In last weekend’s regular-season finale, the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots trotted into halftime tied at 14 apiece. As we know, the Bills pulled away in the second half to a 35-23 victory. A vital part of Buffalo being able to separate in the second half was their ability to cause turnovers and limit New England’s offense. Let’s take an All-22 view into what went wrong in the first half and how the Bills’ defense was able to make adjustments to be successful in the last 30 minutes.
Bills-Patriots first half
The Bills predominantly played Cover 3 in the first half with a little bit of man-to-man mixed in. Throughout the first two quarters, it seemed like Patriots wide receivers were running wide open for big gains. New England scored touchdowns on two out of four possessions (the fifth possession was started just before halftime). Quarterback Mac Jones was 13-of-16 passing for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Let’s take a look at what went wrong for the Bills in that first half.
Bills’ defense fooled by play action
The Bills crowded the line of scrimmage here, acting like they were bringing a blitz, but then dropped back into Cover 3. The Patriots ran a quick play action and all of Buffalo’s defenders near the line of scrimmage were fooled by it. You can see they took a step forward to stop the run, and then bailed out to get back into coverage. Most of them were able to get back into coverage besides Matt Milano, who was supposed to have the flat but was beaten by the running back releasing out of the backfield. Cornerback Dane Jackson also was caught chasing a crossing route too far inside, which put him out of position. This allowed the Patriots to gain an easy 20 yards on a 3rd & 1 play.
Cover 3 breakdowns on the outside
The Bills were in Cover 3 here in the red zone. Give credit to the Patriots — in general, this route concept puts stress on Cover 3 route principles. Still, the Bills could have defended it better. First off, safety Dean Marlowe did a good job of making the No. 2 wide receiver have to bend his route around him, but Marlowe turned his back while the receiver bent around him. Marlowe lost sight of the quarterback, and the other routes in the process, which prevented him from making a play on the ball thrown just to his outside. Jackson also came off the outside hitch route too early, because Mac Jones likely was staring down the seam route to the inside. In this situation, Jackson should have stuck with the outside wide receiver longer, because he still had time to break on the inside route if it was thrown there. Also, the ball was already being thrown as Jackson was breaking in, so ideally he would have noticed this and broken on the hitch route.
Attacking the middle of Cover 3
The Bills initially seemed to have this 3rd & 1 play covered well. They were in Cover 3 again, and played the outside routes perfectly. A crossing route came across the middle of the field behind the linebackers and in front of the safety, and ultimately gained 20 yards. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds was in good position, but decided to bite up on the dump-off pass (presumably because it was 3rd & 1) and this left a large area open in the middle of the field. If Edmunds had continued getting depth, it likely would have made Jones throw it to the dump-off. Either way, it looked like the Patriots would have gained a first down, but I would rather see the defense give up three yards instead of 20.
Bills-Patriots second half
The Bills came out in the second half and really mixed their coverages up well to confuse the Patriots’ offense. Buffalo showed a few exotic coverages that were fun to break down, and which I’m sure also gave Jones some fits. Jones was 13-of-24 for 124 yards and one touchdown in the second half, but the big difference were the three interceptions he threw. The Patriots only scored one touchdown and one field goal out of seven second-half possessions. Let’s review how the Bills were able to adjust in the second half and cause problems for the Patriots’ offense.
Edmunds’ tipped ball
Here, the Bills ran man-to-man with a free safety over top on the bottom half of the screen. This type of man-to-man requires the defenders to cover their receiver everywhere they go, never switching to another. Note on the top half of the screen that they played a form of “match” coverage, in which the defenders cover routes man-to-man based on where the receiver runs the route. You can see that Milano played a “wall” technique on the inside receiver to prevent him from running across the field. That left the corner and safety to take care of the outside receiver. The corner likely had any route that went deep and outside, while the safety had any in-breaking route or anything deep and inside. Once these routes committed to where they were going, the defenders covered them like they were man-to-man. To conclude, Edmunds makes a nice play to tip the ball and break up the pass.
Tre’Davious White interception
The Bills left Tre’Davious White on an island to cover man-to-man on the weak side of the formation, while the rest of the secondary played zone. Mac Jones decided to test White, and he paid the price with an interception. The Bills have incorporated more of this type of look since White returned to the lineup, and I expect it to continue into the playoffs. It’s great to see White had this route locked down so well that it looked like he was the one on offense.
Matt Milano’s interception
The Bills appeared to be in a quarters, or Cover 4, defense on this 3rd & 19 play. Milano did a fabulous job of not just covering “space,” but also realizing it’s 3rd & Long and that he has nothing else to cover in front of him, so he got depth and forced a tight window on the seam route. After Jordan Poyer drove on the ball and causes the tip into the air, Milano had the presence of mind to find it and make the interception. (He had a nice return, too.)
Tremaine Edmunds’ interception
The Bills ran Cover 4 again on this play. Reference the play I discussed in the first half section of this article, where I pointed out Edmunds needed to get more depth to prevent a big gain over the middle. In this play, Edmunds did indeed sink to the appropriate depth, which took away the middle of the field. Jones decided to take the dump-off pass, and once this happened, Edmunds was able to react up to the ball. Luckily, the running back bobbled the ball into the air, allowing Edmunds to make a diving catch for the interception.
If something isn’t going right in the first half, good teams adjust and make a better game plan for the second half. This is exactly what the Bills’ defense accomplished in Week 18 against the Patriots. Buffalo was able to throw a wide variety of coverages at Mac Jones in the second half, and create three turnovers. This type of game plan adaption by defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier will be essential in Buffalo’s quest for their first Super Bowl title this season.