Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- Rex Burkhead was a touch reluctant. He is a product of his environment, of course. He wasn't about to get into every detail of every formation and alignment his team had on the books that week for the Bills. That's just not how things are done with the Patriots. 

But he also couldn't help himself when asked if the last week was a little more intensive when it came to the game-plan's installation. Because even the most casual of football fans might've been able to deduce that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had some new looks cooked up for the No. 2 defense in football. 

"Maybe," Burkhead said, smiling. "Yeah. Maybe. Every week's a different game plan. Josh is so creative, we just try to go out there, make the most of those opportunities, whatever position he puts us in and we gotta try to do our job."

Safe to say, in a 24-17 win that represented perhaps the most complete offensive effort for the Patriots this season, they did what was required. But it wasn't easy, because of the amount that was on their plate . . . during a short week . . . up against a defense that is very familiar with what they do.

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Even Bill Belichick was willing to acknowledge that it was a bit of an unusual week in terms of his players handling new information. How much extra work was put in during walkthroughs, he was asked?

"I think as much as we could cram in," Belichick said. "You know, we pretty much went right from the Cincinnati game and took Monday off, came in here Tuesday and tried to get the corrections from Cincinnati, and move on to Buffalo. We had a walkthrough Tuesday to get the game plan in. 

 

"Again, it was a lot of pressure on the coaching staff to get that done a day ahead of time and for the players to process it and work on it and be ready to execute it, just in a quicker timeframe. They really worked hard this week, everybody, the entire organization did, and again, I’m very proud of the results that we have to show for it."

The results speak for themselves. On 35 carries, they rushed for 143 yards (a 4.1 yards-per-attempt clip) and a touchdown. Through the air, Tom Brady was as efficient as he's been in two months, with a yards-per-attempt figure that cracked 8.0 and a quarterback rating that cracked 100.0 for the first time since Week 5. He finished 26-of-33 for 271 yards and a touchdown. 

But beyond the statistics, it was the variety McDaniels threw at the Bills that helped fuel lengthy scoring drives of 11 plays (twice) and 17 plays.

How exactly did he mix and match? Let us count the ways . . . 

DELIVERING (MULTIPLE) PACKAGES

McDaniels shook up his personnel packages throughout the night, keeping Bills coach Sean McDermott on his toes and his personnel decisions in flux. 

By my count, not including kneel-downs, the Patriots called for 32 plays of 11 personnel (with one back and one tight end). Their 21-personnel package was called, fittingly, 21 times. Most of those featured Elandon Roberts lead-blocking for Sony Michel, but they also used Brandon Bolden and Rex Burkhead on the field together in that package. James White and Burkhead saw time together in "21" as well. 

Pass-catching backs Burkhead and White also saw the field a half-dozen times together in their "Pony" set, or "20," with two backs and no tight ends. They went light with four receivers ("10") on three separate occasions, and they went heavy with two backs and two tight ends ("22") three more times. They ran 12 personnel seven times, featuring tight ends Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse.

Perhaps more importantly, they were willing to use those different personnel packages across situations. On third down, for instance, the Patriots primarily relied upon their three-receiver "11" looks, but they also used a four-receiver "10" alignment once, "12" twice, as well as three different "Pony" looks with two pass-catching backs on the field simultaneously.

Hard to predict what's coming when there's that much variety. And while the Patriots always use a variety of personnel groupings when they can, that much movement is a bit unusual -- particularly for a team that has been reduced to one personnel package for entire halves because of injury this year.

 

"Josh does an outstanding job and always has," Belichick said. "He's a very smart guy, understands defenses, he understands the things that create problems for the defense, and at the same time, he understands what we can do and what's out of our realm and what's in realm. 

"I think he makes great decisions on that, certainly with Tom having the ability to orchestrate a lot of things on the field, you know, that's a big plus, too. But those guys work very well together and Josh does a terrific job of game-planning. Each week, it's our matchups against the other team, and he does a great job of creating an advantage for us, whatever that is. There's a number of ways to do it. Formations is one thing, but there's other things as well. I think he does an excellent job of that."

FORMATION FIDDLING

On New England's second drive alone, McDaniels was able to show the football-watching world that his creative juices had been flowing in preparation for this one. 

