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Bills vs. Patriots: What's the Game Plan for New England?

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IINovember 21, 2015

Can Tom Brady and Co. sweep the Bills this season?
Can Tom Brady and Co. sweep the Bills this season?Bill Wippert/Associated Press

Back in Week 2, the New England Patriots made no bones about their approach to the Buffalo Bills.  Tom Brady dropped back to pass an astounding 59 times, the second-highest total he's compiled in 218 career regular-season games, as the Pats initiated a track meet in Orchard Park.  Some late-game heroics from Tyrod Taylor nearly helped Buffalo pull off an improbable 24-point fourth-quarter comeback, but New England held on for a 40-32 victory that Sunday afternoon.

Two months later, the Patriots are still an unbeaten squad, but they won't possess nearly the same amount of offensive firepower in the rematch.  Injuries have forced New England to reshape its explosive passing attack on the fly, while the defense which struggled with explosive plays against Buffalo has also undergone some renovations, particularly in the secondary.

The good news is that Buffalo should provide an element of familiarity, as the Bills haven't made any significant personnel changes since the first matchup.  With the likes of Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins and Leodis McKelvin returning from early-season injuries, Buffalo is still a possession-oriented squad that should theoretically challenge the ability of New England's depleted receiving corps to get open.

Turning to the tape and stats, let's highlight the key schematic factors which will go into determining whether or not the Patriots can run their record to 10-0 in their only Monday-night appearance of the season.

Offensive Game Plan

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots battles against Ronald Darby #28 and Corey Graham #20 of the Buffalo Bills during the second half on September 20, 2015 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.  Ne
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It's probably safe to assume LeGarrette Blount will receive more than two carries this time around.  Blount was a non-factor back in Week 2 in New England's pass-heavy spread-oriented game plan, but given Buffalo's unexpectedly woeful front seven, the Pats' top back should play a much larger role in the rematch.

The Bills allow 4.1 yards per rush attempt, 17th in the league, but that doesn't really tell the full story.  Going by yards per carry, Buffalo has faced just one top-15 rushing offense the whole season (Miami).  Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which adjusts for opponent strength, reveals how bad the Bills run defense has actually been when factoring in the subpar strength of schedule.  Buffalo ranks 29th in both run defense DVOA and adjusted line yards, incredibly poor marks for a team that has poured so many resources into its defensive front.

In Buffalo's Week 10 game against the New York Jets, Chris Ivory had plenty of success running between the tackles en route to 99 yards on just 18 attempts.  Ivory's success should excite Patriots fans, since New York utilized many of the same gap-blocking run schemes we should expect to see from New England on Monday.

Source: NFL Game Pass

Source: NFL Game Pass

The Jets offensive linemen were able to reach the second level to down-block the Bills linebackers, who will aggressively knife through gaps versus the run when allowed to roam free.  Marcell Dareus, Buffalo's $100 million defensive tackle, has mostly been quiet this season.  Dareus has been asked to two-gap for much of the season, a curious task for the Bills' most disruptive interior playmaker.

With fellow defensive tackle Kyle Williams out another week with a knee injury, Blount should be able to exploit Buffalo's welcoming interior.  The real question is how the Pats will align formationally in this game.  We can expect to see lots of two-tight end sets, which New England presented in the first game, but it's unclear whether the Patriots should utilize their tight ends in traditional power sets or spread the field.

Josh McDaniels opted for the latter in the first game, creating mismatches all over the field with either Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman in the slot for almost the entire game.  Because of its man coverage principles, Buffalo often responded with disastrous mismatches, as Gronkowski drew the likes of Jerry Hughes and Bradham in coverage throughout the game.

Source: NFL Game Pass

Source: NFL Game Pass

Gronkowski is the obvious mismatch for Buffalo, and it's hard to imagine the Bills responding with the same straight man coverages on the All-Pro tight end.  More likely, we'll see Buffalo challenge Danny Amendola, who will likely fulfill the Edelman role in this game.  Edelman had a monster 11-catch, 97-yard, two-touchdown game in Week 2, often scrambling Buffalo's coverage on play-action crossers which cut through the middle of the defense.

