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The beauty of football is that a team can overcome a talent deficiency with superior tactics. A team would obviously prefer to be bigger, faster, and stronger than the opponent, but many times, especially in the NFL, the smarter, better-prepared team is the one that comes out on top.
That was certainly the case when the Patriots’ offense faced the Bills’ defense in the Pats’ 24-17 win on Saturday night. On paper, the Bills’ No. 3-ranked defense had the decided advantage in personnel over the Patriots’ No. 16-ranked offense. The Patriots have been short on playmakers all season, and have struggled like never before under Tom Brady to punch the ball into the end zone.
But offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had all of the right answers on Saturday night. His game plan was a masterpiece, with new plays, new formations, and new, creative wrinkles to freeze the Bills’ defense and overcome the Patriots’ lack of talent. Most impressively, McDaniels was able to fool the Bills’ defense without resorting to too many gimmicks — plays like flea-flickers and reverse passes that he has used one too many times this year.
The Patriots had one of their best offensive performances of the season, cracking 400 yards (414) for just the second time in their last nine games. The only other time was against Houston, when much of the 448 yards came in garbage time.
Not to put too much pressure on McDaniels, but he’ll have to be this good in January for the Patriots to be able to keep up with the Chiefs and the Ravens.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of the Patriots’ tactics on Saturday:
■ What looked like a set of mundane running plays helped set up the Patriots’ first touchdown, midway through the first quarter.
On the drive, Elandon Roberts came in at fullback for seven plays, which signifies run plays to the defense. The Patriots ran the ball on five of the first six plays with Roberts in the game, with one play-action pass. Tight end Matt LaCosse was used as an in-line blocker on all of these plays, and on all but one play, his assignment was to block outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. Even on the play-action pass, LaCosse stayed in to block.
The seventh play with Roberts in the game was first-and-goal from the 8, and LaCosse once again lined up across from Alexander. When Julian Edelman went in motion before the snap, and a Bills defender followed him, Tom Brady knew the Bills were in man-to-man coverage. Brady ran a play-action fake, LaCosse blocked Alexander for half a beat, but this time ran a delayed route to the corner of the end zone. Alexander was taken by surprise and had no safety help. Brady threw a perfect back-shoulder pass in 1-on-1 coverage, and LaCosse had a relatively easy touchdown catch.
The Patriots were setting up Alexander with all of those run plays with Roberts in the game, but Alexander had no idea until it was too late.
■ Speaking of Roberts, his 21 offensive snaps were a season-high, but McDaniels still did a good job of mixing up his formations and not over-using Roberts. After deploying Roberts heavily on the touchdown drive, McDaniels opened the next drive with shotgun spread formations. And Roberts didn’t see the field from the middle of the second quarter until late in the third quarter.
Overall the Patriots were productive with Roberts on the field. They rushed 15 times for 64 yards and a touchdown (4.3) average, and completed all three passes for 30 yards and another touchdown, plus a 2-point conversion to Edelman. The run game wasn’t always perfect with Roberts in the game — seven of the 15 rushes went for 1 or fewer yards — but they also ripped open a 25-yarder with Roberts at fullback.
■ There were other examples of McDaniels using one play to set up another. When N’Keal Harry rushed for 18 yards on a reverse early in the second quarter, it made the Bills wary of the jet sweep for the rest of the night. The Bills were ready for it on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, when Kevin Johnson tripped up Harry for no gain thanks to a missed block from Mohamed Sanu.
But McDaniels got the better of the Bills’ defense early in the third quarter. Sanu ran a jet sweep motion before the snap, drawing his defender away from the play. Brady then faked a handoff to Rex Burkhead, with the entire offensive line moving to the left. This froze the two linebackers — one who thought that Sanu had the ball, and one who was watching Brady and was slow to react to the play. Meanwhile, Burkhead slipped out uncovered to the right side, caught an easy pass and scampered 31 yards down the right sideline into field goal range.
■ As for that Harry 18-yard sweep, it wouldn’t have been possible if not for Brady’s surprisingly effective block on Tre’Davious White. White was screaming across the field, and Brady sent White flying with an impressive block at his midsection. Brady usually gives the matador treatment in this situation, but he went all out this time, and opened up a huge chunk of open space for Harry. It had to be the best block of Brady’s career.
