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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF BILLS-PATRIOTS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to Week 13 of the 2022 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 2022 will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts as they face the New England Patriots. Here’s what you should know:

Foxborough, MA – November 20: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick chats with QB Mac Jones, while backup QB Bailey Zappe looks on. The Patriots beat the New York Jets, 10-3. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe 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 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 in 2020 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was replaced by former league MVP Cam Newton. Then-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 quarterback 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 were exceptional for a rookie as he finished his rookie season eighth among all quarterbacks in completion percentage last season.

His play helped keep drives alive by completing passes to receivers who have mostly executed screens, outs and option routes, but he has undergone a sophomore slump in 2022. Granted, Jones hasn’t thrown an interception in each of his last three starts, but he has made mistakes late in games – all seven picks he’s thrown this season have been in the fourth quarter, ranks 23rd in fourth quarter passer rating and has thrown for just six touchdowns in the fourth quarter (the fourth-worst mark in the NFL) while adjusting to new offensive play caller Matt Patricia. Patricia, for what it’s worth, is the Patriots’ former defensive coordinator and an ex-head coach of the Detroit Lions.

New England’s underappreciated offensive line is made up of Isaiah Winn (who is out this week), David Andrews, Mike Onwenu, Trent Brown and rookie Cole Strange. 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 New England will occasionally throw in runs with “wham” blocks” to counterattack aggressive run defenses. Harris’ 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 and has been effective this year but is also out for Thursday’s game with a thigh problem.

They do a lot of damage on the ground – so much so that the Patriots are typically 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 several 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.

New England’s best pass-catchers are veterans Nelson Agholor, DeVante Parker 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. 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.

The Patriots’ biggest weakness for most of the season has been in the red zone – they have the second-worst touchdown efficiency inside the 20-yard line and have had just three touchdowns in the red zone in their last five games. They’ve also struggled on third down, converting just 19 of their last 61 opportunities in their last four contests and have gotten off to slow starts with only 25 points in the first quarter all season (and didn’t score their first touchdown in the first quarter until last week at Minnesota).

Foxborough, MA – November 20: New England Patriots LB Matthew Judon sacks New York Jets QB Zach Wilson in the fouth quarter. The Patriots beat the Jets, 10-3. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via 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.”

The Patriots also like to apply 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). They have also recently been incorporating another single-high safety coverage more this year in Cover Three, with three deep defenders and four underneath defenders in zone coverage (dividing the deep areas into thirds) and used more two-deep safety looks in last year’s postseason.

New England’s back end is held down by heady veterans Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant. 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.

New England’s linebackers are led by athletic veteran Jamie Collins, former Lion Jahlani Tavai and Ja’Whaun Bentley along with contributors Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan. Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise remain from last year’s defensive line while Matthew Judon, Davon Godchaux, Carl Davis and Christian Barmore (currently injured) have been imported in recent years. 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 last season and 13 so far in 2022.

As per usual, Belichick’s charges have been productive. They are tied for fifth with Minnesota in takeaways, sixth in points allowed, ninth against both the run and pass and second in sacks.

DETROIT, MI – NOVEMBER 24: Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver (91) signals a safety after Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (not pictured) was tackled in the end zone during a regular season NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day on November 24, 2022 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


BUFFALO’S DEFENSE ELITE, BUT NOT WITHOUT WARTS

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 Ed Oliver – has more closely resembled the team’s defenses from 2018-19 over the last two years. That is, in being one of the league’s best.

In 2021 the Bills decided to invest in upgrading their pass rush. Gregory Rousseau, Carlos “Boogie” Basham and A.J. Epenesa injected a shot of youth behind the aging Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei returned after opting out of 2020. Harrison Phillips also had a breakout season two years after tearing a knee ligament.

Buffalo ranked first in pro football in total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, 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, also picked up as they notched 24 in their last six games (including playoffs).

An issue crept up throughout the 2021 season when it came to stopping 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.

To address this, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier decided that more youth and talent were needed along their defensive front. Out went Hughes, Addison, Lotulelei and Phillips, and in came talented run defenders like Da’Quan Jones and Tim Settle, and the return of former Bills like Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson were also welcomed additions.

But there was one more acquisition Buffalo needed. Beyond improving against the run, the Bills had lacked an elite pass rusher off the edge who could command double teams on a consistent basis since Mario Williams was employed. So to add the proverbial final piece to the team’s puzzle, general manager Brandon Beane signed future Hall of Famer Von Miller – who is still one of the NFL’s best sack artists at age 33. Miller adds to a group that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on nearly 31 percent of their defensive snaps last year – tops in the NFL – but he is out for the next four games with a sprained MCL.

Schematically the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap (they’re usually among the top units in the NFL in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six) but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their intentions keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges are the team’s calling cards.

