Bill Belichick is always quick to lavish praise upon his opponents. But even he couldn’t muster up much positivity when asked this week about Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
What strides has Belichick seen in Allen since the Patriots last played the Bills in Week 4?
“Yeah, he’s good then, he’s good now,” Belichick somehow said with a straight face.
Has his decision making improved?
“Yeah, he’s made good decisions. They’ve won,” Belichick said, probably catching himself before breaking into laughter.
Allen has started twice against the Patriots, and Belichick has owned him both times, allowing one touchdown pass and forcing five interceptions.
Allen has started 25 NFL games. Last December’s loss to the Patriots was his fifth-lowest passer rating (52.6), and this September’s 16-10 loss in Buffalo produced the worst passer rating of his career (24.0).
In this year’s matchup, the Patriots held Allen to 13-of-28 passing for 153 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions, and four sacks. The Patriots also have done a good job of containing Allen’s legs — he rushed five times for 30 yards last December, and five times for 26 yards and a touchdown this season.
Allen, to his credit, has turned around his season since sputtering against the Patriots in Week 4. Most notably, he has limited his mistakes — after throwing seven interceptions in his first five games, Allen has now thrown just two in his last nine games, against 13 touchdowns.
And Allen has been an impressive dual-threat quarterback, ranking first among quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns (nine, two more than Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson), second in rush attempts (7.3 per game), and third in rushing yards (467).
But in watching Allen on the All-22 tape, he’s still the same quarterback from Week 4. He is a great runner, has a big arm, and plays with impressive toughness, but he is severely limited as a pocket passer. And Belichick usually eats this type of one-dimensional quarterback for lunch.
Out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks, Allen ranks 25th in yards per attempt (6.69), 23rd in passer rating (84.6), and 31st in completion percentage (59.3).
The key to stopping Allen, as the Patriots know, is keeping him contained in the pocket. Of Allen’s three interceptions in Week 4, the first two came from him operating in the middle of the pocket.
He has a tough time reading the coverage and made two dangerous throws that the Patriots easily picked off. And despite Allen’s great athleticism, he still has taken 34 sacks, ninth-most this season.
The Patriots played a lot of two-deep safety coverage in Week 4, but also did a lot of post-snap rotations to confuse Allen. There’s no need to deviate from this strategy.
Despite his big arm, Allen still has serious accuracy issues. In Week 12 against Denver, Allen had a quick, easy slant pass to John Brown, but he sailed it about 5 yards above Brown’s head for an interception.
The one difference between Allen in Week 4 and now is that he often doesn’t even bother trying to go through his reads or buying time in the pocket in order to throw. At the first sign of trouble now, he’ll take off. This happened on third and 16 last week against Pittsburgh — Allen dropped back for half a beat, didn’t like what he saw, and took off running, scrambling for 12 yards.
A similar play happened against Dallas in Week 13. Allen bolted from the pocket at the first sign of trouble and didn’t keep his eyes downfield, ignoring a receiver that came wide open in the back of the end zone. But Allen made it work, using his speed and athleticism to beat the defense to the pylon for a 15-yard touchdown.
The Bills do a great job of spreading out a defense with a five-wide formation, then calling designed runs for Allen, resulting in an easy touchdown scramble against the Dolphins. The Bills run plenty of read-option type of runs for Allen as well, and he even ripped off a 15-yard run against the Patriots in Week 4 when he made Kyle Van Noy whiff on the tackle. Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts were used as spies in that game, and I would expect more of the same this time. Spying Allen is a must, and though he is a strong runner, he doesn’t have the breakaway speed of Jackson or Deshaun Watson.
Brown has been Allen’s big-play receiver on the outside, and he has 71 catches for 1,007 yards and five touchdowns. Brown has made some nice catches on the outside in one-on-one coverage, including a 40-yarder on a jump ball last week against the Steelers.
But I’m not too worried about Brown in this game — he’ll be matched up against Stephon Gilmore, and Gilmore won’t allow the big plays. The receiver to be more concerned with is slot man Cole Beasley, who led the Bills with seven catches for 75 yards in Week 4.
Beasley has had a solid season, catching 60 balls for 670 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Beasley is great at working the middle of the field, and he has had a few nice catch-and-runs off slant passes. And offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, a former Patriots assistant, loves to run pick plays or “whip” routes (when the receiver first cuts in, then cuts outside) along the goal line for Beasley, similar to what the Patriots have run for Julian Edelman over the years.
The man who would normally cover Beasley, Patriots slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, will miss the game because of a groin injury. J.C. Jackson, who had two picks last week against Cincinnati, will likely be the one who has to keep up with Beasley and prevent him from getting open on those pick plays.
One other big difference for the Bills is rookie running back Devin Singletary, who missed the Week 4 matchup. He has been an impressive dual threat, averaging 84 total yards per game, scoring four touchdowns (two each receiving and rushing), and averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Singletary hits the hole hard, follows his blockers well, and slips away from defenders, as he showed in a 38-yard run against Baltimore two weeks ago.
He showed similar ability against Washington in Week 9, scooting 49 yards on a simple screen pass. Expect the Bills to test the Patriots’ run defense early and often, especially after they allowed Joe Mixon to rush for 136 yards last week.
The Bills fight hard, they have a few tough weapons to defend, and they have an offensive coordinator who knows all of the little tricks needed to beat the Patriots.
But the Bills’ only chance on Saturday is if Allen plays a clean game — no interceptions, no fumbles. The way Allen has fared in the past against the Patriots, and the way he is still playing this season, it’s hard to believe he will be able to pull it off, especially in a tough road environment.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.