Commentary

Defensive wrinkle helps Pats beat Bills

Updated: December 21, 2009, 9:42 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It might be looked at by some as a stroke of brilliant coaching, but Bill Belichick admitted that the defensive curveball the Patriots threw at the Bills Sunday was more a result of circumstances.

The Patriots didn't have enough defensive linemen, their ranks depleted with Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Myron Pryor sidelined with injuries. So they put together a sub package that included only defensive backs and linebackers, and stood the linebackers up at the line of scrimmage in an attempt to confuse a weak, pieced-together-at-the-last-minute Bills offensive line.

The results were impressive.

In all, the Patriots were in the defense that linebacker Adalius Thomas called "organized chaos" 18 times against the Bills, and some of the key plays included:

• A forced timeout called by the Bills, followed by a crucial third-down stop on a clock-churning opening drive.

• A Derrick Burgess first-quarter sack, the team's first of six quarterback takedowns.

Jonathan Wilhite's second-quarter interception.

• A Tully Banta-Cain fourth-quarter sack, which knocked Trent Edwards out of the game.

For a defense that had produced 22 sacks through 13 games, "organized chaos" injected life into an anemic pass rush and helped limit the Bills to a 2-of-12 success rate on third down. Part of that was due to the Bills' own ineptitude and the fact that they were often in third-and-long situations. The other part was the fact that the Patriots were screaming off the ball.

"When they do that, they're trying to cause confusion," said Bills right guard Richie Incognito, who was claimed on waivers Wednesday and immediately inserted into the starting lineup, which reflected the dire state of the Bills' line. "It's definitely a unique thing. It doesn't necessarily tie your hands as an offense, but there are only so many things you can do against it.

"That's a big challenge for an offensive line to get everyone on the same page, and then you also need the backs and tight ends. If one guy has a mental error, you have one guy smoking up the field. That's what they were trying to do, cause mental errors, and you really have to pull the reins back in how creative you get in trying to pick it up."

Incognito, in his fifth NFL season, said he only saw the "walk-around" package once before -- last season when he was with the Rams and they traveled to New England.

Patriots Defensive Wrinkle

The Patriots employed a defensive formation that did not include any defensive linemen on certain passing situations. It was particularly effective on third down.

Patriots Defense Without Defensive Linemen
1st and 2nd Down 3rd Down
Comp-att 6-7 3-7
Pass Yards 57 22
TD-Int 1-0 0-1
Sacks 0 2
Passer rtg 140.2 11.3

"Some teams try to do a variation of it, but no one does it like the Patriots," he said. "The whole front is fluid, the whole front is moving. With other teams, you might see two or three guys floating, but you won't see a whole floating front. It's definitely tough to protect against."

The Patriots don't use it often, springing it on opponents from time to time. Belichick reflected back to the 2003 season, when he used a similar defense against the Bills when Drew Bledsoe was Buffalo's quarterback.

On Sunday, the package included linebackers Burgess, Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton for the majority of the time. The defensive backs were Wilhite, Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather and Brandon McGowan.

"The first time we came out with it, they didn't know where to go," Ninkovich said. "When you have more fast guys, you're able to run and confuse the offensive line. Am I rushing or dropping? Where are we all going? It's something to change things up."

Belichick said the overall plan -- to play the base 3-4 alignment on early downs and then "organized chaos" on passing situations -- helped simplify things. The defensive linemen focused on the run, the linebackers on the pass rush. A crucial adjustment against the run -- which came after the Bills chewed up big chunks of yardage on their opening drive -- helped set the stage for the pass-rush explosion.

Belichick estimated the Patriots might have blitzed more on third down than they have in previous games.

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was often feeling the heat.

"On third down, their thing was going to be 'let's make this line communicate as much as possible -- let's put some pressure on them and see how they're going to react to it,'" Fitzpatrick said.

They didn't react well. Thomas seemed to put it best when he described the success of "organized chaos."

"I didn't really know what we were doing," he said. "So I figured they didn't know."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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