Monday, September 21, 2015

Patriots Top Bills, 40-32

The Patriots notched a 40-32 victory over the Bills in Buffalo yesterday. The win puts them a game up on Buffalo and Miami (who lost) and a half-game up on the New York Jets (who play Monday night). Next week the streaking Jacksonville Jaguars come to town, bringing their one-game winning streak, and likely leaving with a one-game losing streak.

As predicted on this blog just two weeks ago, problems along the offensive line wreaked havoc with the offense against a stout front seven. However, it was the Bills O-line that stunk up the joint against the Pats front seven. That is where the game was won/lost; the difference in play between the offensive lines was striking and decisive. Well... that and the coaching, but more on that later.

Rather than test the Bills run defense, the Patriots simply passed instead. They called 61 pass plays and 12 runs (plus 3 kneel downs), over a 5-1 ratio. And with all that passing the offensive line gave up just one sack, a semi-whiff by left tackle Nate Solder (the other was a coverage sack).

Even more amazing was that when Solder went out temporarily with an injury play didn't drop off. Guard Josh Kline played very well, and rookies Shaq Mason and Dave Andrews look like seasoned professionals. Granted they didn't ask them to blow people off the line and run, but all that passing lead to very little pressure on quarterback Tom Brady.

(Note: O-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo deservers a lot of credit here. Granted the team drafted multiple linemen [and some high up].  But with rookies starting against blitzing/pressure teams isn't easy, and DeGuglielmo has done an admirable job putting the players in position to succeed.)

As for the aforementioned quarterback, Brady was spectacular. He finished the day with great numbers: 38 of 49 (64%), 466 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 105.6 QB rating. But his most impressive deeds on the day came in orchestrating pass protection, sometimes moving players multiple times pre-snap to get enough bodies to handle the pressure, which mostly came in the second half.

The receivers played exceptionally well this week. Julian Edelman continues to be mister reliable (11 catches, 97 yards, 2 touchdowns), and tight end Rob Gronkowski didn't see King Kong in coverage, so he torched the Bills for 7 catches, 113 yards, and 1 touchdown. Aaron Dobson also had 7 grabs (87 yards) and is rounding into a nice third option. And Danny Amendola had the catch of the day (at least among the receivers), a twisting, diving 29-yarder to put the game away.

Running back Dion Lewis caught 6 passes (98 yards), and ran 7 times for 40 yards and 1 touchdown. However, the bigger news is that he fumbled again -- and did not see a reduction in playing time. This is unusual, as the Patriots regularly bench players who fumble, except under extraordinary circumstances.

Unfortunately, there is only one way to interpret this turn of events. The Patriots simply don't have another decent third-down back option, so they have to stay with Lewis. Two fumbles in two games, and he continued to play; that means the Pats don't have anyone else they trust in that position, and that is not the regular Patriots way.

Lewis had better get the fumblitis out of the way; because his team and his teammates need him and apparently there isn't any better option on the bench. (Trivia question: In the past decade, six other Patriots running backs have had at least two fumbles in a single season; how many can you name? Answer below.)

The defense did a really good job for most of the game. They gave up a quick touchdown on the first drive, but followed that up with five straight three-and-outs and two interceptions before halftime. They mostly held the Bills in check until the fourth quarter, when they got sloppy and gave up three straight scores to make the game close.

The secondary made some terrific plays; two of the best catches of the day were by corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. It wasn't perfect; they gave up two touchdowns of 20+ yards, and several Buffalo short passes came with tons of yards-after-catch. Ryan struggled most of the time he was on the field, and Bradley Fletcher got beaten soundly a few times. But they hung in there and got the turnovers they needed, including the game-sealing pick by safety Duron Harmon.

Note on the safeties: they moved strong safety Patrick Chung to the line after the first quarter, to slow down the run. And the Bills capitalized with long passes that attacked a single-high safety look (with Devin McCourty). This is exactly what the Patriots will face when they play teams with balanced offenses. Thankfully, they don't see too many of them this season.

The two outside linebackers were a wrecking crew. Jamie Collins (11 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 tackles for a loss, 3 QB hits, and 1 forced fumble) and Dont'a Hightower (12 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 QB hit) were everywhere. Hightower made a nice play to slow down a screen and then knife through for the tackle (though he did miss on several run blitzes). And Collins came at the QB from all angles, although his run tackling left a bit to be desired (and came too far downfield).

Middle linebacker Jerod Mayo still rotates in and out, apparently still recovering from his injury. When he drops out, the team usually replaces him with a DB in the nickel.

The interior defensive line started shaky, giving up chunk yards on runs by both running backs and the scrambling quarterback. Granted it was tough to contain the QB in the pocket, but that was their mandate and it took a while before they figured it out. The Pats added a third beefy interior lineman after the first drive, and suddenly Alan Branch, rookie Malcom Brown, and even Jonathan Freeney cranked things up.

But the star of the D-line was Chandler Jones. He did an excellent job rushing under control but getting there; 6 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, and 4 QB hits tell the tale. He toyed with blockers when they went one-on-one, using multiple inside and power moves to push the pocket and disrupt the play. His best game since the middle of last year.

The Patriots special teams outplayed their Buffalo counterparts. Ryan Allen punted only once (54 yards), but kicker Stephen Gostkowski gave up minimal kickoff return yards and mostly booted the ball through the end zone. He also hit all is field goals and extra points; something Buffalo's Dan Carpenter can't claim

As for the coaching, it was a monumental mismatch. The Patriots adjusted multiple times, on both offense and defense. While the Bills missed an extra point, then chased that point by trying (and failing) on two two-point conversions. Buffalo didn't bring pressure until the second half, never adjusting to the slice-a-thon going on in the first half.

They also had 14 accepted penalties for 140 yards, including three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for taunting and/or insults hurled from the bench. Rex Ryan is emotional and jazzed up for games, but he and his team need to learn to reign it in, or they'll continue to self-destruct. I've never seen a team get a taunting penalty when the other team made a great play -- so yesterday was a first in that regard. Thank you Bills!

So where does that leave us? 2-0 and alone in first place for the moment. Jacksonville shouldn't be too much of a test next Sunday, and then it's an early bye week. So enjoy things while they last; they can turn around quickly. Just ask Week 1 Darlings, the Buffalo Bills.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Dion Lewis has two fumbles in two games with the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski has two fumbles in his entire Patriots career (5+ years).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats don't need help from the other team, but they'll take 140 yards of penalties any time they can get them."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: LeGarrette Blount (2013), Stevan Ridley (2012 & 2013), Sammie Morris (2009), Laurence Maroney (2009), Corey Dillon (2006), and Patrick Pass (2005).

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