Sunday night we witnessed arguably the biggest upset of the first quarter of the NFL season so far. The 1-2 Buffalo Bills rolled into Foxborough to play the 3-0 Patriots. The Bills were awful through the first two weeks which resulted in Head Coach Rex Ryan taken the odd decision to axe his Offensive Co-ordinator Greg Roman, despite it being arguably the Defense’s fault for Buffalo’s slow start. The Bills despatched the Super Bowl favourite Arizona Cardinals in week 3 and Rex Ryan in his fixation with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots spent most of this week trash talking about the Patriots and laying down the claim that despite Buffalo’s 4-28 record this millennium against New England and the fact that the Patriots are 28-2 in the last 30 meetings at Foxborough (.933% – best home record in the NFL) that he would finally get a win over his kryptonite in New England. The Patriots by comparison were 3-0 heading into the game and looking seemingly invincible despite missing Tom Brady as they won their first two games with Jimmy Garoppolo followed by a 27-0 shut out over the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football with rookie Jacoby Brissett at QB.
Buffalo Bills @ New England Patriots, 2nd October 2016-10-03
The New England Patriots entered the game as heavy favourites as Tom Brady served his last game of his four-game suspension; while the Buffalo Bills announced earlier in the week they were placing star receiver Sammy Watkins on injured reserve as he continues to try and get healthy. This was former RB’s Coach now Offensive Coordinator Anthony Lynn’s second game in charge of the Bills Offence and the Bills entered the game expecting to face a tough New England Defense that had previously shut out the Texans Offense and now had ten days to game plan Tyrod Taylor and his unique athleticism at the Quarterback position.
The Buffalo Bills came out swinging early. Literally. During the pre-game warm up a skirmish occurred between Patriots rookies Jacoby Brissett, Malcolm Mitchell and members of the Bills secondary. This and the very first play of the game serve as perfect microcosms for the entire game. On the very first play Patriots rookie Cyrus Jones fielded the ball and then appeared to contemplate taking a touchback before realising he had crossed the plain of the End Zone and having to return the ball. He was the stopped inside the Patriots own ten-yard line. The Patriots made sloppy mistakes all game and were a far cry from their usual efficient self. The Buffalo Bills on the other hand were physical all game and their 16-0 win was spearheaded by their dominant front seven.
The Patriots first offensive play following the special teams misque was a 90-yard hook up between Brissett and Edelman who took the ball all the way to the Bills one-yard line. However, this play was called back as New England committed two costly fouls on the play and served as a great pre-warner for what was to come for Patriots fans. The Patriots went three and out on their first two possessions and also punted on their third drive after picking up one sole first down. How bad were New England during these first three drives? Head Coach Bill Belichick “Gronk spiked” his tablet during the Patriots second possession (Scroll to the bottom to see the vine).
The Patriots could not appear to get anything going on Offense, while their Defense failed to shut down the creative play calling Anthony Lynn was dialling up as the Bills churned out first downs, moved the ball, put points on the board and took time off the clock. Buffalo dictated the game early with three scoring drives, all of which were over ten plays, to start the game. Buffalo’s first three play calls were two runs and a deep ball which forced New England to respect the long ball all game, opening up underneath routes which Buffalo’s receivers exploited all game. On the Bills first three offensive possessions they had good pass protection against New England’s four-man rush while the Bills picked up most of their yardage on the ground when they ran to the right-hand side. During this first possession, the Bills also brought out a hidden wrinkle as Quarterback Tyrod Taylor motioned and shifted out to the right lining up as a Wide Receiver, while the ball was snapped directly to Mike Gillislee who ran the ball for 16-yards. The Wildcat is alive once again. The Bills brought out the Wildcat again on 2nd and goal, however, it was eventually an out-route throw to LeSean McCoy as Wide Receiver Robert Woods appeared to set an illegal pick that capped off Buffalo’s mammoth twelve play, 65 yard, 7 minute 11 seconds touchdown drive to put the Bills up 7-0 at the start of the game.
The Patriots only picked up 1 first down by mid-way in the second quarter and the only time they managed to move the ball was when Tight End Martellus Bennett managed to use his size to outmuscle Bills defenders and rattle off an impressive 58-yard catch and run to put New England in Bills territory. This drive was capped off by a penalty on the Offensive Line on 3rd and 1 forcing the Patriots into a 3rd and long before rookie Quarterback Jacoby Brissett decided to take off with the ball and was stopped in his tracks by Linebacker Zach Brown resulting in a fumble that Buffalo recovered. Any hopes of a Patriots fight back before half time ended with a huge Jerry Hughes sack which saw the Patriots lose 14 yards and penned in against their own end zone to finish a miserable first half. At half time the Bills had outgained the Patriots 251 to 98 yards and had picked up ten first downs to New England’s two. The Bills also converted four out of seven times on third down while the patriots failed to convert in five attempts. Buffalo also chewed up the clock as they had 19 minutes and 49 seconds of possession compared to New England 10 minutes 11 seconds.
The second half was much the same except New England missed a 48-yard field goal five minutes into the third quarter. Tyrod Taylor showcased his athleticism at numerous points throughout the game, however, two examples stand out in the second half. 2nd and 24, five minutes into the fourth quarter, Taylor avoids a near certain sack as he shakes off Defensive End Jabaal Sheard and then rolls out to connect with Tight End Charles Clay down the side-line for a 14 yard gain. On the next play, 3rd and 10, Defensive Co-Ordinator Matt Patricia dials up the pressure again as he brings a five-man rush, which again appeared to have Taylor pinned, but he managed to avoid a sack and connected with Walt Powell to pick up the first down.
