We are very happy to have Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, back for another season to give us his insight on the intricacies of the game.
INSIDE THE BILLS' OFFENSE
Buffalo’s offense hasn’t changed much from last year. It’s still running what I called a “full-blown spread offense“ last year, which means more three- and five-step drops to go along with short passes all over the field that help get the ball out of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s hands. As many know, Fitzpatrick has gunslinger tendencies and just flat out bad decision making when he has more time to work with, so this offense suits him well.
Coach Chan Gailey utilizes various formations to set up these quick passes and some of these are Empty (3x2) and the recently incorporated Pistol sets.
From these formations, Gailey calls a lot of screen passes to his tailbacks and several forms of route combinations that work the field at different depths. His slot receiver, who varies, will often run a vertical route to clear the underneath where there are usually two or three receivers running Hi-Lo routes. They’re not throwing many vertical passes this year, however. Last year, it seemed that they threw more vertically off of double moves but that has not been the case this year despite Fitzpatrick having more time to work with in the pocket because of his quality offensive line, which has allowed only one sack thus far.
When it comes to the running game, the Bills are No. 3 in the NFL with an average of 178 yards on the ground. Some of this can be attributed to the dynamic skills of C.J. Spiller, who can be seen running from the power, lead, draw and stretch concepts with a motioned tight end as his lead blocker.
There are also what some will call “flip” runs, where the quarterback will fake a handoff one way and hand it off or toss it another; Buffalo has done this from their aforementioned Pistol set with a fake jet sweep, as seen against the Cleveland Browns in week 3. Gailey will also call on the Wildcat package with trigger man Brad Smith running the show and these calls will usually come between midfield and the +40 yard marker. Most of the success in the running game comes from the offensive line, who has done an exceptional job of blocking.
INSIDE THE BILLS’ DEFENSE
Defensively, there have been changes made in personnel and scheme. This time last year, the Bills were running a lot of 4-3 Under and mixing in the 3-4 but not this year.
The Bills have a static front, meaning they are playing only the 4-3, but are still using both Under and Over fronts and employing stunts. They also are using Even fronts, which leaves the center uncovered while the nose tackle on the backside of the play lines up in a shaded 2 technique and the strong-side defensive tackle plays the 3 technique.
In case you haven’t heard, they’ve also added quite a bit of talent. Star pass rusher Mario Williams is playing left end and comes off a 1.5 sack performance while on the other side of the formation, former Patriot Mark Anderson is clashing with left tackles and had a sack last week. In the secondary, former South Carolina cornerback and first round pick Stephon Gilmore was added through the draft and offers a lot of athleticism and speed to a unit that has questions with just that.
With Gilmore and the rest of his teammates in the defensive backfield, the Dave Wannstedt-led defense is playing various coverages, most notably Cover 2 Man, Cover 3 and Cover 4 (Quarters). Cover 2 Man and Cover 4 tend to look similar before the snap, causing problems for quarterbacks when they drop back.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Patriots LBs vs. Bills OL - Buffalo has done a great job of blocking defensive linemen in the running game, which has sprung their ball carriers loose many times through three weeks. The Patriots have to stop this from happening and one way to do it is get penetration from both the front four and linebackers, but especially the linebackers. If they can attack the gaps and cut off running lanes, they will make the Bills one dimensional by having to rely on Ryan Fitzpatrick to not make mistakes. Linebacker Brandon Spikes will be key here.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick - He makes a lot of mistakes with the ball in his hands. He has a bad habit of forcing throws and giving the defense multiple opportunities to make plays on the ball. The division rival Jets did this in Week 1 and now it’s the Patriots’ turn.
Bills OL vs. Patriots stunts - I’m not sure if the Patriots will stunt their defensive linemen a whole lot in this game nor do I know how the Bills will handle them if they do but its something that may be worth watching. I’ve noticed the Bills have had some issues at times with pressure up the interior and I am curious to see how they would handle the stunts, which they have not seen a ton of thus far based off my viewings.
Screen passes - The Bills throw screens and the Patriots have to tackle the pass catchers or there will be many problems. Simple as that.
Patriots crossing routes vs. Bills secondary - New England arguably is the best when it comes to designing and executing crossing route combinations and they will have an opportunity to prove it here. The Bills have issues in man coverage mainly because they don’t have the speed (see Aaron Williams and Terrence McGee) to keep up in trail position (which explains the Cover 2 Man).
Bills WR Stevie Johnson - He's always a threat regardless of who he’s going up against and the Bills will get him the ball. He does a lot of his work on the backside of the formation, where we’ll see him run a lot of routes that work back to the quarterback as well as quick slants for first downs.
Two Other Things of Note - Two other things that could happen but may not (just a guess) is that we see Wes Welker or another receiver line up in the backfield to get a matchup advantage against the Bills linebackers. The other is cornerback Stephon Gilmore being attacked on some form of an outside breaking route that is set up with an inside release, such as a Post-Corner. He tends to give up quite a bit of ground on the outside if there‘s an inside breaking route. We’ve seen in years past Wes Welker convert a slant to an out or mini-corner route and I wonder if it could pop up once again here.