It Was Deja Vu For Patriots Defense Against Bills — Despite Some Punts

'It's back to the drawing board'

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December 2, 2022

FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots defense was one of the NFL’s best through 11 weeks. The group, mostly facing bad quarterbacks, ranked near or at the top of the league in numerous statistical categories, both traditional and advanced. Matthew Judon was on a Defensive Player of the Year pace.

But important questions remained: Was it fool’s gold? Would New England once again crater against superior NFL passing games? Perhaps most importantly, could the Patriots actually slow down Josh Allen and the Bills after watching Buffalo rack up 80 points and zero punts in their final two meetings last season?

We now have our answers, and they aren’t pretty.

We got a partial answer last week when the Patriots got torched by Justin Jefferson and the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving night. But the full picture arrived a week later, with Allen and the Bills steamrolling New England in an easy 24-10 victory at Gillette Stadium.

Sure, much of the talk after the game centered around the failing offense, and deservedly so. But don’t overlook the equally discouraging performance put forth by the Patriots defense.

To be fair, New England wasn’t a complete disaster Thursday night, as it forced three punts and a turnover — yippee! — and stopped the Bills on four of their final possessions, all without Jalen Mills and Christian Barmore in the lineup. The game even might’ve been close if not for the Patriots’ anemic offense.

However, when it really mattered, when the Bills really wanted to move the ball and put up points, the Patriots had zero answers.

Buffalo possessed the ball for 38 minutes and 8 seconds of a 60-minute game, largely thanks to a trio of long touchdown drives along with a slew of three-and-outs from New England’s offense. The Bills chewed up 4:50 on a nine-play drive at the end of the first quarter, 7:46 on a 14-play drive in the second quarter and 8:55 on a 94-yard, 15-play odyssey in the second half. All of those drives ended with touchdowns. Buffalo ran 72 offensive plays compared to just 51 for the Patriots.

“That’s really tough,” Judon said about the Bills’ 15-play drive, which broke a streak of three straight stops. “It was short plays, intermediate plays and it just kept seeming like they would just get the first down. Right there you really want to get off the field. Put four stops back-to-back. You want to get off the field. It just seemed like they were just getting five, four, first down. Five, four, first down. Five, four, three, first down. That’s kind of how it went. They worked the clock and they worked the whole field.”

When the dust settled, the Bills went 9-for-15 on third downs, including 6-for-8 in the first half, while amassing 22 first downs. They went 3-for-3 on their red zone trips, often forcing undisciplined penalties by the Patriots along the way. Buffalo racked up 355 yards of total offense and surely would’ve gained far more had it not been running out the clock in the fourth quarter.

“When you get in third-down situations, we’ve just got to win more,” safety Devin McCourty said. “And I thought in the second half we did a better job of that, of combining rushing coverage and being able to cover these guys up and doing a consistent job of trying to keep Allen in the pocket. All that stuff marries up and they’re explosive enough that when you don’t do it right, they usually make a play. I think at times we did a good job at that and other times, not so great and that was the difference.”

But what does Bill Belichick think?

“I thought actually we played pretty competitively,” the Patriots head coach said during a postgame news conference.

Yeah, no.

Remember when Belichick used to eliminate an opponent’s top weapon on both sides of the ball? Those days are over.

Jefferson and the Vikings proved it last week, and the Bills did the same Thursday night.

Stefon Diggs did Stefon Diggs things against an overmatched Jonathan Jones, catching seven balls for 92 yards and a touchdown. Isaiah McKenzie predictably caught five balls for 44 yards out of the slot. Rookie running back James Cook averaged 4.6 yards per carry, including a back-breaking 28-yarder in the first half. At least Gabriel Davis was quiet.

In fact, it’s now other teams that are taking out New England’s top playmakers. Minnesota and Buffalo both essentially gave extra attention toward Judon and bet on the Patriots’ inability to find consistent rush elsewhere — and both were right. Sounds a lot like last season.

As for Allen, the superstar quarterback ensured he’ll stay in Belichick’s nightmares for weeks, if not years, to come.

Allen completed 22 of 33 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns while looking comfortable throughout. He made a couple of poor decisions, as he’s known to do, but when it came time to get serious and put the Patriots in their place, he delivered. If there’s one positive, it’s that the Patriots limited Allen to just 20 yards rushing.

In his first four games against Belichick, Allen completed 50% of his passes while throwing three touchdowns, six interceptions and taking eight sacks. In the five games since, including the wild-card loss last season, he’s completed 67% of his passes for 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions while taking just four sacks.

Translation: Allen owns the Patriots. Hell, he’s so confident in his ability to cut through the Patriots defense that he partnered with Gillette partly to troll their fan base. And he has no problem admitting it.

Did the Patriots do a better job against Allen and the Bills offense on Thursday than they did last season? Yes. Does New England’s defense possess more playmakers capable of forcing a few stops against Buffalo? Also yes.

Those would be worthy yeah-bets if not for the sad reality that what we saw Thursday night was a continuation of a trend that dates back to 2019, when the “Boogeymen” Patriots cratered down the stretch in Tom Brady’s final Foxboro campaign. New England’s defense is what it is at this point: dominant against bad offenses but powerless against elite ones.

Sure, Belichick’s pride and joy might make a few plays against elite quarterbacks, but in the end, it won’t be nearly enough.

“I mean, we’re not in this game to be close to somebody, we are in it to win,” safety Adrian Phillips said inside the locker room. “So, if we didn’t win, then we didn’t get the job done. I’m not really into moral victories, or, ‘At least we did this.’

“Did you get the job done? No. So, it’s back to the drawing board.”

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Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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