It's hard to find bright spots in a 20-point loss, but the Buffalo Bills had a few in their Dec. 3 game against the New England Patriots.
And all were on defense.
When you frustrate Tom Brady to the point where he's screaming at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels after the Patriots' first series ends in a field goal, you must be doing something right.
When you frustrate Rob Gronkowski to the point where he responds to a Tre'Davious White interception in the fourth quarter with an uncharacteristic cheap shot to the back of the rookie cornerback's head – even though a 23-3 victory is well in hand – you must be doing something right.
"It means we're doing something right and we're doing something to confuse (Brady)," White said Wednesday, as the Bills began preparing in earnest for Sunday's rematch with the Patriots at Foxborough, Mass. "But 12, you're not going to do many things to confuse him. You've just got to have a little luck on your side and you've got to have a great day to be able to beat him."
It's fair to say the Bills' had a good day in the previous game. Limiting Brady to only 257 passing yards and no touchdowns qualifies as a significant accomplishment. So does limiting the Patriots to only a pair of TDs, both on Rex Burkhead runs in the third quarter.
The Bills did their best work through the first half and the fourth quarter. The killer quarter was the third, when the Bills' D made a rare mistake such as when confusion on a blitz call left Gronkowski wide open for a 19-yard reception that helped set up New England's first touchdown.
Nevertheless, there's plenty Buffalo's defensive players are able to take from that effort and use as a foundation on which to build for Sunday.
"Obviously, that first half was key for confidence, understanding that we can play with these guys," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "I think, oftentimes, they have that façade about them that they're this monster that can't be touched. So we were able to do that for a half, but that's what most teams are able to do. You've got to be able to put four quarters together versus this team and that's hard to do when you have 12 at the helm, one of the best in the business. They make adjustments and I think that's something that we have to do better, as far as (doing so) as the game goes – making adjustments as they're making them."
"Yeah, we did some good things in the game, I don't want to look past that," coach Sean McDermott said. "We did some good things, but we're here to win the game. That's what we're working to do. We lost the game. It's about winning and losing, it's about winning football games. That's what we're here to do. We're not here for moral victories."
In typical fashion, Patriots coach Bill Belichick heaped all sort of praise on the Bills' defense. That is pretty much his standard approach each week: shower the opposing team with praise while saying little about his own club.
But what Belichick said about the Bills' defense did have substance. He mainly pointed out how the talent of the players and the scheme of McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier managed to make things difficult for long stretches against Brady and the rest of New England's offense.
"Buffalo’s defensive scheme is very well-coordinated, they’re very well-coached," Belichick said in a conference call with Western New York media. "They give you a lot of different looks and they do a great job of disguising those looks so that that they all kind of look the same and you don’t know what it is until a lot of times after the snap. The safeties, in particular, (Micah) Hyde and (Jordan) Poyer, do a lot of disguising, so sometimes you’re not getting a clear read on the coverage until a second or second and a half into the play. They hold it even during the play, which you don’t see that a lot.
"They mix in their pressures, their man calls, their zone calls, and they have several different zone combinations. They make them look the same, but they’re different and sometimes subtly different, and that causes some hesitation with the quarterbacks and the receivers in the passing game."
Belichick also pointed out that the Bills do a good job of getting the most out of all of the players in their defensive front through constant rotation.
"And a lot of times those guys make tackles from behind on shorter pass completions when they play zone and the quarterback throws the ball into the 5-, 6-yard area, check-downs, under routes. The pass rusher will chase the ball from behind and knock the ball out," the coach said. "They do a good job of re-routing the receivers and the safeties do a good job playing the ball. They make it very hard for you and if you make mistakes, they make you pay. They all have good ball skills and hands."
White's interception against the Patriots was one of four on the season, all occurring in the fourth quarter. He's the only player in the NFL responsible for a combined five fourth-quarter interceptions and forced fumbles. White sealed the outcomes of three games with interceptions last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins and Nov. 26 against the Kansas City Chiefs, as well as with a forced fumble and recovery Oct. 22 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What do the Bills need to do defensively this time to come away with more than a moral victory? According to White, they simply need more turnovers.
Frazier has been preaching to Buffalo's defenders that they must come out of each game with at least a plus-two turnover differential.
"Plus-two (gives you an) 81-percent chance of winning," White said. "Coach Frazier put it out there. I feel like we've got a great shot if we take the ball away. If we take the ball away and give our offense a short field, we'll be fine."