Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Pats' long game adds to Bills worries - The Buffalo News

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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Pats' long game adds to Bills worries

No cheap deep might as well be a motto of the Buffalo Bills' defense.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier tries hard to make teams work for scores, and he has done a pretty good job of it from a pass-coverage perspective.

The Bills have allowed only three 40-plus pass plays, tied for fourth fewest in the NFL.

The challenge gets tougher Sunday against New England. The Patriots' offense has become more vertical with the addition of star speed receiver Brandin Cooks.

New England is No. 2 in the NFL in 20-plus pass plays (47) and tied for fourth in 40-plus plays (9).

Tom Brady is having his best downfield passing season since he had Randy Moss in the 16-0 campaign of 2007.

Brady is on pace to throw for 1,198 yards, 35 completions and seven TDs on passes that travel 20-or-more yards beyond the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus. That's up about 40 percent from last year, when he had 834 yards in downfield throws.

Brady is No. 2 in the NFL this season on downfield throws (behind Kansas City's Alex Smith). In the 2007 season, Brady had 31 completions, 1,192 yards and 16 TDs on throws 20-plus yards downfield, according to PFF.

"Any time you make big plays, you can skip 10 plays and hit one big one," Brady said after Cooks caught two passes of 50-plus yards against Oakland. "That's really important. He's done a great job of doing that all year. ... It's tough to catch him from behind when he gets behind the defense."

Cooks, who was acquired from New Orleans for first- and third-round picks, has 869 yards through 11 games. The Pats caught Oakland safeties peeking into the backfield twice on Cooks catches 64 and 52 yards two weeks ago. Bills safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer haven't been burned like that so far this season.

"He's a fast and really smart football player," said Poyer, a teammate of Cooks' at Oregon State. "Speed kills."

Of course, should the Bills stick to their deep shell — as expected — Brady is just as capable as ever of working his precision-passing horizontal game.

Running back James White ranks No. 3 in the NFL in catches by running backs with 47. Possession receiver Danny Amendola has 44 catches.

The one downside of waiting for longer routes to develop is QB hits. Brady took eight vs. Miami last week and has taken 59 on the season. That rate really is on par with the past five seasons, ESPN's Mike Reiss reported Tuesday, but it's still a concern for the Pats.

The 30,000-foot view: How spoiled are Patriots fans? Besides the record five Super Bowls and six straight AFC title game appearances, some superlatives to consider: The Pats have ranked among the top four in the NFL in scoring eight straight years (counting 2017). They have been in the top 11 in yards 14 straight years, the top 12 in passing 16 straight years and the top eight in third-down conversions 12 of the last 14. The Pats' defense has been in the top 10 in points allowed 14 of the last 17 years despite ranking among the bottom 10 in yards allowed eight of those seasons.

Game-breaker: Cooks ran a 4.33-second time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2014, fastest of any player that year and eighth fastest in the past 10 years.

Weak link: The Pats' edge rushing is not very good, despite the fact New England had seven sacks against Miami last week. Trey Flowers, a fourth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2015, is their best one-on-one rush man. He had two sacks vs. the Bills in Week 8 last year. He has 7.0 this season. Flowers has long, 34 1-4-inch arms and he's a quality all-around defender. But he's not an elite speed guy around the corner.

No blitz zone: Defensive coordinators blitz Brady at their own peril. In 2016, Brady had 11 TDs and no interceptions against the blitz. He was 61 of 99 for 838 yards and a 125.7 passer rating vs. rushes of five or more, according to ESPN's Bill Barnwell. This year, Brady is completing the same percentage (61) on 53-of-87 passing for 676 yards with five TDs and two INTs, according to Pro Football Focus. He took just two sacks against the blitz last year, vs. eight so far this year. The loss of Julian Edelman to injury no doubt has hurt a bit as a safety-valve. Pressure up the middle with a four-man rush and post-snap coverage shifting — no blitzing — remain about the best, hard-to-execute ways to defend No. 12.

No Cover 2: It'll be a surprise if the Bills show much Cover 2 against the Pats. Tight end Rob Gronkowski kills two-deep looks.

Stat for the road: The much-maligned Pats defense ranks 30th in yards allowed and fifth in points allowed. The Pats have done a good job of preventing big plays of late. In the first six games they gave up 24 plays of 20-plus yards. In the past six they've allowed only 14.

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