Source: NFL Game Pass

These types of spread alignments forced Buffalo into more conservative coverages and gave Brady's receivers more breathing space to work with.  So while it's tempting to suggest New England should power its way down the field with Blount, the passing game needs to afford its diminished receiving corps room to work against the Bills' impressive secondary.  Thus, McDaniels' top challenge is to maintain play-calling balance without telegraphing his intentions to Rex Ryan.

One last X-factor to consider is James White.  The second-year back was quiet last week (11 yards on two touches) but played an underrated role in pass protection on New England's game-winning drive.  It appears the coaching staff trusts White, and this week, the Wisconsin alum should get a better chance to shine against a Bills defense which ranks dead last in DVOA against running backs in pass coverage.

Dion Lewis torched the Bills for 138 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in the first meeting, as his quickness was an impossible matchup for Buffalo's lead-footed linebackers.  White may not possess the same elusiveness, but in considering how the Pats will work around the injuries to Edelman and Lewis, don't forget about the player many expected to break out at the start of this season.

Defensive Game Plan

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Chandler Jones #95  and Rob Ninkovich of the New England Patriots  combine to sack Tyrod Taylor #5 of the Buffalo Bills during the first half against the Buffalo Bills  at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Orc
Jerome Davis/Getty Images

Tyrod Taylor has generally exceeded expectations since surprisingly winning Buffalo's quarterback job during the preseason, ranking 11th in ESPN's QBR stat and eighth in passing DVOA (which excludes the impact he has with his legs).  However, Taylor's worst game from a negative-plays standpoint came against New England, when the first-time starter took a whopping eight sacks and tossed three interceptions.

Like many raw starters, Taylor is limited by what he's able to process in his progressions and relies largely on his impressive physical tools to compensate.  Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is a veteran play-caller who has helped Taylor's development by shielding him from difficult situations, often providing him defined reads from manageable down-and-distance situations.

Taylor's biggest asset this season has been the deep ball, particularly off play action. According to Pro Football Focus, 15.3 percent of Taylor's passes have traveled 20 or more yards in the air, while 23.6 percent of his passes have come off of play action.  Both those figures rank as top-10 marks among qualifying quarterbacks, illustrating how Roman seeks to pick up big chunks of yardage through the air.

However, that staple was taken out of Buffalo's arsenal in the first matchup.  When reviewing the film, I expected to see Taylor holding the ball because of some schematic wrinkle Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had employed to specifically eliminate deep routes.  Instead, it appears the Patriots corners just flat-out won the majority of their one-on-one matchups, typically playing press coverage and forcing Taylor away from his primary read.

Source: NFL Game Pass

Source: NFL Game Pass

Taylor tends to hold the ball a long time to begin with—on average, only Johnny Manziel holds the ball longer than him (3.11 seconds to throw, per PFF).  Against New England, that figure rose to 3.39 seconds, longer than any other quarterback from Week 2.  Indeed, as the game progressed, the Patriots' pass pressure clearly frazzled Taylor, who began to miss open reads while staring down the rush.

Source: NFL Game Pass

The Bills' pass protection hasn't fared particularly well by any metric this season, though part of that certainly stems from the play-calling and Taylor's tendencies.  Still, Buffalo is a bottom-five team in both sack percentage and adjusted sack rate, which should give Chandler Jones and Co. plenty of juicy opportunities to create negative plays in the backfield.

Of course, forcing Taylor into those uncomfortable situations is a task in itself, as the Bills would surely like to replicate the success they had on the ground in the first meeting.  Before New England's relentless offense forced the Bills to abandon the run, Buffalo ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns on 5.9 yards per attempt, shredding New England's base defense throughout the game with its one-two punch of LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams.

McCoy and Williams deserve recognition as one of the NFL's most explosive backfield tandems, even if public perception hasn't quite reached that level.  The two haven't often been healthy at the same time this year, with McCoy missing two games with a hamstring injury and Williams missing two via a concussion.  When both have been on the field together, though, the Bills have gone from a mediocre rushing attack to arguably the league's best.

Bills Run Game, Healthy vs. Non-Healthy
McCoy and Williams HealthyMcCoy or Williams Hurt
StretchWeeks 1-3, Weeks 9-10Weeks 4-8
Yds/Att5.25 (2nd)3.97 (23rd)
Rush TDs8 (T-1st)3 (T-14th)
via Pro-Football-Reference; NFL rank in parentheses

A particularly deadly rushing staple New England must watch out for is the power concept, where guard Richie Incognito will pull to the play side and help seal off a running lane in tandem with fullback Jerome Felton.  Watch any Buffalo game and you'll see this concept over and over again.

