Since last year's playoff exit, the Patriots have been building towards Thursday night's showdown against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium.
With the script flipped from the Brady era, the Bills have won four out of the last five games in the series, with a wind-aided victory in Buffalo as the lone victory for the Patriots dating back to 2020.
However, as much as this will serve as a measuring, particularly for New England's defense which was dominated in back-to-back games by Josh Allen to end their 2021 season, the Patriots need to find a way to win a game on Thursday. Following a disappointing loss in Minnesota on Thanksgiving night, you can forget about litmus tests and measuring sticks; just win, baby.
There's a good chance that the Patriots will need to break a two-year trend of failing to win high-scoring games with Mac Jones at quarterback (0-8 when the opponent scores 25+ points). The defense needs to be more competitive, but expecting them to hold Allen and the Bills offense completely in check is unrealistic.
|Stat||Patriots vs. Bills||Patriots vs. All Other Teams|
|Points Per Game||21.0||26.1|
|Passing Yards Per Game||172.9||251.4|
New England's offense has mostly struggled against the Bills since head coach Sean McDermott's arrival in Buffalo, averaging 21.0 points with a 72.9 passer rating in 11 contests. The Patriots need to make winning plays and close out a game against a premier opponent with a strong fourth quarter, which they couldn't do last week on the road vs. the Vikings.
Here's a five-step plan and key matchups for the Patriots in a must-win game against the Bills:
1. Two-High, Two-High, and More Two-High Coverages for the Patriots Defense
Seeing the Bills for the first time will tell us if Bill Belichick's defense is any closer to defending Buffalo than last season.
Due to injuries and COVID absences, the Pats defense was banged up for the Wild Card rout in Buffalo last January. But New England fielded its healthiest group in a 33-21 regular-season loss at Gillette Stadium in Week 16, 2021.
The Patriots defense struggled to get off the field in that one, too, and have made notable changes. In particular, the Pats have tried to get more athletic at linebacker to keep up with the Bills, and offseason changes at cornerback give them a different look this time around.
Buffalo also has a slightly different approach as new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey is taking over for former OC Brian Daboll, who is now the head coach of the New York Giants.
|Stat (via PFF)||Two-High Coverages||Single-High Coverages|
|Passing Yards Per Attempt||6.8||7.9|
|Avg. Target Depth||9.3||10|
The biggest change with Dorsey calling plays is that Allen has been under center more and running play-action off those under-center drop-backs. The under-center reps, which account for 25% of his pass attempts (13.9% in 2021), have mostly taken the place of Daboll's RPO package. Although they've seen an increase in split-safety structures regardless of where the QB is at the snap, the formula against the Bills is to play two-high safeties to force Allen to be patient and take shorter completions.
Allen has the sixth-most pass attempts in the league against cover-two or quarters, which isn't surprising since they have a tremendous vertical passing attack. But they're seeing it a lot more on early downs to combat the deep shots off play-action, forcing Allen to check the ball down.
The Bills star quarterback also leads the NFL in interceptions because, quite frankly, he'll sometimes get greedy against these structures.
For example, Allen's game-ending interception that gave the Vikings an upset win a few weeks ago came against quarters coverage in the high red zone. Allen sees the inside receiver occupying the two middle-of-the-field safeties and thinks he has the outside corner leveraged with Gabriel Davis's route. However, Patrick Peterson undercuts the pattern.
As great as Allen is, his arm strength can sometimes work against him because he thinks he can fit the ball into any passing window. Buffalo has struggled with turnovers in the red zone, and Allen has gotten impatient at times hunting for chunk plays.
Although the Patriots defense can't be passive, and we'll get to that in a second, they need to play a game of chicken with Allen and see who flinches first.
2. To Slay the Dragon, the Patriots Defense Must Win the Battle in the Trenches
The backend needs to live with giving up yards underneath while baiting Allen into over-aggressive mistakes, but the pass rush is a different story.
As we remember, allowing Allen to operate from clean pockets or extend plays under pressure is a death sentence. He'll carve you up in structure (hello, Isaiah McKenzie crossers) or is arguably more dangerous out of structure in street ball mode.
