Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as the Buffalo Bills will face the New England Patriots. Here’s what you should know:
PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE BILLS IN AN OLD SCHOOL WAY
Over the years the New England Patriots have changed their identity on offense numerous times. Having featured a power-running team centered around Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in the early 2000s, a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and an attack revolving around Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, head coach Bill Belichick has done it all with fantastic results.
For the better part of 20 years, the triggerman behind this attack was future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed last season to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was replaced by former league MVP Cam Newton. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels adapted to Newton’s presence on the roster by applying more designed runs to take advantage of the veteran’s mobility, including read-options, RPOs (run-pass options) and QB sweeps, counters and power plays. The results, however, were mixed, prompting the Patriots to draft Mac Jones from Alabama.
Jones, a Nick Saban protégé, drew comparisons to Matt Ryan and Chad Pennington coming out of college. While not boasting elite physical tools like am strength, like those two veterans Jones’ game is based off timing and rhythm, and his accuracy and intelligence have been exceptional for a rookie as he finished his rookie season eighth among all quarterbacks in completion percentage. His play has helped keep drives alive by completing passes to receivers who have mostly executed screens, outs and option routes.
New England’s underappreciated offensive line is made up of Isaiah Winn (who is out this week), Ted Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Trent Brown. The man usually running behind them is Damien Harris, who along with backup Rhamondre Stevenson, brings physicality and downhill ability with speed and operates well with power-blocking schemes like power, toss-crack sweep, counters, traps and iso leads, and McDaniels will occasionally throw in runs with “wham” blocks” to counterattack aggressive run defenses. Harris has been dealing with a hamstring issue lately, but his production on the ground in 2021 was very good as he finished the year tied for second with Arizona’s James Conner in rushing touchdowns with 15.
They, along with fullback Jakob Johnson, do a lot of damage on the ground – so much so to the point that the Patriots are one of the league leaders in rushing attempts (and mostly from formations under center, and not out of the shotgun). In fact, no team has used more 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) over the last five years than New England – forcing defenses to play more predictable coverages, and they will also liberally use an extra offensive tackle for added blocking prowess.
The Patriots’ passing game is built around concepts, formations and motioning to dictate favorable matchups for their wideouts (check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here: http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/). They typically ask Jones to get the ball out of his hands quickly with defined reads and play-action – which combined with their power running game makes their attack reminiscent of the Pats’ offense utilized between 2001-06. Their best pass-catchers are veterans Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, and Jakobi Meyers has become the prototypical shifty Patriot slot receiver. Unfortunately for Belichick and company, this current group of targets doesn’t possess much speed to take the top off defenses vertically.
Tailback James White, who excels in the screen game, is out for the season with a knee injury and taking his place in running routes out of the backfield is career-special teamer Brandon Bolden. Tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith bring different strengths to the table – while Henry is a red zone target (and finished 2021 tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns among tight ends with nine), Smith is versatile and can align anywhere in the formation. He also frequently goes in motion and even gets the ball on jet sweeps from time to time.
As solid as the Patriots’ offense has been, their biggest weakness for most of the season – save for their last few games – has been in the red zone leading to kicker Nick Folk being the NFL’s top scorer this season with 150 points and connecting on 36 of 39 field goals. But despite their struggles inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, New England was sixth among all teams in scoring.
NEW ENGLAND’S DEFENSE IS CONSTANTLY EVOLVING
Early in Belichick’s tenure in New England his defenses were versatile and unpredictable, with intelligent veterans carrying out his voluminous schemes. But it has done a complete about-face over the past decade.
According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “(Belichick’s) Patriots were known for being a certain defense one week and a totally different defense the next. They could run any coverage, play out of any structure – be it 4-3, 3-4 or a blend – and disguise pressures and post-snap rotations like none other.
“Belichick’s defense is, and has been for roughly 10 years, a simple bend-but-don’t-break unit….. They play a lot of straight man coverage, often with one safety deep and the other robbing over the middle. They blitz rarely….. even presnap disguises can be few and far between. When the Patriots do get aggressive is usually when the offense approaches scoring range. That’s the ‘don’t break’ part.”
Recently the Patriots have gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rushing six players with stunts and twists out of a “diamond” front when opposing offenses show a five-man protection scheme – often with man-coverage across the board and no deep safeties (also known as Cover Zero). It’s a highly aggressive scheme, but one that New England can usually pull off thanks to the talent in their secondary.
Having traded away former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore to the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots’ back end is now held down by heady veterans Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Myles Bryant and J.C. Jackson. Jackson is the best of this bunch and has the second-most interceptions in the NFL and the most since 2018. He’s also particularly adept at press coverage.
These defensive backs typically line up with three cornerbacks and three safeties (also known as big nickel), with Phillips and Dugger near the line of scrimmage to help in run support and cover tight ends. However with Jones (their normal nickel corner) suffering a knee injury this preferred personnel group has changed, with Bryant taking the role as the third cornerback. Dugger and Mills are also dealing with various ailments (Mills is out) so Belichick and company may have to look for other options in coverage.
