Phil Perry

Patriots-Bills Report Card: Defense continues stellar play in defeat

Another one-score loss brings another mixed bag of position grades.

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If you're looking for silver linings about the 2023 Patriots, start here: Their defense is legit.

Despite season-ending injuries to Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez and the midseason departure of Jack Jones, New England ranks sixth in the NFL in yards allowed and 17th in points allowed -- a mark that would be much higher if not for the five defensive touchdowns scored against the offense this season.

One of those five defensive TDs came Sunday in Buffalo, however, and was a reminder of the Patriots' inability to play complementary football on a consistent basis.

That inability once again is reflected in our Week 17 Report Card after a 27-21 loss to the Bills that drops the Patriots to 4-12 on the season.

Let's get to the grades...

Quarterback: C

It wasn't as bad as the stat line suggested. Bailey Zappe's third interception -- a pick-six by Rasul Douglas -- was on receiver Jalen Reagor for not understanding he needed to convert his route against a well-timed Bills blitz.

But Zappe's first throw of the game was asking for trouble. He fired into tight coverage with multiple bodies swarming Mike Gesicki, the ball was deflected and picked.

His second interception came on a questionable decision in an RPO situation. He had what looked like a nice gain to his right on a screen, but instead he looked right and whipped back to his left and threw to DeVante Parker on a slant. Douglas was there -- perhaps jumping the route expecting a backside slant with four Patriots pass-catchers to the opposite side of the formation -- for the easy pick.

Bill O'Brien was, let's just say, animated after that one on the sidelines.

The turnovers were back-breaking. But the reason this grade isn't lower is because outside of those picks and one other overthrow into the flat, Zappe was effective with his downfield accuracy and his ability to elude a rush and extend plays.

He threw accurate passes on deep overs to DeMario Douglas (one of which was dropped), and he dropped a dime down the field into Reagor's breadbasket for 39 yards. His 17-yard scramble for a touchdown and his avoidance of a would-be safety directly contributed to points on (and off) the board. He also threw a strike on a third-and-nine play that went for 14 yards up the sideline when he avoided pressure and found Gesicki late in the down.

Running back: C

Good and bad here as well. Let's start with some of the miscues, which included what looked like a missed blitz pickup by Ezekiel Elliott in the first quarter on a third down that helped lead to an incompletion. There appeared to be multiple tough blocking assignments for Elliott in this one.

Kevin Harris had what seemed like a hard-to-handle pass-protection ask that led to a third-quarter sack. Harris also had what appeared to be a fumble early in the second quarter that was overturned on review.

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To the good? Harris' 48-yard catch-and-run was thanks in part to him using his blocks well. Elliott reeled in a one-handed catch in the flat for six yards and then on a third-and-one play picked up six more yards after making a defender miss in the backfield.

Elliott's six-yard touchdown run later was a result of some hard-charging running (and a block that we'll get to).

Wide receiver: C-

Hard to go much higher than this when the pick-six that ended up being the difference in the game came as a result of Reagor missing a route adjustment.

When Reagor saw the Bills bring a safety to blitz off the weak side of the formation -- not far from his alignment along the boundary -- he should have cut his route short as part of Zappe's "hot" option. Instead, he ran his fade down the sideline and allowed for Rasul Douglas to make a game-changing play.

Parker deserves some portion of responsibility on his shoulders for the slant attempt in his direction that was picked; that didn't look like the crispest of routes there. And Pop Douglas had a drop.

But there were plus plays here worth acknowledging. Reagor's over-the-shoulder adjustment on his 39-yard snag was impressive. As was Douglas' 15-yard sliding reception over the middle late in the second quarter. Ditto for his catch-and-run screen that went for 17 yards and helped set up the team's second offensive touchdown of the day.

Maybe the grittiest play of the day from this unit? Tyquan Thornton's leg-churning block on Elliott's touchdown run that helped Elliott push through contact. Nice work from a player who's not necessarily considered to be a muscled-up enforcer in the running game.

Tight end: D

Pharaoh Brown's fumble in the first quarter made the opening to this game a laugher. Seven plays into the matchup, the Patriots offense already had somehow racked up three turnovers.

Brown did make a pair of nice blocks -- including an eye-opening pancake -- on a third-down end around to Pop Douglas, but those weren't enough to make this grade any better than it is.

Offensive line: C-

The Patriots averaged 4.3 yards per carry against a Bills front that has had trouble defending the run all year. Credit this unit in particular for a 15-yard Harris run to finish the first quarter where it imposed its will at the point of attack. There were a number of stuffed runs here, though, that hurt this grade. They racked up nine rushing attempts of two yards or fewer Sunday.

In the passing game, there were plenty of hiccups. Atonio Mafi looked like he was on the scene for one sack when he passed a defensive line stunt off to no one. Vederian Lowe, in for Trent Brown at left tackle, allowed a hit on a Zappe completion. 

This group gets credit for the blocks it executed on Harris' 48-yard catch-and-run play. And one of the three sacks allowed -- against a top-five team in the NFL when it comes to sacks in Buffalo -- looked like it might've fallen on Elliott to pick up on a delayed blitz.

But Zappe was consistently under pressure (20 total on 31 dropbacks) and at times was able to avoid it thanks to his awareness and pocket movement. 

Special teams: B+

The Reagor kickoff return touchdown was a thing of beauty. Matthew Slater figured prominently, no surprise, for his initial block. Jahlani Tavai also picked up a critical block. Josh Uche and Adrian Phillips executed a perfect double-team to really spring Reagor, and then he finished the run through contact for six.

The possibility for one of these is why they continue to try returns when the ball is fielded near the goal line. (A new rule this year would've allowed fair catches inside the 25-yard line to give the receiving team the football at their 25.)

A Chad Ryland missed kick hurt this grade, as did another Ryland miss which was wiped from the board because of ... a delay-of-game penalty on the field-goal unit. Sloppy. 

Defensive line: A-

The Patriots continue to get stellar play from their defensive front. Happens on a weekly basis at this point. Aside from them allowing Josh Allen open running lanes in the first quarter -- one for 19 yards on the second Bills play of the game and one for seven yards on the second Bills drive -- there wasn't much negative to be found here.

Otherwise? Deatrich Wise got the party started with a strip sack that resulted in a loss of 15. Keion White had two quarterback hits and another hurry. Christian Barmore had a couple of hurries and a run-stuff. As a unit, this group allowed just 3.4 yards per carry. 

Linebacker: A

As good as the defensive line was, this unit was even better, and it helped drive a defensive performance that allowed just one true touchdown drive.

Anfernee Jennings, who was a game-time decision due to a knee injury, had a whopping five run-stuffs. Ja'Whaun Bentley had a hurry and an extremely impressive run-stuff on third down late in the game.

Jahlani Tavai picked up a big late-game tackle for loss on a screen. It was as though all who played here contributed in a positive fashion. Josh Uche had a pressure, and Mack Wilson had a quarterback hit.

Secondary: A-

Kyle Dugger got caught trailing Dalton Kincaid for a 51-yarder on the lone legitimate scoring drive for Buffalo, but it's hard to ding him too much on this grade. He played sick and ended up with a quarterback hit, a forced fumble as well as a pass breakup.

Jalen Mills' personal foul penalty didn't help things here, either, but he did contribute to a tackle for loss in the third quarter.

Alex Austin was the star of the unit, picking off Allen when he saw a "Peel" (post-wheel) combination headed his way and reacted quickly. He also wiped out a screen on his own, again flashing good instincts. Mix in a Jonathan Jones pass breakup and you get a grade sniffing a straight "A."

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