We hear players and coaches use the phrase “we need to control our own destiny” all the time - and for good reason. There is no magic pill, or lucky charm, or heavenly power that decides who wins or who loses games in the NFL. And no……God does not hate the Bills, although it may seem like Bills fans are like the biblical character Job - being tested by the current 15 year playoff drought and four straight Superbowl losses.
It’s not always true, but the best way to determine the future is by what you do today. I will always remember what George Allen, coach of the Redskins, used to say: The future is now! He was absolutely right……..and if he were alive today, he would show you his Superbowl ring to prove it.
For the Buffalo Bills, the future could be determined on Monday night against the Patriots. Their path to the playoffs is guaranteed if they win the rest of their games. If they win more than half of their remaining games (4 out of the next 7) they will still have a good chance of being one of the two wild card teams. But, good coaches don’t let their players even think about the future. They make them focus on one game at a time and right now they have the defending Superbowl champions standing in their way of making the playoffs.
Even though Rex Ryan said “They're going to win the division. I don't see them losing four games. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see it happening” he’s not conceding that the Bills will be one of those four loses, or that they will make the same mistakes they did in the first game. He made that perfectly clear when he told reporters “…..we’re a different team in the fact that I know this team [New England] a lot better. I know who we are. I think we were kind of a little embarrassed about how things went down. We’re not that team. We want to be a team that prides themselves on playing our game and not getting caught into the other part of it. And that’s what we’ll show Monday. I think our team is going to show that, I think we’ll play a lot smarter than we are. We know we can’t beat that team by giving them the type of penalties we gave them. And that’s not what we want to be known for, anyway.”
I like the fact that Rex is not bragging about his players, or making any negative comments about New England’s players. He’s not giving the Pats any bulletin board material. He doesn’t care about the past or the future. He’s only concerned about what the Bills need to do…. now.
When Rex said "I know who we are" it reminded me of the Greek Philosopher Plato, who commonly used the expression "Know Thyself" to convey the importance of understanding exactly who you are. Good teams have an identity, and I think the Bills have decided to discard the "Bully" image and replace it with the image of a "Bull" - like the one that sits in front of the Stock Exchange on Wall Street.
The use of "bull" and "bear" to describe markets comes from the way the animals attack their opponents. A bull thrusts its horns up into the air while a bear swipes its paws down. These actions are metaphors for the movement of a market. If the trend is up, it's a bull market. If the trend is down, it's a bear market. Right now the Buffalo Bills are trending upward and they can control the market if they just keep winning.
As a former player, I always hated being in the position of hoping that other teams would lose, or win, in order for us to make the playoffs. It often distracts a team from the business at hand. I’ve seen players during the middle of games looking at the scoreboard to see the score of other games - hoping (and sometimes praying) that the football gods will come to their rescue.
The Bills coaches and players can only rescue themselves and one of the best ways they can do that is by reducing the number of penalties they are committing. They are on a record setting pace and if they want to have any chance of beating the Pats, they need to be more disciplined. Coaches often get the blame when their players are penalized, but every player knows the rules and every player must be held accountable for their own actions. Sure, a coach can bench a player that is continually penalized, but that’s not always in the best interest of the team. Remember that a second-stringer is riding the pine for a reason. Obviously, you want your best players in the game, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to send a message to the rest of the team by sending one of your best players to the corner of the bench for a little “timeout” - especially when the flag is for a personal foul. Are you listening Mr. Hughes?
As a coach, there are some things you can control and others you can’t – like injuries. The Bills have been without some of their best players in a few of the games they’ve lost, but now they are have no excuses and that’s why I like they’re chances in this game.
Here are some strategic ways for the Bills to control their own destiny in their Monday night matchup against the Patriots:
• Move Tyrod Taylor around and don’t let him sit in the pocket all night. I love the bootleg. It gives Tyrod the option of passing or running. They need to use it at least 6 times. When the Pats put a “spy” on Tyrod to try and prevent him from bootlegging - like the Jets did - the Bills should utilize the underneath “shovel pass” to counter it.
• Use the read option. Tyrod has displayed running skills that are better than Russell Wilson's. I know it puts the QB at greater risk of injury - just ask RG III – but just as long as a QB knows when to run and when to slide, he should be ok. I think Tyrod has learned that lesson.
• Get Sammy Watkins involved in the game early with quick screens and short passes. If they start to hug him tight, Tyrod should throw some deep passes to keep them honest. They could also do this in reverse. It all depends on what the Pats secondary is doing in their coverage schemes.
• The running game has been effective. LeSean McCoy is on fire, especially when he can bounce outside. Even if the Pats put “eight in the box” the Bills should stick with the ground game. It controls the clock, keeps the ball out of Brady’s hands and gives the defense some needed rest.
• Use Carlos “Danger” Williams between the tackles. He’s not as effective on outside runs, but he’s a beast up the middle. Get him the record for 7 consecutive games with a touchdown. That will quiet the crowd – which is also a key to your offense being able to hear the signal calling.
• Sacking Brady and keeping him off-balance by constantly pressuring him is what everyone will tell you is the key to beating the Pats, but you can only do that if you are willing to take chances by blitzing him. The Bills should do that on at least 40% of their plays. Sure, Brady will have more chances to throw the deep ball, but I would rather see the Bills die by the sword, then die by a thousand cuts.
• Brady threw for over 500 yards in the first game. Even so, you can count on Belichick to try and run the ball early in this game. They’re without Edelman, so they will mix in a lot more runs. If the Bills are in a blitzing mood, it could also help them stuff the run, but it will be imperative that the Bills safeties are ready to tackle Blount if he breaks through the line. There is no substitute for “sure” tackling.
• Don’t let the Pats get started with their patented “bubble screen.” They are the best team in the NFL for using this play to clip off some big yardage. On a few occasions, the Bills should designate a cornerback to immediately attack the play on the snap of the ball and disrupt it before the blockers can even get into them. If it’s not a screen, then the attacking cornerback would immediately fall back into zone coverage.
• Linebackers need to “blast” the crossing route. What does that mean? The Pats love the short crossing route. Every week they burn teams with it. When Amendola starts his route very shallow and continues across the field, the linebacker on the opposite side of the formation needs to be alerted and then put a bullseye on him and blast his ass (before the ball is thrown and within the 5 yard area). This will make him think twice before coming across the next time.
• The Pats are also the best team in the NFL for using the “pick” on passing plays – especially in the red zone. It’s illegal, but their receivers have been taught very well to act like they’re running a route, when in fact it is a designed play to get a defensive back off of coverage. It only works on man-to-man coverage. The Bills should disguise their man-to-man coverage and play a zone-type coverage on the two receivers that are using the pick play. It gets trickier when there are three receivers on the same side of the formation – but it can be done.
• Be prepared at all times for one of Belichick’s trick plays. If in doubt, call a time out!
• Stop Gronkowski from getting off the line of scrimmage without being harassed. A free release off the LOS for this guy is like letting a freight train get a full head of speed. Hard to stop once they get rolling. The best way to disrupt him is to get right in his face on the line and get hands on him to slow him up. That’s easier said than done, so whenever possible, they should try to double him - with one player under and one player over the top.
If the Bills can find a way to win this game, it would be a great first step toward the playoffs and it would give them a lot more control over their own destiny.