The two halves of Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills could not have look more different. For the visiting Patriots, the first half was marred by uncharacteristic sloppy play as they fumbled the ball away twice and were unable to capitalize when the Bills handed it back to them. The second half was different, however, as the New England offense was embarrassingly efficient and the Bills had no answer for them either on the ground or through the air.
The biggest play of the game came at the end of the first half as the Bills were deep in Patriots territory on their way to going up 21-7. Instead, Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes jarred the ball loose from Bills running back C.J. Spiller and a New England recovery prevented a possible 14-point deficit heading into the break.
With the momentum swung, New England went on to score 35 straight points on their way to a 52-28 victory. They find themselves in a three-way tie atop the AFC East with both Buffalo and the New York Jets, though “tie” may not be a fair word to describe the three teams.
For the Bills, offseason excitement about an AFC East overtake must be put on hold as they search for the consistency needed to become a playoff-caliber team. The season is still young, but for now, the Patriots proved an emphatic point that the division is still theirs for the taking.
Let’s take a look at the performances that shaped the game.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Running Game Dominates
The offseason in New England was all about shoring up the deficiencies the kept them from a Super Bowl championship in 2011. As I detailed back in March, even their vaunted offense had weaknesses. such as their inability to run the ball against the lighter fronts they were seeing on a weekly basis. Consider it corrected, at least for this game.
The Bills stayed with their nickel package for 67 of their 76 snaps and the Patriots were able to run the ball with little resistance. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (+4.6 run block) and Daniel Fells (+4.1 run block) sealed the edge with ease throughout the game allowing running backs Stevan Ridley (+1.3 rushing) and Brandon Bolden (+2.5 rushing) to combine for 243 yards on 38 carries. The offensive line saw all five starters grade positively as the Patriots dominated the Bills up front.
It was a curious move by Buffalo to stay with their five defensive back package, especially with LB Kelvin Sheppard (+3.1 on the season) relegated to the bench. New England appears to be building a team capable of handling any situation a defense throws at them and this performance will go a long way to showing that they’re capable of playing a power game when opposing teams show no respect for their running attack.
Spikes Hits Hard
It was a classic game for Spikes who showed almost everything in his on-field repertoire. Primarily known as a thumping run stopper, Spikes often looks lost in coverage as he did when asked to man-up on tight end Scott Chandler at the 3:30 mark of the second quarter. Spikes lost contact with Chandler on his seam route, allowing quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick an open throw in between the Patriots’ safeties.
After that play, Spikes became a game changer for the New England defense as he forced the aforementioned fumble at the end of the first half and added another with 13:33 to go in the fourth. He performed his usual duty of blowing up running plays so his teammates can make plays and he even redeemed himself in coverage by deflecting the next seam pass thrown Chandler’s way. For the game, Spikes graded at +5.1 with a +4.6 run D grade, highlighted by the two forced fumbles.
Pass Rush Denied
Despite picking up the first three sacks registered against the Bills this season, the Patriots’ pass rush was largely ineffective. Rookie DE Chandler Jones (-1.3 pass rush) has had an outstanding start to his career, but he was largely held in check by fellow rookie, offensive tackle Cordy Glenn. On the inside, DTs Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork were shut out in the pressure department, though Wilfork did bat a pass that led to a Jerod Mayo interception.
The final score ended in their favor, but New England cannot be pleased with their pass defense, particularly the lack of pressure up front. Fitzpatrick sat in a comfortable pocket for much of the game, and if it wasn’t for some ill-advised decisions and throws on his part, the Patriots could have surrendered more than the 28 points they did.
Buffalo – Three Performances of Note
Lost in the Slot
No Bills defender was targeted as often as CB Justin Rogers (-3.3 coverage) who gave up all eight passes thrown his way for 125 yards. The main source was Wes Welker who picked up 79 yards on the six passes into Rogers’ coverage. The biggest gaffe of the game came when Rogers let Gronkowski get by him for a 41-yard gain, though safety George Wilson appeared disinterested as the route ran right past him, so that did not help matters.
The fact that Rogers saw a season-high 67 snaps brings me back to my original question about the Bills’ defensive strategy. Why stick with the nickel package when you have no chance of stopping the run and the player who gets subbed in to support the pass (Rogers) is getting torched? Rogers didn’t pick up any negative grades in the running game, so it’s not as if he was a liability, but it’s not as if he was attacking on the edge as some slot cornerbacks can.
The strategy would have made a bit more sense had Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez been active, as most teams treat him as a wide receiver when matching personnel. With him out of the lineup, there was no need for the five defensive back sets and Bills fans have to be left wondering if Sheppard would have helped the defensive cause.
Bad Day for the Running Backs
Our Elusive Rating absolutely loves the Bills’ running backs as Spiller boasts an absurd 163.2 on the season and, before getting hurt last year, Jackson led the league at 80.7. We didn’t see that type of elusiveness in this clash and the ball security issues changed the face of the game.
Jackson saw his first action since the opener and he was unable to make anyone miss on his 13 carries. He picked up only 29 yards on the day and fumbled with the Bills only down seven points in the fourth. Like Jackson, Spiller has been battling injuries and he was an unknown coming into the game. He showed a little better with 33 yards on his eight carries and three missed tackles forced, but it was a far cry from the game-breaking ability he’d been showing the first three weeks of the season.
When healthy, the Bills may possess the scariest duo of running backs in the league, but this was not their best day.
One Williams Can Rush the Passer
All of the offseason hype surrounded the signing of Mario Williams, but after picking up three hurries Sunday on his 36 pass rushes, he now has 12 QB disruptions on his 136 attempts for the season to go with his -2.5 pass rush grade — not exactly what the Bills were hoping for with the signing.
On the interior, Kyle Williams is doing his usual fantastic work as a pass rusher and Sunday was no different. He was the lone bright spot on the Buffalo defense, grading at +4.2 on the day including +4.0 rushing the passer. He picked up five hurries, a hit, and a batted pass on his 31 rushes while adding solid work in the run game as well. His lone blip was the roughing the passer penalty he picked up while attacking Tom Brady’s knees. Other than that, Kyle has been the better Williams to this point, but they’ll both be needed if the Bills want to make any kind of playoff run.
– The Bills sent only one blitz on Brady’s 38 drop-backs. The result was a 25-yard touchdown to WR Brandon Lloyd.
– Ryan Fitzpatrick was pressured on only six of his 44 drop-backs. He graded at -2.3 on those six plays.
– The Patriots rushed 27 times for 181 yards to the left of center.
PFF Game Ball
No player changed the game as much as LB Brandon Spikes. His first forced fumble prevented a 14-point halftime deficit, while his second halted a potential game-tying drive from the Bills.
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