FOXBORO — Over his last three years in New England, Tom Brady never lost to the Bills.
What he did do was struggle.
After Buffalo coach Sean McDermott took over in 2017, Brady threw four touchdowns and five interceptions against Buffalo’s defense before leaving Foxboro. The Patriots scored more than 24 points once in six meetings. McDermott’s key to containing the greatest quarterback of all time was hiding his defense in plain sight.
The Bills disguised a handful of schemes with the same pre-snap picture, forcing Brady to wait before he could diagnose the coverage and attack its soft spots. Now, Buffalo ranks No. 1 in the league in pass defense, and Brady’s successor, another cerebral passer who derives his power from pre-snap processing, will take his first crack at the Bills on Monday night.
Good luck, kid.
“It’s hard to know which safety is coming or if it’s a boundary corner or which linebacker is coming, or if they’re going to drop out and fake like they’re going to come,” Bill Belichick said this week. “If they’re going to stunt the line, if they’re going to play base, if they’re going to rotate, not rotate. They just do a good job on all those things.”
Last week, the Bills defense took a hit when All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White tore his ACL in a win at New Orleans. On Thursday, Pats wide receiver Jakobi Meyers described the loss as “huge.” Though for Meyers, who primarily plays out of the slot, the challenge will hardly change.
The Bills are a top-5 defense against No. 2 wideouts and slot receivers, per Football Outsiders’ opponent-and-situation-adjusted efficiency metric, DVOA. Therefore, most of the Patriots’ receiving opportunities may fall to tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
The problem is, after quarterback, playing tight end in the Patriots’ system requires making more reads before and after the snap than any other position. So cracking the Bills’ code will require Jones and Henry or Smith to be on the same page.
“They’re very experienced, so they know how to mess with us offensively to make us think it’s one thing and it’s actually another,” Henry said. “Disguising blitzes, all different kind of things that make it hard for us to read it out pre-snap and then you have to make decisions sometimes post-snap on those things because those guys are holding it for a long time until right when the ball is snapped.”
As for Jones, even if the rookie deciphers Buffalo’s disguise, his work is far from over. Bills safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer rank among the best coverage players at their position. Poyer ranks third in the AFC with five interceptions, while Hyde’s grabbed three and broken up four other passes.
Baiting them with play-action or other means of misdirection might be Jones’ best hope at displacing them, arguably the league’s best safety tandem.
“Just with the experience they have at safety, obviously those guys have played a lot of football,” Jones said. “Eighteen years combined, they’re on the same page.”
Last week against Tennessee, another aggressive, zone-based defense, the Patriots ran play-action in 37% of their offensive snaps. It unlocked several easy throws for Jones and produced 210 passing yards, with the rookie otherwise struggling in traditional dropbacks. Pairing those passes with misdirection run looks — draws, wham and counter plays — would make sense on the surface, following Belichick’s assessment of the Bills on Wednesday.
“The whole defense is aggressive in everything,” Belichick said. “It’s why they’re one of the best defenses in the league. They’re aggressive on the run, aggressive on the pass. They cover well. They rush well. They play zone, play man-to-man, they blitz and mix it up. They’re good at all of it.”
Then again, the Bills have allowed completions on barely half of their opponents’ play-action passes this season, per Sports Info. Solutions; another indication that weaknesses in their pass coverage may be a mirage, and the Pats’ clearest path to victory will be on the ground and asking as little of their rookie quarterback as possible.
“They present every challenge. …They lead almost every category or they’re in the top-10. They don’t do a lot of things bad, so we’ve just got to be ready to go,” Jones said.
“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.”