Rex Ryan took the blame for the Bills’ 40-32 loss to the Patriots, saying “this loss is squarely on one man’s shoulders. . . . [Bill] Belichick outcoached me, no question about it.”
Let’s explore that notion, because it’s probably the best call Ryan made all day on Sunday.
The Patriots didn’t just beat the Bills because Tom Brady got the ball out of his hands quickly, and because Jamie Collins did a masterful job of containing Tyrod Taylor.
The Patriots also won because the Bills’ head coach made a bunch of boneheaded strategic decisions throughout the game.
■ Going for a 2-point conversion when the Bills cut the lead to 37-25 with 5:27 left in the fourth quarter. Why on earth would Ryan make this decision? An extra point cuts the gap to 11, which means the Bills would only need a touchdown, 2-point conversion, and a field goal to tie the game. Instead, the Bills failed on a 2-point rush, leaving the gap at 12, meaning they had to score two touchdowns to overcome the deficit. Made no sense.
■ Kicking off from the 50-yard line (the result of a Patriots 15-yard penalty) while trailing, 21-13, with 5:13 left in the second quarter. Why not try an onside kick? At worst, the Patriots take over at their 35-40-yard line. Instead, Ryan simply had kickoff specialist Jordan Gay boot the kickoff eight rows deep into the stands for a touchback. Baffling.
■ Punting from the Patriots 41 on fourth and 3 with 9:13 left in the second quarter. Ryan at his introductory news conference in January: “Will we go for it on fourth down? Will we do those types of things? Will we fake a punt when leading by 3 with three minutes left to go in the game on a fourth-and-13? Yes. The answer is yes, we will.” Apparently not.
■ Ryan throwing the challenge flag on Taylor’s 6-yard sack in the first quarter. The challenge didn’t count, but it was a dumb decision by Ryan, anyway. Had his challenge been successful, the Bills would have gotten 6 yards back but still need to punt. Why burn one of your two challenges on such an inconsequential play?
The game was still won because of the execution by the Patriots’ players. But the guy pushing the buttons for the Bills certainly didn’t do his team many favors.
Other observations after reviewing the game tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Excluding kneeldowns, the Patriots used an empty shotgun formation on 25 snaps, shotgun/one back on 33 snaps, and Brady went under center for 25 snaps. That means Brady operated out of the shotgun a shade under 70 percent of the time, and believe it or not, it felt like more during the game. I was surprised to see him take 25 snaps from center.
■ The Bills rarely blitzed in the first half, rushing only three defenders (five times) more than they blitzed (four times). Defensive end Jerry Hughes dropped into coverage on the first play of the game, and later found himself running stride for stride with Rob Gronkowski down the field, forcing a deep incompletion (and getting away with pass interference). The Bills ran a few four-man zone blitzes, but really didn’t try to confuse Brady too much. They threw more blitzes at Brady in the second half — a few five-man blitzes and one six-man — but overall they sent an extra rusher on just 8 of 61 dropbacks by Brady. Ryan was clearly trying to replicate the New York Giants’ strategy of getting to Brady with just the four-man pressure. The Bills also mixed up their defense, mostly utilizing man coverage and Cover 4 zone.
■ And the Patriots really did a great job of moving Gronkowski all over the formation. Gronkowski played as a traditional in-line tight end on 26 snaps, lined up in the right slot 21 times, in the left slot 11 times, on the right boundary 17 times, and on the left boundary three times. The Bills’ cornerbacks generally stuck to one side of the field, and the Patriots apparently liked the matchup with Gronk and rookie CB Ronald Darby.
■ Most interesting is how often Gronk stayed in to block. There were at least eight snaps in the second half when Gronk was used as extra protection — mostly on Brady’s blindside — instead of going out into the route, and he helped protect Brady on Julian Edelman’s second touchdown of the day. Gronk had some great blocks in the run game as well, sealing off Mario Williams to help Dion Lewis scamper into the end zone in the first quarter. Gronk’s blocking ability is yet another reason why he’s arguably the best non-quarterback in the game.
■ The Patriots abused Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham pretty badly. Edelman shook free of Bradham (and Aaron Williams) on his first touchdown in the first quarter, Lewis burned Bradham on a straight 40-yard fly route (no double move) . . .
Gronk beat Bradham for a 28-yard catch in the third quarter . . .
. . . and Bradham was flagged for a crucial 22-yard pass interference with 3:24 left in the fourth quarter.
■ One fascinating aspect of the Patriots’ offense — they have the personnel to line up their tight ends on the boundaries, and their receivers in the slot. Usually, it’s the opposite. Converted offensive tackle Michael Williams, now a 300-pound tight end, also lined up as a wide receiver on a handful of plays.
