Let me preface this article by saying this; I am not overreacting at all to this game. The Patriots walked into an extremely hostile environment in Buffalo against a Bills team that is 100% a legitimate contender in 2019. The Bills defense has stars on all levels of their defense, they are easily a top five roster in the league right now. Scoring against this team wasn’t going to come easy by any means, and anyone who thought differently coming into this game was going to be upset by the outcome. It’s that plain and simple.
However, that doesn’t excuse the lousy performance that the New England offense put forth on Sunday. While the Buffalo defense had a lot to do with their lack of success, the Patriots certainly didn’t do themselves any favors.
Here is what went wrong for Tom Brady and the offense in Orchard Park on Sunday.
From watching film on this game, you could instantly tell that the Bills were well prepared for the Patriots offense. Unlike years past, they didn’t play scared and executed their gameplan to a tee.
New England’s rushing attack was the backbone of their Super Bowl run last year and their entire offense stems off success in the run game. Buffalo knew this and made it their mission to stifle them in that regard.
Stifle them they did, as the Patriots finished the game with 23 rushes for 74 yards (3.2 yards per carry). Realistically, that number would’ve been lower if it weren’t for a couple 8-10 yard runs by Sony Michel late in the fourth quarter.
Did the Patriots offensive line just forget how to block? Is Sony Michel just bad? While those are the conclusions the passive fan will draw from watching this game, those narratives couldn’t be more flawed. Like I already mentioned, the Bills had a fantastic game plan going in to thwart the run game.
The Bills have one of the best linebacking corps in the league anchored by Tremaine Edmunds (#49) and Matt Milano (#58). Buffalo knew if the defensive line could simply keep them free on the second level that they would make the right reads and react accordingly. The way that Buffalo did this was by crashing inside, outside, and all over the place with their defensive line to screw up the blocking assignments of the Patriot offensive line.
In this example, you can see the DE and DT on the left side of the center crash in between the B and A gaps to cause confusion with the C, RG, and RT on this Patriot offensive line. The disorientation of those three lineman cause them all to block only those two defenders. One of those lineman had the responsibility of working up to the second level to block Tremaine Edmunds (#49). As you can see, they weren’t able to do so and Edmunds reads the flow of the RB and stops this run for a short gain.
It wasn’t just stunts by the defensive lineman to keep LB’s free, but sometimes they even blitzed one LB to keep the other free. Here they send Matt Milano (#58) right at Ted Karras in the A-gap. The instant threat of Milano leads Karras to forget his assignment of working up to the second level to block Tremaine Edmunds. Had he just let Milano go and blocked Edmunds, this run could legitimately have broken for a TD. You see Joe Thuney pulling to the left with only one real threat to block, the CB already 15 yards out of the play. Unfortunately, Edmunds stays free and makes the tackle for a short gain.
In addition to scheming up great plays to counteract this Patriots rushing attack, there were certain plays where talent simply took over.
No stunts or blitzes here, just great read and react by all players on this defensive front. All game long the Bills trusted their secondary to win their one on one matchups on the outside which allowed the front seven to naturally attack when they read run. They weren’t necessarily scared of the play action as a result of trusting the CBs and Safeties behind them. They attack downhill instantaneously and the LBs get to the ball carrier before the offensive lineman have a chance to get off their blocks and take them on.
Despite all of this confusion and pure talent winning out, all wasn’t lost. Towards the end of the game the Patriots caught on to what the Bills were doing to stuff the run.
They knew that the DTs were stunting inside more often than not to confuse blocking assignments, so they simply let them come free and wham blocked them with TE Ryan Izzo. This way, Joe Thuney (LG) and Marshall Newhouse (LT) only had to worry about the two guys in front of them. With a little help from DE Jerry Hughes (#55) setting a pretty soft edge against Newhouse, Sony was able to bounce this outside for eight yards.
It did take the Patriots until the fourth quarter to truly figure out how to somewhat counter this run defense, but at least they figured it out. It was not an easy defense to adjust on the fly to by any means, and the Patriots showed resilience.
As unsatisfactory as the running game was, the passing game was even worse. It wasn’t just Tom Brady either, so I don’t want to hear a single word about how his age is catching up to him. It was a combination of everything that led this erroneous passing attack.
We might as well start with the only thing that wasn’t necessarily the Patriots fault. That would be plain and simply that the Bills secondary is just really, really good. Tre’Davious White, Levi Wallace, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer are all tremendously better than they get credit for. Perhaps because they play in Buffalo they haven’t received the Legion of Boom treatment by the media, but I can assure you they aren’t too far behind those guys in terms of talent and cohesiveness.
