The Patriots’ offense racked up 435 yards, controlled the ball for 34:01, and beat the Bills by 20 points.
So yes, we recognize how strange it is to say this, but it’s true: The Patriots played right into the Bills’ hands.
The Bills’ defense actually dictated the tempo of the game, and took the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. And it worked fairly well. Brady was visibly frustrated during the game, and the Patriots were held to 23 points, their third-lowest output of the season.
How did the Bills dictate the tempo? They begged the Patriots to run the ball. All game long, the Bills played a two-deep-safety look, and the defensive backs and linebackers bailed off the line of scrimmage at the snap.
This took away the deep pass — Brady only had two passes of 20 or more yards all day — but softened up the defense considerably near the line of scrimmage.
The Bills even kept their nickel package in the game when the Patriots used two tight ends, knowing that Brady would sense the size difference up front and hand off the ball.
And they were able to goad Brady — in the first quarter, he checked to a run, and Micah Hyde sprinted to the line of scrimmage at the snap and made the tackle after just 2 yards.
To the Patriots’ credit, they mostly ran the heck out of the ball. Their two longest plays from scrimmage were rushing plays — a 44-yarder by Dion Lewis and a 31-yarder by Rex Burkhead. And their 193 rushing yards on 5.8 yards per carry (excluding Brian Hoyer’s kneeldowns) were fantastic. We know the Patriots can win a shootout, and it’s great to see they can also win a ground-and-pound game.
But the Bills figured out a way to at least slow down the Patriots. They picked their poison, and correctly determined that it’s easier to keep the score tight if the Patriots are running the football and not having Brady air it out.
If the Bills had any competence on offense, this would have been a tight game.
Other observations after rewatching the Patriots’ 23-3 win:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ The Patriots’ red-zone issues were fairly easy to dissect this time — it was all on the offensive line.
The final stats say the Patriots were 2 for 5 in the red zone, but since the last opportunity came on the final drive in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were really 2 for 4. And both times they came up short, the offensive line self-destructed.
In the second quarter following Lewis’s 44-yard run, the Patriots petered out at the 5. On second down, Ryan Davis beat Nate Solder around the edge to hit Brady and disrupt his pass to Burkhead. On third down, Kyle Williams knocked Joe Thuney off balance, powered through, and sacked Brady.
On the next possession in the second quarter, Adolphus Washington knocked Thuney off balance for a sack on second and 7, then Solder committed a false start, and suddenly the Patriots were looking at third and 18.
■ But the run blocking was excellent for much of the day. Shaq Mason had a key block on Lewis’s 44-yarder, and did a great job pulling around the line to help spring Burkhead for 31 yards and Lewis for 15. James Develin, Solder, and David Andrews also had key blocks on Lewis’s 44-yarder, and Andrews did a great job taking out the linebacker on the second level of Burkhead’s 31-yarder.
But Lewis’s 44-yarder was also mostly about Lewis splitting two unblocked defenders — Ramon Humber and Hyde — and then face-planting Jordan Poyer with a stiff arm. Lewis’s combination of speed, quickness, and power is rare.
■ The Patriots’ screen game was better, with James White catching two for 16 yards and not having any negative plays. And Josh McDaniels did his homework, of course. Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill hit the Bills for a 16-yard end-around last week, and Brandin Cooks had a nice 11-yard gain on a similar play on Sunday, though it was called back by a block in the back penalty on Solder.
■ Solder didn’t allow a sack, but allowed Davis to hit Brady twice, allowed another pressure, and was busted for two penalties for 15 yards.
■ The Bills’ defensive strategy was fairly similar to what the Falcons employed in the Super Bowl. They rarely blitzed, and often dropped defenders into the middle of the field. Danny Amendola and White both took huge hits over the middle.
But when the Bills did blitz, bad things happened for them. On third and 11, the Bills blitzed eight defenders for some reason — I’m guessing some missed the call and should have been dropping into coverage — and Rob Gronkowski was wide open for a 19-yard catch.
Gronk’s incredible 30-yard catch over TreDavious White down the sideline was also against a six-blitz.
Gronk also caught a 12-yarder for a first down against a five-man blitz, and White’s 10-yard catch-and-run on third and 10 — the one where the Patriots got a very generous spot — also came against the blitz.