Those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, yet the Bills didn’t blitz once against the Los Angeles Rams in Week One while racking up seven sacks (the fourth-most by a team without blitzing once since 2016). It was the third time a McDermott-coached team hasn’t sent more than four rushers at an opposing quarterback in a game – 2020 and ’21 against Kansas City were the other two times, and they’re the only team to have used this approach over the last seven years (they blitzed just three times against Tennessee in Week Two and rarely since – although they may need to more with Miller out).

The Bills 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 last season. They did use a third linebacker quite a bit against New England in their first matchup of 2021 and had nine snaps of dime against Kansas City in Week Seven this year – a matchup that saw Frazier’s unit rely on three-man rushes and Milano utilizing a spy technique on Patrick Mahomes.

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 last season. His replacement was Dane Jackson, who has flashed some ability when given the chance (and has gotten picked on by the opposition in recent weeks) but with White’s elite ability to play both man and zone coverage now back in the lineup, will McDermott and Frazier continue to lean on more zone from White, Jackson, Xavier Rhodes, rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford and slot corner Taron Johnson than they ever have? That remains to be seen, and bears watching even more with Hyde suffering a neck injury that will sideline him for the rest of 2022 and Poyer being in and out of the lineup.

Hyde and Poyer’s replacements, the rangy and physical Damar Hamlin and a combination of the savvy Jaquan Johnson, veteran Dean Marlowe and converted cornerback Cam Lewis have held their own for the most part. Their ability to fill in has helped the Bills rank 12th in yards per game allowed, tied for second in takeaways, tied for 12th in sacks, fifth in points surrendered per game and tied for second in interceptions. They’re also 19th against the pass, seventh versus the run and fourth in red zone defense.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN – NOVEMBER 24: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills talks with his teammates in a huddle against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on November 24, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)


BILLS’ OFFENSE AN UPPER-ECHELON UNIT, BUT FLAWED

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’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. Setting Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020 (and breaking his own completion record a year later along with the attempts mark), 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.

In the postseason against the Patriots Allen took his game to new heights. He helped his offense become the first in league history to not punt, kick a field goal or commit a turnover in a single game while scoring touchdowns on every drive. Allen also set career-highs in passing touchdowns (five – the first quarterback to throw that many against Bill Belichick in the playoffs and the most ever by a Bill) and completion percentage (84) while helping the Bills score 47 points, the second-most they’ve ever had in a playoff game (51 in the 1990 AFC title game). He also had more passing touchdowns than incompletions – the first signal caller to do so since Kurt Warner in 2009.

His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in catches and yards in 2020, 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 (who set a postseason record with four touchdowns against Kansas City) has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Jamison Crowder, speedy receivers Isaiah McKenzie and John Brown and rookie Khalil Shakir. Fourth-year tight end Dawson Knox also enjoyed 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, Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, Ryan Bates and Spencer Brown (Dawkins is out for Thursday night’s game). This crew along with fullback Reggie Gilliam 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 (whose game is based on shiftiness and power), James Cook and Duke Johnson (speed and route running) and veteran newcomer Nyheim Hines, who brings many of the same qualities to the table as Cook and Johnson along with special teams ability.

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. Despite the Bills having the second-best running game in football over the last month of the season, most of that production came from Allen’s legs and few came from their backs – leading to the ouster of offensive line coach Bobby Johnson and guards Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano and the importation of Saffold and veteran position coach Aaron Kromer.

Buffalo’s passing offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, run-pass options (especially in the red zone), 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 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’ multi-receiver sets are traditionally their offensive calling card. 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. Former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll – now the head coach of the New York Giants – 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 continued in 2021 with “11” personnel used on 71 percent of their plays (usage of “10” personnel dropped to seven percent).

So far it appears that new play-caller Ken Dorsey has expanded upon that with more diverse formations and personnel packaging with multiple tight end looks as well – which may be used more with Dawkins out to help in pass protection. It helped the Bills to a 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week One – the second-largest victory over a defending Super Bowl champion in Week One all-time (behind Denver downing Baltimore in 2013), converting nine of 10 third downs (tied for the best conversion rate in a game over the last 10 years) and not punting for the third time in four games.

That approach continued in victories against Tennessee, where Dorsey decided to utilize seven different personnel groupings to score 41 points, Baltimore – a game in which they trailed by 17 points at halftime but rallied to win 23-20, their largest comeback since a 34-31 win over New England in 2011 – Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Green Bay, Cleveland and a last-second victory over Detroit. Yet for everything the Bills have done right on offense (second in points scored and third in passing, second in total yards per game and eighth in rushing), two flaws remain – they have the third-most turnovers in the league with 19 (Allen has 11 interceptions and nine fumbles, mainly due to perceiving pressure that isn’t there and playing too fast) and a lack of explosiveness downfield, leading to a reunion with Brown.