Source: NFL Game Pass

Source: NFL Game Pass

In this manner, the Bills will place tons of pressure on New England's linebackers (which could be missing Jamie Collins again) as well as box safety Patrick Chung, all of whom will need to defeat these blocks to prevent Buffalo's running backs from springing second-level runs.  The Patriots would surely love to force Taylor's hand as much as they did in the first matchup, but their primary task will be improving upon their showing against the run.

Key Players and Matchups

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Every week in this space, we'll list two offensive and two defensive players critical to the game plan who haven't necessarily received much attention in the sections above. Not all of these selections will necessarily be the most obvious choices, but each figures to play a key factor in New England's chances of victory.

Brandon LaFell

After missing the Week 2 meeting while sitting on the physically unable to perform list, LaFell will get his first crack at the Bills this season.  LaFell was excellent against Buffalo in 2014, compiling eight catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns in the two meetings.

Though he hasn't reached the end zone yet in 2015, LaFell has quickly regained Tom Brady's trust, earning between six and nine targets in all four games he's played this season.  As the biggest body in New England's receiving corps, watch to see if LaFell can win his share of one-on-ones on the perimeter against either Stephon Gilmore or Ronald Darby.

Rob Ninkovich

The 31-year-old edge defender has thrived against the Bills throughout his career and has begun to make more noise in recent weeks after a quiet start to his season.  Ninkovich has generated two sacks and a fumble recovery over the past three weeks, while also improving against the run following some rough stretches in September.

Buffalo was consistently able to beat Ninkovich to the perimeter in the first matchup, so watch to see how he sets the edge in the rematch.  His indefatigable pass rush might also be advantageous in this game, given Taylor's tendency to extend plays.

Marcus Cannon

It's not yet a guarantee Cannon returns to action after practicing for the first time since suffering a toe injury in Week 6.  However, if New England does get its left tackle back, he will be thrown into the fire against one of the league's quickest speed rushers in Jerry Hughes.

Hughes changed the game in Week 2 with a fourth-quarter strip sack of Brady, setting up a score which pulled Buffalo to within five points.  Foot speed has always been Cannon's biggest detriment, making this a possible area where the Pats may want to provide him extra help, particularly in his first game back.

Malcolm Butler

Sammy Watkins won't look like a particularly intimidating task after Butler largely handled Odell Beckham Jr. over the final 50 minutes last weekend.  Still, as we discussed in the defensive section, much of New England's success against Taylor in the first game followed as a result of the cornerbacks' strong work against Buffalo's wide receivers.

Since returning from a knee injury, Taylor has zeroed in on Watkins, targeting Buffalo's top receiver 15 times, nearly 40 percent of his passes.  Thus, the Butler-Watkins matchup will be a significant point of contention on Monday, as Watkins will be a focal point of Buffalo's offensive game plan on both deep balls and third downs.

Prediction

The Patriots may still be in excellent position to win the AFC East and claim a first-round bye, but the road to that end point might be rockier than it's been over the first nine games.  Even with the offensive line getting healthier, injuries have unquestionably reduced New England's margin for error, even against a familiar opponent like the Bills.

Buffalo possessed the defensive personnel to give the Pats' issues in the first game, but a brilliant game plan which focused on highlighting New England's quickness in space essentially broke down a scattered Bills defense.  The Patriots will still win their fair share of matchups, but with diminished personnel surrounding Brady, it's unclear if they can string together as many positive plays as they did early in the season.

And for what it's worth, the Pats have rarely been able to blow out Rex Ryan-led squads, with seven of their past eight games against Ryan being decided by one possession.  Even though New England totally dictated the action in the first game, it was impressive to see the Bills claw back to put a strong scare into the Patriots over the final five minutes.

However, with the game at Gillette Stadium, the Pats still hold the edge here.  New England is in the dog days of its season right now and simply needs to hold on until January rolls around.  Buffalo should make things tricky, but look for the Pats to stay unbeaten headed into Thanksgiving weekend.

Prediction: Patriots 29, Bills 23

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