Jones, Patriots Not Built for Playoff Success
NFL Week 16 - A quick peek at last weekend's Bills-Patriots boxscore paints an ugly picture for rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The Bills' pass defense held Jones to 14 completions on 32 passes for 4.5 yards per attempt, zero touchdowns, and two picks. Statistically speaking, only Jones' three-interception capitulation against the Saints in Week 3 can compare. It was bad.
A deeper dive into the film shows Jones was not solely at fault for how poorly the passing offense produced. It's not as though Jones made a string of questionable decisions or poor throws. Rather, the Bills put together and executed the perfect game plan to slow down the Patriots' somewhat-limited passing offense. That does not absolve Jones entirely, seeing as he is part of why the offense has limitations, but it does make it clearer how and why he was only able to produce at that clip despite not actively making many bad plays.
Buffalo's game plan was as much about stressing Jones as it was abusing the Patriots' middling receiver corps. Jones, for all the good he has shown, struggles to drive the ball outside the numbers at times. He also has an affinity for finding his checkdowns and taking guaranteed yardage. On its own, embracing checkdowns is not necessarily a bad habit, but it is one that can be targeted. As for New England's pass-catchers, many of them have valuable skills, but none of them are particularly elusive separators or outside vertical threats.
Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier took all of that information to craft a game plan centered on three core tenets:
- press and play tight to routes;
- play inside leverage whenever possible;
- and blitz the running back to keep them in protection.
The first two principles took advantage of the Patriots' lack of speed and separation among their pass-catchers, as well as forcing Josh McDaniels and Jones to rely on throws outside the numbers (away from the coverage leverage). The last principle, blitzing (or hugging up) the running back, helped take away Jones' options underneath and dared him to make tight-window throws.
The Bills got rolling on the first third down of the game. On a third-and-10, the Bills hit on all three principles with a 2-man call to get the Patriots off the field.
Buffalo rotates late to a 2-man coverage with Tremaine Edmunds (49) blitzing the running back straight away. To the bottom of the screen, both of Buffalo's cornerbacks work to get inside leverage and stay underneath the routes while being physical. With all of Buffalo's extra zone defenders deep over the hashes, the cornerbacks want to be low and inside in order to have body presence on both sides of the receiver. Against a better offense, the risk to this strategy would be getting beat down the sideline or to the outside with speed, but neither New England's receivers nor quarterback strike that kind of fear in a defense.
The Bills leaned on a similar 2-man call on this third-and-10. Again, both cornerbacks to the two-receiver side work to inside leverage in order to take away any in-breakers over the middle. Additionally, since the receiver to the bottom of the screen runs across the field on a shallow, the Bills' boundary safety is no longer threatened deep to his side and can turn back to the two-receiver side to poach any crossers coming his way. While the "hug the back" aspect fails this time as Edmunds allows the running back to escape into a route before entangling him, Jones starts to feel the heat and tries to squeeze in a throw to a nonexistent window beyond the sticks. Credit to Jones for his pocket movement and poise, but the Bills forced an extremely difficult throw and he could not connect.
This is where Buffalo's game plan started to show some flexibility. For one, the Bills disguised their coverage shell. The Bills showed a one-high structure with a weak-rotated safety, only to bail the weak cornerback (bottom) into a deep half and have the safety underneath him take the solo receiver in man coverage. On top of that, Edmunds takes a new tack. In the previous two clips, Edmunds was blitzing the back and either forcing him to stay in or trying to chase him if he went out on a route. This time, with the back into the boundary, the Bills run a similar-looking concept, but with a "peel" tag for the edge player and Edmunds staying on his blitz no matter what. In short, Mario Addison (97) is a designed rusher who turns into a coverage player if the back releases outside to him, which is exactly what happens here. Jones likely saw Edmunds blitzing out of this coverage look again and assumed he could find his running back with room on the perimeter, but Addison did a commendable job coming off his rush path to stop this catch short of a first down.
At the end of the play, the Bills were essentially in two-high man coverage with immediate presence on the running back, but the way they got there was different than what they had shown before. Those little tweaks make things difficult for an offense.
To be fair to the Patriots, Jones converted the ensuing fourth down with an awesome play out of the pocket, and Damien Harris punched in a rushing touchdown two plays later. It's not as though the Bills completely choked Jones and the Patriots out, they just made the game a grind and forced the Patriots to convert 5-of-6 on fourth downs after making them go 1-of-10 on third downs. Nothing came easy.
Anyway, the Bills also molded their coverage shell to the Patriots' offensive formations. In the previous three clips, the Patriots used all the space available to the wide side of the field and split out their receivers accordingly. The Bills responded with two-high shells. When the Patriots went to tighter formations and/or receiver alignments, however, the Bills more commonly responded with one-high shells, to get more bodies in the box to defend the run against tighter offensive formations. Buffalo largely found the same results despite the change in safety shell.
The Patriots have a tight offset stack to the top of the screen. That alignment forces a tighter box by its proximity to the core of the formation, which the Bills respond to by rolling a safety down over the tight end and kicking their linebackers to the passing strength. From this defensive alignment, the Bills can now man up across the board with the outside linebacker (Edmunds, 49) hugging up the running back, the box safety covering the tight end, and the middle linebacker floating around as a robber to clog up the middle.
To the top of the screen, nickel cornerback Taron Johnson (24) does well to sort out the stack formation and fight hard for inside leverage, once again taking away the intermediate in-breaker the Patriots tried to run. That combination of technique, skill, and the film study required to know what the Patriots want to run worked together to present an airtight window for Jones. To the rookie's credit, Jones almost threads the needle and still gives his guy a chance here, but the ball was a smidgen behind where it needed to be and ended up being contested by Johnson.
On this first down, the Bills went back to the Cover-1, well but with a different flavor. Rather than keeping a robber in the middle of the field, the Bills blitz their weak safety off the right-hand edge of the offense and ask both linebackers to play man coverage. As usual, Edmunds (49) runs up immediately to hug up the running back and keep him occupied while the tight coverage behind him does work. To the top of the screen, Johnson is again playing tight coverage with inside leverage on his man, while outside cornerback Levi Wallace (39) stays just inside his receiver and looks to turn his back inside to cut off any potential in-breakers. Similarly to what we saw the previous play, Jones nearly fits the ball into an improbable window, but the throw sails a bit and ends up in the dirt.
All game long, those were the margins of error the Bills imposed upon the Patriots offense. McDermott and company dared Jones to beat them by fitting tight windows and operating without his usual checkdown help. In a perfect world, the Patriots could have responded by attacking the weaknesses the Bills' defense opened itself up to outside the numbers, but neither their quarterback nor receivers are particularly equipped to do that—and the Bills knew it.
The playoffs will present the Patriots with more and more defenses who can play them this way, including the Bills. Even Week 18's pseudo playoff game against the Miami Dolphins will present similar issues, just as it did in their Week 1 loss. The Patriots cannot hope to run away from this problem on their way to and through the postseason.
To be clear, the Patriots offense is far from bad. In fact, they are still quite good and present a daunting matchup for particular teams. It's fair to wonder if they have reached their limit, though. They are running out of time to prove they can beat every style and caliber of defense. New England's coaching staff is great, but at the end of the day, players play, and this current iteration of the Patriots passing offense does not have the players to put themselves over the top for playoff football.