The New England Patriots are currently riding the exciting wave of a six-game win streak. The Pats continue to combine great coaching with smart football on both sides of the ball to help them remain among the AFC’s best teams heading into the 2021 postseason.
While their defense has been the primary catalyst for their success, New England’s offense has shown continued improvement with each passing week.
Steering New England’s offensive ship is rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The 23-year-old has completed greater than 70 percent of his passes on the season. As a result, he has been the ideal steward of New England’s timing-based passing game, predicated on vertical routes and completions from quick, accurate throws.
Through his first twelve games, Jones’ stellar performance has placed him atop his peers in contending for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Still, his 2021 campaign has not been perfect. As is usual for all young quarterbacks, there have been some growing pains, most of which Jones has handled well. However, his recent struggles in dealing with defensive back blitzes from opposing defenses could be a concern against the New England’s Week Thirteen opponent, the Buffalo Bills.
While the Buffalo ranks first in the NFL in total defense, they are particularly formidable in the secondary. Buffalo’s defensive backfield ranks second in the league, allowing just 178.5 yards per game through the air and first with 5.3 yards per pass. Despite the loss of star cornerback Tre’Davious White to injured reserve, Buffalo still possesses the ability to take the ball away, logging 16 interceptions on the season. Their prolific safety tandem of Jordan Poyer (5 INTs) and Micah Hyde (3 INTs) are more than capable of making life difficult for Jones in the passing game.
Though Buffalo’s safeties and corners have not been overly active in the pass rush, it is likely that defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will take a page out of the Dean Pees’ handbook, and dial-up some strategically placed blitzes from the second and third level of the defense in hopes of confusing Jones. Both the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans (the Pats’ two previous opponents) recently had some success
The Falcons found success by utilizing cornerback Darren Hall and safety Erik Harris to blitz Jones. The Pats quarterback was sacked three times, while averaging just 4.4 pass yards per attempt against Atlanta. Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard was also able to cause notable disruption as a pass rusher, gaining one sack on Jones, as well as forcing a rushed incompletion.
Buffalo, on the other hand, has mostly relied on defensive ends Mario Addison and Gregory Rousseau as their primary pass rushers. Addison leads the team with four sacks, while Rousseau is second with three. Should the Bills add their safeties into the mix, Frazier will attempt to confuse Jones by disguising their coverages.
“They do a great job with that,” Jones told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Buffalo’s potential defensive strategies. “Just with the experience they have at safety and stuff, obviously those guys have played a lot of football, 18 years combined, so they’re on the same page. They’re whole defense does a good job with disguise. You just have to prepare for it and play the game.”
Admittedly, Jones needs to enhance his setting of the protection. However, to place the blame squarely on his shoulders is unfair. The Pats offensive line has also had its share of problems with pass-blocking breakdowns. On Tuesday, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked about how the team may try to prevent such problems with the blitz in the future.
“Block ’em,” McDaniels said, smirking. “Sometimes, it’s not very complicated. When there’s a man that’s running towards the quarterback and there’s not a Patriot guy on him, I’m not very happy with that.”
McDaniels was also careful to advise that while there is room for improvement from his quarterback, the Pats’ recent woes when neutralizing the blitz go deeper than Jones.
“Everyone kind of looks at it and says, ‘Well, Mac didn’t see this’ or ‘Mac didn’t do that.’ Most of the time, it has nothing to do with Mac,” McDaniels said. “He sets the protection, and we’ve got to follow our rules. If our rules don’t accommodate handling the blitz, then we need an adjustment. We had one or two of those come up the other day, and he handled them fine. Then there were a couple others where we just didn’t react quick enough in the protection part of it to handle our responsibility. That’s an ongoing evolution with different guys…There’s a lot of communication pre-snap, but then all of a sudden, the pieces start to change once the ball is snapped, and then there’s more communication that needs to take place and happen in order to handle some of the exotic pressures that you get. We either win or we learn. On some of those plays, we didn’t win, and we certainly have a lot to learn from them. Hopefully, we’ll do that this week.”
Whether it be with Jones, or with the offensive line, New England will be hard at work this week to correct their recent deficiencies with defensive back blitzes. Still, even if the Pats are successful making the necessary improvements, Buffalo’s defense is stout at all three levels. Thus, they are capable of presenting numerous challenges for which the Patriots must be ready to face.
No one knows that better than Mac Jones. When asked on Wednesday about the unique challenges presented by the Bills’ defense, Jones responded with effusive praise and evident respect.
“They present every challenge,” he said. “They’re one of the top defenses in the whole country. They lead almost every category or they’re in the top-10. They don’t do a lot of bad things, so we’ve just got to be ready to go. They have great experience in most parts, and some of the young guys have stepped in and played really well. They have a really good mix of experience and team speed. They play hard, and they play together. It’s a great defense, and they don’t really have many flaws.”
The Patriots and Bills are set for an 8:20pm kickoff on Monday night, December 6, from Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.