Know your Enemy: Buffalo Bills scouting report (Week 11)
The Patriots run defense was carved up by McCoy back in Week 2. Getty Images
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. This week, Monday Night Football comes to Gillette Stadium, as Rex Ryan gets his second shot of the season at taking down his white whale in New England. The first Patriots/Bills matchup was heavily hyped following a big season opening Buffalo win over the Colts, but it quickly turned into a Patriots blowout before a late Bills run brought the score back to a respectable margin. However, a Patriots team that has been severely weakened by a recent run of injuries could find itself vulnerable to a Buffalo team that is riding high off of two straight divisional wins and 5-2 when Tyrod Taylor starts at quarterback. Lets take a closer look at the matchups, with a focus on what has changed since week 2 and what trends have stayed true over the course of the season.
One trend that has clearly been proven over the course of the season is the Bills need to run the ball. I wrote back in September about how the Bills executed the perfect gameplan for their offense in the season-opener, leaning on their running game and using that to set up Tyrod Taylor for the occasional deep shot. The sample size is now nine games instead of just one, but the numbers certainly don't lie in this case. Buffalo is a top five rushing team in every category: attempts (269, 3rd), yards (1,281, 2nd), touchdowns (11, 1st) and yards per carry (4.8, 5th). At the same time, they rank 30th in passing attempts (261) and yards (1,803). They are one of only four teams in the league to run more than they've passed this season, joining the Vikings, Seahawks and Panthers.
That run-heavy approach should come as no surprise. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman came in with a reputation for the bruising rushing attack he built in San Francisco. He also inherited good personnel to implement his approach, with the offseason additions of LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams and Richie Incognito proving crucial. McCoy and Williams have both missed some time due to injuries, but when healthy make a strong case for the league's best one-two punch at running back. Meanwhile, Incognito has made the most of his comeback opportunity. He currently is the second highest graded guard in the league per ProFootballFocus, and combines with left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Eric Wood to form an extremely strong left side of the offensive line.
This sets up to be an major clash of strengths, as Buffalo will be trying to establish the run against a sizzling Patriots run defense. The Bills won that matchup back in Week 2, rushing for 160 yards (by far the most New England's given up this season), but the Patriots run defense has flipped the switch since that game. In fact, over the seven games since that first Bills matchup, the Pats have allowed an average of just 71 yards per game on the ground, with a downright stingy 3.41 yards per carry against.
Much of the damage in Week 2 came at the hands of McCoy, who needed just 15 carries to get his 89 yards on the ground. McCoy would have done even more damage had the score not forced the Bills to abandon the run early, something that's terrifying considering he wasn't even healthy. At the time, McCoy was dealing with an balky hamstring. He would go on to gut it out through an ineffective Week 3 game before sitting out two games to get the hammy right. Since his return in Week 6, Shady has averaged 5.4 yards per carry. He's also coming off of back-to-back 100 yard games, including an explosive performance against the Jets tough front last week.
Strong play on the edge has been key during that stretch, and that will be particularly important against these Buffalo backs. McCoy loves to bounce runs outside and is extremely dangerous once he gets some open field to work with. His combination of pure speed and lateral quickness makes him one of the tougher open field tackles in the entire league, and he can gobble up yardage in a hurry if given a crease. Strong fundamental play will be key to stopping him, both in tackling technique and gap control. While Shady is explosive outside, he's not the most powerful back between the tackles. Forcing him to cut back inside, where the "big" defensive tackle rotation of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga and Akiem Hicks has been stout, appears to be the best way to contain him.
The end zone has become a familiar sight for the powerful Williams
Shady McCoy may be a known commodity, but few could have predicted the explosion of Williams. A fifth round pick in April's draft, Williams is a big (6'1", 225 lb) back whose bruising, downhill style is a perfect complement to the shifty McCoy. While power is his calling card, Williams has the speed to outrun defenders once he breaks free to the second level, and good luck getting in front of that freight train once he has full momentum going. Despite seeing double digit carries only twice in his career, Williams already has two 100 yard games under his belt this season. He's also remarkably scored a touchdown in every game he's played, while rushing for an absurd 6.2 yards per carry.
He may be a different style of back than McCoy, but the same fundamental principles apply to defending Williams. He can not be allowed to get around the edge, where he can turn downhill and become a problem for defensive backs to tackle. The Pats must set strong edges to force him back inside to the middle of the defense, which should be congested if the defensive tackles and linebackers play as well against the run as they have for the past two months. In simpler terms, don't allow him the space to get going and make his power become a problem.
