The Buffalo Bills lost to the New England Patriots this past Sunday, which isn’t exactly anything new. And just like he always does, Tom Brady tore apart the Bills with his arm going 12-for-24, for 126 yards. He had one touchdown through the air and two interceptions. Brady’s 48.3 passer rating was light years ahead of Brian Hoyer’s 39.6. Hoyer attempted one pass in garbage time when Brady was pulled for his safety. If you’re curious, the pass was incomplete. Yep. Good Ol’ Touchdown Tom did it again. I doubt the 273 rushing yards the Patriots had were a major factor. Let’s um, check in on our run-stopping defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. For no particular reason at all.
WARNING: Since many people are on vacation, I assumed you all have plenty of time for extra studying this week.
The Patriots immediately double team Star Lotulelei but Corey Thompson necessitates one of the blockers picking him up. Star moves into the lane and knocks the runner over. You’ll see a pattern where the Patriots attempt to negate Lotulelei whenever they see him. As a side note, I went a little GIF crazy this week. The breakdown accounts for 11 of Star’s 35 snaps.
The defensive play call has Lotulelei lined up ready to push to the inside. While he could drive to his left off the snap, it’d be awkward. The Patriots look like they’ve prepared for this and the guard actually helps Lotulelei get to where he’s going. Another trend to notice: The Patriots attempted to avoid the middle of the field when they could. There’s a fun table at the end, but the most production came to the edges with plays like this.
Two offensive linemen attack Lotulelei right away. One breaks off to pick up Tremaine Edmunds, but the double team has already been as successful as it needed to be. A nice block (and perhaps a little offensive holding) negate Corey Thompson and it’s off to the races. This was one of the best runs of the day logged as occurring in the middle of the formation.
Two things jump out on this play. The first is noted in the GIF. The Patriots have seemingly planned specifically for Lotulelei. The hand-off pushing out to the side a little with the blocker making a beeline right for Star is suspicious after the linemen let him through. The second thing to notice is how quickly Lotulelei reacts to the hand-off. He’s initially looking to hit Brady, but is starting to change immediately.
Yet again the Patriots are happy to double team Lotulelei, and yet again he’s happy to clog up a ton of room. And again the run is away from Lotulelei’s area. Another nod to his play recognition as Star sheds his blocks and is in the play before the runner can be dropped.
First things first, he did NOT cross the goal line. With that out of the way, the same trends hold up. The Patriots are nearly refusing to run at Star. For a third time, his play recognition gets him closer to making a play than he has any reason to.
If there’s a question on where Star was during this game, perhaps it should be asked of the coaches. The run-stuffing tackle was in on 47% of plays. The Patriots ran on 65% of their offensive snaps. And Star was in on a handful of passing plays to boot, probably ending with him being on the field for about half the run plays. Here Lotulelei likely impacts the pass as he’s quickly in the backfield. Brady doesn’t seem thrilled by this development.
Very briefly, this is the same trick as before. The pre-snap alignment makes it hard for Lotulelei to move to his right (our left). The Patriots help Lotulelei move in his natural direction and run away from him. One extra note is that Brady took a long time giving directions pre-snap, making at least two tweaks to the play before he was happy.
It wasn’t that the Bills weren’t adjusting to some of what the Patriots were doing. Here an empty backfield should be able to take advantage of the Bills’ run-stuffing line. Tremaine Edmunds communicates an adjustment and Star Lotulelei moves wide to help set up the pass rush. The Bills’ adjustment leads to relatively quick pressure. One bad throw later and Jordan Poyer has it for Buffalo.
This was a rare occasion where the Patriots ran anywhere near Star. With everyone moving, they don’t need to push the Bills back to create a lane. This isn’t Lotulelei’s best play as he loses his balance, but he still manages to get enough push to impact the path of the runner. That slight deviation pushes the ball carrier into Lorenzo Alexander’s man, and the result is a tripped Patriot.
The Bills are looking to shut down a goal-to-go situation and that’s precisely the time for the big men to shine. Lotulelei is predictably double-teamed to start. It’s not enough to move him back and the runner needs to go around, which can be a death knell with the field this compressed.
To be clear, the above isn’t presented to make the case that Star Lotulelei is playing at an All-Pro level. He is however, playing at a high enough level where the New England Patriots appear to have focused a great deal of attention in avoiding him and accounting for him when that wasn’t possible—and he still made some plays.
The data in the table below comes courtesy of Pro Football Reference. There’s a lot to unpack, but the main point for Star is the last row (light blue). The middle section of the field is the area that he would be the main force in locking down. The Patriots were far less successful running up the middle, and Star Lotulelei is a big reason why.