The biggest challenge yet: Patriots vs. Bills What to Watch For
November 30th, 2022
It’s Bills week in Foxborough. Here we go again.
Last year’s trio of games between the Patriots and the Bills was one of the most bizarre single-year series between division rivals in recent memory. The first game took place in a driving wind storm, which the Patriots won 14-10 despite only throwing three passes in the entire game.
In the second game, the Bills’ offense found its rhythm. They didn’t need to call on the punt team once. Still, the Patriots nearly erased a 20-7 deficit, getting within five points in the fourth quarter. However, a dropped J.C. Jackson interception ended those hopes, as a late score lifted Buffalo to a 33-21 win.
The teams then met again a few weeks later in the first round of the playoffs. The Patriots were down four defensive starters, including three in the secondary, and the game went as one would expect given those circumstances. Buffalo scored seven touchdowns on its seven full drives (excluding kneel downs at the end of the game) to win 47-17.
Coming into the first of two meetings this year, the Bills are viewed by many as the favorite in the AFC, while the Patriots are fighting to stay in playoff contention. Will this game look like the second two meetings last year, or will the Patriots pull out what would arguably be the biggest win of the post-Tom Brady era? Here’s what to watch for on Thursday night.
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 28: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown as J.C. Jackson #27 of the New England Patriots gives chase during the first half at Gillette Stadium on December 28, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
On the surface, the composition of both of these teams is very similar to what they were last year. However, there are some key changes that will impact the way the two teams game plan for each other.
Perhaps the biggest of those changes is the departure of Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency. While Jackson was one of the best cornerbacks in football during his final two seasons in New England, Stefon Diggs always seemed to have his number. In five matchups, Diggs caught 29 passes for 433 yards and four touchdowns. 18 of those 29 catches were for first downs.
This year, there’s no Jackson-Diggs matchup for the Bills to exploit. Who will end up drawing that assignment is more up in the air, but Diggs clearly had Jackson’s number, and now that won’t be a factor.
Jonathan Jones makes the most sense as the defender to primarily draw Diggs in coverage. Jones has been the Patriots’ best and most consistent cornerback to this point this season. He’s allowed just 16 catches on 36 targets this season, with opposing quarterbacks having a 40.4 passer rating when targeting him.
Don’t expect the Patriots to leave Jones – or whoever draws Diggs as a coverage assignment – alone on as island. Last week against a similar caliber player in Justin Jefferson, the Patriots regularly used brackets and doubles in coverage. Granted, even then Jefferson was able to make some plays. But it’s clear the plan was to swarm him.
For the Patriots, that’s probably their best bet when it comes to Diggs as well. For all the talk about Josh Allen – and we’ll get to him in a bit – Diggs may actually be the most dangerous player on Buffalo’s offense. For example, when targeting Diggs, Allen’s passer rating is a remarkable 121.5 this season. When targeting any other player, that number drops down to 89.03, which is below average. Of Allen’s 11 interceptions – which are tied for the most in the NFL this year – 10 have come when targeting players other than Diggs.
Taking a player as talented as Diggs out of the game is much, much easier said than done. The Patriots and their fans got a first-hand view of that last week, with Jefferson managing to make a massive impact and put up major numbers despite the attention the Patriots paid to him. Still, if the Patriots can lessen Diggs impact it will go a long way towards winning this game – and for the first time in a few years they’ll have a new plan for how to approach covering him.
Defending Josh Allen
DETROIT, MICHIGAN – NOVEMBER 24: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a pass against the Detroit Lions d at Ford Field on November 24, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
His game has changed perhaps more than any other player in the four years he’s been in the league, but one thing about Josh Allen is still the same as it was when he was a rookie – he’s a big play hunter. It’s not just him either. Buffalo’s offense is built around concepts meant to test a defense deep and get on and off the field as quick as possible.
When the Bills can quick strike, they’re almost impossible to beat. The key is to force them to move the ball incrementally, and then handle things situationally.
First off, the Patriots need to capitalize on turnovers. Allen leads the league in interceptions this year, and his 21 turnover worthy plays are also the most in the NFL. If and when he throws them a gift, they need to make him pay.
The other issue that’s been key for the Bills this year, and something Patriots fans may relate to, is their red zone offense. Buffalo has scored on 53.5 percent of its red zone trips this year, which ranks 19th in the NFL. Allen in particular has struggled throwing near the end zone. His passer rating drops from 91.8 from outside the 20 to 71.5 once the Bills cross the opponents 20. It’s also where interceptions have been his biggest issue, with his TD:INT ratio going from 15:4 to 8:7. The red zone issues have been the biggest challenge for the Bills offense since Ken Dorsey replaced Brian Daboll as the team’s offensive coordinator this past offseason.
If the Patriots worry too much about what Allen is doing in the middle of the field, he’ll be able to exploit them by throwing the ball down the field or taking off with his legs. Those runs have less of a chance in resulting in scores, hence the focus on taking away the throws. If the Bills then make it down the field without a turnover, the focus should switch to containing Allen in the pocket (designed quarterback runs and scrambles have been the Bills’ biggest weapon near the goal line this year), and force him to throw in an area that eliminates the option of the long ball.