The Bills will likely run primarily behind the aforementioned left side of their offensive line. The interior duo of Incognito and Eric Wood (PFF's 4th ranked center) are two of the league's best run blockers at their positions, and they've both had strong seasons in protection as well. Left tackle Cordy Glenn has been an adequate run blocker, but he really shines in protection, where he's PFF's fourth highest graded left tackle. He'll represent a big challenge for NFL sacks leader Chandler Jones.
However, the Pats could move Jones around on key passing downs to take advantage of Buffalo's weak right side of the line. As good as their left side has been, it can be argued that the right side has been just as bad, with rookie guard John Miller and second year right tackle Seantrel Henderson ranking amongst the league's worst starters at their positions. Miller projected as a powerful run blocker at the next level, but he's struggled in that area while being even worse in protection. His slow feet could make him an easy target when the Pats move Jones and/or Jabaal Sheard inside as quick interior rushers. Henderson is a former blue chip prospect who has all the physical tools to play left tackle, but he was roughed up as a rookie last year and has shown little improvement in 2015.
How much has the right side of the line hurt the Bills? Despite boasting three blue chip starters AND passing on fewer downs than all but two teams in the league, the Bills have allowed more sacks (27) than all but six teams in the league. The opportunities should be there for the Pats to attack those weak spots, especially if Jabaal Sheard is worked more into the mix in his second game back from an ankle injury.
While the Pats will certainly attack at times, they'll likely pick and choose their spots due to the mobility of Tyrod Taylor. Taylor is one of the league's most athletic quarterbacks, and his scrambling ability hurt the Patriots in Week 2 (5 rushes, 43 yards and a touchdown). Expect the Pats to go with a "controlled" rush approach, using their edge guys to collapse the pocket and force Taylor to step up into what should be an interior clogged up with their big, powerful tackles. The key here is to take away Taylor's escape lanes, as his speed allows him to gobble up yards quickly when given space. Taking that space away is especially key due to the Patriots recent trend towards man coverage, which leaves the middle of the field more vulnerable against scrambling quarterbacks.
Roman has done a good job of building his passing game to accentuate Taylor's strengths and cover up his weaknesses. As those passing attempt numbers suggest, Taylor has rarely been asked to carry the team on his shoulders. Rather, he's been allowed to largely be efficient, using his legs when appropriate to threaten the defense. His completion percentage of 70.5% actually leads all passers with 100+ attempts, a testament both to Taylor's better than expected play and Roman's ability to keep him out of bad situations. The strength of their running game has opened up play action, which has given Taylor the time hit some bombs (he throws an excellent deep ball). Taylor's also done a good job of avoiding turnovers, throwing just four interceptions in his seven starts. In fact, three of those picks came against the Patriots back in Week 2, and a repeat of that swarming performance will go a long way towards a victory on Monday night.
While the Pats have stuck largely with man-coverage and assigned matchups in their secondary recently, we'll see if that trend continues this week. Rookie Justin Coleman had been solid in the nickelback role, but he was ineffective last week playing with a cast over his hand and was eventually benched for Rashaan Melvin. Melvin wasn't much better, as Eli Manning picked on him several times during the Giants would-be game winning drive. Coleman has yet to practice this week, leaving his status for Monday in doubt. It will likely be Melvin in that third cornerback spot if Coleman can't go, although a practice squad call up (Chris Greenwood and Brock Vereen were added this week to bolster depth) could be coming if Coleman's injury leaves the team with just three healthy corners on the active roster.
Malcolm Butler will likely do battle with the explosive Watkins
If the Pats do stick with their man/matchup principles despite that weakness at third corner, it will likely be due to their trust in Malcolm Butler. Butler is coming off of arguably the best overall performance of his career, smothering Giants superstar Odell Beckham Jr. for the majority of the Pats comeback win. This week, Butler will probably see plenty of Sammy Watkins. Watkins, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, has flashed big time playmaking ability, leading the team in receiving touchdowns (3), yards per catch (15) and yards per game (54.8) despite missing three games with various injuries. Watkins' smooth athleticism makes him a natural route runner and an intriguing matchup for the similarly athletic Butler. Watkins did catch a touchdown against the Pats in their first matchup, but he did so by roasting the since-released Bradley Fletcher. Things should be much harder to come by for Watkins this time around.
