FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When players watched film of the carnage at Ralph Wilson Stadium, they didn’t recognize the defense on the field.
Players unable to hear each other. Pointed fingers. Shouting after wrong assignments. Blown coverages. Passive play-calling. The 70,000-plus on hand Sept. 20 were ready to erupt – Guinness World Records was even in the house – and the Buffalo Bills were promptly ripped by Tom Brady for 466 yards and three touchdowns.
Inside linebacker Preston Brown shakes his head, still visibly embarrassed.
“We had so many mistakes,” Brown said. “When we watched that first New England game, people were running around. It looked chaotic. A lot of guys didn’t know what they were doing.”
Now? Different story, he promises.
Yes, when coach Rex Ryan stood at the podium this week and vowed to play “chess” with Brady, he meant it. In this Monday Night Football showdown – a re-do, a chance for Buffalo to assert itself as the elite “D” everyone expected – the Bills hope to outwit Brady. They will embrace the chess match. And players, one by one, all repeat their confidence in Ryan’s defense is now sky high.
T-minus 48 hours before flying to Boston, there wasn’t a flinch of fear in the voice of the 23-year-old Brown, the one running Ryan’s defense against this 38-year-old with four Super Bowls and 245 career starts.
It is possible to confuse Brady, he assures. It can be done.
“It definitely can,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but it can be done.”
Overall, Brady is 24-3 against the Bills with 6,724 yards, 61 touchdowns, 19 picks and a 101.5 passer rating.
First things first: Know your assignment. That 40-32 loss to the Patriots was polluted with gaffes. Even beyond the Rob Gronkowski touchdown – when multiple players immediately scolded safety Duke Williams – there were several errors. The Patriots ran a ridiculous 76 plays. Said Brown, “A lot of plays and a lot of mistakes.”
Brown has learned to memorize entire plays. He’s still up late at night studying Ryan’s defense, and has “definitely” reached a point where he has grasped everything the coach wants.
On Monday, Brown expects a much, much more controlled operation than the one that went haywire in Week Two.
“That’s the biggest thing we need to show – that we’re calm,” Brown said. “We were looking spastic at times running out there and leaving guys wide open. At the goal line, letting them go free. There was stuff we can’t allow to happen. We understand what we have to do. We just have to go out and do it.”
What was complicated then, he adds, is simple now. Ryan should be able to thumb through more of his playbook.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, we need to only have five, six, seven plays,’” Brown said. “We’re still going to have our whole playbook. … You can’t just go out there and do stuff because he’ll know what’s going on and pick you apart.”
The term “chess match” gets regurgitated liberally by coaches and media members alike, but what does that even mean?
Well, the Bills want to disguise their intentions as much as possible. Give the illusion of one coverage – be it press man, zone, Cover 2, whatever – when it’s really something else. Brown chuckles. This gets especially difficult against New England because Brady almost always knows what’s going on.
So the Bills will try to stay unpredictable best they can, so Brady cannot detect the soft spot in their defense whenever they do pressure.
“Try to hold the coverage,” Brown said, “don’t show the holes. We all need to rotate at the same time. Flow, rotate, blitz at the same time to where it blends.”
And Brady makes timing up those blitzes incredibly difficult, often snapping the ball when there’s still 15-20 seconds on the play clock. The snap, throw, release zips out of his holster in a blink. Other times, he prefers to spread a defense out with multiple receivers and survey the defense, take aim like a hunter in the woods down to four, five seconds on the clock.
That’s one way he moves his chess pieces. The other – and Buffalo knows this is coming – is by changing up his signals.
Pre-snap, Brown could lean in to listen to Brady’s audibles. He could study New England’s signals until his eyes are bloodshot at 4 a.m.
But he knows darn well Brady will be switching up his signals for the rematch. Whatever his signal was for a slant in Week Two, for example, could now be his signal for slant and go to get a cornerback to bite.
“So I’m not big on signals,” Brown said. “I’m looking at the formations and where they end up. And then you try to pick up what’s going on.”
Much of what the Bradys, the greats, do at the line is nonsense. A distraction. Brown knows the Patriots will usually have their plays set at the line of scrimmage. From there, Brady relies on option routes – a receiver adjusting his route mid-play based on the leverage of a defender.
Brady searches for a matchup and trusts his receivers to turn either right or left. Thus, the loss of Julian Edelman could be a major blow. The 5-foot-10 slot receiver mastered the option route in this offense.
The linebacker next to Brown in Buffalo, Nigel Bradham, reiterates the importance of camouflaging their intentions on defense.
And this time, why not play with fire? Buffalo is a seven-point underdog. Few expect the Bills to win at Gillette Stadium (they never have with Brady playing the whole game) and a loss doesn’t exactly cripple their playoff hopes in this erratic AFC playoff race. Both Oakland and New York lost again Sunday. After hardly blitzing up front, hardly pressing/disrupting routes outside at all in September, count on the Bills ramping up the aggressiveness this time.
“We have to definitely knock the timing off,” Bradham said. “Their offense is based off timing, as far as their routes and the quarterback.
“We’re a lot better defense now. When we went back to watch that film, there were a lot of communication problems, guys running around. No communication issues and we’ll be fine.”
Nobody is going to broadcast the game plan. They are, however, supremely confident they’ll find ways to confuse the virtually unconfusable.
Players on defense expect the Patriots to try to run the score up on them again. Bill Belichick’s firm foot on the pedal with a 37-13 lead allowed Buffalo to climb within 37-32 in Week Two. Safety Bacarri Rambo even acknowledged that this was “very disrespectful,” adding, “We have to come out there and earn our respect. Go out there and take your respect.”
“Rex has something up his sleeve,” Rambo said. “Rex is, in my opinion, the best defensive coach in the league. He’s going to find a way to slow them down. He’s going to bring some of those rabbits out of his hat to slow them down. We just have to know our assignment and do our job. We can’t do too much, we can’t do too less, we have to do our job.”
Added vet Stephon Gilmore, “The thing about those guys, Tom, they’re going to play until the end. If you let them put up however many points, they’re going to put it up. They’re not going to back down.”
The Bills haven’t only self-diagnosed. Brown said they’ve been picking up tidbits from other defenses that had fleeting success against Brady this season. Even into November, Ryan has installed new tweaks to his defense every day.
Ryan is one rare coach who has managed to fluster Brady in the past.
Brown remembers watching those Patriots-Jets games through high school and college. Ryan’s approach was always different.
“He definitely understands how to beat him and that’s what he tells us – that he understands how,” Brown said. “We just have to go out there and perform. As good as he plays, we know what they’re running. We just have to go out and do it. The Giants did a pretty good job. They had chances to win the game. They just didn’t pull it out.”
Because like he’s done to the Bills oh so many times, Brady engineered a 12-play, game-winning field goal drive to win last week.
An effective chess match on the football field needs bite, too. An edge. Right here is the quarterback, the team that’s stood in Buffalo’s way for 15 stinking years. It’s one thing to stay a step ahead of Brady schematically. It’s another to infuse that plan with violence. When Ryan’s Jets slayed the dragon, they did so with “Can’t wait!” anger.
Buffalo must bring a snarl to Gillette Stadium.
“It’s time for the tables to turn,” Bradham said. “We have to make it like that. Go out there, bring our ‘A’ game and cause disruption and make plays on the ball.”
Beat the Patriots, outfox Brady and the Bills will get respect from the entire NFL.
“Biggest challenge of the year,” Brown said. “Monday night. Undefeated team. A division rival. You can’t get any better than this.
“We just have to go out there and do it.”