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Inside the matchup: Patriots at Bills

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  September 24, 2011 07:00 AM

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In an effort to get a little bit more inside the game, Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, will give us his insight on the intricacies of the game. Look for his analysis before each game.

Analyzing The Patriots Defense

I’ve had a lot of questions on Twitter (follow me @draftablexnos) this week about the Patriots defense. What are they doing with the front, and why are they giving up so many passing yards?

The Patriots use multiple fronts, which makes it hard to narrow down. Against the San Diego Chargers, the Patriots played a lot of three- and four-man fronts as well as two-man fronts sprinkled in. They often ran four man rush concepts out of the three and four man fronts and various techniques to accompany it. As I’ve written about before, techniques are the key to fronts. They are what’s most important in making up a front because they help determine what a defense will do with the rest of the players (pass defenders) in coverage and their responsibilities in run support. The Patriots used just about every technique along the defensive line to make up their fronts against the Chargers, such as double 3 techniques which required the MLB to 2 gap (assigning both A gaps), 1 and 3 techniques to make up their under and over shifted fronts as well as 0 and 4 techniques to make up their Okie front. This is just some of the stuff they are doing with their down lineman. They also ran a lot of the even fronts, which leaves the center uncovered.

The biggest issue that Patriots fans have tried to figure out is the pass defense. Why does it yield so many passing yards? Why can’t they stop the opposition? Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall had big performances against second year cornerback Devin McCourty. Both receivers are physical and do a good job of separating. The big issue for McCourty has been the battle at the line of scrimmage. He is not winning the hand fights and is often left in a trail technique. He has to win more at the line of scrimmage, so he is in-phase (shoulder to shoulder) with the receiver and can make a play on the ball in the air. When McCourty is in a trail position, he is often attempting to get in-phase with the receiver, thus not being able to track the ball by keeping his head on a swivel. What defensive backs are taught is when they are in a trail position, and the ball is in flight, they want to get their hands on the wide receivers hands, as if they are catching the ball themselves. If McCourty starts winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, his play will improve dramatically.

Moreover, the coverages used by the Patriots have zone roots. One thing about zone coverage is that it is a bend, but don’t break defensive philosophy. The key in zone is to be fundamentally sound in tackling, which the Patriots sometimes struggle with. One of the biggest things I noticed against San Diego is that they often allowed the ball carrier or receiver to get an extra couple yards after contact. This is not typical of New England (other than former S Brandon Meriweather), especially in the very successful years, and they have to fix this. It's hidden yardage, and it’s affecting them.

I’ve heard and read many say that the Patriots are playing a lot of man coverage, and they are but it's important to note that it is done after the route distribution of the receivers. What the Patriots are doing in coverage is pattern reading. Pattern reading is an aggressive match-up zone defense that decreases the seams and holes in coverage by defenders covering receiving threats after the routes have expressed themselves. It's know for giving up completions, but will also cause more turnovers. There is also the issue of allowing big plays if there is not communication in the defensive backfield, but once they get more reps in practice, this should not be an issue.

One of the coverages that the Patriots use is Quarters Read. This is pattern reading out of Quarters, which is also known as Cover 4. As I’ve stated in previous posts, Quarters is a coverage that the Patriots teach frequently, and there are many variations to it. One of the great things about Quarters is that you can check into any other coverage from it by one simple call. Quarters Read (or 2 Read) is based off of the #2 receiver in the offense’s formation, which is declared AFTER the route distribution. This coverage has the middle linebacker drop with the #3 receiver of the offense, which again is declared after the route distribution, while the two outside linebackers run the #2 receiver while keeping an eye on the #1. The same is done with the two safeties high in the back end, who must maintain inside leverage on the furthest receiver. The big thing with Quarters Read (2 Read) is the cornerbacks. They are to cover #1 all the way through the route unless there is a threat in the flats. If there is a threat in the flats, the cornerback is to release the #1 receiver into the safeties and drop down to cover the flat threat.

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(h/t coacheslearningnetwork.com)

Pattern reading is used throughout the NFL because it is very effective. However, what makes it effective is the communication in the secondary as well as all the repetitions in practice. Communication is key in everything, but especially in pattern reading because that's how it's determined who picks up which receiving threat. Repetition is also key in everything but this is very important in pattern reading because defensive backs have to be able to do multiple things while in coverage, such as covering one player while watching another. This can be troublesome for a young and/or inexperienced secondary, and I think it is part of the problem in New England at the moment. The defensive secondary is reacting slow at the moment because they are thinking too much out there, thus being a step late on throws as well as losing sight of their keys. However, I expect this to improve as the season goes on. One of the things that coaches teach in pattern reading is the identification of common pass concepts ran by the opposition. This can be narrowed down to five or fifteen pass concepts.

Breaking Down Buffalo

The Bills are the NFL’s surprise team through two weeks of the regular season. The Bills are led by a pretty good signal caller, Ryan Fitzpatrick. However, he’s still raw as a quarterback, despite his success this year, and that can be take advantage of. He does not always play with consistency in his mechanics as he will not rotate his hips on his throws, which makes him more of an arm thrower and that gets him into trouble.

Ryan Fitzpatrick’s offensive line has done a pretty good job of protecting him this year. They have received some help from the running backs, using a 6 man protection, and have allowed only one sack through two games. They often use zone protection, which is similar to zone blocking in the running game, but there have been some issues with two players that I think the Patriots can take advantage of.

