From the rich-get-richer department comes this bit of bad news for the Buffalo Bills: The New England Patriots’ defense is on fire.
That hardly seems fair when perhaps the greatest player of all time in quarterback Tom Brady is still at his brilliant best on the other side of the ball. But it’s a reality. Since Week 5, New England is 7-0 and the defense has given up just 13.1 points per game during that stretch, tops in the NFL.
“They’re always overlooked because they put up so many points on offense,” Bills left guard Richie Incognito said. “I really do think that they don't get enough credit.”
The season didn’t start out that way for New England. Through the first four games, during which the Patriots went 2-2, the defense allowed a whopping 32 points per game.
So what changed?
“Execution. Just playing the defense better,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said Wednesday. “I think we got better and we focused on what we’re being coached to do and what we needed to do game-plan-wise. We just played it better. It’s crazy that it’s that simple because it’s like, ‘Well, why didn’t you do that the first four weeks?’ But, I think everyone just stuck at it, didn’t kind of fall into how the game was going and get on that roller-coaster ride. Everybody just locked in and focused on their job and trying to do their job better. Overall, that made us a better group.”
That has shown up on tape, several of the Bills’ offensive players said.
“They firmed some things up schematically,” Incognito said. “They looked like they were a new defense in the early part of the year. They were trying to find their identity. Halfway through the year, October, November, they're starting to play their best.”
“Up front they’re playing a lot better against the run and actually playing a lot of man coverage and playing really, really well,” running back LeSean McCoy said. “A little bit on tape, you’ll see some guys out of gaps or some guys not in the right coverage. That’s kind of changed up. It looks like they’re all more comfortable, I think, with the scheme. Added some new players, but they look good.”
One of those new players is Stephon Gilmore. Much like the Pats’ defense as a whole, Gilmore had a miserable first month of the season. Since coming back from a concussion that kept him out of three games, Gilmore has looked like the player New England expected to get when it gave him a five-year contract worth up $65 million in the offseason.
“He's been consistent all year, he really has,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Gilmore. “He’s been consistent from the spring, to training camp. I think if you pulled out last week’s practice and pulled out one in September or May and took the weather out of it and everything else, and if you didn’t really know what day it was, you’d see pretty much the same guy every day. He comes to work. He works hard at his job, tries to play the technique. If he makes a mistake, you correct him on it and he tries to improve it and do it right, but he does it right a lot and he’s got a lot of good skill and experience. He’s a very consistent guy.”
That type of discipline is emblematic of New England’s entire defensive approach.
"They’ve had some injuries on their side of the ball, so they’ve been dealing with that all year, but watching them in their most recent games, they’re a disciplined group,” Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “Bunch of talented guys on that team and it’s definitely going to be a challenge for us.”
Those injury concerns could present themselves again for New England on Sunday. Leading pass rusher Trey Flowers left New England’s Week 12 win over Miami with a rib injury, but practiced on a limited basis. So too did linebacker Kyle Van Noy (calf), cornerback Eric Rowe (groin) and linebacker Marquis Flowers (knee).
Regardless of their ability, the Bills know their offense will need to do a much better job Sunday. While the win against Kansas City on Sunday was nice, the 16 points scored against the Chiefs likely won’t cut it against Brady and Co.
“Yeah, we have to capitalize,” McCoy said. “A lot of plays last week we left some meat on the bone and we didn’t get the total amount of yards we should’ve on a lot of plays. This week is going to be the same thing as far as capitalizing on the plays. Stay on the field, convert, make the downs early manageable, second and 5, second and 6, things like that.”
Sustaining drives has been an issue all season for the Bills. Even though the team’s third-down conversion rate is above average (39.8 percent, which ranks 12th in the NFL), the offense still averages just 26.15 yards per drive, according to analytics website Football Outsiders, which ranks 26th in the NFL. Additionally, Buffalo has gone three-and-out 27.9 percent of the time, which is 25th in the league.
“You can count on those guys being in the right place at the right time,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to be able to sustain drives and put up points, finish with ‘7’ of course, because their offensive side puts up a bunch of points week in and week out.”