After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 10 win over the Buffalo Bills, passing along picked-up notes and observations.
1. Facing a 3rd & 5 on their opening drive of the second half, the Patriots offensive line was presented with a unique front from the Bills' defense. Defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were actually standing up at the snap and hovering over the interior of the Patriots' line. The two looked to be on a gap-stunt between the center, Ryan Wendell, and either guard. On the play, Dareus was able to sneak past Wendell and collapse the pocket, while left guard Logan Mankins caught Williams in his rush. Unfortunately for Mankins, Wendell was pushed to the ground by Dareus, and Mankins subsequently fell over Wendell, allowing Williams and Dareus to combine for a sack of Tom Brady to end the drive. It was on this play that Mankins injured his left ankle. That added injury to insult.
2. In our first half observations, we dissected a play in which running back Danny Woodhead beat Bills linebacker Nick Barnett with an option route to extend a Patriots drive. In a near carbon copy play, Woodhead managed the Patriots' first score of the second half, once again juking past Barnett on an option route and taking a Brady throw for an 18-yard score. We've talked about it before but it remains worth noting, Brady and Woodhead have a special rapport in these types of situations -- facing a third down and needing a handful of yards to convert. Woodhead always does a good job of finding space, and Brady knows enough to continue to look his way as an outlet.
3. The Patriots couldn't slam the door shut on the Bills until time had nearly expired in the second half, and they'll likely look back to moments such as a 4th & 4 for Buffalo from the Patriots' 28-yard line as plays to explain why that was the case. The Bills came out in an empty set with two receivers to the right side of the offensive formation. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson was checked by rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in coverage. Dennard was basically playing Johnson with even leverage (which is to say he wasn't shaded to the inside or outside), but a shoulder hesitation move from Johnson at the top of his route shook Dennard and allowed him to get open to move the chains. Linebacker Jerod Mayo started out as an additional rusher on the play, but retreated into coverage half-way through his blitz. It's unclear if that was designed or an impromptu movement from Mayo. Nonetheless, the Patriots were unable to tighten up in key moments such as these on Sunday.
4. The Patriots aren't unique in doing this, as it's a play we see in nearly every game every week in the NFL, but it never seems to add up entirely. On a 3rd & 8 from the Bills' 36-yard line to open the fourth quarter, Brady hooked up receiver Brandon Lloyd on an in-breaking pattern that advanced the ball to the 32-yard line, well short of a first down. It's difficult to figure why so many plays on third down are called by teams around the league that send receivers short of the first down, although it's possible that Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were expecting a zone-coverage concept on that play that would have freed space up for Lloyd. Still, that play held the Patriots to a field goal attempt, and Buffalo remained in the thick of the game.
5. Another more general than play-specific thought: it looked like the Patriots played a sufficient amount of man and cover 2-man defenses on Sunday. One area that playing man-to-man defense can expose is the underneath zone, and if a quarterback is able to break the pocket, he usually has ample room to scramble into. Additionally, when a defense plays 2-man (man-to-man with two safeties over the top as help defenders), it opens the door for draws to be more effective. The Bills ran draw plays proficiently on Sunday, with veteran Fred Jackson doing a nice job being patient as a runner and finding space.
6. We already discussed the tackling woes of the Patriots on Sunday, which were exposed in part due to the shiftiness of Bills running back C.J. Spiller. In looking back on his explosive plays as both a runner and receiver, Spiller's speed also highlighted that the Patriots lack of their own speed in their starting linebacker trio outside of Mayo. Mayo isn't a blazer, but he has enough functional speed to play in space. Both Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes, however, had a handful of fits in keeping up with Spiller. Safety Steve Gregory also struggled to keep up with Spiller in open space.
7. Bills receiver Donald Jones had a fourth-quarter touchdown on Sunday, and he nearly had one in the first half as well, coming up about a yard short on a play from inside the 10-yard line. On both plays, Jones was tabbed by Dennard in man coverage. In the first half, Dennard worked over the top of a combination route, which allowed Jones to slide underneath him and get open for the near score. In the second half, Dennard played underneath the combination route, but was unable to jump it fast enough, leaving Jones wide open for the easy score. Man-to-man coverage between the numbers on plays from near the end zone is a difficult duty for a defensive back, but Dennard has to find a way to put himself in better position.
8. Running back Stevan Ridley had nearly 100 yards on the ground on Sunday, and his efforts don't need to be mitigated much, but it seemed like there were a handful of instances where he deviated from the hole and tried to bounce the play outside for more yards. That has been something that he's avoided throughout much of the 2012 season and has allowed him to be one of the best backs in all of football. While he showed decisiveness on several other carries, it just seemed like there were plays on which he wanted to do too much on Sunday.
9. In games earlier this season, we examined scenarios in which the Patriots have sped to the line in an effort to catch a defense out of position, and actually hurt themselves in doing so. After Ridley plunged for a first down to give New England a 1st & goal from the two-yard line and less than three minutes remained on the clock, the Patriots encountered this fate again. The Patriots rushed to the line for a quick handoff to Ridley, who was eventually tackled for a loss. Given that their lead was just three points, time was quickly running out on the game clock, and Buffalo was already down a timeout, it would have served the Patriots well to huddle up, milk the clock and take the snap with roughly 2:15 remaining. The offensive series went downhill from there, as a false start and a pair of incompletions ensued, leaving Buffalo with two timeouts plus the two-minute warning and a six-point deficit rather than much worse.
10. A wrap-up thought from the game: the Patriots were not able to consistently generate pressure with just four rushers on Sunday, and they were also unable to consistently cover the Bills' impressive skill position players. With that in mind, it came as a surprise that they did not call for additional rushers/blitzers more often on Sunday, because on the occasions that they did, it often produced better results. It isn't as simple as saying the Patriots should have blitzed on every down -- that's not the answer -- but the team seemed to put a lot of trust in its ability to cover the Bills down the field after a day in which Ryan Fitzpatrick was clearly experiencing success. With Aqib Talib due to be activated to the roster soon, likely today, help is on its way for the Patriots secondary, and it’s needed.