Monday, October 3, 2016

Bills Catch Patriots Short-Handed, Literally; Record Rare Shutout

The New England Patriots are flat out of quarterbacks.

At least, they were on Sunday afternoon, when the obviously damaged rookie signal caller Jacoby Brissett gave it the old college try what with a makeshift tape job around his injured thumb that fooled no one and an offensive game plan that rivaled Ben & Jerry's ice cream for vanilla content - but a college try wasn't going to work against a professional football team...

...even against the Buffalo Bills, who hadn't had a win against the Patriots that was significant in the AFC East standings in five years and hadn't shut them out in a baker's dozen, and certainly not with a series of play calls in the first half that made one think that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had Herman Boone in his headset, running the veer and assuring boy wonder that it was just like
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett coughs up one of five Patriots' fumbles
novocaine, give it time and it always works.

The defensive game plan was a little tougher to figure out.

One would think that with Buffalo's deep threat Sammy Watkins on the shelf, that the Patriots would have concentrated with stopping the run and keeping quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the pocket, not allowing him to the wings where he does much of his best work - and it's not as if Taylor set the world on fire against New England, but he really didn't need to.

Buffalo artfully mixed the run and the pass to their advantage as New England appeared to play full coverage down the field to eliminate speed merchant Marquis Goodwin from the equation - presumably to force Buffalo to have to grind out yardage and use up time off the clock - and while that goes against every tenet of defensive football, the impact of the plan would have been successful had the Patriots gotten anything out of the offense at all... confirmed not only by the meager point that Buffalo managed, they won 16-0, but also by the fact that they managed only nine possessions - and after the initial surge to start the game in which they built a thirteen point lead on a touchdown and two field goals on their first three drives, the Patriots' held the Bills to just three more points while forcing four punts.

It makes a certain sort of sense, an overmatched team playing a bend-but-don't-break style of defense, giving up yardage at a clip of four yards per play and making critical stops on third down, the relying on your special teams to flip field position to give your offense a chance to put enough points on the board to counter. 

If it works, you're a genius and if it doesn't - well - you get what we saw on Sunday afternoon.

Ideally, the defense did what they had to do even though it didn't play to their strengths, but the special teams - especially the kick return teams - were atrocious and the offense was so imbalanced that the Bills were ready for everything New England tried to do, and even when the Patriots got something positive going, penalties murdered their momentum.

The limitations to the forced game plan eschewed balance, though the final numbers - 27 passing plays compared to 22 running plays - are deceiving.  The Patriots totaled just 17 offensive plays in the first half, with 14 of those handoffs.  The numbers reversed in the second half as Brissett, bad thumb and all, threw the ball 24 times and handed off just eight times.

The disparity between the number of plays run by each team, 71-47 in favor of Buffalo, wasn't as glaring considering that the Patriots were more efficient with their plays - gaining nearly a yard-and-a-half more per play than Buffalo - and also considering that the Patriots had a whopping 139 yards erased by penalty...

...ninety of that on the first offensive play of the game on what was deemed to be offensive pass interference on receiver Chris Hogan, calling back a beautiful catch and run in the flat by Julian Edelman, and apparently deflating the Patriots' offense at the same moment.

How badly deflated? well, considering that the Patriots had just one first down at halftime and converted just once on third down the entire game in twelve tries, it is safe to assume that New England blew their first half wad on that first play from scrimmage. 

The only thing that New England's offense seemed to have going for it was their play calling on the first play of possessions, gaining a first down seven different times, four of those coming via Brissett finding tight end Martellus Bennett, who had something of a career day, his 109 receiving yards representing just his fourth 100 yard receiving day and his 58 yard catch and run in the second quarter the longest of his career.

The only other thing that was working was the running game, Patriots' power back LeGarrette Blount rumbling for 54 yards on 13 carries until McDaniels all but abandoned the ground attack in the second half after featuring it almost exclusively in the first half - obviously, the balance was there for New England overall, but it turned out to be a tale of two halfs with no balance in the play calling otherwise.

For all of the grumbling, the defense played decently, giving up 16 points and an acceptable 248 passing yards despite being on the field for just shy of 40 minutes.

Still, the scapegoat for the defense in this scenario was cornerback Logan Ryan, who drew underneath coverages on tight ends and running backs and, on a few less-than-memorable occasions, on the Bills' speedy wideouts, but the fact of the matter is that Ryan, Justin Coleman and even Malcolm Butler gave up key receptions that extended Buffalo drives.

On third down, the Bills were able to convert seven times out of 15 attempts, with Ryan and Butler giving up one a piece and Coleman two, but where the Bills were really successful was on second down, where they were able to pick up half of their twenty-four on the game, many of them on second and long plays.

The fact that Ryan was playing what was essentially the role of a strong safety spoke to the weird game plan, as the three safety Big Nickle look that has been successful against the likes of Arizona, Miami and Houston was abandoned in favor of a standard nickle, with Ryan and Justin Coleman being abused by the quick Buffalo receivers...

...and combined with Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long assigned to funnel everything towards the middle of the field, the Bills were able to run off left tackle - where Sheard or Long would have been otherwise - for a significant portion of their rushing yardage.

The good news for the defense is that they adjusted well after spotting Buffalo their thirteen point lead. In that onslaught to start the game, Buffalo picked up 244 of their 378 total yards for the game, allowing just 83 passing yards in the second half to go along with 51 rushing yards, a terrific effort despite being n the field for so long in the first half.

It goes without saying that having a healthy quarterback would have made a huge difference for New England's offense - either a healthy Brissett or Jimmy Garoppolo would have been enough to at least match what Buffalo could muster - but now the Patriots have back their regular starting signal caller as Tom Brady's suspension is over and he's set to take over, tanned, rested and ready.

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