Perry: Examining Patriots' options for containing Josh Allen, Bills originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
When retired Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia spoke to the Next Pats podcast last month, he continuously came back to one message: Figure out your top five blockers and stick with them.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, due in part to circumstances out of their control, they haven't been able to do that. And it may continue Thursday night against the best team in their division.
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Trent Brown was a late addition to the injury report, now listed as questionable due to an illness. If the big left tackle can't play, the game of musical chairs in front of Mac Jones this season will continue.
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Conor McDermott, recently signed off the Jets practice squad, could be the answer. The team could also bump Yodny Cajuste (questionable, calf) to the left side and slide right guard Mike Onwenu out to right tackle, sending James Ferentz in to play right guard.
Not many options outside those if Brown can't go. Isaiah Wynn (foot) has been ruled out for Thursday night. Marcus Cannon (concussion) remains on injured reserve.
David Andrews (thigh) should be back in action after trying to play during Thanksgiving just a few days after suffering a contusion. But the shuffling up front has been constant.
The team kept Trent Brown on the bench to start the Jets game in Week 11, inserting him only after Isaiah Wynn suffered an injury. Cole Strange has been in and out of the lineup for performance reasons, getting replaced by Wynn. The lone constant has been Onwenu at right guard. And depending on how the Patriots deal with a potential Brown absence, even that spot could experience some change.
Not an ideal scenario against a Bills team that is eighth in the NFL in pressure rate despite blitzing at only the 23rd-highest rate in the league. They have an ability to get after the quarterback without dialing up schematically. That may change with Von Miller (knee) out for this game; the Bills blitzed on over 40 percent of Jared Goff's drop-backs last week in Detroit.
But if dealing with the blitz is a key part of this week's game plan for the Patriots -- even with Miller out -- there could be issues.
Let's dig further into that thought with our first matchup highlighted in this week's preview...
Matchup that will decide the first half
Leslie Frazier vs. Mac Jones
If the Bills continue to try to heat up quarterbacks with their top pass-rusher banged-up, that may not bode well for Mac Jones and his less-than-100-percent protectors.
Jones has the lowest quarterback rating in the NFL when blitzed, per Pro Football Focus (56.3, 39th out of 39 qualifiers). He's 31st in completion percentage out of 32 passers who have been blitzed at least 60 times this season, and he's 29th in PFF's turnover-worthy play percentage when blitzed.
One thing working for the Patriots? The Bills have given up 27 points per game in the last three weeks, and in that span they're one of the worst third and fourth-down defenses in the NFL. They're 31th in EPA per play allowed on third and fourth down since Week 10, and they're 30th in drop-back EPA per play in that span.
Either this will be an opportunity for the Patriots to shake their poor performance against the blitz and their shoddy work on third down (25th in the NFL in third-down conversions this season), or they'll continue to get exposed in those situations against a good defensive coordinator in Leslie Frazier.
Odds are, we'll find out early on which way it goes for Bill Belichick's club.
Matchup that will surprise you
Bills red-zone offense vs. Patriots defense
Josh Allen has thrown four red-zone picks in his last five games. He's in a rut.
It may be injury-related; he's dealing with an elbow issue that may make it more difficult for him to fit passes into tight spaces that are standard deep in opponent territory. He may also be a little uncertain in his protection, which this week will include a backup at left tackle because starter Dion Dawkins is out.
Though the Patriots defense got its face kicked in (as Adrian Phillips put it) last season in their final two meetings with Buffalo, things will go differently if they're able to coax Allen into a turnover -- particularly one down inside their own 20-yard line. The Patriots are seventh in the NFL in red-zone defense this year, and they're fourth in that category over the last three weeks, allowing just 37.5 percent of red-zone trips to turn into touchdowns.
The Bills have only turned it over once in their last two games, but they are still last in the NFL in turnover percentage with 16.4 percent of their offensive drives resulting in giveaways. The Patriots, meanwhile, take the ball away on 12.8 percent of their defensive drives, which is eighth in the league.
