The Patriots and the Bills will play a football game in Buffalo this weekend under unprecedented conditions following a tragic injury Monday night in Cincinnati.
If your thoughts are with Bills safety Damar Hamlin and not on football, it's understandable. Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after making a tackle on Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, needed to be resuscitated twice, and is now in critical condition. My usual game preview breaking down a football game is secondary to Hamlin's well-being, and writing about schematic chess matches feels trivial in light of Hamlin's situation.
The Bills understandably are in a challenging head space right now. There's no way of knowing how players, coaches, and team personnel will handle playing a football game after Monday's events.
Having said that, the NFL is proceeding with Week 18 as scheduled, meaning the Patriots and Bills will square off in a pseudo-playoff game for the visitors at 1 pm ET on Sunday. When there's football, it's my job to break down the matchup, so that's what we will do here.
The path forward from a football standpoint for New England is simple: with a win, they'll punch their ticket to the 2022 postseason as the seventh seed in the AFC playoffs. If the Patriots lose, there are scenarios where they could clinch a playoff berth, but they'll need a lot of help.
Standing in their way is the thousand-pound gorilla that is Bills superstar quarterback Josh Allen, who has dominated Bill Belichick's defense with wins in five of his last six contests against the Patriots, including a 24-10 victory over New England in Foxboro on December 1. In Week 13, the Pats defense held its ground better than it did in the final two matchups in the 2021 season, forcing Buffalo to punt three times and causing a turnover.
However, Allen and the Bills were still in complete control. Buffalo's quarterback averaged +0.33 expected points added per drop-back, the Bills were 9-of-15 on third down and 3-of-3 in the red zone, and New England's offense hit a breaking point in another lackluster performance.
Although the key to Sunday's game is building on the stuff that worked against the Bills offense, the Patriots aren't going to beat Buffalo without their own offense taking a different approach. During the game, quarterback Mac Jones's displeasure with the quick-game concepts being called by unofficial offensive play-caller Matt Patricia made it onto the broadcast, and Jones acknowledged that he was urging the coaching staff to dial up deeper passes after the game.
"I just kind of let my emotions get to me," Jones said. "But we were playing from behind, and what I said was about throwing it deeper in the short game. I've got to execute that part better. It's the short game we kept going to, which was working, but I felt like we needed chunk plays."
Putting anyone's feelings about Jones's approach aside, his message that they weren't going to beat the Bills with short passes wasn't wrong. If the Pats are finally going to knock off the gorilla without the aid of gale-force winds, they need to go down with their quarterback slinging the rock. That's not to say attempt all deep passes. But you're not going to keep up with Buffalo relying on the short game, and there's something to be said for going down swinging rather than playing as conservatively as they did on offense in the Thursday night meeting last month.
Here is a three-step plan and key matchups as the Patriots attempt to earn a playoff spot in Buffalo on Sunday:
1. Putting Together a Winning Formula vs. Bills Offense Based on What is Working
Starting with a plan from a coverage standpoint, the Patriots are relying on zone schemes more frequently down the stretch, especially against elite passing attacks.
New England's zone tendencies are partially driven by injuries to their top cornerbacks. Since their last matchup with Buffalo in Week 13, the Pats have played zone coverage on 83.9 percent of their passing plays. Furthermore, over that span, they've had an uptick in split-safety structures, such as cover-two and quarters (41.6%).
The idea is to cover the deep part of the field against big plays, forcing offenses to march down the field rather than get it all in one play. Although it leads to high-efficiency numbers on check downs, offenses need long scoring drives, giving the defense more opportunities to hunt for turnovers with eyes on the quarterback.
Along with protecting against Buffalo's explosive offense, New England needs a better strategy for Bills top wideout Stefon Diggs. Diggs continues to kill the Patriots, averaging 93 receiving yards with five touchdowns in five regular season games against Belichick's defense since joining the Bills.
|Stat (via PFF)||Allen to Diggs||Allen to Other Receivers|
As much as every defensive game plan versus the Bills starts with Allen, Diggs is the engine of their passing game and is arguably just as important. If you force Allen to beat you by throwing to his other receivers, his passing efficiency drops. Plus, Diggs is often the first read in his progression, so making him move on in his reads gets him to hold the ball.
Here's an example of an effective coverage the Patriots used against Diggs, Davante Adams, and other elite receivers called three-cloud. At the bottom of the screen, safety Jabrill Peppers plays Diggs on the line of scrimmage to get a good jam on the Bills wideout and then is backed up by Jonathan Jones, who catches Diggs downfield in the deep third. The extra attention on Diggs forces Allen to hold the ball and look elsewhere for a target, and the extended time allows Josh Uche to register a strip sack.
Another coverage structure the Patriots could use to play out of a two-high shell was in their game plan against Tyreek Hill and the Dolphins last week.
