Welcome to Week 13 of the 2021 NFL season. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The Bills’ 12th game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the New England Patriots. Here’s what you should know:

FOXBOROUGH, MA – NOVEMBER 28: New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) calls signals during a game between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans on November 28, 2021, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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 tight end 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 leading up to the NFL draft. 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 currently ranks third among all quarterbacks in completion percentage (70.3) and was named the AFC’s Offensive Rookie of the Month for November. His play has helped his team win six straight games by an average score of 35-10 and has kept 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, 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 will occasionally throw in runs with “wham” blocks” to counterattack aggressive run defenses.

They, along with fullback Jakob Johnson, can do a lot of damage on the ground – so much so to the point that the Patriots lead the league in rushing attempts going into Week 13 (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.

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 (Meyers will be in for a big test as the Bills have held slot wideouts to an average of about three catches and 27 yards a game in 2021). 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 strength to the table – while Henry is a red zone target (and leads all NFL tight ends in touchdowns with seven), 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 has been in the red zone. They’re just 24th in red zone touchdown efficiency this season (55.6 percent), leading to kicker Nick Folk being the NFL’s top scorer this season with 122 points and connecting on 31 of 34 field goals. He’s also made 50 straight kicks inside 50 yards since last year – the second-longest streak in league annals.

Despite their struggles inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, New England remains seventh among all teams in scoring and are fifth in third-down conversion percentage (45.4 percent). They’ve also scored on 50 percent of their offensive drives and held opponents to no points on 73 percent of their drives this season, according to Pro Football Focus – tops in the NFL.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 28: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on from the side line during the second half of the game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

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. However, over their last three games Belichick has had his charges execute more zone coverage than man – they’ve utilized it on more than 60 percent of their defensive snaps.

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, who is particularly good in the slot, has the second-most interceptions in the NFL and most since 2018. These defensive backs typically line up with three cornerback 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 suffering a knee injury and Dugger potentially being unavailable for Monday night due to COVID-19, this preferred personnel group could change.

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 while Judon has expanded upon the potential he flashed in Baltimore to the tune of 11.5 sacks.

As per usual, Belichick’s charges have been productive. They are third in red zone defense, have the most interceptions in the NFL, have allowed just three third-down conversions in their last 21 opportunities and haven’t given up a point in the second half in their last four outings. Additionally, the Patriots are first in points allowed, fourth in yards surrendered, third against the pass and tied for fifth in sacks.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – NOVEMBER 25: Trevor Siemian #15 of the New Orleans Saints is sacked by Ed Oliver #91 of the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter at Caesars Superdome on November 25, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN BUT DEALT A HUGE BLOW

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 – is back to resembling 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. These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo currently ranked first in pro football in total yards allowed and second in in passing yards allowed, points allowed, takeaways and interceptions (Poyer has five, most on the team and tied with Tennessee’s Kevin Byard for most among all safeties). They’re also sixth against the run.

In fact, their 25 takeaways in 11 games are the most they’ve had since notching 29 through nine contests in 1993 and should that number plus their success in allowing passing touchdowns continue to hold up, the Bills could become the first team since the 2003 New England Patriots and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both Super Bowl champions – to lead the league in both categories.

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, and in blitz rate. 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 on 100 percent of their snaps since Week Six against Tennessee.

After getting dominated in the trenches against Indianapolis the Bills’ front-six stepped up in a big way against New Orleans a week later. Players like three-technique tackle Ed Oliver and Addison showed outstanding quickness and good hand usage up front to beat the “wham” blocks that the Colts used to great success a week prior. They only allowed 1.8 yards per carry, the lowest by an opposing team with 25 or more rushing attempts since November 2003 against the Houston Texans (1.2).

However, a seismic change in Buffalo’s lineup will occur now that White, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, is done for the rest of the 2021 season with a torn ACL. 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? That remains to be seen.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – NOVEMBER 25: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a touchdown pass to Dawson Knox #88 of the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at Caesars Superdome on November 25, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE BUT NOT PERFECT

Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of talented 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 2020. His 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 has continued into 2021 as the Bills have averaged nearly 30 points a game, the second-best best mark in the NFL and Allen was third and seventh in the league in passing touchdowns and yards going into Week 13, respectively.

