The worst part of the Patriots’ loss to Buffalo on Thursday night?
Not the stagnant, white-bread offense that drew criticism from inside the locker room post-game. Not the defense that still cannot slow or solve Josh Allen. Not even the coaching that bumbled a critical 2-minute drill before halftime.
The agony of last Thursday night starts with the Bills playing the exact game the Patriots coaching staff hoped they would play — and winning anyway.
Defensively, the Pats fielded six defensive backs on 78% of their snaps over Buffalo’s first two series, a clear invitation to run. Starting on their third possession, the Bills obliged. Rushing consistently may have kept the Patriots defense on the field, but it also prevented Allen and Co. from striking quickly and fatally, like they had in the 47-17 Wild Card blowout last January.
Over its final eight possessions, Buffalo scored just 14 points. Early in those eight drives, Allen grew impatient, threw a couple passes that bounced off defenders’ hands and led to the Bills’ first punt in 24 possessions against the Pats. On the next series, Allen scrambled wildly and got strip-sacked inside the 2-minute warning for a critical turnover.
Success. Except the Patriots took that gift, a lost fumble at midfield with 1:20 left in the half, and … squandered it with three runs and two burned timeouts over the next 50 seconds.
In fact, their offense did even worse, going scoreless until the final 1:57, when Nick Folk kicked a pointless field goal in a half-empty stadium. Buffalo’s defense did not disrupt the Pats. Rather, after dominating them with man-to-man coverage in their previous two meetings, the Bills backed off.
They played soft zone on all but four of Mac Jones’ dropbacks, the same type of coverage the Patriots shredded last week at Minnesota.
“We didn’t do anything different,” said Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa post-game. “We didn’t do our blitzes. We didn’t do anything extraordinary. We just kind of did what we do.”
And yet, offensive play-caller Patricia did not deviate from his short passing game plan designed to exploit Buffalo’s tackling issues and protect a leaky offensive line. Eventually, his stubborn timidity — which included calling a downfield wide receiver screen on third-and-14 at midfield early in the third quarter while trailing by 10 — had Mac Jones exploding on the sideline. By the time the Patriots attacked downfield, they trailed by three scores late in the quarter.
As their season closes (crumbles?), it’s important to remember Bill Belichick streamlined the offensive system for his new coaches as much as his players. Because coaches, like offensive newbies Patricia and Joe Judge. can only teach what they know. It’s why they travel from job with the same playbook tucked under their arms, except in New England where Belichick is the system and the system Belichick.
The trade-off Belichick intended to make for his players with this change was lightening their mental load so physically they could play faster. It’s how the Bills defense operates, calling and executing the same handful of complementary coverages and blitzes that they master year after year and then disguise each week versus their opponents. Aside from a clear talent gap, the difference Thursday stemmed from coaching the details of that philosophy
While the well-coached Bills defense beat the Pats to the point of attack, the right gap and eventually the scoreboard, every Patriots O-lineman, except right guard Mike Onwenu, was whistled for holding. Hunter Henry allowed a run stuff and dropped a pass. Kendrick Bourne and Rhamondre Stevenson dropped others, too. Mac Jones was allowed to attempt just five play-action passes, despite completing most of them, and stopped throwing RPOs late, even though one created his 48-yard touchdown to Marcus Jones.
And the worst part of that? It wasn’t even his fault.
Here’s what else the film revealed about Thursday’s loss:
Stat line: 22-of-36, 195 yards, TD, 1 sack
Accurate throw percentage: 72.7%
Under pressure: 5-of-13 for 20 yards, 1 sack
Against the blitz: 3-of-3, 67 yards, TD, 1 sack
Behind the line: 7-of-7 for 68 yards, TD
0-9 yards: 12-of-17 for 85 yards
10-19 yards: 3-of-6 for 42 yards
20+ yards: 0-of-3
Notes: Limited by a conservative game plan and his own offensive line, there was little more Jones could do Thursday than survive.
He lived within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and never ventured deep, while coming under fire on nearly 40% of his dropbacks. Jones was also slightly more inaccurate than usual, often firing too high, and nearly took a safety when he was flagged for intentional grounding outside the goal line when he should’ve thrown the ball away at the top of a covered 3-step drop passing play. All together, he played a solid game on a night he needed to shine, but was rarely afforded an opportunity to impact the game.
OLB Josh Uche
His best game as a pro. Uche registered two sacks, hurried Josh Allen on two other snaps and played consistent run defense. The breakout is real, and it is spectacular.
CB Marcus Jones
Jones scored the Patriots’ only touchdown and played outside corner for stretches over fellow rookie Jack Jones. While the rest of the rookie class has faded since the bye, Jones has starred.
CB Jack Jones
He was whistled for a game-high two penalties, including one pass interference call. Jones also let up a couple catches and was briefly benched in the middle quarters.
CB Jonathan Jones
No Patriots faced a more difficult 1-on-1 matchup than Jon Jones, who battled regularly with Bills All-Pro wideout Stefon Diggs. But that doesn’t entirely excuse being in coverage on Allen’s touchdown throws or allowing six other catches.
OT Trent Brown
Brown, who was ill Thursday night, surrendered two hurries, a QB hit and one run stuff. He was also whistled for holding.