When Allen has air space in the pocket to extend plays, he's lethal as an improviser, which is demoralizing for the defense after it correctly covers the initial play call.
New England cannot allow him time for second-reaction plays and has to make Allen beat them with a quick, on-schedule release.
With that in mind, the Patriots have found out the hard way that rushing simply to contain Allen is not enough; they need a designed rush plan to pressure him into quick decisions and mistakes, as Allen does have 11 turnover-worthy plays while under pressure this season (tied for second-most in NFL).
One way the Patriots can do that is by calling their replacement blitzes, where a defender drops off the line into the zone structure while a back-seven blitzer adds to the rush to overload the offensive line. By falling into cover-two zones, these blitzes can force Allen to throw the ball quickly underneath the defense, which is a win for the defense over the deep passes or extended plays.
The other effective rush plan for New England could be their five-man package, where they unleash their four best pass-rushers with linebacker Mack Wilson serving as a quarterback spy. The Pats can orchestrate these rushes so that Wilson can anticipate where Allen might try to escape, allowing Judon and company the freedom to pin their ears back.
In the Week 16 matchup a year ago, Allen had all day to operate and run around with an average time to throw of 3.22 seconds. The Patriots need a different, more aggressive rush plan this season. The quarterback is the most dangerous player on the field, so the defense needs to get the ball out of his hands.
3. This is Why the Patriots Invested in Safeties, Making it Their Deepest Position Group
When an opponent has your number, it's time to try something drastically different to change the tide.
Last week, the Patriots defense had issues in zone coverage out of their base and 3-3-5 nickel formations because the Vikings wisely picked on their linebackers in middle-of-the-field coverage. Buffalo had a similar approach in the matchups a year ago against nickel packages, attacking Ja'Whaun Bentley and Dont'a Hightower in space.
To combat that strategy, the Patriots ought to think outside the box to get more speed and coverage ability on the field. With that in mind, the Pats loaded up with hybrid safeties for this exact matchup, and it's time to utilize their depth.
From this perspective, using three-safety dime packages or even finding ways to get all four safeties on the field is the right approach. With Devin McCourty (FS), Kyle Dugger (SS), and Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers at the linebacker level, the Pats are faster and can cover more ground in zone schemes to mix it in effectively with man coverage.
If there's a weakness in the Bills offense, it's their offensive line and traditional running game. Buffalo is 17th in rush DVOA, and that's primarily Allen creating yards on scrambles. The Pats should trust their defensive line to stop the run, play out of two-high shells, and get their athletes on the field.
The Bills could counter this approach with their designed quarterback run game featuring Allen as the primary ball carrier. Buffalo uses these packages situationally, most of which utilize blocking schemes with pullers to get him downhill. Buffalo will also allow Allen to check into runs in certain situations. Above, the Bills spread the field, motion the back out of the backfield to take all the defenders out of the box, and then run QB power for a long touchdown.
If the Patriots roll with lighter personnel, they'll need to be ready for this adjustment from Dorsey. But that will probably mean they're holding their own, as the Bills only go to designed runs when they need them.
4. Patriots Offense Needs to Throw a Few Wrinkles at the Bills Defense
Moving over to the offense, the Bills defense is still the third-best unit by DVOA in the league despite injuries keeping their veteran studs out of the lineup.
However, the Bills have stayed afloat with a significantly improved pass rush that now will be without star Von Miller (knee) for this game. Along with Miller's absence, Buffalo's secondary has more holes than in the past due to Micah Hyde's season-ending injury and a revolving door at corner. Pro Bowler Tre'Davious White is back. But the Bills have rotated Dane Jackson, rookie Christian Benford (now on IR), first-rounder Kaiir Elam, and veteran Xavier Rhodes, searching for consistency at corner.
Revisiting the tape from the final two matchups in the 2021 season, the Bills defense played man coverage on 42% of the Patriots passing plays in Week 16, which was a noticeable increase from their season man coverage rate of 31%. Quarterback Mac Jones was 3-for-11 for 34 yards and an interception against man coverage.