■ Think the Patriots got too cute trying to rub it in the Bills’ faces. Going to Scott Chandler two times in a row from the 3-yard line was one example — once was fine, but they should’ve run the ball at least once down there. Going for it on fourth and 1 from the 41 with 8:10 left in the fourth quarter was another — they should have played for field position at that point. And throwing the ball on second and 2 with 4:39 left in the game was another. You’ve got to run the ball there, to protect the ball and run the clock. Instead, Brady was strip-sacked, and the game got a little uncomfortable for the Patriots.
■ Another solid game for undrafted rookie center David Andrews, who more than held his own against Marcell Dareus (two hurries, no QB hits) and Kyle Williams (one hit). Josh Kline held his own against the Bills’ interior, as well. Rookie Shaq Mason whiffed on a few run blocks and was terrible in his two snaps at fullback. Nate Solder had a solid game against Hughes, but whiffed on the chip block that led to Hughes’s strip-sack. But the offensive line was mostly aided by Brady’s quick release.
■ Wish Lewis would protect the ball better, but it’s telling that Belichick didn’t make him miss a snap after his fumble. Also telling that Belichick, who usually prefers a running back-by-committee approach, played Lewis on 73 of 86 snaps.
We counted eight broken tackles for him on Sunday, including two on his touchdown run, when he was hit by two defenders at the 2 but still churned into the end zone. Lewis is a great find for the Patriots.
When the Bills had the ball
■ The Patriots were a little more liberal with the blitz than expected, going after Taylor 11 times on 42 dropbacks. A five-man blitz resulted in the 23-yard scamper for Taylor on the first drive, as well as the big 39-yard pass interference call on Bradley Fletcher. But the blitz also produced a forced fumble for Collins, a tackle for loss for Collins, a sack for Chandler Jones, and a combined sack for Collins and Dont’a Hightower.
■ Collins had a tremendous game. He was a total menace blitzing through the “A” gap — particularly the gap between center Eric Wood and left guard Richie Incognito — and blew right past Wood on several occasions. He was also a crucial defender in the short middle area of the field — the only Patriot fast enough to spy Taylor and contain LeSean McCoy on the checkdowns, of which he did a masterful job. Collins certainly earned a game ball for 11 tackles (two for loss), 2½ sacks, and a forced fumble.
■ Jones had a great game as well, and completely embarrassed left tackle Cordy Glenn on one of his sacks. But one of his sacks also had to do with the Patriots’ disciplined pass rush. Because Hightower and Jabaal Sheard stayed in their lanes, Taylor had nowhere to run, allowing Jones to catch him from behind.
■ The Patriots stacked the box all game, keeping eight, nine, and 10 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and Devin McCourty as a single deep safety. Safety Patrick Chung played a hybrid linebacker role again, and not only did great in run support, but was surprisingly solid covering Charles Clay. The Patriots also used the 3-4 defense for most of the first half, with Hightower, Jones, and Rob Ninkovich taking turns at outside linebacker.
■ The Patriots didn’t match up their cornerbacks, instead having Malcolm Butler mostly play the left side, Tarell Brown on the right side, and Logan Ryan in the slot. Ryan had a really nice game, and showed great awareness on a screen pass to the speedy Percy Harvin, identifying it quickly and smothering him after 1 yard. Brown left the game at some point — it’s unclear if it was a benching or an injury — and Fletcher was pretty terrible in his place, allowing four catches for 64 yards, a 24-yard touchdown to Sammy Watkins, and the 39-yard pass interference. Fletcher was playing tight man coverage, but was unable to jam his man at the line of scrimmage. You’ve got to at least lay a finger on the receiver.
■ The Patriots got pushed off the ball on the first drive, but did a good job of staying disciplined in their lanes, winning more 1-on-1 battles and forcing the Bills into long down-and-distance situations the rest of the gay.
■ Taylor’s final numbers look great, and he’s a tremendous athlete, but come on, he’s not a franchise quarterback. He had 105 passing yards through three quarters, the competitive part of the game, and missed high on several easy throws, two of which were tipped and led to interceptions.
The Patriots got sloppy and lost containment in the fourth quarter.
■ The Bills committed nine special teams penalties, including six in the first quarter. They were flagged 19 times overall (including those declined and negated). Not the most disciplined day for Ryan’s squad.
■ With NFL kickers missing nine extra points through two weeks, let’s appreciate the cool consistency of Stephen Gostkowski. He hit all four of his extra points, all four of his field goals (including 46- and 50-yarders), and boomed seven of his nine kickoffs for touchbacks. They don’t get much more reliable than Gostkowski.