- Personnel: 80% of snaps in 11 personnel, 20% snaps in 12 personnel.*
Personnel production: 4.7 yards/play in 11 personnel, 3.9 yards/play in 12 personnel
- First down play-calls: 27% run (4.7 yards per play), 73% pass (5.2 yards per play)
- Play-action rate: 15.8%
- Third downs: 3-12
- Red-zone efficiency: 0-1
- Pressure rate allowed: 39.5%
- Broken tackles: Rhamondre Stevenson 7, Marcus Jones
- Sacks allowed: Team
- QB hits allowed: Trent Brown
- Hurries allowed: Brown 2, Conor McDermott 2, Mike Onwenu 2, Cole Strange 2
- Run stuffs allowed: Brown, Hunter Henry, Team
- Penalties: OT Trent Brown (holding), C David Andrews (holding), OG Cole Strange (holding), OT Conor McDermott (holding) QB Mac Jones (intentional grounding)
- Drops: Rhamondre Stevenson, Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne
- In his attempts to protect an injured offensive line, play-caller Matt Patricia hurt the offense as a whole with his passing plan. It was not diverse nor threatening enough to give the Patriots a chance in the second half.
- Patricia opened multiple drives with Day 1 install concepts like Stick, slant-flat, double slants and bubble screens off RPOs. Like every other defense in the NFL, the Bills have seen these countless times before and reacted as such.
- Patricia’s initial script was encouraging, with most of his first nine calls consisting of play-action and RPOs. But he largely ditched both down the stretch in favor of a short, static passing game.
- The Marcus Jones wrinkle was his only success, and it was hardly a stroke of genius. Jones, who took some offensive snaps in college, is one of the Pats’ most athletic players and best ball carriers. Featuring him on occasional snaps made sense.
- But outside of Jones, the Patriots failed to total 200 yards against a defense they should have kept in mind when streamlining their offense last spring. Buffalo has allowed the Pats fewer than 19 offensive points per game since coach Sean McDermott took over in 2017.
- Before their final drive, the Patriots converted a single third down and didn’t take a snap inside the red zone.
- Rhamondre Stevenson took 53 of the team’s 54 offensive snaps, the other going to sixth-round rookie Kevin Harris, who got blasted on his only carry. Stevenson is getting close to over-worked, as the Patriots leading rusher and top target in their passing game.
- Mac Jones’ trust issues, both with his protection and receivers’ ability to separate downfield, surface most clearly when he zips through his reads to find Stevenson for a checkdown, something that happened frequently against Buffalo.
- Out wide, Marcus Jones led all Patriots’ pass catchers in yards and finished with two catches, trailing only Stevenson and Jakobi Meyers in that department.
- Tyquan Thornton’s chemistry with Mac Jones has eroded over the last few weeks. The rookie’s role has primarily been to clear out the deep safeties, and while he’s effective in that role, the Patriots would benefit from moving him around the formation and using him in motion.
- The offensive tackle situation is a mess. Trent Brown was the Pats’ worst-performing player there Thursday, and whether it’s Yodny Cajuste, Isaiah Wynn or Conor McDermott at right tackle, the Pats have been unable to solve that position all year.
- Personnel breakdown: 53.5% dime package, 22.5% three-safety nickel package, 10% three-corner nickel package, 8.5% base, 5.5% dollar.**
- Blitz rate: 29.7%
- Blitz efficacy: 6.4 yards per play allowed
- Yards per carry allowed: 3.6
- Third downs: 9-15
- Red-zone efficiency: 3-3
- Pressure rate: 29.7%
- Interceptions: None
- Pass deflections: Kyle Dugger 2, Marcus Jones
- Sacks: Josh Uche 2
- QB hits: Uche, Dugger, Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux
- Hurries: Uche 2, Lawrence Guy, Daniel Ekuale, Raekwon McMillan
- Run stuffs: Judon, Ekuale, Jabrill Peppers, Jack Jones
- Missed tackles: Dugger, Ekuale, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Mack Wilson
- Penalties: CB Jack Jones (pass interference, holding), CB Jonathan Jones (holding) LB DaMarcus Mitchell (holding on kick return)
- The Patriots successfully slowed Buffalo with light personnel and disguised Cover 2 and man-coverage calls, but never seized control of the game. Josh Allen, when he wasn’t making boneheaded throws, was simply too good; most notably on his second touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis.
- The same can be said for Diggs, for whom the Pats still have no answers. He converted three third downs in the second half and caught a touchdown in the first quarter. Within time, he smoked every Patriots cornerback in 1-on-1 coverage.
- Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick did not do enough to help his cornerbacks when matched 1-on-1 with Diggs in key situations. Whenever Allen sniffed out man-to-man, he played matchup ball and picked his best option.
- Belichick also thew the kitchen sink at Allen with creeper calls (4-man rushes with one man dropping off the line of scrimmage and a second or third-level defender blitzing), 8-man coverages, zone blitzes, disguised man-to-man defenses and more.
- Allen often killed the clock by checking to run plays against 2-high coverages. Bills running back James Cook expedited this process by breaking four tackles.
- The Patriots toyed with the Bills’ protection to start their first and third possessions, dropping Matt Judon off the line and blitzing from the opposite side.
- Quiet game for Deatrich Wise, who finished without a pressure for the first game all season.
Statistics for passing depth, broken tackles and missed tackles courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
*11 personnel = one running back, one tight end; 12 personnel = one running back, two tight ends; 21H = two halfbacks, one tight end.
**Base defense = four defensive backs; nickel defense = five defensive backs; dime defense = six defensive backs; goal-line defense = three defensive backs; dollar defense = seven defensive backs.