New England’s linebackers are led by the versatile Kyle Van Noy, athletic veteran Jamie Collins, the astute Dont’a Hightower and fourth-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley. Lawrence Guy, Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise remain from last year’s defensive line while Matthew Judon, Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore were imported over the offseason. Their arrivals have had great effect – Barmore and Godchaux can align at multiple spots along the front four and stop the run while Judon has expanded upon the potential he flashed in Baltimore to the tune of 12.5 sacks.
As per usual, Belichick’s charges have been productive. They were tied for third with Buffalo in takeaways, second in points allowed, fourth in yards surrendered and second against the pass. But they do have one glaring weakness – New England has surrendered the 22nd-most rushing yards this season. In fact, over the last month of the season the Patriots gave up the seventh-highest yards-per-carry average in the NFL (4.84), were 29th in sacks (four) and were 21st in points allowed per game (21.75) while losing three of their last four contests.
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS ELITE AGAIN BUT STRUGGLING AGAINST RUN
After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Jerry Hughes – has closely resembled the defenses from 2018-19 that were considered elite.
In 2021 the Bills decided to heavily invest in upgrading their pass rush. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, along with second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa and free agent signing Efe Obada have injected a shot of youth behind the aging Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is back to clog gaps against the run after opting out of 2020. Ditto Harrison Phillips having a breakout season two years after tearing a knee ligament.
These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo ranking first in pro football in total yards allowed, passing yards and touchdowns allowed, points allowed and third-down defense and third in takeaways and interceptions. It was the first time they had ever led the NFL in points allowed and the first time since 1999 they paced the league in total and passing yards given up. Their sack numbers, while not elite over the full season, have also picked up over the last month as they have notched 19 in their last four games and compiled nine quarterback takedowns last week – they most they’ve had in a game in 10 years.
A disturbing pattern emerged on Buffalo’s defense in 2021, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills were gashed on the ground by power running teams. The biggest issue there was poor tackling, a lack of gap integrity and a lack of versatile run-stuffers who can align along the defensive line. That is an issue that will need to be addressed quickly.
Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s calling cards (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks).
The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six. They mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays in 2020, the most in the league and nearly 100 percent of their snaps since Week Six against Tennessee – although they did use a third linebacker on 28 snaps against New England a few weeks ago.
A seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup occurred when White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, tore his ACL against the New Orleans Saints and ending his season. His replacement is second-year man Dane Jackson, who has flashed some ability when given the chance but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage gone, will McDermott and Frazier lean on zone more from Jackson, Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson than they ever have? Or will they use more man coverages against New England as they did in Week 16? That remains to be seen.
What also remains to be seen is how Mac Jones will fare against Buffalo’s stout defense. Not only will it be the first time a rookie quarterback has faced the Bills in the playoffs, but first-year signal callers have traditionally struggled against McDermott and company – as evidenced by them allowing a completion percentage of 48 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of one to six in 2021 (since 2017 they’ve surrendered a ratio of five:20).
BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE BUT NOT PERFECT
Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of gifted wide receivers, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s elite offenses for the first time since the K-Gun was running roughshod over the league 30 years ago. Allen – last season’s runner-up for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player – set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 202 (and broke his own completion record this year along with the attempts mark).
Allen’s improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become one of the most feared attacks in pro football, and that success continued into 2021 as the Bills averaged 28.4 points a game, the third-best best mark in the NFL. Allen was also seventh and eighth in the league in passing touchdowns and yards, respectively.
His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards a year ago, is an exceptional route runner who excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Emmanuel Sanders and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with nine touchdowns, which tied him for first among all tight ends with Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews and Hunter Henry and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.
The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Ryan Bates, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown (Ike Boettger, now out with a torn Achilles tendon, Jon Feliciano and Cody Ford have also gotten playing time this year). This unit held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone-read and run-pass options, pin-and-pull concepts, traps, counters and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary (who brings shiftiness to the table), Zack Moss (power) and Matt Breida (speed and route running).
But the story was different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they were iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection. Against Jacksonville in Week Nine the Jaguars sacked Allen four times, hit him eight times and pressured him 17 times, tying his season high from Week One against Pittsburgh. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set out to change that a week later against the Jets and it worked – Allen lined up under center more with fullback Reggie Gilliam on the field for 15 offensive snaps and tight ends Knox and Tommy Sweeney saw more action too, which resulted in more play-action and running plays, thus putting less stress on the line.
After having similar issues against the Colts, the approach against New York carried over into New Orleans. The Bills had 32 rushing attempts to 28 passes, but the ground game once again sputtered against New England on December 6 with their running backs averaging just 3.14 yards a carry. The ground game was ignored again against Tampa as Singletary and Breida combined for just seven carries.
