After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' Week 4 win over the Buffalo Bills, passing along some observations.
1. On the Bills' opening drive, an efficient start led them quickly into Patriots territory. Facing a 3rd & 2 from the 38, Buffalo aligned in a trips formation to the left, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. He delivered a handoff to running back Fred Jackson on a basic linebacker trap play in which Buffalo right guard Kraig Urbik was responsible for putting a hat on Patriots rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Hightower, the strong side 'backer, fast read the play and blew up Urbik in the hole. Fellow rookie, defensive end Chandler Jones, snuck inside the attempt of Bills' tight end Scott Chandler to wall him off and create an interior running lane for Jackson. The power of Hightower and explosiveness of Jones paid off in a major way during that critical early play.
2. In a sign of things to come later in the game, the Patriots moved down the field with relative ease on their opening drive. Not much went wrong on the drive, but quite a few things stood out in a positive way. To start, the Patriots offensive tackles set the early tone by handling the vertical push of the Bills defensive ends. Credit Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer for playing with a strong outside arm on the drive, and keeping Mario Williams and Mark Anderson literally at arm's length. Additionally, the Patriots twice dialed up plays to get two of their best playmakers the football near the line of scrimmage. It started with a throw from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski, who simply turned inside after aligning split out wide, and was soon followed by a bubble screen to Wes Welker. Finally, running back Stevan Ridley did something on his six-yard touchdown run that isn't often advised, but worked effectively: left his feet before the goal line. It wasn't an all-out hurdle by the second-year runner, but more of a hop over traffic in front of him. The nifty move paid off with six points.
3. In pregame remarks on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick identified disrupting the rhythm of the passing game and Fitzpatrick as one of the keys to successfully defending the Bills. That involved a number of aspects on Sunday, including being physical at or near the line of scrimmage. It also appeared to involve the disguise of blitz and rush packages, as the Patriots gave the Bills a bevy of different looks up front, including some that featured just one player aligned in a three point stance. The Patriots didn't blitz often, but show a number of different rush and coverage wrinkles, which included dropping both defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich into short coverage on occasion. Defensive coordinators sometimes aim for contrived chaos on the field, so as to put the offense on its heels and make a quarterback think and over think before the snap. It appeared as though the Patriots were able to accomplish their goal of disrupting Buffalo's passing game rhythm, part of the reason they intercepted Fitzpatrick four times.
4. Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams told reporters after the game that the Patriots were able to run the ball effectively while keeping it simple from a play-calling standpoint, capitalizing on three primary concepts. The Patriots mixed in some zone run blocking on a stretch play, and Williams was able to take advantage of leverage he had on Solder on a second quarter carry. Solder drew the tough assignment of having to cut Williams, who was aligned a gap away to Solder's right, and penetrating up the field. Solder's cut was a whiff, and Williams was able to track down running back Brandon Bolden for one of the few stuffs the Bills had on the day. Solder was very good on the afternoon from this vantage point, that one play notwithstanding.
5. In totality, Brady's performance was stellar, but there's one area that left something to be desired in the first half, and that was a tendency to force the football to receiver Brandon Lloyd. Credit is due to the Bills' secondary members who had Lloyd in coverage, including top draft choice Stephon Gilmore, who showed sticky skills and a good ability to trigger in and out of movements. Brady is continuing to develop his rapport with Lloyd, but it felt like he was trying too hard to do so in the first half.
6. Among the core beliefs Belichick holds as a defensive coach is setting the edge. It’s something we often associate with defensive ends and outside linebackers, and their ability to lock out on blockers, re-direct tackles or tight ends inside, and cut the field down by roughly one third. Less frequently, we think about the contributions of cornerbacks as perimeter run defenders, but both Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington popped out on film at doing just that. They’re both willing to mix it up in the run game, and are sound in their fundamentals. Neither is a big guy, and each seems to like to aim for the low, wrap-up tackles. It paid off on Sunday.
7. In sudden change situations (such as the play after a turnover), NFL teams often draw up what is known as a “shot” play, in which they take a shot at a big/scoring play. That’s what the Bills did after the Gronkowski fumble, and it paid off with a 24-yard score from Fitzpatrick to tight end Scott Chandler. The Patriots matched the Bills with what looked like a Cover 3 defensive scheme, with Sterling Moore dropping into deep coverage and the two safeties -- Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung-- rolling into the other two thirds of the field. Chung was in the vicinity of Chandler, and though it could be argued that he should have turned his head around towards the football, don’t lose sight of the throw and catch. Fitzpatrick put it in a place that only Chandler could catch it, and he outreached the smaller Chung.
8. The Patriots effectively started drives with the passing game on Sunday, which allowed them to essentially set up the running game via the passing game, opposite to what many believe to be conventional wisdom. They also did well to convert on second and third down through the ground, led by Ridley and Bolden. Ridley, specifically, has been a first down-making machine this season, with a league-best 28 through four games. That puts him on pace for 112 on the season. The last time a running back surpassed even 100 first downs was all the way back in 2005, when Seahawks back Shaun Alexander chunked up 105. Ridley’s decisive style, strong vision, and fall-forward mentality make him a productive player.
9. The Patriots’ secondary has allowed big yardage totals in back-to-back weeks, though the group has performed better than the numbers would indicate. One area where the unit seems to be struggling, however, is up the middle of the field. Fitzpatrick hooked up with Chandler for his second score of the day on a seam route right through the teeth of the Pats’ D, and it was just one example of the middle of the field being exposed. As noted by Mike Reiss in his “3 Up, 3 Down” entry, both Chung and Gregory had less-than-their-best performances, and the secondary needs to fortify up the middle. That involves picked up performances from linebackers and other members of the defense too.
10. Hard to overstate how important -- and impressive -- the play was from linebacker Brandon Spikes to force a fumble of C.J. Spiller late in the first half. Spikes grazed over the top of the line of scrimmage after diagnosing the run, and found a lane directly to the speedster. As is typically the case with Spikes, he made his hit count, delivering a big blow and dislodging the football. He has become a force defending the run.