Thursday, September 17, 2015

Gap Integrity, Edge Containment Key for Patriots' Defense Against Bills

The Buffalo Bills weren't hard to figure out last season, nor are they that hard to figure out this year.

A big win over Green Bay and going 4-2 in the AFC East with lopsided dominance over the New York Jets in 2014 were negated by bad losses to the likes of Oakland and Houston. And, of course, one of their wins was over the New England Patriots on the last day of the season - a Patriots' squad that was resting a majority of their starters and still lost only by a touchdown.

Regardless, posting nine wins was a boon for the hungry Bills' fans, who hadn't seen their team finish at or above .500 in a decade, nor had they experienced a trip to the playoffs since Wade Phillips led them to the postseason in 1998 and 1999 with Doug Flutie under center - and if those fans are to be believed, all that was missing that would have made the 2014 Buffalo Bills a playoff team was attitude and intensity.

Oh, and a quarterback.

So imagine how stoked the fans were when the ownership went out and snagged a big dose of attitude and intensity in hiring former New York Jets' coach Rex Ryan to lead the team this season who, after being crushed by the Bills twice last season, had to figure that it was easier to join them than to try and beat them.
Sheard came up huge vs Steelers, and will be counted on vs Bills

Despite his jocular playfulness with the media, Ryan is all business. Intense and considered by many to be on a level approaching that of New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick when it comes to defensive genius, Ryan takes over a team that had one of the best defenses in the NFL combined with an offense that was a player or two short of escaping mediocrity.

The problems on offense weren't tough for Ryan to address in the offseason, as most of the issue came down to health of the skill position players, adequacy along the offensive line and the fact that their quarterback was a much traveled and now retired 32 year old Kyle Orton, who was backed up by the equally unimpressive EJ Manuel.

So Ryan dumped his oft-injured running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in favor of former Philadelphia Eagles' All Pro runner LeSean McCoy, allowed physically limited tight end Scott Chandler to escape to New England in favor of former Miami Dolphins move tight end Charles Clay and reworked the offensive line by drafting Louisville slugger John Miller to man right guard and signing former Dolphins' bully Richie Incognito to take over at left guard.

Ryan also improved his pass catching ranks by bringing former Jet Percy Harvin along for the ride and adding him to a receiving corps that already featured more speed than one would find from a back-alley pusher, and is welcoming back Marquise Goodwin from the injured list.

The only question that remained was who would be throwing the ball to them, with Ryan answering by naming former Baltimore Ravens' fifth-year career backup Tyrod Taylor as his starting signal caller, rendering the disappointing Manuel and journeyman Matt Cassell to being clipboard holders, and putting in play the boot option which Ryan seems to prefer over pure pocket passing.

On Paper, that should be enough to put the Bills in playoff contention, despite the inexperience at quarterback, given that Ryan returns nearly every member of that top five defense that added Florida State speedster Ronald Darby to their already excellent secondary - but while his offense dominated the Indianapolis Colts in the first half of their season opener last Sunday, the entire team tailed off badly in the second half, allowing the Colts to make a comeback that fell short due to their own ineptitude.

The Patriots likely will not fall victim to the same manner of ineptitude, but must take into account the improvements made by Ryan and his staff - and it all starts with stopping the run and getting pressure on Taylor.

One game does not a season make, but the tale of two halves represent perhaps a gap between all of Buffalo's talent and their ability to morph with their opponents' adjustments, not to mention their lack of discipline - particularly along their offensive line - as an inordinate number of penalties helped to contribute to stalled drives.

Actually, the best drive the Bills put together all day was an 11 play, 80 yard effort which showed that the Bills can maintain and extend drives with balance, as Taylor threw 4 times for 48 yards while the Bills ground game contributed 27 yards on seven carries - with the remainder of their scoring drives being of the quick, big play variety as Buffalo found paydirt on two series of five plays each.

Buffalo showed great balance in their scoring onslaught through the first half, capped off by the beauty of a drive to start the second half and surviving multiple holding penalties on their offensive linemen, but faltered after that point to net just 52 total yards and three points in the five series spanning most of the third quarter and all of the fourth... holding penalties on the line and the Colts ability to pressure Taylor into quick, off-target throws doomed those drives - and that is what the Patriots' defense should be concentrating on in order to even the odds against a talented Buffalo offense.

