffalo back, and Anderson promptly threw a pick to Devin McCourty, who raced down the left sideline 84 yards for an insurance touchdown. It was the first defensive touchdown of McCourty’s career (he took a kickoff to the house in 2012), and the first defensive score for New England in 40 games.

-Sometimes there are games when everything is a struggle, and one such occasion came Monday night in Buffalo for the Patriots offense. Nothing came easy for Tom Brady as they had to settle for five field goals before finally breaking free for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Despite the struggles, the Patriots maintained the lead throughout the game, thanks largely to the work of James White and Julian Edelman. That tandem dominated against an otherwise spirited Bills defense, combing for 211 yards of total offense. Both saw action as rushers and receivers and Buffalo had trouble containing them on a night when offense was otherwise tough to come by.

-Edelman had his best game of the season, catching nine passes for 104 yards on 10 targets while adding two rushes for 13 yards. He consistently found soft spots in the middle of the Bills zone coverages and Brady fed him early and often. White was equally dangerous, catching 10 balls for 79 yards on 13 targets while adding 15 yards on eight carries including a 1-yard touchdown.

-There was some buzz before the game surrounding wide receiver Josh Gordon. According to NFL Network, the receiver showed up late for the trip to Buffalo and was set to be disciplined by being held out of the early part of the game. That did not transpire, however, as Gordon was in the lineup on the first series of the night. With the trade deadline set for Tuesday, there were several reports during the weekend tying the Patriots to Denver wideout Demaryius Thomas. Whether Gordon was disciplined or not Monday night against the Bills, it’s possible Bill Belichick’s potential interest in Thomas was a sign the team is searching for insurance for Gordon down the road.

-Six of the game’s inactives were announced prior to the game as Marcus Cannon (concussion), Jacob Hollister (hamstring), Eric Rowe (groin), Brian Schwenke (foot), Geneo Grissom (ankle) and Sony Michel (knee) were all ruled out over the weekend. The final inactive was a bit of a surprise, though, as Dont’a Hightower was unable to go. The linebacker appeared on the injury report with a bad knee and was limited all week in practice. John Simon, who missed the last two games with a shoulder injury, returned and started in Hightower’s place.

-With Michel out of the lineup the Patriots went with just two true running backs with White and Kenjon Barner. I say “true” running backs because Cordarrelle Patterson lined up in the backfield on the first series, carrying for 6 yards on the first play of the night. His second carry didn’t go as well, though, as Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano broke into the backfield and took Patterson down for a 4-yard loss. Patterson remained as the lead back for the next series as well but was unable to pick up much ground. He finished the first half with four carries for 9 yards and wound up with just 38 yards on 10 carries for the game with 22 of those yards coming on one late carry.

-White and Barner also saw action on the Patriots first series, lining up together in the backfield on a second-and-14 after New England picked up a quick first down. Tom Brady tried to set up a misdirection screen, first looking to his left to White before faking and turning to his right, where Barner was leaking out of the backfield. The Bills defended the play well, however, and Brady was forced to throw the ball into the ground to prevent a negative play.

-White was once again impossible to cover as the Bills were chasing the scatback throughout the first half. He consistently found openings in the flat and caught eight passes for 60 yards before the break. Many of those catches were simple routes to the flat that the Bills linebackers either were late in coverage or not present at all, and Brady consistently put the ball in his hands.

-Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll opened the game with some creativity, using both LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory out of the Wildcat and also trying a flea flicker. The wrinkles worked in general as McCoy picked up 12 yards on his first carry and Ivory moved the chains with a 4-yard run out of a similar set where McCoy circled back for an option look. Later Derek Anderson handed to McCoy, who flipped it to Zay Jones before lateraling back to Anderson. Charles Clay had a step on Patrick Chung but Anderson’s pass was overthrown, which helped to stall the drive.

-After the initial drive where Buffalo moved into Patriots territory, the New England defense did a great job of keeping Buffalo in check for most of the first half. Trey Flowers was quite active, effectively beating a but block to knock down an attempted slant pass and also doing a nice job diving from the backside to make a tackle on McCoy for a 3-yard loss. Flowers continued his strong play in the second half, dropping McCoy for a 4-yard loss with the Bills at the Patriots 35 after a big punt return by Micah Hyde led to a Stephen Hauschka field goal.

-The Patriots offense moved the ball effectively between the 20s throughout the opening half but their inability to finish drives allowed the Bills to stay close. New England moved into the red zone just once but got close on three other occasions, only to settle for Stephen Gostkowski field goals all four times. Gostkowski connected from 25, 40 and 38 yards before closing out the half by pushing a 50-yarder wide right. As a result, Buffalo was down just 9-3 at intermission.

-One issue that ended those drives was the occasional pressure Buffalo created with mostly normal four-man rushes. Lorenzo Alexander gave LaAdrian Waddle problems. Alexander came up with a strip sack on second-and-goal but David Andrews was able to recover the fumble. Brady was unsteady in the pocket at times and appeared uncomfortable, which led to some errant throws.

-Brady’s win in Buffalo was the 15th of his career, which gives him a rather strange distinction. That total is the third most for any quarterback in Buffalo, including members of the Bills. Jim Kelly (59) and Joe Ferguson (46) are the only two Bills quarterbacks with more wins in Buffalo than Brady.

-Ted Karras was forced to replace Shaq Mason at right guard when Mason left with a calf injury in the third quarter. Mason did not return. Elandon Roberts also left the game in the third quarter with a groin injury but the linebacker was able to return.

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