The New England Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills last week 25-6 on Monday Night Football with the defense taking the lead role as New England’s offense was stymied by injuries to key players and a strong and aggressive Bills’ defense. After a 1-2 start including losses to Jacksonville and Detroit, the Patriots have won five straight games.
The Patriots led Buffalo throughout the entire game but failed to get into the end zone until the fourth quarter. Stephen Gostkowski made four field goals (missing only from 50 yards) to give the Patriots a 12-6 lead before James White finally powered in from one yards out to give New England an 18-6 lead.
The offense punted four times, missed a long field goal before halftime and scored just one touchdown. It was the defense stepping up against the impotent Bills offense and forcing five punts, a pair of long field goals, two turnovers and a couple of turnovers on downs to end the game.
With running back Sony Michel out, the offense funnelled through James White (eight receptions for 60 yards) and Julian Edelman (six catches for 68 yards) as the running game and big play receivers were all held in check (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted).
New England will play their second consecutive primetime game this weekend and their fourth primetime game in five weeks.This will be their second Sunday night game at Gillette Stadium in 2018. In October, the Patriots had a thrilling 43-40 victory over Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs at home. In September, New England lost 26-10 to Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions on Sunday Night Football.
This week’s game will be broadcast by NBC to a national audience on Sunday Night Football and can be seen locally on NBC 10 Boston and NBC 10 WJAR Providence. Al Michaels will handle play-by-play duties with Cris Collinsworth as the color analyst. Michele Tafoya will work from the sidelines.
Monday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Kevin Kugler will call the game with the always insightful and interesting Mike Mayock providing analysis.
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and talk radio star Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win over Buffalo was the fifth consecutive victory for the Patriots and a strong performance for the defense after three straight games against the Andy Reid offensive tree. At one point the defense was ninth in points allowed and 16th in yards allowed-dropped back down to 12th in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed. The Derek Anderson led Bills converted just four of 14 third downs so New England is currently ranked 26th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 42.9% of the time (45 of 105).
Stopping the Green Bay Packers is always tough. It all starts with their superb quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.
PASS RUSH POCKET DISCIPLINE
As usual, going against Aaron Rodgers is not so much how to stop one of the most supremely talented passers in the NFL as much how to slow him down. Rodgers has thrown for 2,283 yards in seven games completing 61.3% of his passes with 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
While that looks impressive, it is actually a bit of a down season for Rodgers.
Rodgers’ career completion rate was 65% coming into 2018 and his career touchdown percentage is 6.3%. His 61.3% completion rate and touchdown percentage of 4.6 are among the lowest of his career. Part of that is attributable to the knee injury (sprained MCL) that slowed him earlier in the season.
The knee injury has limited Rodgers’ mobility and left him more susceptible to being sacked being taken down at a rate of almost three per game (which would be the highest sacks allowed since 2010 by the Packers with Rodgers at quarterback). The obvious call for New England would be to pressure Rodgers and not allow any deep plays down the field and give up easy points.
Part of the problem with that plan is that Rodgers is a master of escaping pressure and making plays downfield as the coverage breaks down. Much like the game plan against the Texans, the Jaguars, the Chiefs and the Bears, the Patriots need to be aware that the quarterback thrives outside the pocket and can hurt them scrambling with his legs
Look for the Patriots to have that containment pass rush that Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers have been so good in maintaining discipline while pushing the quarterback up into the pocket. The Patriots’ defense has no desire to see Rodgers escaping and rolling to his right and completing a long pass after the secondary maintains solid coverage.
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The Patriots will mix coverage with zone and man-to-man, as they always do. More man-coverage, especially with Stephon Gilmore following Davante Adams allowing the safeties to focus on bracketing Randall Cobb and the younger receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham.
Of course, how exactly will the Patriots try and take away Jimmy Graham?
THE JIMMY GRAHAM PLAN
The New England Patriots catch a break with wide receiver Geronimo Allison declared out for Sunday night. Allison (15.2 yards per reception) and rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling (18.4 yards per catch) and Equanimeous St. Brown (23.2 yards per catch) have been the deep threat/big play targets for Aaron Rodgers so far in 2018. Without the more experienced Allison, there is more pressure on the rookie duo to produce under the bright lights.
Davante Adams is putting up ridiculous numbers (52 catches for 690 yards in just seven games) and Randall Cobb still makes his plays in the slot despite having been slowed by injuries at times this season. The second-leading receiver for the Packers in 2018 has been veteran tight end Jimmy Graham with his 28 receptions for 370 yards.
In the first four weeks of 2018 the Patriots allowed just 11 receptions for 119 yards and one touchdown to opposing tight ends. In the last four weeks the Patriots have allowed 30 receptions for 386 yards and four touchdowns to opposing tight ends. Surprisingly, it was not Travis Kelce hurting them but Indianapolis and Chicago who both had huge games with their multiple tight end sets.
Green Bay can use those sets with veterans Lance Kendricks (seven catches for 67 yards) and Marcedes Lewis (who has had less impact than even Dwayne Allen in New England!) but usually prefers multi-wide receiver sets. However, in short yardage situations they do not hesitate to play Kendricks with Graham on the field.
For New England, the defense must improve in coverage of the tight ends. That starts with strong safety Patrick Chung. At 31 years old, Chung has had injury issues (missing the week three loss to Detroit) and at times looking a half-step slower. Between Chung, the banged-up Dont’a Hightower (who missed last week’s game and is questionable this week with a knee injury) and Kyle Van Noy they must find a way to stay on Graham.
It’s all well and good to plan to slow the passing game, but that is only one aspect of the Green Bay offense.
ALL ABOUT THE RUNNING GAME?
Green Bay traded away running back/kick returner/wide receiver Ty Montgomery leaving them the young duo of Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones. Williams is the primary back but has struggled and may be out of that role shortly. Williams’ role has been reduced each week in the past four weeks.
Jones has stepped up in his place and the smaller and shiftier back had another big game last week against the Rams piling up 86 yards on just 12 carries. After averaging 5.5 yards per rush last year as a rookie, so far he has average 6.2 yards per rush in 2018. Due to weak pass blocking and missing assignments, Jones has been limited in his snaps.
Of course, last week–nursing a one-point lead and needing to drive and eat the clock with six minutes to play–head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin could not help themselves and inserted Montgomery at running back instead of Jones. Three-and-out, punt and loss.
Surprisingly, neither Jones not Williams contributes much in the passing game as a receiver (Williams is the better pass blocker). Considering the effectiveness that New Orleans, the Rams, and Patriots have been incorporating the running backs into the passing game, it seems like McCarthy and Philbin are being stubborn and taking away an effective weapon from Rodgers.
For New England, the run defense took a huge blow with impressive rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley going on injured reserve. With Dont’a Hightower banged-up, it led to Elandon Roberts playing more–before he exited with a groin injury. That led the Patriots to insert Nicholas Grigsby–who is questionable this week with an illness.
Provided there is a healthy body at linebacker, the Patriots will need those bodies to slow Aaron Jones. Jones has been improving and earning more playing time, and Green Bay is devastating once their play-action game gets going.
New England’s big defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton have really struggled at times in the trenches in 2018. Both come advertised as run-stuffers and both have been pushed around by opponents so far. With Miami and Buffalo having given up on the running game falling behind early, too often the running game has been there against the Patriots.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01