The first one is left tackle Demetrius Bell. Bell is an athletic offensive tackle that slides his feet well and does a pretty good job of getting off the line, but has issues with technique. He will sometimes play too tall with his pad level and his hand use is not great. His hands can get hit down by good pass rushers, which allows them to beat him off the edge with a speed rush. The Patriots move around their pass rushers, so it wouldn’t surprise to see someone like Mark Anderson get a shot at Bell.

The second players that has issues at times is center Eric Wood. Wood was originally a guard that has slid over to the center position. He has talent, but like Bell, he has issues with executing quality technique. He also plays with high pad level and does not drive his assignment back in the run game. Furthermore, he does not consistently sustain blocks in pass protection, and this allows pass rushers on the interior drive him back into the quarterback, as seen against the Raiders in week two. DTs Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork can both take advantage of this, with Wilfork using his strength and Haynesworth using his rip move to slice between blockers.

Fitzpatrick is also surrounded by players that have the ability to do damage after the catch, which is why coach Chan Gailey is using a full-blown spread offense. Gailey is using a lot of Trips sets, along with Empty and Split Backs, out of 11 (1 back, 1 tight end) and 21 (2 backs, 1 tight end) personnel to get his athletes in space and do as much damage as they can after the catch. Running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are very dangerous after the catch or in the running game.

Gailey uses a lot of quick game and five step drops to get the ball out of his quarterback’s hands as soon as possible. He relies on a lot of screen passes to his running backs and wide receivers. Commonly seen screens such as bubble and flanker are prevalent in the Bills offense, especially to wide receiver Steve Johnson and Spiller. He also likes to use a lot of Flood concepts as well as Hi-Lo’s, which put defenders in a bind by having to commit to a player in front or behind him.

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Bills will use this out of Trips with the TE flexed

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The Patriots should look to counter these concepts by flooding the underneath and flats because this is something that the Bills will look to go to often.

In the running game, the Bills like to zone block because it allows them to get away with their inferior offensive lineman. It allows them to combo block on certain players on certain plays, such as inside and outside zone. They use these two plays frequently and have success with them because of their decisive running back Fred Jackson.

Just like any other offense, the Bills have tendencies that should be noted. They are as follows:

  • When Bills go to split backs, watch for screen passes and swings into the flats.
  • Scott Chandler is often motioned into the backfield. Will run from this formation.
  • Will use short passes to get defense going downhill, then use double moves to take advantage.
  • Attack the middle of the field with Post routes on double moves.
  • Frequently use backside slant with Johnson.
  • Will go to Wildcat or trick play with slash player Brad Smith in between the 25-35 in opponents territory. Sometimes around the 40 in own territory.

On defense, the Bills run multiple fronts. They are a 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense that utilizes a lot of 4 man rush concepts and will bring pressure with nickel players. The defense is led by NT Kyle Williams and rookie Marcell Dareus. Both players have had success early this year with applying pressure and stuffing the run. The defense is very stout up the middle with these two players and are tough to run on. With these two players being so versatile, the Bills will slide in and out of various fronts such as the 4-3 Under has the 3 technique under tackle lined up away from the strength of the formation, which is the tight end side, and the 1 technique to the strength.

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The Bills also frequently use go to an Even front (center uncovered). They use these two fronts a lot, and it has helped them remain stout up the middle. Where the Bills run into problems is on the edge, with their edge setters at the five and nine techniques. The Bills have a lot of problems with any east-west running because their players fail to set the edge, such as OLB Shawne Merriman. The Raiders took advantage of this last week and had the defensive line moving. The Bills also had issues with screen passes, as they had trouble shedding blocks. With an up-tempo passing game and an east-west running game, the Patriots could tire out the defensive front of the Bills.

In coverage, the Bills will use a lot of Man-Free (also known as Cover 1). They mix in this coverage along with three others, Cover 2, Cover 2 Man and Cover 3. They mainly play Man-Free in both base sets and in nickel packages. They will turn to Cover 2 against Trips sets, which can be a problem for them in the middle of the field. The Patriots offense likes to use Trips with a flexed tight end or a slot receiver and this is something they can exploit in Buffalo. Cover 2 is not always a sound coverage against a Trips set because the secondary tends to be outnumbered, as well as leaving holes on the field that can be exploited with commonly ran three man combination concepts.

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Similar to earlier in the post, below is a list of some of the tendencies and things to watch for when the Patriots are attacking the Bills on the defensive side of the ball.

  • Watch for the backside of the Bills defense to open up. They are a very aggressive team and will have their backside player crash hard down the line of scrimmage, thus having no contain player. This can be taken advantage of with play action and bootlegs.
  • C Dan Connolly vs. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus - Can Connolly hold up against these two interior down lineman? Both have had success early this season. I expect Connolly to get some help from his offensive guards or at times, help them because of the use of an Even front by Buffalo.
  • When Bills DT Dwan Edwards comes into game, he struggles at the point of attack and will lose leverage. The Patriots could look to run in his direction, as the Raiders did at times.
  • Mentioned it already but worthy of it again, the Bills struggle setting the edge. They allow 5 yards per carry to running backs. This has to be taken advantage of.
  • When Bills struggle running ball, secondary players starting cheating up to help in run support.
  • Bring the blitz on third down. Will blitz their linebackers, who cross blitz (Cross Dogs) into the A gaps.

This should be an interesting game to watch and even though I don’t usually predict winners because it is something that is difficult to do, I expect the Patriots to win in this one. The key for New England on defense will be to be fundamentally sound. They can’t allow extra yards, especially to players like Spiller and Jackson who are very dangerous after the catch. Spiller has breakaway speed while Jackson has good open field vision.

For more on the Patriots defense, read Alen's blog post at The Score. Follow Alen on Twitter at @DraftableXnOs.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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