No coaching staff is this resourceful. Bill Belichick doesn’t replace stars with stars — he scours the waiver wire, he promotes undrafted free agents. He goes thrifting for pass rushers, rather than dole out $100 million contracts.
Listen carefully during one monotone news conference last week and you'll hear the New England Patriots coach take a jab at how the Buffalo Bills built their defensive line.
“One of the best and one of the highest paid,” Belichick said. “I mean, a lot of big contracts on that — all four guys. It’s kind of unusual to see that all on one line on one team.”
So, no, the defense in front of Tyrod Taylor was not an all-star cast.
The Patriots’ defense is scheme-driven, Belichick-driven and through a 40-32 Patriots win on Sunday, the head coach provided the blueprint. Right here, right now anyway, this is how you stymie the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Buffalo Bills quarterback with 4.4 wheels. It’s now on the Bills — and Taylor, especially — to adjust. The season might depend on it.
“Any time it’s on the tape, unless you correct it, you’re going to get it over and over,” Buffalo's Rex Ryan said.
What did the Patriots do? In short, they respected him as runner and disrespected him as a passer. Belichick knew Taylor is arguably the most athletic quarterback in the league, but had thrown only 54 career passes. So he blitzed half the time. He neutralized Taylor’s mobility by playing his defensive ends wide and any rushing lanes closed quickly.
And when Taylor had a chance to step into the pocket and deliver a deep ball, a tick of hesitancy too often derailed the play.
Now is not the time to groan “Here we go again." To the vocal minority chanting #StartEJ on social media, please, just stop. The Patriots simply confirmed what most assumed: to succeed as a NFL quarterback, Taylor must excel from the pocket. Through five straight three-and-outs that bled a 7-0 lead into a 37-13 rout, he was anything but.
“We had some guys open,” Ryan said. “I think we have to step up in the pocket a little bit and we had some guys open. So we can get better in a lot of those areas. … If I look at anything with Tyrod, I’d like to see him step back, set up and then step up in the pocket a little more.”
He did that against the Cleveland Browns in the training-wheels environment that is the NFL preseason. Facing Belichick is a different story.
A few missed opportunities come to mind.
On one checkdown to running back Karlos Williams that was tipped back to Sammy Watkins for five yards in the second quarter, Taylor had tight end Charles Clay wide open streaking down the right sideline. Off the line, Clay bench-pressed Patrick Chung onto his rear, took off and held his arm up. Taylor looked his way but checked down.
Through three quarters, Taylor brought back nightmares of a different No. 5 under center, a certain Captain Checkdown, in averaging 6.2 yards per completion. Last year's starter Kyle Orton — never known for a bazooka arm — averaged 10.5 yards per completion last season. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Taylor's workout partner in Phoenix, was at 12.5 in three years under coordinator Greg Roman.
On one third and 9, Taylor settled for two yards underneath to Robert Woods. On a third and 9 the next drive, he fell to a knee for an 11-yard sack instead of stepping into a perfect pocket. At least three of the eight sacks were on Taylor.
No, New England's pressure did not help. And it’s not like Taylor is a noodle-armed, dink-and-dunker by nature — he has thrown deep at times. But this stretch of indecisiveness was as much a reason Buffalo lost to New England as the 14 penalties and Tom Brady.
The concern is if this problem is permanent. Taylor is only 6 foot 1. What if he cannot consistently see his open receivers? What if he's forced to put too much air under his ball? He overthrew receivers much of the day.
Russell Wilson (5 foot 11) and Drew Brees (6 foot) make it work. The verdict's still out on Taylor.
“It's not ideal,” Ryan admitted. “Obviously, you'd prefer the guy to be 6-5 or whatever. He's got so many other attributes that are so positive. But I think if we can step up a little more in there. And, hey, it probably wasn't the most comfortable thing stepping up into the pocket when you give up eight sacks. So that might've had something to do with it also. It's easy to sit back and say that, we've got to figure out a way to make sure that he can get a clean pocket.”
One of those attributes was evident in the fourth quarter. He’s a gamer. He has grit. As many fans headed to the exits with their tails between their legs, Taylor mounted a rally.
Teammates noticed, too.
“Tyrod has a great temperament to be a starting quarterback in this league,” guard Richie Incognito said. “He’s just cool, calm, collected, a smooth sailor. So that was good to see. … Tyrod will throw a pick or throw a touchdown and have the same demeanor. That’s what’s great about him. He keeps an even keel and is really a smooth operator.”
Expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to start accentuating Taylor's talents more in Miami, too. More rollouts, more plays on the move, more freedom to improvise should all help. Even Ryan said the Bills can "move the pocket" for Taylor. But generation to generation, one fact remains. To win, quarterbacks must step up, take a hit and deliver throws from a traditional pocket.
Taylor brings that "magic," and that's great. One of Taylor's old mentors, Michael Vick, was as magical as it gets. Vick also eclipsed 3,000 yards twice and won two playoff games in 12 years.
Everyone who’s been around Taylor — from high school and college coaches to Joe Flacco — sees a true quarterback. His No. 1 receiver at Virginia Tech, Jarrett Boykin, insists Taylor is “pass first” and “doesn’t look to make too many plays with his legs.” Flacco was adamant that Taylor “plays quarterback" and that "all the other stuff is just an added bonus.”
Any lack of height, Flacco says with bite, is not a factor.
“It’s being about being able to process it all and make decisions," Flacco said. "I think that he does that very well.”
Don’t be fooled by the athleticism, they all repeat — the guy can make all the throws. Maybe so. But until Taylor does it consistently, teams will follow Belichick’s lead. And it won't matter who the players are up front.