The second receiver is Robert Woods, a 2013 second round pick. Woods has flashed playmaking ability throughout his career, but he's never been able to turn it into consistent production. Given the lack of volume in the Bills passing attack, it's hard to complain too much about his 2015 output (29 catches, 314 yards, 2 touchdowns), although Bills fans would like a few more big plays to boost his pedestrian 10.8 yards per catch. Logan Ryan, coming off of another solid week against the Giants Reuben Randle, will likely get this matchup if the Pats stick with man coverage.
The third receiver is the one to worry about from a Patriots perspective, and that's been Chris Hogan ever since Percy Harvin hit the injured reserve list. At 6'1" and a listed 220 pounds, Hogan adds some size to the Bills receiving group. He's played just over 52% of the Bills offensive snaps this season and has made the most of his opportunities, snagging 69% of his targets for 20 catches, 235 yards (11.8 per catch) and 2 touchdowns. Those aren't staggering numbers by any means, but Hogan is a capable receiver who should be targeted often by Taylor given the likely matchup with the struggling Melvin.
While Watkins is the biggest name amongst the Bills pass catchers, their leader with regards to statistical production has been tight end Charles Clay. Clay leads the team in targets (57), catches (40) and receiving yards (408), and his ability to create mismatches in the passing game has proven to be worth the money the Bills spent to pry him away from Miami last offseason. As a Dolphin, Clay was often a focal point of the Patriots defensive game plans, but he'll likely draw primary man coverage from Patrick Chung this week. Chung's ability in press-man coverage has been a revelation this year, as he's excelled at taking away opposing tight ends. If he struggles, the Pats could shift the assignment to Devin McCourty, with Duron Harmon receiving more snaps as the single-high safety, but Chung's 2015 play leaves little reason to expect that.
The other two tight ends are pure blockers who offer little in the passing game. The Patriots are familiar with Matthew Mulligan, who contributed on the 2013 team as a run blocking specialist. The presence of Mulligan and/or fullback Jerome Felton is typically a key that a run play is coming. Third tight end Chris Gragg played fairly well in his lone stint of meaningful playing time (Week 6-7), but he's largely fallen off the map since.
A final key for the Patriots to be aware of is the Bills usage of their running backs in the passing game. Both McCoy and Williams excel at screens, which the Bills use well as another way to give their talented backs opportunities in space. The screen game could also be an effective Buffalo counter to the Patriots pass rush, which sacked Tyrod Taylor a whopping 8 times back in Week 2.
Despite some excellent individual efforts, the Buffalo defense hasn't been the dominant unit it was expected to be thus far in 2015. Overall, they rank just 15th in the league in scoring defense (23 per game), 17th in yards allowed (3,146) and 24th in first downs allowed (190). To put things in perspective, last season they ranks fourth (18.1 ppg), fourth and fifth in those same categories.
The regression of their run defense has played a big factor in that statistical drop. The Bills talented and deep defensive line was supposed to buoy a stingy run defense this season and for the first five games of the year they kept to the script, holding opponents to just 3.8 yards per carry and 82 rushing yards per game. However, the past four games have seen them relapse into mediocrity, allowing 4.35 yards per carry and 116 rushing yards per game.
Dareus is a massive presence, particularly against the run
That recent downtick has coincided with the absence of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who has not played since injuring his knee back in Week 6 and has already been ruled out for Monday's game. Pats fans are well aware of Williams' abilities, as he's been a thorn in the Pats side in the past. He's been replaced in the lineup by Corbin Bryant, whose performance has steadily trended downward after a strong start. He's clearly the guy to run at in the interior, as Pro Bowler Marcell Dareus is still a massive (6'3", 331) presence in the middle. Dareus' combination of size, power and explosion makes him one of the league's top run defenders, and he presents problems as an interior rusher as well.
The drop-off from Williams to Bryant has exposed Buffalo's linebackers, who have regressed after playing well in 2014. The every-down duo of Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown have had abysmal seasons against the run. Like Bryant, Bradham has steadily declined all season after a solid start. Brown's play against the run has been poor all season, but he has flashed some strong performances in coverage. The third linebacker in the base defense, Manny Lawson, has been a strong run defender, but he comes off the field when the Bills go nickel, which limits his chances to make an impact. It remains to be seen how the Patriots offense looks this week, as they appear set to get their starting tackles back, but also face their first full game without both Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis as options in the passing game. If they continue to use multiple tight ends as often as they did against the Giants, we could see more base defense from the Bills as a counter, which would bolster their run defense a bit.