This third and ten rep shows just how “sticky” the Bills were in coverage all day long. No one is even remotely open and even with the offensive line giving Brady ample time to make a throw, he simply chucks it away because all the receivers are covered.
Like I have said before, the Bills did their homework and had a great game plan for New England in this matchup.
This is a staple play that the Patriots run against this specific coverage. In fact, they ran this play four times in a row on the only TD drive in Super Bowl 53 (hint: It worked). The CB at the bottom of the screen (Levi Wallace) knows what is coming and breaks on the ball before Brady even releases it to knock it out of the air. This wasn’t a game-changing play by any means as it was just a five yard hitch, but it showcases how prepared Buffalo was.
Next, I’m not one to speculate and draw conclusions that may not be true, but Tom Brady might actually be hurt. He missed practice time this week and showed up on the injury report (calf). Although Brady and the Patriots will always downplay whatever his prospective injuries may be, we saw the same thing happen last year in Tennessee. Brady hurt his knee and didn’t look the same for a couple of games down the stretch. I noticed a lot of the same things I saw in those games as I did Sunday. Not being comfortable in the pocket, rushing throws, and missing open receivers. It was not one of his best games, but he didn’t look the same.
This play outlines all of the aforementioned things perfectly. Brady has Josh Gordon (top of the screen) open on a post route behind Phillip Dorsett’s slant and a clean pocket. Despite this, he keeps his eyes on Dorsett the entire time and throws it into coverage for an incompletion. The Tom Brady I know would see the hook/curl defender pick up Dorsett as well as the boundary corner fall off Gordon and hit him deep. This version of Brady seemed like he was more interested in getting off the field without potentially worsening whatever injury he is nursing.
Remember, this is all speculation on my part but it does seem a little odd that in one week, Tom Brady shows up on injury report, the Patriots sign Cody Kessler (they normally don’t roster three QBs), and Brady plays timid and scared. I don’t know, but I think it is a little suspicious.
Additionally, the Patriots shot themselves in the foot too many times. Whether it was false starts, holding, or dropped passes, they couldn’t establish a rhythm. I counted four times where drives couldn’t even get started because within the first two plays one of those things happened. In a hostile environment like Orchard Park, self inflicted wounds cut even deeper. I’m sure Belichick has already chewed the team out for these mental errors, but it is something that they need to improve upon, especially on the road.
Lastly, in addition to everything mentioned before, Josh McDaniels didn’t do the offense any favors with his play calling. There were multiple times throughout this game where I scratched my head at what was being called.
It’s third and ten and the Patriots send all three wide receivers on deep go routes against what looks like a cover-4 defense. For those who don’t know, cover-4 is a defense made to prevent any and all deep balls. There were no patterns to make decisions hard for the defenders to cover, and I personally don’t think you want to test this Buffalo secondary deep. But hey, that’s just me.
The play calling overall was brutal, but the play calling on third down was what really got to me. The Patriots knew at this point in the game that play action wouldn’t work because the Bills defense was attacking no matter what. The play action just gave the Buffalo front more time to rush the passer. On this third and five play they call a play action bootleg. Brady turns around and sees Matt Milano right in his face and is forced to just throw the ball into the dirt. Even I could’ve seen that coming – there was no point in running play action in that situation.
Another thing that I noticed that left me disgruntled about the play calling was the use (or lack thereof) of man-beating route combinations. The Bills played a decent amount of zone in this game, but it was mainly man to man. The Patriots year in and year out are among the league best at running natural pick plays to free up a receiver, but I saw maybe two of those play calls all game. They trusted their receivers to win one on one against this elite Bills secondary a little too much. I don’t want to talk about Antonio Brown but having someone like him that can win one on one against any CB in the league would’ve helped in a game like this. But, I digress.
As I said, this game was a mix of the Bills’ game plan being miles better than than the Patriots’ and poor execution on New England’s behalf. Nonetheless, a win is a win. Despite being outplayed for the better part of the game, they still walked out of Buffalo undefeated.
Wins like this speak more to the Patriot way than those 35 point victories at home against the Jets. What I mean by that is not every game is going to be perfect on both ends of the ball. The offense was struggling, so the defense (and special teams, shoutout Matt Slater) picked up the slack for them. I’m not saying they deserved to lose this game, but they didn’t deserve to win either. Coming out victorious is a moral victory in and of itself.
Luckily for the offense, they have a chance to redeem themselves against a Redskins team that is among the worst in the league right now. This performance in Buffalo will be an afterthought if they can dominate Washington right from the jump.
PLEASE STOP OVERREACTING, THE PATRIOTS WILL BE FINE.
4-0, Let’s ride.