Welcome to Week 16 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’ 15th game of 2021 will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts as they face the New England Patriots. Here’s what you should know:

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – DECEMBER 18: New England Patriots Quarterback Mac Jones (10) signals to New England Patriots Wide Receiver Jakobi Meyers (16) during the NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts on December 18, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Allio/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 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 currently ranks third among all quarterbacks in completion percentage and was named the AFC’s Offensive Rookie of the Month for November. His play has helped his team win seven of their last eight games 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 (Harris and Stevenson are both dealing with injuries).

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 extra 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 – who is out for Sunday – 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 leads all NFL tight ends in touchdowns 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 has been in the red zone. They’re just 24th in red zone touchdown efficiency this season (54 percent), leading to kicker Nick Folk being the NFL’s top scorer this season with 133 points and connecting on 34 of 37 field goals.

Despite their struggles inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, New England remains 10th among all teams in scoring and are seventh in third-down conversion percentage (43 percent). Yet over their last four games their success on third-down has taken a dip – they’ve converted just 16 times on their last 49 tries, a 32 percent rate and a nearly 10 percent drop from their season average. Perhaps not coincidentally, the worst of those four games was against Buffalo where they were successful just twice on 12 opportunities.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – DECEMBER 18: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/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.

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.

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 12.5 sacks.

As per usual, Belichick’s charges have been productive. They are first in red zone defense, second in interception, first in points allowed, third in yards surrendered, third against the pass and tied for seventh in sacks. But they do have one glaring weakness – New England has surrendered the 24th-most rushing yards this season and are 28th in yards-per-carry allowed, although those numbers were probably skewed by giving up 170 yards to the Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor last week.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 19: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers carries the ball against pressure from Taron Johnson #24 of the Buffalo Bills in the second quarter of the game at Highmark Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD 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 (he will miss Sunday’s game due to personal reasons). These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo currently ranked first in pro football in total yards allowed, first in passing yards allowed, second in points allowed, second in takeaways, sixth in red zone percentage and fourth in interceptions (Poyer has five, most on the team and is in a four-way tie for the most among all NFL safeties).

In fact, their 27 takeaways in 14 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 (first in the league) continue to improve, 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.

But a disturbing pattern has emerged on Buffalo’s defense, particularly against the run. In games against the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bills have gotten gashed by power running teams. That weakness was exposed yet again last Sunday when they allowed 151 yards on the ground to the Carolina Panthers. The biggest issue there has been 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, especially against a team like the Pats who racked up 222 yards against them three weeks ago, the second-most Buffalo has given up this season (264 against the Colts).

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 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? That remains to be seen.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 19: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills during the game against the Carolina Panthers at Highmark Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/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 28 points a game, the fourth-best best mark in the NFL and Allen is fifth and sixth in the league in passing touchdowns and yards going into Week 16, 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 (Sanders is back after missing the Carolina game with a knee ailment). Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with eight touchdowns, which is second among all tight ends and surpassed Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler’s team mark of six.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown (Dawkins is back this week after coming off the COVID-19 list). This unit 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 (they’ve allowed sacks on nearly 14 percent of their dropbacks, third-worst in the NFL). 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 – the third time all year they had run more than passed, a stark contrast to their heavy pass to run ratio in 2021 – but the ground game once again sputtered against New England 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.

Like their outings against the Saints and Jets, Buffalo tried to establish some semblance of a running game against Carolina and got one after recording 119 yards on 27 carries, with Singletary getting a season-high 86 yards on 22 carries. A lack of success on the ground has been a recurring theme in the McDermott era – in fact, Allen has had just two running backs record 100 rushing yards or more in a game in his entire career (Singletary in 2019 against the Denver Broncos and Frank Gore the same year against the Pats).

As a result of the front five’s problems, Allen has thrown nine picks in his last seven outings. Turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only once since then have the Bills had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween). But two bright spots have been their red zone efficiency and effectiveness off play-action – after starting the season near the bottom of the NFL in that category, they’ve scored on 66.7 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line in their last six games, the fourth-best mark in pro football. And Buffalo also leads the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes off of run-action.

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 than Buffalo.

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. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Patriots 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.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 19: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates his touchdown with teammate Spencer Brown #79 in the second quarter over the Carolina Panthers at Highmark Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/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 12 outings. In those games Buffalo’s record is 22-2.
  • Allen’s also tied for fifth in franchise history in rushing touchdowns with Wray Carlton (29) and will tie Fred Jackson for fourth with his next one.
  • Diggs became just the second Bill with 1,000 receiving yards in back-to-back years. The last one to do so was Stevie Johnson in three consecutive years from 2010-12.
  • Attempt press coverage against Diggs at your own risk – he’s had five touchdowns when facing bump-and-run coverage this season, second only to Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans.
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 37-4 when leading at halftime.
  • Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
  • All of Buffalo’s eight wins in 2021 have been by 15 points or more, the most in franchise history.
  • Each of the Bills’ last 15 victories dating back to last year have been by 10 points or more – the longest streak in the NFL since the 1998-99 Rams.
  • Buffalo’s first in the NFL in point differential at +151 while New England is second at +140.
  • The Bills have also had some bad luck in one-score games. They went 5-0 in one-score outings last year and are 0-5 so far in 2021 (only the 1985 San Francisco 49ers have made the postseason with such a record, according to ESPN Stats & Info).
  • McDermott and company haven’t won two in a row since Weeks Four and Five.
  • This is the second of two crucial matchups between these two franchises as they’re jockeying for the AFC East crown. A win by New England would likely give the Patriots the divisional title while a Buffalo victory will bolster their chances should they run the table with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets on the docket.
  • This is the fifth consecutive season in which the Bills will travel to Foxborough to take on the Patriots in Week 16.
  • Milano has had an excellent season. He’s tied for seventh in the league in tackles for a loss with 13 and is one of just two players (New Orleans’ Demario Davis being the other) with 70 tackles, four passes defended and 13 tackles for losses.
  • The Bills have seven individuals on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as of Saturday night – Feliciano, Epenesa, Beasley, Davis, Cody Ford, defensive line coach Eric Washington and special teams coordinator Heath Farwell. Washington and Farwell will be replaced by Jacques Cesaire and Matt Smiley, respectively, for Sunday’s game and because Davis was unvaccinated at the time of his diagnosis (Friday the 24th) he will have to miss not just this Sunday against New England but next week’s game against Atlanta too while sitting out for 10 days.
  • Davis’ COVID diagnosis comes at an inopportune time. He’s had four touchdowns in his last three games and in the four games where he’s played at least half of the offensive snaps Davis has either found the end zone or compiled 100 yards receiving. Sanders’ return should soften that blow, however.
  • Ditto that of Beasley. His football I.Q., which is especially high when it comes to finding holes in zone coverages and his quickness at beating man coverage on pivot routes is very valuable to Buffalo. His replacement is likely to be McKenzie, who also has some shiftiness to his game but possesses more straight-line speed.

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, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. 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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