This time, it's cover-two, but essentially the Pats are in the football equivalent of a box-and-one. At the top of the screen, Jonathan Jones plays Hill as if it's a two-man coverage, but the rest of the defense is in zone. With safety help over the top, Jones protects the inside and underneath routes, blanketing Hill into the sideline, and Bridgewater throws incomplete. Also, notice how physical the Pats are with Miami's receivers.
The Patriots are having more success recently covering elite receivers. With another matchup on the docket with Diggs, they can hopefully use the working formula to slow down the Bills offense.
2. Aggressive Pass Rush Strategy Key to Patriots Slowing Down Bills QB Josh Allen
The old adage is to prioritize containment over pressure when you face uber-mobile quarterbacks who destroy defenses on extended plays.
"It's rushing, but pass rushing with discipline and awareness. If you miss him and he gets loose, that's going to be a big problem. You just can't stand there and watch him throw. That's not the answer, but being undisciplined and just running around back there, letting him run, that's not the answer either. He's a hard guy to defend. We'll have to try to balance aggressive rush with vision and an element of containment on him," head coach Bill Belichick told me last season.
Although being aware schematically and execution-wise of Allen's mobility is important, over the last three matchups, the Patriots have done too much standing and watching him throw. Last time around, Allen was only under pressure on 29.7% of his drop-backs, and the only Patriot to log multiple pressures was Uche with five (two sacks, QB hit, two hurries).
Besides getting shredded by Allen because he wasn't feeling the heat, the Patriots defense isn't built to withstand a high-powered passing attack without a potent pass rush. New England's defensive front is their driving force, and they can't be playing with one hand tied behind their backs because they're too focused on Allen's legs.
With that in mind, we propose the Patriots use their simulated pressure schemes to maintain their numbers in coverage while still stressing Buffalo's offensive line to pressure the QB.
For example, Belichick could lean on "drop-8" schemes where both edge rushers drop into coverage rather than rush the passer, opening up the middle of the line of scrimmage for a blitzing off-ball linebacker to get easy access into the backfield. The Pats are in an eight-man cover-two zone above, so they certainly have the bodies to cover all the pass routes but can still get home with a three-man rush.
This week, they may use more athletic players, such as safeties Jabrill Peppers or Kyle Dugger, to rush Allen rather than linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. Ultimately, the Patriots cannot allow Allen to turn this into playground football. But they can't afford to limit the effectiveness of their pass rush because they overcompensate for his mobility.
3. How Can the Patriots Open Up the Passing Game Against the Bills Defense?
As we mentioned in the introduction, the Patriots conservative game plan offensively led to frustrations for the quarterback and receivers that boiled over after the Thursday night loss.
There were good elements of their previous game plan against the Bills defense, and that was the first time we saw CB Marcus Jones play offense in his rookie season. But the quick-game concepts on early downs produced a lousy 37% success rate and put New England behind.
New England must build on their downfield passing success in the second matchup. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has shown the ability to make high-level throws while receivers are getting open to create opportunities, and the offensive line is holding up well enough. It's time for the coaching staff to trust the passing offense to win a game.
The Bills lived in zone coverage, which is their typical approach, in the first meeting earlier this season, so here are a few zone beaters with which the Patriots have had success recently.
Here, the Patriots are running their middle-read/dagger concept, where Kendrick Bourne runs a vertical route through the zone coverage. The route combination aims to clear out the middle of the zone for the "dagger" or deep dig route. But, this time, the Bengals are in a two-man coverage, and Jones takes a shot to Bourne on the seam splitter for a chunk play.
New England also flooded the deep part of Cincinnati's zone structures with four vertical routes. In this example, the two vertical routes create a two-on-one matchup against the half-field safety to Jones's right. Mac makes the throw to the sideline, where there's less chance of the safety impacting the throw, and completes a great pass for another explosive.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has six big-time throws and has completed six passes over 20-plus yards in the last two games. Again, they've shown they can open up the passing game.
- Pats CB Jonathan Jones vs. Bills WR Stefon Diggs: Diggs getting loose for seven catches, 92 yards, and a touchdown in the first meeting set the tone for the entire game when Buffalo had the ball. Jones could use some more help on the Bills stud wideout, but it's also on the Pats CB to hold his own against one of the NFL's best.
- Pats G Cole Strange, Mike Onwenu vs. Bills DT Ed Oliver: another key to this game for the Patriots is blocking the Bills pass rush more consistently than it did a month ago. Mac was under pressure on 39.5% of his drop-backs, conditions that he cannot overcome, and it all starts with having a clean pocket to step into, which was a problem at times against Miami in Week 17.
- Pats DT Christian Barmore vs. Bills G Rodger Saffold: the only Pats pass-rusher who consistently got to Allen in Week 13 was Uche. It's a challenging game for edge rushers since they have to keep Allen in the pocket, but getting a strong interior push from Barmore would help close off any exit lanes for Allen.