■ McDaniels also came up with some interesting new formations. On a 6-yard run by Burkhead in the first quarter, he had James White — 5-foot-10-inch, 205-pound James White — leading the way as his fullback, delivering a solid block. And about a half-dozen times, the Patriots used this interesting wrinkle with both White and Burkhead in the lineup. White and Burkhead would initially line up next to Brady in shotgun, but would step up and reset next to the tackles on the line of scrimmage. White and Burkhead would then chip the defensive ends before leaking out into the flat for a pass. It didn’t create many big plays, but it did help slow down the pass rush.
■ There was also a great play to Harry in the second quarter, in which Brady faked a jet sweep to Harry, then faked a swing pass to Harry, then faked a screen pass to Burkhead, then came back to Harry on the left side for 12 yards.
The Patriots’ screen game also continues to thrive, with Burkhead gaining 18 and 23 yards on separate plays.
And if Ben Watson didn’t commit blatant offensive pass interference and just avoided contact with the linebacker, White would have had an 18-yard catch on a beautifully designed third-and-7 play late in the third quarter. The entire Patriots’ offense flowed to the left, and White was wide open coming back across to the right.
Now for a few other observations after watching the All-22:
■ Have the Patriots finally found their run game? They have rushed for 557 yards in their past four games (139.3 per game), and averaged 5.0, 4.3, 5.5, and 4.1 yards per carry in the games. They did have 10 stuffed runs out of 35 against the Bills, but kept chipping away and finally broke one for 25 yards midway through the third quarter.
The Patriots found their running game at the tail end of last season, and rode it all the way to a Super Bowl title. Is their recent success a sign of good things to come?
■ Either the Bills are horrible tacklers or Sony Michel and Burkhead ate their Wheaties on Saturday, because both running backs ran impressively hard. In the first quarter, Michel had a 12-yard run against eight defenders in the box, bouncing off two defenders and gaining nine yards after contact. Michel ran for six yards on the next snap, and gained five after contact. And on his 25-yard run in the third quarter, Michel ran right through linebacker Matt Milano and gained 21 yards after contact.
Everyone saw Burkhead run through two tacklers on his game-winning touchdown, but equally impressive was Burkhead’s 5-yard catch on third-and-5 early in the fourth quarter. Burkhead should have been stopped two yards short of the sticks, but he fought and clawed his way to a first down.
■ Speaking of hard runners, Harry is an absolute freight train. He gained an extra six yards by fighting through a defender on a 12-yard catch. Harry also showed impressive agility by making two defenders miss on his 18-yard reverse.
The only question is why didn’t Harry touch the ball in the second half, especially when Edelman was out? Harry probably doesn’t know too much of the offense, but he is their most dynamic runner, and needs to get the ball more on bubble screens, jet sweeps, and other designed plays.
■ The Patriots’ offense certainly wasn’t perfect, and had a few pressing issues pop up throughout the game. There were several times where the receivers had trouble creating separation. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn had trouble with Jerry Hughes’s speed rush all game, and allowed three pressures that forced Brady throwaways/incompletions. Brady also was wild on a relatively easy throw to Sanu in the second quarter, though it may have been tipped. And Brady missed Watson streaking wide open down the seam on a second-and-18 pass that went incomplete to Sanu.
■ Sanu is supposed to be an above-average run blocker, but didn’t show it on Saturday. He missed the block on the fourth-and-1 end-around to Harry that got stuffed. And Sanu later whiffed on a block on Shaq Lawson that resulted in a 6-yard loss for Michel on the first play of the fourth quarter.
■ I focused mostly on the Patriots’ offense, but also broke down the Bills’ two big offensive plays. On Dawson Knox’s 33-yard catch right before halftime, Patrick Chung perhaps shouldn’t have let Knox get behind him, but Chung’s coverage was pretty tight. Allen delivered a perfect rainbow over Knox’s shoulder, and Duron Harmon, who was playing deep center field, was too far away to help. Not much you can do about that.
And on John Brown’s 52-yard touchdown, both Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty expected Brown to keep running toward the sideline, and were faked out when Brown ran a double move and cut back to the middle of the field. Credit the Bills for adding a new wrinkle.