NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS RUSHING DEFENSE VS BUFFALO BILLS RUSHING OFFENSE
Earlier this season the Bills used running LeSean McCoy as part of a ball-control offense that held the ball for over 36 minutes in defeating the Patriots 16-0 in week four. The Bills were fortunate not to have to contend with Tom Brady and took advantage of an injured rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett and an ineffective offense.
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor used his legs–rushing for 28 yards–and short passing game against a weak zone defense to pile up 24 first downs and convert 7 of 15 third downs. With McCoy leading the way, the Bills set-up third-and-manageable over and over again extending drive after drive and keeping the ball away from the Patriots.
McCoy has a combination of speed, shiftiness and underappreciated power to break tackles and get to the next level. He is shifty, hard to bring down, and deceptively fast when he gets away from the secondary.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Rex Ryan used up McCoy’s bullets against Miami last week and will more than likely not have him available on Sunday.
Mike Gillislee was at one point considered a hidden gem after the Dolphins took him in the fifth round out of Florida in the 2013 NFL draft. Suffice to say, it did not work out in Miami. Gillislee has become the top backup in Buffalo with Karlos Williams being an idiot and wasting his talent and being cut after a strong rookie season.
Gillislee is not a liability at running back but he is not going to make anyone forget McCoy who has been playing at an MVP level for the surprising Bills. Gillislee has been slowed by a foot injury this week but with McCoy out the Bills are going to use him and Reggie Bush to try and replace McCoy.
NEW ENGLAND FRONT SEVEN
The Patriots will have defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich back to help with the run defense against Buffalo this time. No team racked up more yards against New England on the ground this season other than Buffalo and their 134 yards rushing in week four.
New England is ranked 11th in the NFL against the run allowing just 646 yards over seven games. Part of that is being ahead and forcing the opponent to pass the ball in the second half, but this unit has been strong and disciplined at the point of attack this year.
Jabaal Sheard sets the edge well but no one (maybe in the NFL) is as effective as Ninkovich on the edge. He is strong and a masterful tactician and is difficult to overpower as his veteran savvy has him in position to funnel a ball carrier to a waiting safety or linebacker to make the play.
Chris Long has jumped out on game tape as a weak point in setting edge–particularly earlier in the season against Buffalo, but his discipline has improved in recent weeks as he has been able to come off the field and be used as the Patriots initially anticipated.
No discussion of the Patriots’ run defense is complete without emphasizing the role of the linebackers. Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and now rookie Elandon Roberts have shown time and again their ability to clamp down on running backs and keep teams from controlling the game and keeping the ball away from the New England offense.
Beyond Gillislee and Bush, the Patriots will be acutely aware of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and his ability to make plays with his feet. The Patriots want no part of Taylor picking up first downs by escaping the pocket and getting to the second-level.
The defensive tackles for New England have been strong with Malcom Brown and veteran Alan Branch playing strong at the point of attack in the two-gap scheme. The Patriots have had productive play from rookies Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton, but the two of them were out last week due to injury and Brown and Branch cannot stay effective playing all game.
The Bills have some strong players on the offensive line in Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, and John Miller inside. Cordy Glenn is solid at left tackle but right tackle is a mess with Jordan Mills, Seantrel Henderson, and Cyrus Kouandjio all underachieving.
Buffalo also likes to use fullback Jerome Felton as a hammer in short yardage situations. Felton is an underrated part of the Bills’ success running the ball as he is strong and smart with picking who to focus on while clearing out space for the running backs.
The Patriots usually will play zone to keep their defenders’ eyes on the pocket and rush the quarterback with strict lane discipline. Rather than get to the quarterback and allow him to break containment, they prefer to force the quarterback to stay in the pocket and be patient.
Taylor hurt them in week four by playing into their plan and completing short passes to McCoy, Woods, and Clay repeatedly. New England needs to be smarter. If it means playing man-to-man and using one of the linebackers to spy on Taylor, so be it. If it takes away from the run defense to help stop the passing game, then the Patriots should consider it.
Keeping Taylor in the pocket is a solid strategy as he is dangerous running the ball. Giving up chunks of yards playing a zone defense to stop him from running seems counter-productive. Keeping Jamie Collins as a spy, playing man coverage, and letting the rest of the front seven of the defense to stack the line against Gillislee should keep Buffalo under control.
Whether the Patriots can slow the Bills rushing attack on Sunday will go a long way towards whether Buffalo can keep the game close. Buffalo’s offensive line is able to keep the offense on the field most weeks and “ground-and-pound” is what Rex Ryan wants to do on Sunday.