■ Phillip Dorsett did not register a single statistic despite playing 48 snaps, but it wasn’t necessarily his fault. On the opening drive, Dorsett was wide open along the left sideline against the Bills’ Cover 2 defense, but Brady never saw him — which is strange, because this was the exact route against the exact defense that Brady hit Amendola for 27 yards earlier on the drive.
But McDaniels mentioned to Brady that Dorsett was wide open, and Brady blew his top on the sideline.
Dorsett, meanwhile, had an underrated game as a blocker and was involved in a few of the Patriots’ big runs.
■ And on that third-down incompletion to Cooks, it certainly looked like Brady had made an inaccurate throw behind Cooks. But upon review, Cooks should have simply sat down in the middle of the zone instead of continuing to drift across the field. Cooks has had some issues with this in recent weeks and needs to get a better feel for the coverage.
When the Bills had the ball
■ Remember last week, when we wrote about how the Patriots blitzed the Dolphins into submission? Well, Matt Patricia called off the dogs against Buffalo. The preferred defense on Sunday was simply to rush four defenders up front, or even rush three and force Tyrod Taylor to make plays from the pocket.
■ The three-man rush did produce a 10-yard catch for Charles Clay, and a 9-yard scramble for Taylor to convert a third down. It also produced Eric Lee’s interception, which was caused by Alan Branch, who bull-rushed center Eric Wood back into Taylor as he threw.
The Patriots showed blitz but then backed off, which confused the Bills’ offensive line and got Branch in a one-on-one situation.
■ The Patriots also sometimes used one of the four linemen up front to spy Taylor and play the passing lanes, and Kyle Van Noy came up with a key deflection on third down.
Only when Nate Peterman came into the game did the Patriots start sending a few blitzes. Overall, the Bills completed just 1 of 6 passes against the blitz for 7 yards, and Elandon Roberts drew a hands to the face penalty from LeSean McCoy.
■ The Patriots also weren’t too worried about Taylor beating them with a big pass. While the Bills played two-deep and begged the Patriots to run, the Patriots played single-high safety for most of the game and brought an extra defender into the box to stop the run.
The Bills’ longest passing play was 14 yards.
■ But the Bills did rip off several big runs, even though the Patriots knew it was coming. Lee, the newcomer, had a phenomenal game rushing the passer, but was terrible on the edge in the run game. He got sealed off by wide receiver Deonte Thompson on an 18-yard run by McCoy . . .
. . . again on a 5-yard run for McCoy on second and 1, and again on a 13-yard run for McCoy in the second half.
With Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers out, Van Noy hobbling and Cassius Marsh released, Lee is pretty much all the Patriots had left to play at defensive end.
But Lee did a great job in not biting on the play-action fake, and showed impressive speed in chasing down Taylor for a sack on a bootleg.
■ Defensive tackle Malcom Brown had a phenomenal game. The stat sheet says he had seven tackles, half a sack, and two quarterback hits, but that doesn’t do it justice. He made several unheralded plays: getting off his block and tackling McCoy for 2 yards when there was a big hole behind him; shoving Richie Incognito aside and tackling Joe Webb on a wildcat run for 3 yards; and more. Those plays don’t go into the statbook as anything special, but Brown was nearly unblockable in the interior and saved several big runs. He also had a sack called back for a holding call on Malcolm Butler.
■ Great game by the Patriots’ secondary, especially Stephon Gilmore, who made two phenomenal pass breakups in the end zone in the fourth quarter when the Bills were clearly targeting him.
But Taylor was awful, and the Bills’ passing game is a mess. Taylor missed wide-open throws, such as an easy 4-yard slant to McCoy on third down that was a hair too far. And when the Patriots dropped three in coverage, Taylor struggled to go through his progressions and ended up scrambling most of the time.
Taylor showed a lot of toughness in playing through a knee injury suffered on the first play. But he was not the toughest challenge for the Patriots’ secondary.
■ The Bills had a nice gimmick with the wildcat formation with Webb, who had played just three offensive snaps and hadn’t thrown a pass all season. They ran the direct snap run a few times, even breaking off a 22-yarder, and perfectly set up the pass down the middle to Travaris Cadet. But Webb threw the ball 6 inches too far, and the ball fell incomplete instead of resulting in a touchdown. To beat the Patriots, you have to execute.