In spite of the reworking of the line, Buffalo is still dealing with two incumbent tackles who are nowhere near elite. Cordy Glenn is employed to protect Taylor's blind side, yet he was the man primarily responsible for the line's breakdown in the second half, being called for holding twice and generally being a turnstile that allowed drive-altering pressure on the quarterback time and again.

Center Eric Wood, also an incumbent that Ryan couldn't find anyone to replace, had a tough time of it in the second half as well - which shouldn't be that surprising given that all of the linemen are drive-blocking maulers with limited pass protection ability, meaning that first and foremost, the Patriots must concentrate of stopping the run this Sunday, putting the inexperienced Taylor in the pocket on third down behind his shaky pass pro line.

Last Thursday, the Pittsburgh Steelers spread out the Patriots' defense by deploying speed on the outside, much like what the Bills will be able to do, the difference being that Taylor is no Ben Roethlisberger, and the Buffalo offensive line has  a ways to go to match the protection that Pittsburgh's line gave their thrower...

...especially on the wings where Seantrel Henderson is a train wreck at right tackle and where Glenn is slow and plodding, relying on grabbing onto the defender and hoping that the ref is paying attention elsewhere. Henderson is massive, and does well in the run game but needed former Patriot Matthew Mulligan to help him out on the edge in pass protection.

All of this bodes well for the New England defensive ends, especially on the strong side where Jabaal Sheard has to be licking his chops at the prospect of locking horns with Henderson, but on the blind side, Chandler Jones must play under control and not do Glenn's job for him by being too aggressive with the outside technique and washing himself out of the play and allowing Taylor - a very fast and illusive runner - a running lane off tackle, where he killed the Colts by running for a full third of Buffalo's rushing yardage.

The Patriots should play a more conservative game plan of defense against the Bills than they did against the Steelers, trying to stop the run and forcing the game onto Taylor's shoulders. Unlike against the Steelers, the Patriots don't necessarily need to gain penetration on the interior, and must instead maintain gap integrity - allowing themselves to be prepared for the run with a full box and keeping Taylor in the pocket, where his lack of height becomes an issue, as one of his downfalls is his propensity for having balls batted down at the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots also had success in stopping the run against Pittsburgh by going with a three man line which allowed the athletic New England linebackers to better maintain their gap integrity by diagnosing the play on the fly while still playing light in the box - which also supports a tighter underneath zone for Buffalo's running backs and tight ends to contend with in the pattern.

This plan puts an great amount of pressure on the secondary, who should be running in the safety-heavy big nickle.

If last weeks was any indication of how balanced the Buffalo offense can be, having a third safety on the field should prove advantageous for New England, as half of Taylor's completions and more than half of his passing yardage went to McCoy and Clay on checkdowns. Linebacker Jamie Collins has had some luck against Clay in the past and safety Pat Chung is familiar with McCoy's moves as they were once teammates.

Harvin accounted for almost all of the rest of Buffalo's receiving yardage, most of which came on a pretty 51-yard bomb from Taylor, while Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Marquis Goodwin were all essentially locked down and shut out as Taylor too often felt pressure and opted for his second read, so against New England, Ryan will more than likely try to find a way to get those speedy guys the ball on shorties and allowing them to make defenders miss to gain yards after the catch.

This plays into the Patriots' hands, however, as slot corners Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher are best playing in that phone booth, keeping the receivers in front of them, and as it also allows for corners Malcolm Butler and Tarell Brown to play inside technique in either man or zone coverages, with safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon lending a hand from the blue line.

The Buffalo Bills are who they are, and it's not tough to figure out. They retained 12 skill position players (9 legitimate pass catchers and just three running backs) and kept three quarterbacks on their roster, showing that while Ryan prefers a boot action quarterback on the field, he isn't quite comfortable with a relatively unknown quantity...

...leaving little depth on their already inadequate offensive line, making them as thin a unit as one will ever see. So if the Patriots can stop the run - be it with four linemen or just three - and give themselves an opportunity for their pass rush to pin their ears back and come after Taylor, Buffalo's offense likely will struggle...

...but if they can't and Buffalo runs the football as they are able, opening up second or third and short situations, the talent at their skill positions and the fact that New England will have to respect their running ability instead of throwing caution to the wind in the pass rush could spell doom for the Patriots defense.

It's entirely up to the Patriots. Stop the run and keep Taylor in the pocket or be kept off balance by the plethora of weapons that Ryan and Taylor have at their disposal.

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