|Marcus Cannon struggled in his matchup with Buffalo's Jerry Hughes all night|
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. At the risk of sounding redundant, I find myself once again talking about injuries, as in-game losses of Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola left the Pats with just two healthy receivers by the end of Monday's game. While this certainly didn't help Tom Brady's cause, the bigger culprit to their offensive struggles was surprisingly the one unit on offense that had gotten some positive health news: the offensive line. Despite getting starting tackles Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer back, the offensive line struggled through it's worst game of the season, with Buffalo masterfully taking tactical advantage. Here's a closer look at what the Bills did to smother the Pats offense, and whether their approach could be practicably applied by other opponents.
They haven't always played up to their potential this season, but the Bills have one of the league's best defensive rosters. Boasting both one of the league's premier starting cornerback duos (Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby) and a deep defensive line headlined by the speed rushing prowess of Jerry Hughes and interior power of Marcell Dareus, they are uniquely built to challenge modern passing games. Throw in Rex Ryan calling the shots (say what you will about him, the man can scheme the hell out of a defense) and there were plenty of reasons to be concerned heading into the Monday Night showdown.
Rex is known for his aggressive blitz packages, but he went against that tendency on Sunday. The Bills "blitzed" (5 or more pass rushers) just 11 times in the Pats 44 dropbacks. They had 4 rushers on 23 dropbacks, and sent just 3 rushers on 10 passing plays.
Rather than send the house to try to overwhelm the Patriots linemen, Rex bet on his guys to be able to generate pressure despite being at a disadvantage numbers-wise. He was able to do so knowing that his guys had some winnable one-on-one matchups (particularly Jerry Hughes against left tackle Marcus Cannon), aiding those mismatches with some great disguised pressures. While the Bills rarely rushed more than four, those four rarely came from the same place, creating a great deal of confusion up front for the Patriots blockers. Some of that falls on the shoulders of Tom Brady as well, who rarely is fooled as often in a game as he was by the Bills pressure schemes.
For example, check out this third down play from the Patriots first series. The Bills are lined up in a dime defense, with just three traditional rushers (Mario Williams #94, Marcell Dareus #99, Jerry Hughes #55), two linebackers (Preston Brown #52, Nigel Bradham #53) and six defensive backs. The Bills could go vanilla and bring just the three defensive linemen here, but they could bring an additional rusher from anywhere with so many capable coverage players on the field.
As you can see, that's just what they do. However, they create extra confusion by dropping Hughes, their best pass rusher into coverage, along with Bradham. To the line, they appear to have just three rushing, with Williams rushing the edge against Cameron Fleming, Brown taking a spin move back inside against Josh Kline, and Andrews and Mason combining to double team Dareus. However, they fail to account for nickel corner Nickell Robey, who comes as the fourth rusher out of the slot. Brown's inside spin move occupies Kline, creating a free lane for Robey to come through untouched. The Pats are fortunate that Brady sees him coming and is able to get rid of the ball just before getting hit. They were even more fortunate that Stephon Gilmore commits pass interference against Aaron Dobson on the play, turning a rushed, inaccurate incompletion into a first down conversion.
Pressure on this play was created by scheme, but there were plenty of instances of Bills defenders simply winning their one-on-one matchups. A whopping 28 of Brady's 44 dropbacks were influenced by pressure of some kind. While the Bills only mustered one sack of Brady, 10 of his 19 incompletions were pressure-induced throwaways, easily a season high. Four more throws were rushed and inaccurate due to pressure, leading to more incompletions.
Cannon was the primary culprit. The first drive saw the offense overcome two Cannon penalties (a false start and an illegal formation) to drive for a field goal, and things continued to go downhill from there. Their second possession saw Cannon get embarrassed by Dareus on their lone run and beat cleanly on two of three passing plays. That drive killing-performance would set the tone for a day in which Cannon was beat 10 times in protection, with that pressure often coming dangerously quick off the edge from Hughes. In addition to those two opening drive penalties, he picked up a holding call that nullified a 27 yard pass to Chris Harper. He was also beat four times on running plays.
As bad as he was, Cannon was hardly alone. Cameron Fleming started the game at right tackle, but was mercifully pulled after a disastrous first series that saw him get beat once in the running game and twice in protection. That paved the way for Vollmer's return to the lineup, but the long-time Patriots standout was unable to recapture his early-season form in his return to the lineup. Vollmer was beaten 8 times himself in protection (in 36 passing snaps), and was responsible for the Bills lone sack of Brady.
Things were slightly better on the interior, but hardly good enough. David Andrews really struggled for the second week in a row, leading to his playing just 25 snaps (compared to 51 for Bryan Stork). Andrews was beat three times in protection and another in the run game in his minimal playing time, with a holding penalty thrown in for good measure. Stork was only a marginal improvement, getting beat twice in protection and another four times in the running game, including a holding penalty of his own. The guards acquitted themselves the best, with Shaq Mason getting beat just five times in protection and Josh Kline just getting beat three times, one of those being on a tough assignment from a delayed rusher.
The Pats will have to hope such poor play at tackle and center was due to rust, as injuries are no longer an excuse. Cannon and Vollmer project as the starting tackles for the rest of the season barring injury, and Stork was a quality starter as a rookie last year. After making through the past two games with a makeshift line, the Pats had every member of their rotation available on Monday except for rookie guard Tre Jackson, who was behind Kline and Mason in the pecking order for snaps even when healthy.