Even with Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon tentatively expected to return and give the Pats pass protection a boost, running the ball will open up options for an offense that has lost two of it's top three receiving targets in the last two games. The ability of their interior linemen (particularly Shaq Mason, whose ability to pull has become a big part of their running game) to get a hat on the linebackers at the second level will be key. They did so effectively against Washington, which enabled LeGarrette Blount to go off, but failed to do so last week, as the Giants linebackers made a noticeable impact in slowing Blount down. The Pats haven't been a particularly strong rushing team this season, as only six teams have rushed for fewer than their season-long 3.9 yards per carry, but it was still discouraging to see them fail to establish the run against a struggling Giants run defense. They hardly tried to run at the Bills in Week 2, mixing in just 15 runs against 59 passing attempts, but the injuries to Williams, Lewis and Edelman have changed the picture quite a bit for both teams.
Another change is the Patriots situation at offensive tackle, which will look much different if Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon both make their anticipated returns to the lineup. If both players return, it remains to be seen how they will be aligned. Remember, it was Cannon who originally replaced Nate Solder at left tackle, with Vollmer staying in his comfort zone on the right side. Cannon's week six injury forced practice squad call-up Cameron Fleming into the lineup, with the far-superior pass blocker Vollmer switching to the blindside out of necessity. That move coincided with a precipitous drop-off in Vollmer's performance in pass protection, which opens up the question of whether the Pats would be better off moving Vollmer back to his preferred right tackle spot. Cannon is hardly ideal at left tackle, but the Pats could minimize the damage there by giving help through the backs and tight ends.
How the Pats tackles align will certainly matter against the Bills explosive edge duo this week. Mario Williams may be the bigger name, but the speedy Jerry Hughes is having the better season. Hughes is undersized at 6'2" and 254 pounds, but he has dynamic speed around the edge which he uses to wreak havoc with disruptive plays. Hughes and Williams are tied for the team lead with three sacks a piece, but Hughes has brought pressure on a far more consistent basis than Williams, who has seen his pass rushing decline quite a bit this season. Hughes has also made more impact plays, forcing two fumbles and recovering another (he had a strip-sack during the Bills failed Week 2 comeback against the Patriots). Williams has maintained his strong run defense, but Hughes should be the rusher to demand extra attention in the form of chip blocks and tight end help, regardless of which tackle draws him.
Even if Vollmer and Cannon return, I'd expect Rex Ryan to get aggressive this week with his blitz packages to try and disrupt the rhthym of a Patriots offense that's transitioning on the fly. The Bills have only 14 sacks all season, a shockingly low number for a Ryan coached defense (only the Falcons, Giants and Colts have fewer). With the Pats possibly looking to throw down the field a little more often with their top two checkdown options gone, throwing the kitchen sink at the Pats to create disruption might not be the worst option for a defense that has underachieved with regards to rushing the passer.
Darby has been a revelation as a rookie
The fact that the Bills have struggled to generate pressure makes the performance of their secondary all the more impressive. The Bills heavy investments in their secondary are paying dividends, as 2012 top 10 pick Stephon Gilmore and 2015 second round rookie Ronald Darby have turned in excellent seasons on the outside. Gilmore has blossomed into the number one role, but the hyper-athletic Darby has been arguably even more impressive, as he's more than held up despite being peppered by targets as quarterbacks look to avoid Gilmore. With Gilmore being a little bigger and more physical, he could be a natural matchup for Brandon LaFell, while Darby's natural athleticism suits him for a night of chasing around the shifty Danny Amendola.
The spot to attack in this secondary is nickel corner, where Nickell Robey has been a weaklink all season. The Patriots could particularly feast on Robey if the Bills leave him in the slot regardless of matchup, which would mean plenty of time against Danny Amendola. At just 5'7", Robey also represents a poor matchup against either of the Pats potential number three receiver options: Keshawn Martin (who'll likely be a game time decision after remaining limited at practice by his balky hamstring), or the 6'3" Aaron Dobson. McKelvin brings a little more size to the mix at 5'11", but he's another guy Brady will go after whenever he's in the game.
When fully healthy, that third corner role would be one for the Patriots to really go after, but the uncertainty surrounding the third receiver position with Edelman out of the picture could mean more multiple tight end looks for this offense. They played the vast majority of the Giants game with at least two tight ends on the field and it wouldn't be surprising if they replicate that this week against the Bills. However, it's worth noting that many of those multiple tight end looks included Rob Gronkowski split out wide as a receiver, which could be a way to get the Pats top three receiving threats (Gronk/LaFell/Amendola) all out wide with Amendola drawing Robey in the slot. Gronk ate the Bills alive in Week 2, doing some of that damage while split out.