With a different-looking secondary and linebacking corps compared to the one that played in last year's Wild Card meeting, the Patriots may be able to surprise some folks with what they're able to do in the turnover department Thursday.
Matchup that will bring you joy
Rhamondre Stevenson vs. Bills tacklers
Rhamondre Stevenson bringing Patriots fans holiday cheer should be a weekly occurrence moving forward. He's been that good.
He's one of only 13 backs in the league with at least 150 carries this season, and among that group he ranks fourth in yards after contact per attempt (3.56). He's also third among 52 qualifying backs in receptions (50) and eighth in yards per route run. He's the centerpiece of this attack ... and Thursday night represents another juicy matchup.
The Bills are a different team in several respects since a massive pre-bye win over the Chiefs back in Week 6. Since then, Josh Allen is third in turnover-worthy play rate (behind only Kyler Murray and Justin Fields) when from Weeks 1-6 he was 16th in that category.
The defense has changed, too. Buffalo's tackling, in particular, has fallen off the map. They allow more yards after contact to running backs than any defense in the league in that span. They're seventh in yards per attempt allowed since Week 7, and they're eighth in rush yards allowed per game.
Matchup that will take years off your life
Josh Allen's legs vs. Second-level defenders
The Patriots will spy Josh Allen. It may be safeties in the team's "SEALs" package, which is their big-nickel grouping with three safeties. It may be linebackers in their dime or "Navy" (their three-corner nickel package) looks. But in obvious passing situations, the Patriots know they have to keep extra eyes on Allen in order to limit his ability to scramble.
The problem -- and the reason this particular matchup falls in this particular category this week -- is that the Patriots have had heaps of trouble trying to limit mobile quarterbacks this year. And Allen is one of the best and most frequent scramblers in the league.
He's first in the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions, with 10.6 yards per scramble run (not designed), and he's third with 38 scramble attempts. He's also second in the league in EPA per attempt on those plays.
Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields laid a blueprint for athletic passers against the Patriots. Run, run and run some more. Against scrambles and designed quarterback runs this season, the Patriots rank 30th in yards per carry, and they're 27th in yards after contact allowed per attempt. They don't have a single stuffed run on 30 attempts, per SIS, and they're 29th in the league in EPA allowed on quarterback runs.
What may make those numbers particularly concerning for the Patriots is that one of the best approaches for defending the Bills this year, when not executed properly, can lead to scramble attempts...
Matchup that will determine the outcome
Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick vs. Josh Allen
...There is something that opposing defenses have done to the Bills this season that's been their kryptonite. Buffalo has been blitzed to kingdom come. Only the Lions, Ravens and Colts have been blitzed more this season. Why? It's worked.
When facing five or more rushers, per SIS, Allen is 30th in the NFL in completion percentage and yards per pass attempt. He's 25th in interception rate and 28th in quarterback rating. That's a massive drop-off compared to when he's rushed by just four or fewer defenders, where he ranks 11th in completion percentage, third in yards per attempt and sixth in rating.
Heat him up, and Allen turns into one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. The Lions blitzed Allen 18 times last week, per Pro Football Focus, and he averaged just 2.2 yards per attempt with a rating of 53.8.
Maybe the Patriots will feel as though they don't have to blitz, though. Maybe they'll feel as though they can get the same results with four that others get with five.
They're only 15th in the league in blitz rate this year because of just how effective they've been rushing Matt Judon and three others; they're second in the NFL in pressure percentage (30.2). And with David Quessenberry (two starts this season) looking like he'll get the start at left tackle, this should be the kind of game where the Patriots' pass-rush is able to thrive without sending additional bodies.
One added benefit to not blitzing? More defenders at the second and third levels to handle the inevitable Allen scrambles. But the numbers are the numbers. There's something about sending added bodies at the line of scrimmage that bothers Allen and his line and disrupts the timing and effectiveness of the vaunted Bills offense.
Whether or not Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick and Bill Belichick decide to go that route will be fascinating to track. Against a team that handled them with ease twice last season, playing the numbers and going the aggressive route -- even if it comes with some risk -- might not be a bad idea.