In their last four games Buffalo tried to establish some resemblance of a running game and got good results. After recording 119 yards on 27 carries against Carolina, the Bills continued to have success against New England three weeks ago with 114 yards on the ground and compiled a season-high 233 rushing yards on 44 attempts versus Atlanta. With Singletary notching a career-high 110 yards on 23 carries, it was just the third time Allen had a running back put up 100 rushing yards or more in a game in his career (Singletary also did it in 2019 against the Denver Broncos and Frank Gore the same year against the Pats). With 170 yards against the Jets, the Bills have had the second-best running game in football over the last month.
Allen has also thrown 12 picks in his last eight outings. Turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only three times since then have the Bills had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween, at New England and in Week 18 vs. New York). But in addition to their newfound running success, other recent bright spots have been their red zone efficiency – after starting the season near the bottom of the NFL in that category, they’ve scored on nearly two-thirds of their trips inside the 20-yard line in their last nine games, one of the best marks in pro football – and in protecting Allen, as he hasn’t been sacked since their matchup against the Panthers.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).
The Bills used multi-receiver sets so often last year that they lined up in “11” personnel on 71 percent of their offensive snaps and “10” personnel on 14 percent of their plays in the regular season. In 2020 they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL at the time – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Daboll also called for a passing play on 64 percent of their first downs, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more than Buffalo – and that rate has continued in 2021.
The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced in their six losses – has been to rarely blitz, lean on zone coverage with a lot of stunts from defensive lines with mixed fronts and late movement in secondaries before the snap – will the Patriots use a similar gameplan?
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 25 career games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in eight of his last 15 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 23-2.
- With two rushing scores against Atlanta Allen is now tied for third in franchise history in rushing touchdowns with Cookie Gilchrist (31) and surpassed both Fred Jackson and Wray Carlton. He’s behind only Thurman Thomas (65) and O.J. Simpson (57).
- Only Steve Young has had more career games (eight) with 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards than Allen (five).
- More accolades for Allen – he became just the fifth signal caller ever to have 35 or more passing scores and 4,000 passing yards in consecutive seasons (along with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes) and he became the first player ever with 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns and 750 rushing yards in a season, according to Stathead.
- Since 2017 the Bills are 39-4 when leading at halftime.
- Hughes has moved past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks.
- All of Buffalo’s 11 wins in 2021 have been by 12 points or more, the most in franchise history and the first team to accomplish that feat since the 1999 Rams and 2007 Patriots. It’s also the first time they’ve had three straight winning seasons since 1991-93 and
- Each of the Bills’ last 18 victories dating back to last year have been by 10 points or more – an NFL record.
- Buffalo was first in the NFL in point differential at +194. They’re also the only team in the NFL to rank in the top four in both points scored and allowed.
- The Bills have had some bad luck in one-score games. They went 5-0 in one-score outings last year and were 0-5 in 2021 (only the 1985 San Francisco 49ers have also made the postseason with such a record, according to ESPN Stats & Info).
- Buffalo clinched the AFC East for the second straight year and secured a playoff berth for the fourth time in five years. It’s the first time since 1990-91 they’ve won the AFC East in consecutive years.
- Diggs and Knox have become just the second pair of teammates in team annals (Eric Moulds and Peerless Price being the others in 2002) to each have nine or more touchdowns in a season.
- Additionally, Diggs became the first Bills receiver with 100 or more catches in consecutive years and surpassed Wes Welker (2007-08) for the most receptions in a player’s first two years with a team. He also scored his 10th touchdown, the second-most in a season in Bills annals (Bill Brooks had 11 in 1995).
- Week 16 at New England was the sixth time in Bills history that they didn’t punt in a game, and they became the first team since the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers to not punt in consecutive outings.
- It was the first time in Bill Belichick’s career as a head coach, dating back to 1991, that his defense didn’t force an opposing team to punt. Also it was the first time the Bills had won in New England in back-to-back years since 1999 and 2000. No team had accomplished that feat since the 2005-06 Indianapolis Colts.
- Last season Buffalo swept the Jets for the first time in five years (Buffalo’s record within the AFC East since 2020 is 10-1) and recorded a second straight sweep this past Sunday. It was also their fourth straight win over Gang Green.
- The Bills allowed just 53 yards of offense to the Jets last weekend, the second-fewest they’ve ever given up, and four first downs – the fewest in a game in team history and the least by an NFL team since 2008. They also accumulated 424 yards of offense to the Jets’ 53 – the second-largest difference in yards in team history.
- Buffalo was second in the NFL in sacks allowed, but was pressured 246 times in 2021, the most in the league.
- Saturday’s playoff game will be the first between the league’s top two scoring defenses since Super Bowl XLV. It could also be the coldest game in franchise history as the low temperature is currently scheduled to be three degrees (Bills-Raiders in January of 1994 holds the record with zero at kickoff).
- Buffalo set multiple team records this year including highest point differential (+194), most first downs (398), most total yards (6,493) and average margin of victory (22.1 – the fourth highest since the merger).
- This will be the second playoff meeting between the Bills and Patriots, and the first since 1963.