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Analysis: Defensive problems against Patriots started on third down

The Buffalo Bills’ defensive failures against the New England Patriots on Sunday started with their failure to get off the field.

The Bills allowed New England to convert 9 of 13 third downs, including four on an opening touchdown drive that put the Patriots up, 7-3.

“They kept getting first downs,” inside linebacker Preston Brown said. “It was as simple as that. They outplayed us on third down. I don’t know what the percent was, but I kept looking up and it seemed like it was 7 for 8, 8 for 9. … You’re not going to win any games if you keep doing that.”

The struggles on third down started early. New England’s first drive included the following four third-down conversions:

Third and 6 from the New England 47-yard line – Brady completes a swing back to running back James White, who breaks a tackle by inside linebacker Zach Brown short of the sticks and gains 8 yards.

Third and 10 from the Buffalo 45-yard line – Patriots receiver Chris Hogan beats one-on-one coverage from Stephon Gilmore to pull in a 16-yard completion along the left sideline.

Third and 2 from the Buffalo 21-yard line – Patriots receiver Julian Edelman lines up in the left slot and finds a soft spot in the Bills’ zone for an easy 10-yard gain and first down.

Third and 8 from the Buffalo 9-yard line – Patriots receiver Danny Amendola lines up in the right slot and gets open in the front-right corner of the end zone for a touchdown pass. Brady buys time by stepping up in the pocket, and takes advantage of miscommunication on the Bills’ part – before the snap, safety Jonathan Meeks can be seen trying to get Zach Brown into another spot on the field.

“When we … didn’t communicate well, blew some defenses and weren’t good on third down,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “That’s a really good formula to get beat by those guys.”

The Patriots converted their fifth straight third down to open the game later in the first quarter when Brady connected with Hogan down the left sideline on a 53-yard touchdown connection. Again, there was miscommunication on the defense. Gilmore was looking for safety help from Meeks that never came.

“That was a big factor in the game,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said. “The worst one was we got him third and 23 and he is able to throw a touchdown pass. That is inexcusable.”

It wasn’t quite that bad, but it’s easy to understand Ryan’s hyberbole. The Bills simply couldn’t get off the field against New England early. It doesn’t take a doctorate in football to realize that the best way to play Brady is to keep him off the field. That’s Football 101, actually.

“We were finding ways to get them behind the sticks,” Preston Brown said, “but third and long, third and short – they just kept converting and that’s the key to disaster.”

Another maddening part of Sunday’s loss is that the Bills actually were able to get a fair amount of pressure on Brady. They sacked him five times, including two in the second quarter that came on third-down plays to force punts.

But when they absolutely needed a stop, it didn’t come. Brady found Amendola, who was lined up next to Edelman in the left slot, for a 15-yard gain on third and 4 from the New England 45-yard line with 12 seconds left in the second quarter to help set up a 51-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

The second half might have been even more frustrating on third down. On a third-and-5 play from the New England 30-yard line midway through the third quarter, Brady couldn’t find anybody open … but scrambled for a 15-yard gain, his longest run since the 2014 season.

On the same drive, the Bills gave New England two first downs by taking penalties on third-down plays – one for having 12 men on the field and one for unnecessary roughness on cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

“We get off the field on third down, oh there’s a penalty,” Ryan said. “Now there’s another penalty. So there are thing that we helped to extend drives.”

The flags didn’t stop flying in the fourth quarter, as rookie Shaq Lawson was called for roughing the passer on a third-and-7 play that resulted in an incomplete pass. After Brady hooked up with Amherst native Rob Gronkowski for a 16-yard gain on third and 5, Gilmore took a defensive holding penalty on a third-and-12 play that was another incompletion.

The Patriots stayed on the field and added another field goal to make the score 41-17. If there’s one player in the NFL who doesn’t need extra help, it’s Brady, but the Bills gave him plenty of it Sunday.

“He had a 137 quarterback rating or whatever it was,” Ryan said. “It was just a poor performance on our part and a great performance on his part.”

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