ORCHARD PARK -- Bill Belichick made headlines this week when he insisted he wasn't a huge fan of analytics. He described those types of numbers as having "less than zero" impact when making game-day decisions.
"As you know, analytics is not really my thing," Belichick said that day. "I just try to evaluate what I see."
Belichick probably wouldn't tell you if it was him, but someone saw something from the Bills punt unit this season that made the Patriots feel as though they had a chance at a big play Sunday.
That hunch -- one that couldn't be seen in the numbers, only through film study -- paid off in a big way when JC Jackson blocked a Corey Bojorquez punt that Matthew Slater scooped up and returned for a touchdown. In a game the Patriots squeaked out, 16-10, it's not an exaggeration to say that hunch won them the game.
Belichick credited special teams coach Joe Judge and assistant Cam Achord after the game for making the call.
"It was a great call by Joe and Cam," he explained. "We talked about it before the game. We had good field position. They're backed up. And they didn't bring the gunners back in so we just brought them off the edge. I think they started bringing them back in after that."
"That was something we felt good about," said Slater, who scored his first-career touchdown on the play. "JC did a great job of timing it up. I can't ever remember a vice corner blocking a punt since I've been here. Great job of timing it up. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. That's just him making a play and taking advantage of a look that we saw."
The look was there on tape for the Patriots to find. They saw it. And they exploited it.
WEEK 1: BILLS at JETS
Back in Week 1, with just 19 seconds left in a Bills 17-16 win over the Jets, there was a hint that Buffalo's punt unit wasn't sure what to do when a return team sent its vice corners -- the players tasked with slowing down a punt team's gunners -- in as part of the punt-block plan.
Before that snap, the Jets put nine men into the box, including one of their vice corners. It created clear confusion for Buffalo. Fullback Patrick DiMarco motioned furiously to personal protector Kurt Coleman as if to say, "There are too many guys here for us to handle."
Coleman didn't exactly spring to action. He checked the Bills protection, looked to his left and right, and casually called gunner Robert Foster to enter as part of the protection unit.
The punt got off no problem. It went into the books -- or the Excel spreadsheets, depending on who's keeping track -- as a 35-yard punt and a touchback.
Week 1. Bills punting with 19 seconds left.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 30, 2019
You can see the Jets add a vice corner to the punt rush. Look how slow the Bills are to respond. Fullback Patrick DiMarco is gesturing furiously because he knows something is up.
Think the Patriots noticed? https://t.co/r4X3YuQzET pic.twitter.com/LHEpWB2GvL
WEEK 2: BILLS at GIANTS
Back in Week 2, with just 1:00 left in a Bills 28-14 win over the Giants, Buffalo's punt unit still didn't seem to be completely aware of what to do when vice corners entered in as part of the punt-block plan.
Bills gunners that afternoon, Siran Neal and Kevin Johnson, stood outside the numbers, all alone as the Giants loaded the box with 10 players. Coleman eventually called Neal and Johnson in to help with protection.
Once again DiMarco was very demonstrative, gesturing to help Neal understand who he was to block, as he did with Foster the week before in a similar situation. Matt Milano -- DiMarco's mirror image in the protection unit, just off the line of scrimmage on the opposite side of the formation -- remained motionless as Johnson sidled up next to him.
Week 2. Bills punting with 1:00 left.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 30, 2019
You can see the Giants have added both vice players to their punt-block plan. Both Bills gunners stay wide, awaiting instruction, seemingly not sure of what to do. Eventually they shift.
Think the Patriots noticed? https://t.co/r4X3YuQzET pic.twitter.com/yMF0S2K4Eb
WEEK 4: PATRIOTS at BILLS
Buffalo's refusal to quickly and definitively determine their plan of attack when vice corners entered the punt rush gave the Patriots an opening.
Judge's unit didn't try to hide what they were doing necessarily. Jackson immediately joined the rush and Johnson, the Bills gunner on Jackson's side of the field, never moved. Interestingly, DiMarco was on that side of the Buffalo protection. After immediately noticing something was up in both Weeks 1 and 2, he said nothing to Coleman and the protection never adjusted.
On the other side of the Patriots rush, Jonathan Jones seemed to be trying to mess with Milano. Jones left his spot outside the numbers and crept toward the line. He was quickly pointed out by Milano as a potential threat. Even so, the gunner on that side of the field, Neal, never moved.
It didn't matter. The Patriots only needed one to break through. They rushed 10. The Bills blocked with eight, with two gunners out in space blocking no one. Something had to give. Jackson got to Bojorquez untouched.
How? Film study. Practice.
"Just preparing on it all week," Jackson said. "We were working on it in practice. Coach called it, and I executed the right way."
The Patriots worked on that punt block play-call all week, players told us. “That was something we felt good about,” Matthew Slater said.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 30, 2019
But why did they feel so good about Bills gunners not entering into the protection? Someone saw something on film. https://t.co/r4X3YuQzET pic.twitter.com/63jhibol9Z
One additional factor that might've made the Patriots feel good about the play is that they know Bojorquez. He spent training camp with the team last year, competing with Ryan Allen for the punter's job. Bojorquez has the ability to boom it down the field with some of the longest hitters in the game, but it'd be interesting to know how New England's assessment of his throwing arm played into the play-call.
In the instances when the Bills saw vice corners entered into the rush earlier this year, a pass would've been easy. And it would've secured the outcome of games that were pretty well in hand, but not totally.
If the Patriots knew Bojorquez had trouble throwing after watching him throughout the summer of 2018, for instance, that might've made them feel better about his inability to help the Bills convert on a fourth-and-14 by swinging a pass out to one of his uncovered gunners quickly.
Bills coach Sean McDermott didn't want to talk about the play after the game, citing the fact that the two teams will meet again later in the year in Week 16.
"I don't want to get into much," he said. "We do play them again here so just poor execution on our part."
"At the end of the day you can go back to any game, you can watch every game this week and it usually comes down to three or four plays," said Coleman, Buffalo's personal protector on the punt team.
"Unfortunately that was a big play. Statistically speaking when a team has a punt block for a touchdown the statistics say that they usually win, and unfortunately those seven points made the big difference in the game."
Those seven points were points that won the Patriots the game. And while analytics have their place -- even at One Patriot Place, regardless of what Belichick might say in a press conference -- the play-call that resulted in those points couldn't have been found in the numbers.
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