Seeing the line get beat so thoroughly was especially damning because he happened in spite of schematic efforts to minimize the damage they could do to the offense. After leaving their five linemen alone in protection on 17 of 25 first half passing attempts, the Pats were forced to adjust and give their overwhelmed line some help in the second half. That half saw just seven snaps when the five were alone in protection (out of 19), with eight snaps in six man protection, three with seven in protection, and one with eight. Doing so put the Pats at a constant numbers advantage against the Bills rush, which rarely brought more than four, but the Bills were still able to generate consistent pressure.
Of course, keeping more players in protection means releasing fewer receiving targets for Brady. Likewise, bringing fewer pass rushers affords a defense more bodies to drop back in coverage. The flipside of the Patriots numerical advantage in protection was a major numbers advantage for the Bills in coverage, who consistently had seven or eight defenders dropping back into coverage. This gave them the resources to devote extra attention wherever needed, be it crowding the short zones over the middle that Brady normally peppers with checkdowns...
|Here the Bills have 8 coverage players against 5 Pats receivers, with four occupying the short middle zone|
Or double-teaming Gronk with both linebackers with heavy press right off the snap...
|The Bills made sure Gronk wouldn't beat them on this third down|
Or bracketing both Gronk and Amendola, trusting their stud outside corners to win one-on-one matchups on the outside.
Dropping so many into coverage had the added benefit of making it far more difficult for Brady's outlet options to get open quickly. Brady's quick trigger has often helped erase mistakes from his line this season, but those quick outlets just weren't there for much of the night. Perhaps things would've been different had Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis, two dynamic weapons who "uncover" themselves as well and quickly as anyone, been available, but without those two, Brady was often forced to wait an extra split second or two for a receiver to break open. More often than not, that was more than enough time for a Bills defender to beat his man and either hit Brady or force a throwaway.
Of course, it's also far tougher for any receiver to get open when the defense constantly has such a numerical advantage in coverage. One example came from the usage of James White, who ostensibly has become Dion Lewis' replacement as the team's top passing down back. While White had more responsibility in pass protection than normal due to the line's struggles, he also found himself often covered by a defensive back when he did flex outside. White is more than athletic enough to beat linebackers who attempt to cover him one-on-one, but putting a defensive back on him turns a guy who theoretically should be a coverage mismatch into a matchup that favors the defense. While White took full advantage of the touches he did get (and made a strong case to earn more touches going forward), his role was still somewhat limited because the Bills had the luxury of having so many defensive backs on the field on most snaps.
Can this approach be replicated by other teams going forward? Unless the offensive line shows dramatic improvement, the answer to that is probably yes, although most teams don't have the personnel or coaching to pull it off quite as well. Pass rushers like Hughes and Dareus don't grow on trees, and neither do cover corners like Darby and Gilmore, who consistently won their one-on-one matchups. Darby's ability to hang with Gronk in one-on-one coverage was particularly key for the Bills, who often trusted their rookie with that difficult matchup when Gronk was flexed out wide. The constant changes in coverage and disguises in pressure schemes drawn up by Rex Ryan also won't be replicated by many, as the confusion created by Rex's schemes piled on top of the Bills physical mismatches up front to really put the Pats offense in a tough situation.
Unfortunately for the Pats, the Denver team they're about to face is perfectly suited to this type of strategy. Even without Demarcus Ware, who is expected to miss this week with his lingering back injury, the Broncos come in loaded with pass rushers more than capable of embarrassing the Pats tackles. Von Miller is easily one of the top five edge rushers in all of football, Shaquille Barrett has shown potential playing in place of Ware, and first round rookie Shane Ray has flashed his game-changing speed off the edge in limited opportunities. The Broncos also have a superior secondary to the Bills, with the emergence of second-year corner Bradley Robey giving Denver three top cover corners for their nickel defense. If they want, they'll have the unique luxury of being able to put corner Aqib Talib on Gronk without sacrificing a coverage mismatch somewhere else (Pats fans will remember the job Talib did using his length to shut down Jimmy Graham as a Patriot).
There aren't many satisfying answers on paper to the Patriots offensive problems right now. Simply put, the offensive line has to get better. As Monday night showed, poor offensive line play put the coaching staff in a dilemma: the more they schemed to help protect the line, the more they put their dwindling group of receivers in compromising situations coverage-wise. The Pats have had some success in neutralizing their poor tackle play when they've sent hard chips at certain pass rushers (White chipped Cameron Fleming's assignment on all but one play on their game winning two minute drill against the Giants) and that is a strategy that could be implemented more, especially to help the slow footed Cannon out. Establishing the run would be huge as well, as it would force Denver's ferocious pass rushers to stay honest a little bit while helping to keep the offense out of compromising long-distance situations.
As long as Brady's weapons continue to drop like flies, the lack of notable playmakers will be decried as the primary reason for the offense's precipitous decline. However, a closer look shows that, just like last year's disastrous start to the season, poor offensive line play has made it near impossible to judge what Brady is capable of with his current group of skill guys. Until the line can be trusted to be better than avert-your-eyes bad, the play-calling will be severely limited by the need to scheme around their deficiencies. Brady's masterful command of the offense has kept them afloat so far in a situation that would sink most quarterbacks, but he won't be able to keep it up much longer if the line continues to give up pressure against three man rushes. Scheme can only help so much; at some point this line has to start winning it's one-on-one matchups, particularly on the edge. Until that happens, expect the offense to continue to struggle, regardless of who is available at the skill positions.