Some of those issues have gone hand in hand – seven of Allen’s last nine turnovers have come in the red zone, and he had thrown just two red zone picks in four years prior to 2022. Those problems and a stubborn refusal to run the ball and bleed the clock (Dorsey called for just one handoff to a running back in the last 23:04 of the game) allowed the Minnesota Vikings to score 20 unanswered points in a 33-30 comeback win in Week 10. However, against the Browns and Lions the Bills total 335 yards on the ground.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN – NOVEMBER 24: Stefon Diggs #14, Tyler Bass #2 and Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills celebrate on the field by eating turkey legs after defeating the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on November 24, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

  1. Allen has compiled 30 career regular season games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in 13 of his last 26 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 28-2. He also owns the highest playoff passer rating in league annals.

  2. Only Steve Young has had more career regular season games (eight) with 300 or more passing yards and 50 or more rushing yards than Allen (six). Allen has also become the first player ever with 3,000-plus passing yards and 500-plus rushing yards through 11 games.

  3. Buffalo’s franchise quarterback has seven career games with three passing touchdowns and a rushing score – only Drew Brees (nine) and Tom Brady have more all-time. He also became the first signal-caller to throw for 250 yards, run for 50, toss three touchdowns, run for one, complete 80 percent of his throws (83.9 – a new club record in the regular season) and win a game in league history against the Rams.

  4. After throwing for 329 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City, Allen has had 12 games with 300 yards and three scores. That ties Jim Kelly for the most in franchise history.

  5. Another Allen stat – with his rushing touchdown last week he moved past Randall Cunningham and Steve Grogan for fifth all-time in rushing scores among quarterbacks with 36. He needs two more to move past Michael Vick, Steve McNair and Tobin Rote into fourth place (behind Cam Newton, Young and Jack Kemp).

  6. Buffalo’s quarterback has defeated every team in the NFL at least once except four– Chicago, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia.

  7. Diggs and Allen have connected for a touchdown 27 times, second on the Bills’ all-time list (Kelly and Andre Reed have 65). Diggs and Stevie Johnson are also the only Bills with three straight 1,000 yard seasons.

  8. Since 2017 the Bills are 46-6 when leading at halftime. They’ve also won 10 in a row at home against teams with a losing record.

  9. Miller is the first defensive player in league history to sign two contracts worth at least $100 million. He is also vying to be the second player to win a Super Bowl with three different teams (Matt Millen was the first), has moved past Robert Mathis for 19th on the all-time sack list and is two quarterback takedowns away from tying Dwight Freeney for 18th.

  10. Buffalo’s point differential is plus-110 – best in the NFL.

  11. After beating Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, according to Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports Allen became the first quarterback to defeat three former MVPs in a four-game span since Troy Aikman downed Dan Marino, Young and Brett Favre in 1996. He’s also the first signal caller to beat three former MVPs in one month since David Woodley in September 1981 and has won eight of his last nine games against former MVP quarterbacks (Brady in 2021 is the lone loss).

  12. Last week was the third time in four years that Buffalo played on Thanksgiving (they’re 3-0 since 2019) and the first time since 1994 (a 35-21 loss) they’ve faced Detroit on that holiday. The Lions are now 2-1 against the Bills on Thanksgiving.

  13. Detroit has now lost six in a row on Thanksgiving and have dropped 11 straight games against AFC teams. It was their 83rd game on the holiday while it was the Bills’ 11th – eighth most all-time (they’re 6-4-1 in Thanksgiving games).

  14. Buffalo has now won four straight matchups against Detroit.

  15. Buffalo hasn’t punted against New England in back-to-back matchups. Week 16 last year 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.

  16. The Bills have won in New England in back-to-back years for the first time since 1999 and 2000. No team had accomplished that feat prior to the Bills since the 2005-06 Indianapolis Colts.

  17. Going into Thursday night the Bills have compiled a road winning percentage of .70 (21-9) since 2019. Only Kansas City has been better (24-5).

  18. Belichick’s career record without Brady – and with whom he won six Super Bowls – is 77-84.

  19. Oliver became one of four players in the last 10 years with a sack, safety, forced fumble and fumble recovery in one game – joining Khalil Mack, Justin Houston and Cameron Wake.

  20. Allen became the first quarterback to win in all three time slots on Thanksgiving (early afternoon, late afternoon and night). Buffalo’s win over Detroit was also their second consecutive in Ford Field including their relocated outing against Cleveland – the Lions haven’t won two straight in their own stadium since November 2016.

  21. Buffalo’s 8-3 for the third time in four years and have won four of their last five meetings against New England including playoffs while averaging 30.4 points a game and allowing 16.4. The road team has won the last three matchups.

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