You can always count on the New England Patriots to succeed in exploiting what they think is the best matchup against any opponent. And they take great pains to avoid what they consider the worst matchup.
The Buffalo Bills’ defense entered Sunday’s game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in passing yards allowed. The Patriots’ passing attack is in crisis – at least for this week – in the wake of the substance abuse suspension of the best outside receiver on the team, Josh Gordon.
Sure enough, the Pats set out to play power football and ran 47 times for 273 rushing yards, four shy of their best total in 19 seasons under coach Bill Belichick.
Tom Brady’s 24 pass attempts were his fewest in three years, since the last game of the 2015 season.
“Our goal is always to move the ball and score points, so that’s what we try to do,” Belichick said in his postgame news conference. “It depends on how they’re playing us and whether we can run it, throw it, whatever it is. ...
“Sometimes those things are taken away and you do something else. We don’t try to go into the game and say this is how many times we’re going to run the ball, this is how many times we’re going to throw it to this player, this is how many times we’re going to throw it to that player. We call our plays, we see what happens and we try to adjust as the game goes along to do what we think is best. It’s the same thing we do every week.”
The Pats gained 170 yards on 29 carries out of “big personnel,” using a fullback and/or two tight ends. And they succeeded in throwing a jet-sweep wrinkle at the Bills. In the October meeting in Buffalo, the Pats ran the end around or jet sweep only twice for 13 yards. This time, their first four jet sweeps gained 71 yards. A fifth was stuffed for a loss of 4 yards.
A breakdown of the plays that shaped the game, starting with the Pats’ power runs.
1. Power off left tackle. James White ran 27 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give the Pats a 14-0 lead.
White followed pulling guard Shaq Mason, the Pats’ best offensive lineman, through a hole, and the Pats won every block at the point of attack.
“We just try to make the most of the opportunities that we get,” White said. “It was a great play call. C.P. (Cordarrelle Patterson) was having a lot of success on the fly sweeps and stuff, so it kind of gets the defense displaced and offensive line did a great job blocking and just tried to get the ball in the end zone.”
Mason, who was a fourth-round draft steal four years ago, took out linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. Left tackle Trent Brown combined with left guard Joe Thuney to double-team Kyle Williams, then Brown climbed to the second level to block linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Tight end Rob Gronkowski rode Jerry Hughes upfield and out of the play. Finally, receiver Julian Edelman got a strong block on Jordan Poyer, who was the eighth man in the box.
It was a textbook block by every Patriot.
2. A big missed tackle. The key run on the Patriots’ first TD drive was a 19-yard gain by Sony Michel to the Buffalo 19.
It was a power run off right tackle, with fullback James Develin and tight end Dwayne Allen lined up in the backfield. Develin led the way and was met in the hole by Edmunds. That caused Michel to cut back off left tackle. Thuney rode Williams up the field and out of the way. Allen got a great block on Corey Thompson to give Michel a lane. That left cornerback Levi Wallace as the lone back-side defender, and he missed the tackle at the 35.
3. Power puller. The speed and power with which Mason pulls is something the Bills used to have with Richie Incognito but don’t have this season.
On the Pats’ first TD run, a 4-yarder by Michel, Mason pulled to his left and pushed both Hughes (with help from Gronkowski) and then Alexander backward. Gronkowski has lost quickness as a receiver, but he’s still the best blocker among starting tight ends in the league.
Just before the season, the Pats made Mason the 10th-highest paid guard in the NFL in terms of guaranteed money.
4. Game-breaking TD. The run-game success helped the Pats break open the game with a 32-yard TD to Edelman in the third quarter, which made the score 21-6.
Brady sold the run with a play-action fake to White, and Mason further sold it by pulling to his left.
Edelman was the middle man in a three-receiver set to the right, covered by safety Rafael Bush. Safety Micah Hyde was the eighth man near the line of scrimmage on the fourth-and-4 play, and he might have been blitzing. (He stopped when the quick pass was thrown.)
Credit Edelman with recognizing he hadn’t hit the ground and rolling off the leg of safety Jordan Poyer at the 15, then going into the end zone.
5. Key fumble. Any chance the Bills had for a comeback was erased when Pats safety Devin McCourty stripped Bills tight end Jason Croom of the ball at the Pats’ 6. McCourty has made 128 starts over nine years for the Pats. It will be a good day for the Bills when he finally retires.
6. Criss-cross TD. It was too little, too late, but Zay Jones’ 31-yard TD catch with 1:08 left was a great play by the Bills.
Josh Allen made a fantastic move to step up in the pocket, because he had to elude defensive tackle Adam Butler, who came free up the middle. Allen jump-stepped to his left then quickly got his eyes downfield.
Jones was wide open because he ran a cross from the right, while Robert Foster ran a cross from the left. That caused Pats cornerbacks Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson to collide.