Buffalo made noticeable adjustments to their core coverages to take away New England's base plays. For example, the Patriots love this double dig concept with the backside vertical route. Here, the Vikings deep safeties jump the in-breaking routes, leaving DeVante Parker in single coverage, so Mac throws the vertical for a big play.
Buffalo anticipated the passing concept when the Pats played the Bills and had their corners play man coverage with inside leverage. By playing inside leverage, the Bills took away the dig routes without leveraging them with the deep safeties, so the half-field safety on the backside could stay over the top of the vertical route.
New England needs to build counters to Buffalo covering the middle of the field, such as option routes designed to give receivers a choice to break out and run away from leverage. They could also leak the backs and tight ends into the flats where there's space underneath the coverage.
The Bills are having some trouble covering running backs this season, ranking 20th in DVOA on passes to RBs in 2022, and have the third-highest missed tackle rate (13.7%). If the Pats can run the coverage upfield with their staple route combinations, Rhamondre Stevenson could have a big day with catch-and-run plays underneath the defense.
Based on the Lions film, Detroit attacked the weak link in the Bills secondary by using their inside leverage against them off play-action. Lions quarterback Jared Goff finished with ten completions for 128 yards (9.1 average) and two touchdowns off 14 play-action attempts.
The Patriots had issues running play-action effectively against the Buffalo defense in the past because their plays were designed to attack a strength in the Bills coverage at the second level, where Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano are two of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL.
Detroit stayed away from the Buffalo linebacker duo by running deeper play-action drop-back concepts, as we've seen the Patriots use this season, where it becomes a downfield game with two receivers running routes against three defensive backs.
The Lions also did everything they could to get top receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown isolated on Bills corner Dane Jackson, the weak link. In this play, St. Brown's condensed split forces Jackson to play him with inside leverage, so the Lions wideout runs a deep out off play-action with the vertical route occupying the boundary corner and deep safety. Look familiar? It should.
With the McDermott-led Bills defense only seeing the McDaniels playbook to this point, some of the newer elements to the Patriots offense under Matt Patricia could come in handy.
5. Continue to Expose the Bills Weakness Against Gap Scheme Runs
Buffalo's run defense has significantly improved this season due to an emphasis in the offseason to bring in stouter interior defensive linemen, but there are still flashes of issues on the film.
The Patriots are historically successful on the ground against the Bills utilizing their downhill gap schemes against the Bills 4-3 over (G) nickel package, Buffalo's base defense. Over the years, they've exposed the open gaps with G lead, counter, and ISO (FB) lead schemes.
This season, the Bills still allow 5.6 yards (tenth-most) and +0.03 expected points added per attempt against run-blocking schemes that feature pulling blockers. Furthermore, the Jets succeeded with their trap and counter schemes out of the gun against Buffalo in Week 9.
Although they'll need an efficient passing attack to keep up with Buffalo on the scoreboard, the Patriots can still attack this Bills defense on the ground, as we've seen in prior matchups.
Key Matchups in Patriots-Bills
- Pats EDGE Matthew Judon vs. Bills RT Spencer Brown: if the Pats are going to win this game, they need their pass rush to take over, and that will only happen if Judon is back to his DPOY candidate self. Brown has been one of the league's worst pass-blocking tackles this season. Judon needs to take advantage.
- Pats LB Mack Wilson vs. Bills QB Josh Allen: as we mentioned earlier, New England can't let Allen take the game over with his legs, so in comes Wilson to spy the Bills QB. The Pats can help Wilson out by funneling Allen in a pre-planned direction.
- Pats LG Cole Strange vs. Bills DT Ed Oliver: tough matchup for the rookie, and if it's backup James Ferentz at center, him as well. Oliver plays a lot like Quinnen Williams, with a powerful first step and the quickness to get around blocks. With Von Miller out, he's their number-one guy now in the pass rush.
- Pats CB Myles Bryant vs. Bills WR Isaiah McKenzie: yup, this again. The Pats might put Bryant out of his misery if it gets bad. But it'll probably be the matchup to start. New England should avoid getting overzealous with the coverage on Stefon Diggs. Buffalo is too deep at receiver to pay so much attention to one guy.