With Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren out with injuries, rookie Ron Brace was forced into starting duty. To put things politely, Brace was no Wilfork, as he was pushed every which way by the Bills' patchwork offensive line. The Bills needed 12 plays to gain 84 yards before a false start penalty pushed them back five yards.
So with the Bills on the New England 7-yard line facing a third-and-goal, Bill Belichick figured, "Hey, who needs defensive linemen?"
The Pats came out of a Buffalo timeout with a package of five linebackers and six defensive backs. Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain played a modified defensive end position, split a few yards wide of the tackles, while Brandon McGowan, Rob Ninkovich, Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather roamed around in the box. Cornerbacks Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden and Jonathan Wilhite were in tight coverage on the outside.
Utterly perplexed, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an incompletion and the Bills settled for a field goal.
The "formation" — or lack thereof — worked so well that it became the Patriots' go-to personnel package when the Bills were in passing situations. A steady rush in the second quarter resulted in a Wilhite interception, and for the first time this season, the Patriots put heavy pressure on the quarterback all day long.
In all, the Patriots had six sacks, with three coming from Banta-Cain. The new-look defensive set seemed to best utilize the talents of Adalius Thomas and Burgess, two players who have (very fairly) taken heat for underperforming this season. Even Junior Seau got in on the action.
"It's called organized chaos," Thomas said after the 17-10 win. "We just try to put some guys out there and it seemed like it worked today."
It confused the Bills to the extent that head coach Perry Fewell pulled Fitzpatrick from the game in favor of Trent Edwards to no avail. Edwards completed one of his two passes for -1 yards while getting sacked and leaving the game with an injury. At that point, neither the quarterback from Stanford nor the one from Harvard could solve Belichick's defense.
Was it a miraculous move by the coach? No, not really. It was standard Belichick practice: Put the players who give you the best chance to win on the field.
"We were a little short on defensive linemen here with Vince and Ty and Myron [Pryor] out, so we let the defensive linemen kind of concentrate on the running game and our linebackers and that sub group concentrate on third down, pass rushing and two-minute [defense]," Belichick said.
The players also seemed to have been prepared by the coaching staff particularly well on a wide receiver screen early in the third quarter. The defense left a pair of receivers uncovered on the defensive left side of the field, and as soon as the ball was snapped, the facemasks of all 11 defenders turned in the direction of Fred Jackson, who was split to the defensive right. The defense swallowed Jackson after a 1-yard gain, and the Bills were forced to punt.
Afterward, it was clear that Belichick was adamant that the Patriots not be burned by the short passing game.
"I thought we had good pressure on the quarterback for the most part," Belichick said. "[Buffalo has] got good receivers and they were trying to throw a lot of screens on us, and they hurt us on the screens in the [Week 1 matchup], so I thought we reacted to them fairly well overall."
In all, it was a reminder of how Belichick earned his status as a genius. Obviously, nobody involved with a game can truly be a genius, but the moves he made on Sunday were a reminder of Belichick's ingenuity. It's how the Patriots won three Super Bowls under the head coach, and it's exactly what the Patriots need to maximize their talent on defense.
Belichick, however, played it cool after the game, answering questions in his usual nonchalant manner.
"We did try to mix it up," he said. "We had a lot of different guys coming. We had some DBs and our linebackers and tried to stem the front and move it around a little bit and make them work to pick it up. Sometimes [the blockers] got there, sometimes [the rushers] maybe caught them a little bit off guard or a little bit hesitant trying to figure out who's who."
Banta-Cain, who now has a career-high 8.5 sacks, stepped to the podium after the game and brought back a word that was thrown around freely during the Super Bowl years: Team.
"I think overall it is a team effort," Banta-Cain said. "Sometimes we might get pressure but we have a mistake on the back end or front end [and] we don't get the guy in the right assignment to get the job done. So it is a team effort to get pressure on the quarterback and I think we put it together today."
Of course, these moves won't get nearly the number of headlines that the infamous fourth-and-2 decision got after the Week 10 loss to Indianapolis. Installing defensive sub packages just doesn't get the phone lines ringing on the sports radio stations. Yet if Belichick continues to harness the creativity that he used throughout his career, the Patriots could be ready to cause some problems for opponents in January.
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