All of this is, of course, much easier said than done. But when Allen and the Bills have struggled offensively over the last two years, it’s mainly been because of opponents executing this blueprint.
One more matchup on defense
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 26: Isaiah McKenzie #19 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates his touchdown score with teammates during the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
There’s one other matchup the Patriots need to be mindful of heading into this game, and that’s in the slot. In the final two meetings last year, Isaiah McKenzie burned the Patriots with 11 catches for 125 yards in the meeting at Gillette Stadium, then had six touches for 74 yards in the playoff game. Over half of McKenzie’s total production last season came in just those two games.
In both of those games, Myles Bryant was in coverage on McKenize the majority of the time. McKenzie’s speed proved to be too much of a mismatch, as the Bills had him in a foot race with Bryant running crossing and over routes repeatedly throughout both games. Lack of depth in the secondary made it difficult for the Patriots to make the nessesary adjustments in response.
This year, the Patriots will have more options to counter McKenzie’s speed. Jonathan Jones missed both of those games last year while on IR. If he’s not the one covering Diggs, look for him to return to a slot role for this game. There’s also rookie Marcus Jones, who is a slot corner and was one of the fastest players in this past draft class. While he’s not as experienced as Jonathan Jones, athletically he seems like an ideal matchup for the Patriots against McKenzie. He’s held his own when he has had coverage responsibilities this year as well, allowing just two catches on six targets over 57 coverage snaps.
The Patriots will have their options when it comes to matching up with McKenzie this time around, and taking him away as a quick release option for Allen would be big. As for exactly if and how they’ll adjust, that remains to be seen.
Controlling the tempo
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots calls a play in the huddle against the Indianapolis Colts during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
As we’ve already highlighted a number of times, the Bills’ biggest Achilles heel this season has been turnovers. They’ve been able to work around their 19 giveaways with their quick strike ability. Basically, they’re afforded a bigger margin for error because of how quickly and reliably they can make up for mistakes. They give themselves plenty of chances – their average of 65.8 plays per game ranks eighth in the NFL this season.
That means an effective tool against the Bills can be shortening the game. By keeping the clock running, opponents can limit the number of drives and plays the Bills will have – shrinking that margin for error. The way to do that is holding onto the ball, converting on third downs, and putting together sustained drives.
Those are three things the Patriots have done inconsistently in 2022. They’re averaging 60.1 plays per game this year, which ranks 27th in the NFL this season. Their average drive time of 2:43 ranks 20th, their 5.5 plays per drive 28th, and their 28.6 yards per drive 23rd. Third downs have been an issue, with their 37.1 percent conversion rate ranking 25th.
If the Patriots want to win this game, they will need to do a better job sustaining drives and controlling the tempo of the game. Last week was an encouraging step for the offense, but consistency will be a key this week.
Getting the tight ends involved
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA – NOVEMBER 24: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Minnesota Vikings during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium on November 24, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
At this point, Patriots fans may be tired of seeing this headline as a suggestion heading into a game. For the last two years, the involvement of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry – or lack thereof – has been a common talking point when the Patriots’ offense struggled.
In recent weeks though, the Patriots’ tight ends have been more involved. Smith had one of his most productive games of the season two weeks ago against the Jets, with Hunter Henry putting up big numbers against Minnesota last week.
It’s not just that the Patriots have gotten the tight ends more involved, but they’ve done so strategically. Henry is back to running up the seam, and they’re setting Smith up with the ball in his hands in the open field. Both players have been used more on play action looks as well.
This week provides a great opportunity for the Patriots to keep that tight end momentum going. The Bills have allowed 58 catches to tight ends this year, the fifth-most in the NFL. It’s something that’s become more of an issue since All-Pro safety Micah Hyde went on IR.
There will be chances for the Patriots’ tight ends to do damage beyond the catch as well. The Bills have had issues giving up yards after the catch this year, and are one of the worst tackling teams in the league. Their 56 missed tackles are the 10th-most in the league, and PFF has them as the third-worst tackling team in the league with a team tackling grade of 40.6.
Look for the Patriots to get their tight ends involved in the ways described above. If they’re looking for a weakness to pick on with the Bills’ defense, that’s how they’re going to find it.
Winning on the margins
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 30: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots reacts during the first half against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on October 30, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
This week began with Bill Belichick telling reporters, “we’re preparing to play our best game, because that’s what we’re going to need to do this week.” While that’s obviously true in the big picture, it applies at every level.
If the Patriots are going to beat the Bills, they’re going to need to do all the little things well. That means taking care of the football, limiting penalties, and finding ways to impact the game on special teams. Basically, everything they struggled with against Minnesota.
For most of Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots were a team that could and often did win games on the margins. It’s something they’ve struggled to do in recent years on a consistent basis, but should be a point of emphasis this week.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.