The Patriots escaped Orchard Park with a 14-10 defeat of the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football. The win firmly planted the Patriots as the division leaders of the AFC East. A loss by the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday had given the Patriots the top spot in the conference before even taking the field Monday. Beating the Bills was a vehement declaration that the big bad Patriots are back.
For Bills fans, it’s a tale as old as time. A year after winning their first division title since the Jim Kelly-led 1995 season, the Bills were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender but now find themselves fighting for a playoff spot as we enter the final quarter of the season.
The Bills were supposed to run away with the division this year. Now they’re in second place, staring up at the Patriots again. For a team that had finally gotten over the hump in a division the Indianapolis Colts had won more recently before last year, the loss put them back in familiar territory.
As for the Pats, Mark Twain may have said it best; “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” A year after finishing third in the division, the Pats are again eyeing home field throughout the playoffs.
Big Time Play in Crunch Time
The game came down to a critical 4th and 14 at the two-minute mark of the 4th quarter. The bills had the ball at the New England 18-yard line with a chance to score and take the lead, or perhaps more damning, to get a first down and run the clock down before punching it in.
The Bills came out in 11 personnel with two wide receivers split left and wide receiver Stefon Diggs flanking tight end Dawson Knox to the right. The Patriots countered with nickel personnel. Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant were over the wideouts to the left while JC Jackson was manned up with Stefon Diggs. Devin McCourty was shaded over Dawson Know on the left flank and practice squad call up Sean Davis in the box covering the running back. The defensive call was a max blitz cover 0.
Explaining Cover 0
Cover 0 is often described as having no safety help, which is true, but in actuality, it means having no help anywhere. No low-hole dropper, no robber, just a defender against the offensive skill player. The play call is aggressive and only works if the defensive guys do their job. The situational awareness that was displayed on multiple layers proves how well-coached this Patriots team is.
In cover 0, a defensive back is taught to break on a wide receiver’s first move. When the receiver makes a cut, the defensive back is supposed to take a straight line to intercept that route. The purpose of calling cover 0 is to force the ball out quickly. The receiver’s first break should be the only break in the timing of the play. If McCourty allows Allen to escape, the play is extended, and the receivers will have the upper hand.
McCourty initially isn’t involved in the pressure scheme and only adds after Dawson Knox stays in to protect. When Knox chose to take on the blitzing Kyle Van No, it allowed McCourty a free run at Josh Allen. McCourty plays it beautifully by adding with intent but in control. The reason he does not add at full speed was on display just a few plays earlier. Allen is a slippery QB. Coming in out of control would give Allen a chance to escape to his right, which is his throwing side, and extend the play.
The second aspect of this play that shows the level of coaching the Pats defenders have received was in the defensive backs doing exactly the opposite of the traditional cover 0 rules. The DB’s aligned with depth and allowed the routes to declare. This comes from understanding the situation. 4th and 14. If a ball is going to be caught, it has to be in front of the defender and tackled before the sticks.
The Patriots’ defensive backs played this situation with a match zone technique. Meaning they kept their eyes on Allen while mirroring their assigned WR’s. This technique is what allowed slot corner Myles Bryant to peel from his assignment to break up the pass. This is next-level execution of a ballsy play call for the situation.
Pounding the Rock
The Patriots implemented a power-running scheme almost exclusively against the Bills. The Patriots ran the ball on 46 of 49 plays. At one point they ran 32 straight times. The Pats deployed six offensive linemen on 61% of their snaps and were under center 93% of the time. It was no secret what their plan was. And yet, the Bills couldn’t stop it. The Patriots rushed for 222 yards against seven- and eight-man boxes. 144 yards came after contact.
There is not a more demoralizing way to lose than to be unable to stop the obvious. There is nothing more demoralizing in football than to be clearly physically beaten by an opponent. The Patriots did just that. It was a “you know what we’re doing, now stop us” kind of game. And the Bills couldn’t.
The Patriots’ defense has been incredible the last few weeks. They haven’t allowed more than 13 points in five straight games, a franchise record. A week after being gashed by the Titans for 270 rushing yards, the Patriots’ defense held Bills’ running backs to 50 yards on 19 carries. At the center of that effort was offseason acquisition Davon Godchaux. Godchaux finished with a team-high ten tackles.
It’s rare for a defensive tackle to pace the team. Kyle Van Noy submitted another solid game with four QB pressures, a run stuff, and a batted pass on an early third down. As the weather gets colder, a dominating defense will mean more and more for this team’s chances.
Record Setting Night for Mac
Much was made after the game about a lack of faith from Belichick in his rookie QB, leading to calling only three pass attempts. It shouldn’t be forgotten that against the defending world champs Belichick had his offense run it eight times while throwing it 42 times…in inclement weather. Belichick has his team humming along because everyone in the locker room has bought in. No ego is bigger than the team. Sounds a lot like the teams of the first Patriots dynasty.
In a weird anecdote, the three passes were the fewest number of passes by a winning team in 30 years. The most passes by a winning team in that same timeframe was 70 attempts, thrown by Drew Bledsoe in week 11, 1994. Oddly, both statistical anomalies occurred in each QB’s ninth career win.
The lack of passing calls on Monday night, every other passing concept installed last week in practice is still usable the next time these teams meet. Each week the offensive game plan is formulated on how to attack certain defensive tendencies. Belichick already ran circles around McDermott and now has half the offensive game plan installed three weeks before the rematch.
Nobody is Perfect, Including the Hoodie
Belichick was nearly perfect against the Bills, he did make a questionable decision having N’Keal Harry in to receive punts. It backfired when the ball glanced off Harry’s facemask and the Bills recovered. The recovery set up the Bills’ only touchdown of the night. The Patriots had deployed Gunner Olszewski as the up-man in that situation, an interesting decision as the Bills were punting with the wind.
A simple flipping of position there may have provided a better outcome. Despite that error, the Patriots had the upper hand in the elements throughout the game. Interestingly, the Patriots practiced outside all week leading up the game. The Bills, off for a week and a half thanks to a Thursday/Monday split, took their Thursday practice indoors.
Things to Watch During the Bye
The Patriots are off this week before returning to take on the Indianapolis Colts. On the injury front, the Pats will be watching Damien Harris’s return from a strained hamstring and all will be waiting on news of Adrian Phillips’s knee. Kyle Dugger’s progress through COVID protocols also bears watching.
If you’re gonna be watching football this weekend without the Pats on, some rooting interests include Browns over the Ravens, Buccaneers over the Bills, a miracle Jaguars upset over the Titans, and a Raider victory over the Chiefs.