The Buffalo Bills failed to punch the ball in, however, their run game gashed the Patriots and chewed up the clock before drives ultimately stalled out deep into New England territory. Kicker Dan Carpenter made three field goals and it was still a two point game deep into the fourth quarter. Despite this the New England Patriots lacked any sense of urgency and were still content with trying to establish the run despite New England’s Offensive Line generating no push against a dominant Bills Front Seven. With 2:46 remaining in the game, the Bills were still rubbing salt in the wounds after stopping New England on fourth down. The Bills went to back-to-back Wildcats with LeSean McCoy to earn a first down and must have reminded many Patriot fans of their loss at home to the Miami Dolphins in 2008 when the Wildcat was first properly introduced in the NFL. Rex Ryan outcoached Bill Belichick, as the Patriots failed to convert a third down until the fourth quarter dawned and the Patriots were flagged on 13 separate occasions. Following this game-recap, let’s take a look at why the Bills were able to shutout the Patriots (their first home shutout since 1993).
Buffalo’s dominant front seven
The AFC East features four teams with strong front sevens, however, the Bills flexed their muscles Sunday as Rex Ryan and his Brother Rob Ryan proved why they should not be wrote off and are still defensive “geniuses”? Much the same as many labelled their late father Buddy Ran. The Patriots who managed to put up 23 points against Arizona, 31 against Miami and 27 against Houston (two top-5 Defense’s and Miami’s unit is in the top half of the league). However, the Bills made Quarterback Jacoby Brissett look like the rookie he is and their Defensive Line dominated the point of attack all game giving the Patriots no push upfront as the previously dominant LaGarrette Blount put up just 54 yards (was averaging just under 100 through the previous three games).
Buffalo’s front seven was dominant upfront and was regularly in the backfield. Linebacker’s Jerry Hughes, Zach Brown and Preston Brown continued their impressive form as they partner with Lorenzo Alexander in a Linebacking corps which looks like a top-3 unit through the first quarter of the season. Pro Football Focus has OLB Jerry Hughes as 6th ranked edge rusher through four games while Zach Brown is ranked 2nd at Linebacker behind only Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. It was an incredibly impressive performance as Brissett was under pressure on a third of his drop backs while New England’s run game was held to 72 yards (technically 90 although 18 of these came on two runs in garbage time when Bills players were reluctant to tackle and risk injury). This is a team that is without rookies Reggie Ragland and Shaq Lawson who many tapped as Defensive starters when the Bills took them in the first and second round.
Creative play calling by Offensive Coordinator Anthony Lynn
Many heads were turned including mine when Rex Ryan appeared to take the incredibly rash decision of what I believed was scapegoating Offensive Co-Ordinator Greg Roman after the Bills started 0-2. However, two games later and Buffalo has polished of two pre-season Super Bowl favourites in the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots. This Patriots Defense although without Rob Ninkovich still, welcomed back MLB Donta Hightower, however, a series of creative play calling my OC Anthony Lynn kept the Pats D tired all game and utilised the strengths of this Offensive unit. Without star receiver Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods stepped up big as he had 7 receptions for 89 yards. Tyrod Taylor was regularly on the move as his mobility kept the Patriots pass rush at bay while his movement and extension of plays allowed his receivers to find holes in this Patriots secondary. Taylor regularly connected with his receivers and Tight End Charles Clay on quick slants as Patriots DB’s were forced to respect the deep ball allowing the Bills to cut underneath and regularly pick up 5-8 yards. LeSean McCoy looks back to his Pro Bowl level and although his 108 yards from scrimmage off 25 touches does not pop off the screen; these were hard earned yards. McCoy and Taylor both regularly eluded tacklers and despite never fatally wounding this Patriots Defense, inflicted enough wounds to wear both the clock and put the Bills in Field Goal range.
Although many see the Wildcat as a novelty and the Bills will certainly not make the playoffs off of it alone, you have to give credit to OC Anthony Lynn in terms of the chess match he was playing with Patriots DC Matt Patricia. Patricia must have been incredibly confused as the Bills threatened the speed run to the outside with McCoy, the option with Taylor, the deep ball with Taylor’s big arm to one of the Bills receiver, the underneath routes which Robert Woods and Tight End Charles Clay excel in and then he comes out with the wild cat where nearly anything could happen (RB keeps it and runs, throws a lateral to Taylor who was lined up outside or any sort of flee-flicker/ end around). The Bills outcoached the Patriots on Defense and also on Offense and it was their 32 carries for 134 yards certainly wore down this Patriots Defense all game long.
I am not going to jump on the Bills bandwagon and say that they’re going to knock off the Patriots atop the AFC East. Yes the Patriots were playing with their 3rd string QB, however that did not stop them from beating the Houston Texans 27-0 in the same building. Rex Ryan crafted a master plan this Sunday and finally got the win over Belichick in Foxborough that he has craved for so long. This Bills Offense has some nice pieces and if Lynn can keep up his creative play calling while Tyrod Taylor continues to elevate his passing game, this Bills team could threaten to put up 20 points against most Defenses in the League. This Buffalo Bills Defense looked dominant Sunday and is just a week removed from holding Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer to 26 for 50, 287 yards, 0TDs, 4INTs and David Johnson to 83 yards rushing off 19 attempts. Taylor took a step forward in the game against New England and his QB rating was actually higher on plays he was under pressure (103.8) compared to those where he faced no pressure (91.5). Taylor is an exciting young Quarterback and many in Buffalo will hope that he can take the next step as a pocket passer as this Bills Defense if it continues to play at the level it has played over the last two weeks, will certainly keep games close and give Rex Ryan a chance at redemption following Buffalo’s disappointing season last year.
-Tom Like, Editor-in-Chief