With Edelman and Lewis both gone, someone other than just Amendola is likely to see an uptick in targets. In an ideal world, that someone would be Scott Chandler, whose emergence as another receiving threat would make the Pats offense much harder to defend. Brady seemed to be trying to get Chandler involved against the Giants, but the big tight end continued his underwhelming season by dropping two catchable passes. It's not the first time he's failed to take advantage of his opportunities this season, and he could be in danger of getting phased out of the offense if he doesn't step up and start to earn Brady's trust soon.
Attacking with the tight ends could be particularly advantageous this week given the Bills situation at safety. Converted cornerback Corey Graham has been solid as the only constant at the position, but the Bills have struggled to replace former second round pick Aaron Williams on the back end. Bacarri Rambo got an early shot at the job, but his coverage was poor enough to earn a seat on the bench despite showing some excellent play against the run. Since his demotion, the job has primarily been done by Duke Williams, who can be picked on in coverage. Former starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin has also entered the mix at safety after finally getting activated from the NFI list in Week 8. The former first round pick provides more range at the position, but is still inexperienced playing from the middle of the field as opposed to outside the numbers. He'll also be at a major size disadvantage against either Gronk or Chandler in coverage.
The Pats special teams played a big role in their win over the Giants last week, and should have the advantage this week at home. The Bills have struggled all year to generate field position from their return game, with a number of return options all putting up disappointing numbers. McKelvin became the latest name to throw his hat into the ring, handling his old job as the team's punt returner last week against the Jets. McKelvin has been a dangerous return man in the past, but he found little room to work with in his returning debut last week. The Pats punt coverage, aided by a strong season from punter Ryan Allen, have held opponents to just 6.1 yards per punt return all season, and should be able to limit McKelvin this week.
Kick returns have been even worst for the Bills, with their longest return on the season traveling just 28 yards. They've split primary return duties since Percy Harvin was lost for the season, with Marcus Thigpen, Anthony Dixon, Dan Herron and Denarius Moore all getting ineffective shots at the job. The Pats kick coverage has been excellent the rare times that Stephen Gostkowski's booming kickoffs have been returned, allowing just 20 yards per return, and they should also be able to keep Buffalo from generating any momentum shifting plays.
The kicking game is solid if unspectacular for Buffalo. Dan Carpenter has made 12-14 field goals this season, making him more reliable than the average kicker. However, he does have a miss between 30-39 yards and two missed extra points to his name, making him clearly a step-down from Stephen Gostkowski, who comes into this game riding high after making the game winning 54 yarder against the Giants. Punter Colton Schmidt has been above average as well, with his 47.8 yards per punt and long of 65 yards showcasing his strong leg.
Despite solid season long performances in both punt and kick coverage, the Bills have lost the field position battle this season. They've started their average possession on the 26.4 yard line, while their opponents have had the luxury of starting their average possession from the 28.5. The Patriots ability to control field position played a role in their jumping out to an early lead back in Week 2, with Amendola's 28 yard punt return proving to be a key play. They could get a repeat performance in that area this week.
We hardly needed more evidence of the extent that the Patriots are in Rex Ryan's head, but Rexy provided us with several examples over the last week and a half. First were his comments about "circling the Pats game", which came before even playing their week 10 game against the Jets (imagine the backlash he would've gotten for that if the Jets had completed their late comeback and come away with the win). Then came yesterday's conference call with the local New England media, in which Rex appeared to get flustered by a question about his recent lack of success against Belichick's Patriots.
The Pats have always been the White Whale to Rex's Captain Ahab, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Rex throw everything he has into this one. His team playing on the road as a heavy underdog in front of a national television audience. While a loss would be expected, a win would be downright galvanizing for a Bills team that is right in the middle of the playoff race (if the playoffs started today, they'd be in as the final wild card, sneaking past the Jets by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreaker). Ending the Patriots undefeated regular season would also be a major victory for Rex for obvious reasons.
However, the Brady/Belichick Pats don't lose at home, and they should be stronger with the expected reinforcements to their offensive line. While the loss of top weapons like Edelman and Lewis will hurt, the Pats still have enough weapons to score on any defense, with the massive mismatch Gronkowski poses as the catalyst. Throw in Brady's pristine career record against the Bills (24-3) and you won't find me picking against them this week.