At 6-8, out of the playoff race and slated as 7-point home underdogs against a longtime division doormat, there is actually some good news for the Patriots this week.
One of their few strengths could pave the way to an upset of the Bills.
Buffalo’s defense ranks in the bottom half of the league in most rushing categories, including dead last in overall run defense per Pro Football Focus player grades. The Bills are allowing 4.6 yards per carry, which ranks 25th. Two months ago, the Pats barreled them over for 188 rushing yards in a close loss.
While that game is remembered for Cam Newton’s lost fumble with seconds left, the Patriots came 14 yards shy of running to victory. If there’s any hope of saving themselves from a season sweep Monday, it will be on the ground.
Here’s how the Newton and Co. can spring the Pats to an upset of the new AFC East champion.
1. Run from 11 personnel
Buffalo has defended the run poorly under most circumstances this season, but the defense’s worst moments have come when it’s been spread out.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Bills are allowing 4.9 yards per carry when faced with three-wide receiver sets. Better yet, opponents have a 60% success rate when running at them from this personnel grouping, meaning on almost two-thirds of rushes, offenses have gained at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and all yards needed on third or fourth down.
That type of steady success is the Pats’ only path against Buffalo, given their lack of big-play and downfield threats. Look for them to spread the Bills out and hammer away.
2. Feature Newton heavily in the run game
In their first meeting at Buffalo, Newton ran for 54 yards and a touchdown. It was one of his finest rushing performances of the season, particularly because of the Pats’ execution of QB-designed runs and option plays. Because of the running threat Newton poses, those plays allow the Patriots to block every defender in the box 1-on-1 without asking the runner to make a nearby defender miss.
If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can force the Bills into lighter boxes — via motion, formation or personnel — these plays should be deadly. Buffalo is allowing 6.2 yards per carry when fielding six or fewer defenders in the box, per Sports Info. Solutions. Amid his passing struggles, Newton has remained a force as a runner, particularly in short-yardage.
With only two games left, it’s time to unleash him in primetime.
3. Stick with the no-huddle
The Patriots’ two-week touchdown drought has overshadowed a modicum of progress they made in Miami, where they sustained multiple long drives that stalled late.
That progress can be traced back to their game plan of sticking to their plays and using an up-tempo approach to out-execute one of the NFL’s top scoring defenses. The no-huddle should return Monday night because of its recent success and the fact it will exacerbate Buffalo’s tackling woes. The Bills have whiffed 111 times this season, fourth-most in the NFL.
Furthermore, it will force Buffalo to stick to its base defenses, which will create simpler reads for Newton. And if the Pats fly down to an opening touchdown, they’ll be able to force the Bills to play on their terms, the offense’s ultimate goal this week, according to the quarterback.
“We just have to make sure that we dictate to them, and not allow them to dictate to us, because we’ve seen on film multiple times where they kind of bear down and put the onus on the offense and dare them to beat you,” Newton said this week. “That’s what we can’t (have) happen. We have to stay on schedule offensively; not only moving the ball, but actually executing more in the red zone and actually scoring touchdowns (instead of) field goals.
“Can’t just settle for field goals. We just have to make sure that we maximize on scoring opportunities.”
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