Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Safeties Play Key Role In Patriots Rugged Win Over Bills

Patriots corners Logan Ryan (26) and Malcolm Butler (21) frustrated Buffalo's receivers all evening
The New England Patriots have one of the deepest safety corps in the National Football League, and on Monday night, they all showed up.

Short on cornerbacks and facing a Buffalo Bills team with a plethora of speedy weapons and a dangerously mobile quarterback, Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick called on his blue liners to help out in coverage - and while it wasn't always aesthetically pleasing to the milk and cookies crowd, the football purists saw a game for the ages...

...a brutal struggle between division rivals in which the undefeated world champions dug deep - both into their guts and their depth chart - to grind out a 20-13 win over the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium and in front of a National audience who witnessed two defensive savants collide in one of the hardest hitting games of the season.

Patrick Chung is a regular at the strong safety position, playing in the box and taking on running backs and tight ends, but left those guys to seldom used fellow safety Tavon Wilson and linebacker Dont'a Hightower in favor of handling wide receivers, while reserve safeties Nate Ebner and Brandon King flexed their considerable muscles on special teams...

...and free safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon protected the deep third of the field, playing over the top of their besieged compatriots, McCourty perfectly playing a deep ball to Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy in the end zone, knocking the ball from his grip and forcing the Bills to attempt a field goal, one that Bills' kicker Dan Carpenter bounced off the upright, setting up the Patriots' offense in good field position for their first touchdown.

It wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination - what with Buffalo receiver Chris Hogan breaking free for big chunks of yardage, and Chung getting away with what appeared to be an obvious pass interference and Butler actually being flagged for one that was just as obvious - but they made enough plays to get off the field on third down, holding the Bills to an abysmal 3 of 15 on such occasions.

The New England defense came into Monday night's game riding a streak of four consecutive games holding opponents rushing games under 100 yards and holding opposing passers under 300 yards in seven out of their previous nine games - and they managed to extend both.

Buffalo's fourth ranked running game got close, gaining 94 yards - but it took 30 carries to reach that mark, and were it not for McCoy breaking loose for a 27-yard touchdown early in the second half, the Bill's output of 3.1 yards per carry would have been much worse, as Hightower, fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive end Jabaal Sheard combined to keep Bills' runners between the tackles.

Bills' quarterback Tyrod Taylor finished the game 20 of 36 for 233 yards, but was just 13 of 24 for a paltry 135 yards before the Patriots went up by two scores and forced them to the air late in the game, as corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan were spectacular in coverage once again, Butler on Buffalo's top threat Sammy Watkins while Ryan concentrated on possession man Robert Woods, neither having any significant impact on the game.

Things really weren't much better for the Patriots' offense as, in fact, they missed on more opportunities than the Bills' offense did, causing the score to be not as lopsided as it could have been.

New England quarterback Tom Brady also completed 20 passes, but took 39 attempts to get there with a half dozen thrown into the turf in the general direction of a receiver and he also had a ball tipped for another red zone interception, all while taking more hits than an acid freak at a Grateful Dead concert, his one touchdown throw coming on a designed wheel route to running back James White who broke a tackle on the sideline to finish a 20 yard catch and run...

...who also scored on a six yard power blast off right tackle halfway through the third period that proved to be the winning points. In all, White averaged 7 yards per carry and 16 yards per reception in spot duty, while lead back LeGarrette Blount - after being stymied for just four yards in the first half - broke out for 52 yards in the four minute offense in the second half.

In all, the Patriots averaged four yards per carry against the Bills', something that they are going to have to increasingly rely on with the injury situation faced by New England, a situation that got incrementally worse as the game wore on.

Fragile speedster Aaron Dobson appeared to hurt his ankle on his one catch for the evening, but the bigger blow was to Amendola, who put up Edelman-like numbers for the second game in a row, but pulled up lame with what the Patriots are calling a knee injury. Amendola is scheduled for a Tuesday MRI, and while the obvious hope is that he's suffered just a sprain, the fact alone that he's even having the procedure speaks to him missing some games.

What that means to the offense remains to be seen, but if the Patriots can go forward improvising with their pass catching corps like they did with the safeties improvising as corners, they should be just fine until their fallen start to return...

In the end, however, this game was all about defense with the Patriots' criminally underrated unit battering Buffalo's Taylor into submission, sacking him twice and roughing him up on a half a dozen more occasions, a hit by Patriots' linebacker Rob Ninkovich reducing him to tossing Peyton Manning-like ducks down the field during crunch time, grimacing with each movement of his passing shoulder.

There is no reason to expect anything but a similar product this coming Sunday evening in Denver, where is will be Brock Osweiler tossing the rock while the aforementioned Manning gets treatment for his various ailments...

...and with the Patriots receiving corps eerily resembling the unit that Belichick fielded in the 2013 AFC Championship game in Denver - one that had just two healthy receivers and no tight ends of any mention - another tough-it-out game should be expected if New England is to remain undefeated and clinch the AFC East.

But this time around the Patriots have one Rob Gronkowski healthy, a decent power running game and a top rated defensive unit to fall back on if all else fails - but these are the New England Patriots, and you don't hear the word "fail" very often when considering what they can bring to the table, be it regular starters or the next man up.

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