By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y., -- On the play that started the Bills' first drive of the game, Ryan Fitzpatrick completed a 33-yard pass over the head of Patriots corner Leigh Bodden.
On the play that started the final Bills' drive of the day, Fitzpatrick completed a 29-yard pass over Patriots corner Devin McCourty. McCourty was a 2010 first-round pick and was a second-team All Pro last year. Bodden was the team's best corner in 2009 and then re-signed with the team for a fat payday before 2010. Good players.
Just not good enough. Not good enoughto lock down on the perimeter against receivers with no safety help over the top and not a whiff of a pass rush. For the third straight game, the Patriots corners -- good players -- got bludgeoned on the outside. Stevie Johnson, David Nelson and Donald Jones combined for 19 catches, 279 yards and a touchdown. Last week, the Chargers' Vincent Jackson had 10 for 172. In Week 1, Brandon Marshall led Miami with 7 catches for 139. After the training camp and preseason, it appeared the Patriots were changing to an attack-style 4-3 defense that would create some pressure on opposing quarterbacks and allow the secondary a little more time to make plays. Problem is, there have been precious few blitzes, there's been very little pressure and on the back-end, where the Patriots have gone man-to-man, they are getting abused. Bills receiver David Nelson, a 6-foot-5, 217-pound target for Fitzpatrick explained what he saw from the Patriots defense going into this game. "We saw a lot of man-to-man," he explained. "We saw alot of 1-on-1 coverage; it comes down to you beating your man. And that's something we pride ourselves on -- being able to beat man-to-man coverage and as a receiver, you have to. If you can't beat man-to-man coverage you can't play in this league."They were a solid man-to-man team the first two games," Nelson continued, and by "solid" he meant "unwavering." "They came out today and kind of changed it up which gave us some problems in the first half. But they went back to it in the second half and that's what we saw on film: An aggressive team that plays man-to-man. We knew we had to beat them at that."And they did. Because, going up against 5-foot-10 corners who are backpedaling and failing to create any disruption at the line with jams, it's a total mismatch. Mentioning this to Nelson and asking if that's why he thinks he should win that matchup, he said, "I like to think so. That's what it comes down to. You hit it right on the head. I know where I'm going. A lot of times, a lot is made up in preparation and film study (but) I know where I'm going, I know what I'm doing they have to come and stop me. That's the mindset you have to have."McCourty didn't just get beat on the long pass to Jones. He also got beat on an 11-yard end zone fade toJohnson. On both plays, he was in press coverage in the face of the receiver. On neither play did he make contact with his jam and that put him in chase mode right away. "He made a good release on me and it was just bad technique," McCourty said of the Johnson touchdown. Asked if he failed with his jams when he didn't make contact, McCourty said, "You go up there and you want to disrupt timing and down the field make the play. You're never screwed at the start of the play. It's all about the finish."That's postgame spin, though. Physics says that, if you lose a step to someone as fast or faster than you within the first 5 yards, you are in trouble as a cornerback. And McCourty basically said that later, pointing out, "In the secondary, it always comes down to technique. (Any small thing), a step the wrong way and he gets an advantage, especially at the corner position, it's all about technique."And the Patriots' technique has been awful.Last week, Bodden got called for two illegal-contact penalties because he maintained contact past 5 yards. This week, nobody seemed to make much contact. Without a pass rush -- andFitzpatrick was not hurried or flushed at all on Sunday -- it's like a 9-on-7 drill. The Bills quarterback finished 27-for-40 for 369 yards. Nelson explained that the Patriots appear to bewaiting for offenses to shoot themselves in the foot. "We knew they weren't a big blitz team," he explained. "We knew they were going to try and sit back, play man-to-man, read the run. If it wasn't run, they were gonna drop seven guys back . . . We knew we would be able to drop back and throw the football. They pride themselves on being able to drop back and make you make errors as far as penalties, dropping balls, bad decisions on routes. They pride themselves on that, making you beat yourself. They're not going to blitz you and make you make turnovers, they're going to wait for you to make mistakes."TheBills made their share. But then the Patriots did as well. And this defense isn't good enough to cover for them. And the scheme doesn't work right now. Asked about the lack of blitzes, linebacker Jerod Mayo said,"I don't make the game plans, I don't call the schemes. That's something you can ask Coach Bill Belichick and (de-facto defensive coordinator Matt Patricia). Whether it's stay back or blitz, it's up to them. We just have to get better. We'll lick our wounds and go back to work. It stings. It stings because it was in the division and we felt like we were in control of the game, we just didn't make the plays when we needed to."You can wonder what might have been different if Patrick Chung, Albert Haynesworth and Ras-I Dowling played or if Josh Barrett hadn't had his right hand in a cast. The answer is, probably the same thing that ended up happening. Because even when those players were healthy, the Patriots' pass defense looked sick. If this team wants to get where it ought to go, they need to get well soon. Tom E. Curran can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran