FOXBOROUGH — The Buffalo Bills are partying like it’s 2011.
That was the last year the Bills started with a 3-0 record. And their third win that year was a wild 34-31 victory over the Patriots in Orchard Park, N.Y., the only time in the last 15 years they have defeated the Patriots at home. (Of course, the Bills still finished 6-10 that season.)
Eight years later, the Bills enter Sunday’s showdown with the Patriots with a 3-0 record. And while they haven’t played any tough opponents yet, their wins are still impressive. They came back from 16 points down at halftime to beat the Jets on the road. They dominated the Giants and won by two touchdowns on the road. And they blew a 14-point lead at home to the Bengals last week, but still came back in the fourth quarter to win.
“They’ve played their best football in some critical situations,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They make you earn every yard. They don’t make any mistakes. We’ll have to go up there and play 60 minutes of good football. We know that.”
The Patriots are familiar with this Bills team. This is their third year facing Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who leads the defense. And this is the second year with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the former Patriots assistant coach.
But there are still plenty of new faces on the field. And quarterback Josh Allen is now in his second season, with 14 career starts on his résumé.
Let’s take a look at what to expect from the Bills on both sides of the ball, with help from the All-22 tape from their win over Cincinnati:
Coordinator: Brian Daboll (second season)
Key skill players: QB Josh Allen, RB Frank Gore, WR John Brown, WR Cole Beasley, WR Zay Jones, TE Dawson Knox.
Injuries/lineup notes: Rookie RB Devin Singletary, the primary receiving back, may not play because of a hamstring injury, and will be replaced by T.J. Yeldon. RG Jon Feliciano hurt his neck last week, and if he doesn’t play, he will be replaced by rookie Cody Ford. TE Tyler Kroft missed the first three games with a broken foot, and has been replaced by Knox and Boston College’s Tommy Sweeney.
What to expect: The coordinator and quarterback are the same as last year. Almost everyone else is different.
The top two receivers, Brown and Beasley, were both signed in free agency. Gore, Yeldon, and Singletary are new. Four of the five starters on the offensive line are new (left tackle Dion Dawkins is the lone holdover).
The Bills hoped that giving Allen a better supporting cast would speed up his development. So far, the results are mixed. The Bills are eighth in the NFL in total yards, and they are running the ball well. They have called the fifth-most runs, and they’re averaging more than 151 yards per game and a healthy 4.8 yards per carry.
But the offense is still stuck in neutral. The Bills are just 17th in points (22.0 per game), and they have the fifth-most turnovers (two per game).
A lot of it has to do with Allen. He’s just not there as an NFL passer yet, and may never get there. His completion percentage is better this year, up from 52 to 64.1 percent. But he is still significantly limited as a passer.
Watching Allen on film, he still looks like a rookie — locking onto receivers, bailing on the pocket quickly (always to his right), not reading coverages quickly enough or identifying blitzes properly.
Allen rarely stays in the pocket long enough to find his second or third receiver. Brown is a speedster, and Beasley a shifty slot receiver, but Allen doesn’t deliver the ball on time enough or go through his progressions.
He has a big arm, but it sometimes gets him in trouble. Allen’s interception in the third quarter against Cincinnati is one of the worst you will ever see — running backward to avoid the blitz, then throwing off his back foot and into traffic. He had a similar play earlier in the game that resulted in an intentional grounding.
Allen’s inability to read the field leads him to take big hits and sacks. It also handcuffs Daboll, who is forced to call a lot of quick screens and other plays with easy, designed reads. Daboll also tries to cover up Allen’s warts by constantly mixing up his personnel, formations, and snap cadence.
Allen is more dangerous as a runner. His 26 rush attempts are second-most among quarterbacks (Lamar Jackson has 27), and Allen has 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Against the Bengals, Daboll called three designed runs for Allen, which gives the Bills a blocking advantage.
The Patriots also have to make sure not to let Allen get outside the pocket and improvise. He had a beautiful 27-yard pass on the run to Brown last weekend. And if you don’t keep Allen contained, he can break the pass rush and pick up first downs with his feet.
The Patriots may have to spy him with Jamie Collins and/or Kyle Van Noy. And the cornerbacks will have to cover their receivers a long time because of Allen’s scrambling ability.
But I expect the Patriots’ No. 1 defense to feast in this game. They should blitz Allen to smithereens, and try to force him into one of his hero-ball interceptions. They should use their “amoeba” front to confuse him before the snap. And when they don’t blitz, they need to keep him contained in the pocket and force him to read the coverage.
Allen missed the first Patriots game last year, but they smothered him in the second game, holding him to 217 passing yards, 30 rushing yards, and a 52.6 passer rating in a 24-12 Patriots win. I’d be shocked if his numbers were much better this time.
Coordinator: Leslie Frazier (third season)
Key players: DE Jerry Hughes, DE Shaq Lawson, DT Ed Oliver, LB Matt Milano, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, CB Tre’Davious White, S Micah Hyde, S Jordan Poyer.
Injuries/lineup notes: Nickel CB Taron Johnson is dealing with a hamstring injury and may not play. He would be replaced by second-year CB Siran Neal.
What to expect: Belichick knows exactly what he’s going to get from the Bills’ defense. It’s the same scheme McDermott used in Carolina and for the last two-plus years in Buffalo.
The Bills play a typical four-man front, with speedy linebackers who often fill the A gaps and run sideline to sideline. And they have a savvy, aggressive secondary led by interchangeable safeties Hyde and Poyer.
With three years of experience in this defense, the Bills play fast, don’t blitz much, and make opponents earn their way down the field. They have allowed only four red zone possessions this year, second-fewest in the NFL (Patriots, two).
The Bills were No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed last year, and they’re No. 5 this year. The Patriots may know what’s coming, but they scored only 25 and 24 points against the Bills last year.
“I mean, I wouldn’t change anything,” Belichick said. “It’s one of the best defenses in the league. They don’t make any mistakes. You’ve got to execute, you’ve got to handle everything they do. They don’t give up much. They make you work for every yard.”
The most impressive aspect of the Bills’ defense is their pre- and post-snap rotations. Few defenses disguise their coverages better than the Bills, thanks in part to Hyde and Poyer both being able to play free safety or strong safety in the box.
Two of the Bills’ sacks of Andy Dalton last Sunday came from a defense that showed Cover 1 man before the snap (man coverage with a single high safety) but rotated into Cover 2 zone (zone coverage with two deep safeties) after the snap. And Dalton’s first interception came when the Bills showed Cover 2 man before the snap, but rotated into a Cover 3 zone.
The Bills are tied for second in the league with seven takeaways. Few defenses are better at goading a quarterback into a bad throw.
“You’ve got to see it post-snap,” Belichick said. “This is a very savvy defense. I wouldn’t say they’re overcomplicated, but they’re very good at what they do.”
Tom Brady struggled in two games against the Bills last year, throwing one touchdown pass against two interceptions. Brady threw for 324 yards in Buffalo last year, but it came on 45 attempts. In Foxborough, Brady threw for just 126 yards and two picks as the offense mustered only 18 points.
The Patriots did have a lot of success running the ball on the Bills last year, especially in the second matchup. They rushed 47 times for 273 yards in the Week 16 win, with Sony Michel leading the way with 116 yards on 6.4 yards per carry. This year the Bills are allowing 4.4 yards per carry, 19th in the NFL.
But the Patriots’ run game is struggling this year, with injuries to several key blockers. Their 3.2-yard average is 28th in the NFL, and now they don’t have fullback James Develin.
The Patriots will have to play to their strength in this one: put the ball in Brady’s hands, spread the Bills out with four- and five-receiver sets, and get the ball out quickly to Julian Edelman (assuming he plays), James White, and Rex Burkhead. The run game may consist of only shotgun handoffs to White and Burkhead.
Brady likes to brag that he knows the answers to the test. The Bills’ deceptive defense will certainly test his preparation.