His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards a year ago (and is seventh and ninth, respectively, this year along with the seventh-most touchdowns) 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 seven touchdowns, which is tied with Henry for the most among all tight ends and surpassing Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano (who may be activated off injured reserve this week), Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams, and rookie Spencer Brown. This unit has held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts, draw plays 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 has been different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they have been 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 while Buffalo called for just 14 running plays. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set out to change that two weeks ago against New York, 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 used and running plays. After having similar issues against the Colts, that approach carried over into their matchup with New Orleans as they had 32 rushing attempts to 28 passes – the third time all year they’ve run more than passed, a stark contrast to their 61-39 pass to run ratio in 2021.

Additionally Allen has thrown seven picks in his last four outings. Turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only once since then have they had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween).

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).

In fact, 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 often than Buffalo.

Special teams have also been great for the Bills as kicker Tyler Bass has been exceptional. He’s missed just three field goals all season and is third in scoring with 94 points while McKenzie is fifth in kick return average. Coverage has also been exemplary as they are third in running down punts and ninth in kicks.

The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced in their four 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. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Pats attempt a similar gameplan? And could Daboll continue to use less shotgun and more offensive snaps under center with play-action and bootlegs to help both Allen and his beleaguered line? This bears watching.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – NOVEMBER 25: Dawson Knox #88 and Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills celebrate a touchdown with their team during the first quarter in the game against the New Orleans Saints at Caesars Superdome on November 25, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Allen has compiled 24 career games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in seven of his last nine outings. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 22-2.
  • Buffalo’s quarterback had the third-longest streak without throwing an interception in the red zone since 1991 (only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning had longer stretches of play with 242 and 217, respectively). That streak was snapped against New Orleans as he tossed the first red zone pick of his career against the Saints.
  • Allen joined Jim Kelly and Ryan Fitzpatrick as the only quarterbacks in Bills history with three straight 3,000 yard passing seasons. He also tied Kelly’s franchise standard with the most passing touchdowns through 11 games with 25.
  • With a completion percentage of 82.1 against New Orleans, Allen set a career-high. It’s the fourth-best by a Bill in one game. He also has 11 touchdowns in three Monday Night Football games and would tie Dan Marino for the most in his first four Monday Night starts with three more.
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 36-4 when leading at halftime.
  • Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Monday.
  • The Bills have posted 300 yards of total offense for the 21st straight game – a franchise record and the longest active streak in the NFL.
  • Buffalo has won seven games by 15 points or more this year, breaking a four-way tie with the 1966, 1990 and 2004 teams for the most in franchise history.
  • Each of the Bills’ last 14 victories have been by 10 points or more – the longest streak in the NFL since the 1998-99 Rams.
  • With their win over New Orleans Buffalo’s record following a loss since 2019 is now 10-2. The resulting winning percentage (.833) is second in the NFL in that span to only the Green Bay Packers.
  • McDermott and company haven’t lost back-to-back games this year but haven’t won two in a row since Weeks Four and Five.
  • It was Buffalo’s first win over the Saints since 1998 – they had lost their last five matchups to New Orleans.
  • This is the first of two crucial matchups between these two franchises as they’re jockeying for the AFC East crown. A win by New England would give them a two-game advantage and end Buffalo’s nine-game AFC East winning streak (the team record is 10) while a Bills win would vault them back into first place.
  • It will be the first primetime game at Highmark Stadium with fans in the seats since Week Eight of 2018 – coincidentally, also a Monday night game against New England. Buffalo also hasn’t won on a Monday night at home since 1994 against the Denver Broncos.
  • New England and Buffalo are the best two teams in the NFL in point differential at +146 and +144, respectively. In Buffalo’s case, +144 is the highest they’ve had through 11 games in franchise history.
  • According to Next Gen Stats, Buffalo had nine linemen play 25 percent of their defensive snaps against the Saints. It was the fifth time they’ve done so this season and the rest of the league combined has had just three such games.
  • The Bills have won seven games this year and their margins of victory have been by 35, 22, 40, 18, 15, 28 and 25 points. According to Stats by STATS, only two other teams have had their first seven victories come by 15 points or more – the 1999 St. Louis Rams and the 2007 Patriots.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics and From the 300 Level. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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