On the first play of the drive, they went with an unusual spread formation, with an empty backfield, under center. The quick-hitting pass play went for six yards.

Then came a "Pony" formation with White and Burkhead that saw both backs start out aligned wide. Then, before the snap, they both shifted into the backfield to take their places alongside Brady. Then they shifted again to a wing position, just off the line and in tight to the formation. Brady hit a tight throw to Burkhead that was erased due to an accepted Bills penalty. 

One snap later, Roberts was on the field for the first time. He stayed out there for four consecutive runs that went for 27 yards. 

After that came an unusual rep for rookie wideout N'Keal Harry, whose usage had been fairly predictable in his first few games back from injured reserve. He motioned into the backfield, then ran into the flat as one of Brady's last reads in his progression. Brady eventually worked his way back to the rookie as a check-down option on third-and-two, and the play went for nine. 

Harry later took a reverse for 18 yards -- thanks to some help from a Brady block -- and was handed a missile-motion end-around run on fourth-down that was stopped short of the line to gain. Still . . . variety, variety, variety. 

And Harry wasn't the only receiver involved in the running game. In the fourth quarter, Mohamed Sanu -- who began multiple snaps aligned in the backfield Saturday -- took a direct snap. The former high school quarterback ran an option play, of all things. It went nowhere, but it served as yet another indication McDaniels was willing to pull out all the stops for a game his team very openly considered to carry the same weight a playoff game would.

 

"That's a familiar team," guard Shaq Mason said. "They know us. We know them. Hats off to Josh for the game he called. Hats off to the running backs, receivers, fellow o-linemen for executing the game plan. We can always execute it better, but we got the win so we executed enough."

GOING IN ANOTHER DIRECTION

Misdirection elements are consistently part of the Patriots plan, whether those are their play-action pass staples or more exotic gadget plays. For any of them to work, the defense has to actually respect whatever fake it is you carry out to start the play. 

There has been a great deal of research devoted to figuring out the effectiveness of play-action fakes, and the consensus is that . . . it works. It works so well, in fact, numbers have shown that even when teams don't run effectively they can still have play-action success.

What the Patriots did against the Bills was that they used different types of play-action. They went traditional at times, faking to Michel running behind a fullback, and then hitting Jakobi Meyers over the middle for 15 yards. They also spiced things up at times, as they did when they faked an end-around hand-off to Harry -- who'd taken an end-around run and a reverse earlier in the game -- to get the defense to shift horizontally one way, only to come back to the opposite side of the field for a chunk gain on a screen to Burkhead.

"The adjustments that they are able to make," Bills safety Micah Hyde said, "they make a lot of things look the same. A run looks the same as a pass and they get a big gain off of it. That's why they are so successful."

Julian Edelman's two-point conversion catch -- out of 21 personnel with a fullback on the field -- also came off of play-action. 

"That comes off the run," Edelman said. "We ran the ball well, and when you run the ball well, those types of plays work very well. You've got to tip your hat to the line. The running backs were over here running their tails off. When we get those things and you start playing complementary, good things happen."

 

"I think that running the ball well is what really sells the run," Brady said. "You know, if you’re gaining yards when you hand it off, they’ve got to play more downhill. I think if they’re just sitting back because they’re not really believing that you’re going to run it and you can’t get through the d-line, then it doesn’t end up being too much. So, the fact that we were running it good was really important."

It's when everything becomes available to the Patriots, as it seemed to against Buffalo, that they can still be a dangerous offense. They ran inside and out. They produced with zone runs. They produced with "power" runs, when pulling guards led the way. They produced with a linebacker playing fullback. They threw to receivers, backs and tight ends -- nine different players caught passes from Brady -- all with varying levels of success. 

As a result, McDaniels had the ability to fling open his playbook and settle on just about whatever he wanted. Personnel grouping. Formation. Play-call. Because just about whatever he wanted seemed like it had a chance to work Saturday. 

"In a good offense, everyone has to be able to produce," Brady said. "And if you can get both tight ends involved, and all the receivers involved and all the backs involved, it’s hard to defend. So, we just did a good job of that today. You’ve got to make them defend everybody, and a lot of guys came up big."