ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It looked fairly simple. And in many ways it was.
The Patriots' defense was on its heels in the early going Sunday, as the Bills took the opening kickoff and methodically moved 66 yards in 12 plays to New England's 6-yard line, where Buffalo had first and goal.
Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor dropped back to pass, held the ball, and then threw a floater to Patriots end Eric Lee, who has been on the team for all of two weeks, for an interception.
End of the drive. Start of the march to a 23-3 victory for the Patriots.
"It's really just a base call for us," said Devin McCourty.
Sounds easy enough. A lot more went into that play than just a mental mistake by Taylor.
And it started in practice this week.
"Executed it in practice: I had two interceptions," said Lee, with a smile on his face. "It’s one of those things where you envision it for yourself and execute it during practice, and you might have the chance to get one in the game. It was part of the preparation process and having the opportunity to get the ball thrown to me."
But, as anything in football, the play was about team execution.
Let's start with the scheme.
The Patriots came out and lined up in man-to-man coverage, which was indicated to Taylor when Elandon Roberts went wide to the offense's right with running back LeSean McCoy when he went in motion. The Bills also had stacked receivers on the right side of the formation with tight end Charles Clay lined up behind receiver Zay Jones. Stephon Gilmore had Jones, and Patrick Chung was matched up with Clay in coverage.
Some key points on the play:
- Taylor makes his initial read off the safety, which is Devin McCourty, who starts off on the left side of the field. But after the snap, he quickly moves to the middle.
- Gilmore actually is more of a key to the play than it initially appeared.
- After figuring out where the safety is, Taylor is looking at two post patterns, then an in cut as his reads.
- No. 1 is Jones, but Gilmore does a great job of engaging Jones at the line of scrimmage.
- No. 2 is Clay, who should be open because Jones is supposed to run interference (pick or rub) against his defender (Chung). Only, Gilmore's coverage is so good due to his inside leverage and he's so physical against the rookie that Gilmore carries Jones away from Chung, who is freed up to undercut Clay.
- Finally, the third option is for McCoy to be open, because Jones and Clay should have carried the defenders with him.
- That's where Lee comes in. After showing five rushers on the line, both ends (Lee and right end Marquis Flowers) drop into hook zones — after taking an initial step at the quarterback — and read the quarterback's eyes. This was a Rob Ninkovich special.
- Finally, nose tackle Alan Branch applied just the right amount of pressure to alter Taylor's throw. One of three rushers on the play, Branch initially uses a long-arm technique against center Eric Wood with his left arm, and then uses his right to knock down Woods' left hand. This allows Branch to get into Woods' chest, and Branch is able to walk Woods back into Taylor. As Taylor releases the ball, Wood hits Taylor, thanks to Branch.
"Knocked the center into him, I think," said Branch. "I just tried to hit him with some power and then go from there. It worked. I didn’t get the sack, but I’ll take the pick any day. I think his own player ran into when he was trying to block me."
It's one thing to practice the play, but it's another to get a big play off it. In fact, Taylor had already seen the same call earlier in the drive: the Patriots ran it four plays earlier on second-and-10 from the New England 27. The result that time? A 10-yard pass to Clay. The difference was Taylor felt no pressure, rolled to his left and found Clay along the sidelines.
This time, the Patriots put it all together at the same time, and the result was a simple-looking but ultimately complex play, which turned out to loom large as the game went on.
"That’s huge," Chung said. "No points, we get the ball back. It starts to roll after that. It was probably one of the biggest plays to get us going."
Lee, who had a sack in his debut last week, added another 1.5 sacks and a batted pass in addition to his interception.
Not bad for a guy who was undrafted last year out of South Florida and spent time on the Texans and Bills practice squads before landing with the Patriots.
"I think he’s just been able to pick everything up, which helps the most," McCourty said of Lee's performance. "Then he just goes out and plays. He plays extremely hard but it’s weird. Since he’s gotten here, it’s like he’s been here. Obviously coming from Houston and coming to a defense where things don’t sound foreign to you, it allows you to just play. He's been huge for us when we've needed it."