The New England Patriots lost their fifth game of the 2018 season and second in a row with a frustrating 17-10 loss last Sunday at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers. New England will now have to try this week for a chance to wrap-up their tenth consecutive AFC East title at home against AFC East rivals the Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots lost their fifth game of the season–all on the road. In all of those games, other than against Miami– it has been the offense, or more specifically the lack of it, that has been a major factor in New England losing. In their five losses the Patriots have been outscored 142 to 83 (-59). In their nine wins they have outscored opponents 291 to 168 (+123).
The New England defense has also played a key role in their five losses. New England has allowed an average of 28.4 points in their five losses on the road. In their nine victories (six at home) they have allowed opponents just 18.66 points per game. The New England offense has managed just an average of 16.6 points in their five losses while averaging 32.33 points per game in their nine victories.
New England never got consistent play on both sides of the ball although the defense was much improved in the second half. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives and had all the points they needed. The defense intercepted the Steelers twice but got no points off those drives. At one point the Patriots punted on five consecutive drives.
On offense, the New England running game was inconsistent for a second straight week gaining just 96 yards on 19 carries (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). The passing game was not much better gaining just 279 tough yards with a costly interception by Tom Brady in the fourth quarter in the red zone. Going three of ten on third down was a backbreaker for the offense
This week the Patriots have a sneaky tough matchup this week at home against the 5-9 Buffalo Bills. Rookie quarterback Josh Allen and his running ability has sparked the Bills this season. They are 4-5 in Allen’s starts while 1-3 without him.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. Greg Gumbel will handle play-by-play duties with Trent Green and Bruce Arians as the color analysts. Melanie Collins will work from the sidelines..
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 local talk radio personality Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The loss over the Steelers was more on the offense’s inability to score in the red zone as the New England defense held the Steelers to three points after the Steelers scored their second touchdown early in the second quarter. The Patriots defense intercepted Ben Roethlisberger twice giving the Patriots a chance to turn around momentum.
The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season and after a rough start, saw improved pass rush and coverage, but still had major problems in the run defense. The defense was temporarily in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed but has slipped down to 13th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed.
The defense was again decent on third downs (PIttsburgh was only four of nine in conversions) and they are now 23rd in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 40.7% of the time (70 of 172).
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How do the Patriots plan to get back that defensive momentum from the second half of the game against the Steelers against their biggest Achilles heel–a running quarterback–and get back in the winning column against a Buffalo Bills squad with nothing to lose?
Despite only playing in ten games, quarterback Josh Allen is the leading rusher in Buffalo with 506 yards. Most of those runs are scrambles, not designed quarterback runs like Baltimore uses for quarterback Lamar Jackson. Allen is athletic and will tuck and run without hesitation when his first option is not open in the secondary.
For the Patriots, the pass rush staying in their lanes and containing the edge is going to be vital. As a passer, Allen has been mediocre. His season high for completions is 18 and his season completion rate is just 52.2%. He has nine interceptions and just six touchdown passes. Forcing him to stay in the pocket and throw the ball is probably the best available outcome for the New England defense.
Trey Flowers has been the only edge rusher with a semblance of discipline on the outside. Deatrich Wise and John Simon have lost containment multiple times on their pass rush and weakened the defense against mobile quarterbacks. Adrian Clayborn has been a situational rusher all season–the Patriots are paying a premium for the veteran and he needs to be playing more than 30% of the snaps each week. The Patriots should unleash the veteran this week on early downs as well.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against Buffalo’s offense this week:
SLOW THE RUN:
The Patriots’ defense has been anemic against the run the past three weeks: last week the Steelers gained 158 yards on 25 carries, the Dolphins gashed the Patriots for 189 yards on just 21 carries, and the Vikings started the carnage with 95 yards on just 13 carries. While the Patriots played a lot of dime and nickel against the VIkings and Steelers, the Dolphins did their damage against the base defense that is going to be expected to stop the Bills.
Veterans Lesean McCoy and Chris Ivory both missed the Bills’ win over the Lions last week, but back-ups Keith Ford and Marcus Murphy picked-up the slack as Detroit game-planned to stop Josh Allen on the ground. With McCoy and Ivory healthy at last, the pair will be looking to pad to their 2018 stats against a struggling New England rush defense.
It will be interesting to see if Danny Shelton is back on the field. A run-stuffer in college, the top ten draft pick was a disappointment in Cleveland and struggled in New England before being benched the past three weeks. The Patriots need to use that same discipline to set the edge in the passing game in the running game if they hope to clinch the AFC East this week.
The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: keep Josh Allen from hurting them with his legs. In addition, the Bills will test the Patriots’ weak rushing defense early and often. If the offense can get them a lead, the Patriots have a chance to make the Bills have to throw the ball.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01