The Rockpile Review is about the Buffalo Bills, but the story of Saturday’s showdown in Foxboro, with the AFC East championship on the line, was the Patriots – again.
The Bills have a roster full of committed men, intense competitors, physical players. They are well-coached and they are well-prepared for games. The Patriots have been a great team for nearly two decades because they are all of that, and just a bit better than the Bills, for now.
The Patriots have combined fundamental excellence on the field with coaching excellence to produce the greatest winning machine in the history of football. The Patriots players block and tackle and throw and catch exceptionally well – it’s fundamental excellence. They do it every week. The coaches are creative and thorough; they create opportunities for the players to gain momentary advantages on the field. The players use those opportunities to win.
Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott are trying to build a winner using the same formula, and they have the Bills well on the way to success.
The players can see in each game, win or lose, how their combined excellence at the fundamentals makes the difference in the game. Each week they commit to getting a little better, and that commitment is evident on the field. The Bills have become an exceptionally tough opponent. They don’t make mistakes. They grind on offense and defense and they are prepared to take advantage of opportunities. Poyer’s forced fumble and Hyde’s excellent scoop and return are examples of the Bills’ style of play.
The story on Saturday was simply that the Patriots coaches were better at creating opportunities for their players to perform. Sean McDermott knows that the coaching needs to get better.
Belichick’s approach to the game is largely about numbers. He creates opportunities for his team, and denies opportunities for his opponent, with numbers. He knows that on most plays, most players will fight their opponent to a draw – they won’t win and they won’t lose. So he knows that on defense he wants to put a lot of players on the ball, because although most of them will fight to a draw or lose, one or two will win and make the tackle.
On offense, he does the opposite – he seeks to create isolated one-on-one situations at multiple places on the field, so that if his player wins, there’s an easy opportunity to gain yards. He expects his quarterback to recognize those opportunities.
So, for example, sometimes on Saturday he had no one back to return punts. Why? Because the extra man on the line of scrimmage gives him an advantage. He doesn’t need blockers on the gunners, because there’s no return man, so instead of blockers he has two guys back to protect against the fake. The extra man on the line of scrimmage gives him one more chance for someone to win his one-on-one fight and make a play. The punt block is more valuable than the few yards he gives up by conceding no return. Eventually, of course, teams will adjust, but in the meantime, he has an advantage.
Another example: the completion to Harry in the left flat. The Pats wanted to get the ball quickly to Harry, but Lawson had picked up Harry and Brady looked to the right for his second option. When he saw nothing there, he came back to Harry. Lawson had continued his pass rush and Harry was alone for an easy completion. Maybe Lawson made a mistake, maybe not, but the point is that the Patriots gave Brady three one-on-one opportunities early in the play – Harry, someone on the right and Harry again. All he needed was one player to win his one-on-one and he had a completion.
Or look at the pass and run up the right sideline, I believe to Burkhead. Brady dropped, the Bills had a blitz coming from his right, and Edmunds was responsible for the hot read on that side. Edmunds got aggressive and took a couple of steps to his left and in toward the line of scrimmage when he should have stayed parallel to the line.
Once again, the Pats had a one-on-one and took advantage of the win. If Edmunds had made the right play, Brady would have thrown the ball out of bounds. The point isn’t that Edmunds made a mistake; everyone makes mistakes. The point is that the Patriots play to create one-on-one situations, to recognize them, and take advantage of them when their player wins.
Or, look at the opposite example. On the Bills final drive, first and goal at the eight, Brian Daboll calls a designed run for Allen to the left. That play is exactly the opposite of what the Patriots do on offense.
The Patriots try to create isolated one-on-one situations so they can take advantage if their player wins. A power sweep creates about five or six one-on-ones, blocker on tackler. For that play to work, pretty much all of the Bills players have to win or neutralize their man; if one fails, that one defender makes the tackle. Vince Lombardi could win with power sweeps, but today’s defenders are too strong and too fast one of them almost always wins..
Or, look at the Bills’ final offensive play. In September the Pats forced Allen into several bad decisions with multiple blitz packages, including several six and seven-man rushes. They knew Allen would be prepared for the all-out blitz this time around, and Allen didn’t see it once, until the final play.
Then, true to form, Belichick wanted numbers. He knew that numbers would maximize the opportunity to get a free rusher at Allen and get either a sack or a hurried throw. Either Allen and the Bills failed to recognize it and adjust, or the Bills weren’t prepared for it.
If Allen could have broken wide, he had several receivers one-on-one and he would have had opportunities. Still, Allen made a good play, knowing not to throw at Gilmore and throwing a 50-50 ball. Beasley actually made a nice play of the ball, but the defender did his job.
In a sense, Brady outplayed Allen and that was the difference in the game. Allen took four sacks, Brady took none. If Allen had thrown the ball away on those four sacks, his completion percentage would have been abysmal, and I’m not sure the Bills would have been much better off. Statistically, Brady was better, but that wasn’t on Allen.
Allen missed on a few throws, to be sure, but as a pure thrower, he was better than Brady. He drilled several balls to Beasley in tight windows. His long throw to Knox was beautiful (as was Knox’s catch), and the touchdown to Brown was borderline miraculous.
When Mahomes throws one like that, the networks replay it and replay it, raving about his ability to wait, to throw off balance with length and touch and all that, but this is Allen and the Buffalo Bills, so there’s just a comment about it being a nice throw and the announcers move on. That was one of those great long throws that will make Allen a truly dangerous quarterback in the coming seasons.
The difference between Allen and Brady on Saturday is simple: coaching excellence on offense and defense. Recall the Cowboys game; Allen was comfortable in the pocket and understood what he was seeing in the defensive backfield. The result? A lot of easy completions in rhythm.
On Saturday, not so much. The easy option wasn’t there so often, and Allen was forced to make quick decisions and throw to covered receivers. Brady, on the other hand, looked more like Allen looked against the Cowboys: comfortable, with an open receiver available on many plays. Brady threw accurately and the Pats moved the ball. It wasn’t that Allen made bad choices; he just didn’t have the easy choices Brady had.
And Brady’s success wasn’t at the expense of the Bills’ defensive players. Sure, there was an occasional blown assignment, and there were a few more missed tackles than usual, but the Patriots’ ability to muster those long drives was regularly the result of finding the opportunity to create one-on-one situations at the point of attack. They didn’t overpower the Bills; they simply found one-on-ones repeatedly (Brady’s forte) and won enough of them to keep drives alive.
As we’ve seen before, on Saturday it looked like the Bills were being outplayed, but all that matters is the scoreboard. The Pats dominated in the first half, but the Bills were down only seven, and when Kevin Johnson won his one-on-one to stop Harry on fourth and one, the Bills were in business. The completion to Knox, the clock management and the play calling on the goal line all were championship caliber. Tie game.
The difference in the game? The Patriots finished their fourth quarter touchdown drive, and the Bills didn’t finish theirs. That was it.
Give credit where credit is due: the Patriots really are who we thought they are. And the Bills are who we thought they are, too: a very good football team that plays everyone tough. They have a lot of winning ahead of them.
Bring on the Jets!
Editor’s babble: As always, thanks to Mark Korber for his contributions to our blog. You can’t find Mark on Twitter but you can find him posting on twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall message board.