The predictable potshots at nose tackle Ron Brace have begun.
The rookie, a second-round draft pick back in April, saw his most extended action of the season on Sunday thanks to the injuries suffered by Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. He found himself in the middle of the action as the Bills ran all over the Patriots on their opening drive. He then drew more attention in a bad way early in the fourth quarter, getting his hands on the face mask of Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick while trying to get in on a sack.
All told, then, Brace had a terrific afternoon.
That's right: Brace had a terrific afternoon.
He had two tackles all season entering play on Sunday. He'd only been active for a handful of games -- and even when fellow rookie Myron Pryor was deactivated a week ago, the Patriots chose to activate journeyman Titus Adams rather than Brace. It was Adams, not Brace, who played the majority of the second-half snaps when Wilfork was injured.
On Sunday, though, the Patriots activated Brace and let him loose. The rookie played nose tackle on 30 of the Patriots' 60 defensive snaps, and he finished with three solo tackles. It takes a thorough look at the game tape, though, to measure the work Brace did on the interior of the Patriots' defensive line.
Let's go back to that first drive.
Brace was consistently double-teamed in the middle of the defensive line. At least two offensive linemen got a hit on him on 18 of his 30 snaps -- and on the third-and-1 run on which he got pushed back as if he was on roller skates, as the Herald's Ron Borges put it, he was triple-teamed. Not even Vince Wilfork usually holds his ground when three offensive linemen are shoving him backward.
Brace wasn't the only culprit on the defense, either, while the Bills were running the ball so relentlessly in the first quarter. Consider Fred Jackson's 12-yard on the next snap after that third-and-1:
Jarvis Green (97) had a single blocker on him and got a hand on Jackson as he went by. Guyton (59) had a single blocker on him and got most of his right arm on Jackson as he went by.
Brace (92), on the other hand, occupied two blockers and didn't give more than a yard or two of ground. He even prevented right guard Rich Incognito from getting out and blocking Jerod Mayo at the second level.
Jackson gained 12 yards on a run up the middle, but Brace did his job. Green and Guyton would be the first to tell you that one of them needed to make that tackle.
After the first drive of the game, however, the Patriots' defense got tougher -- and the Bills started making mistakes. Penalties put the Bills in passing situations, and Fitzpatrick couldn't move the ball. The Bills drove the ball 74 yards on their first drive before a false start penalty set them back, but they didn't drive more than 43 yards on any drive the rest of the game.
When penalties didn't drive the Bills backwards, sacks did -- and Brace had more to do with those than the stat sheet will give him credit for. On the Bills' very next drive, in fact, Brace got a key assist on the Patriots' first sack of the game:
A quick synopsis of the play:
1. Three of the Patriots' four linebackers dropped into coverage.
2. The Bills' fullback ran a route as a pass receiver and thus was not a factor in the blocking scheme.
3. Green got double-teamed by the left tackle and left guard.
4. Brace initially got double-teamed by the center and right guard.
5. Adalius Thomas got blocked by running back Marshawn Lynch.
6. The right tackle got a hand on Wright -- but he actually seemed to let Wright through so he can go get get a chip on Brace.
Brace, therefore, actually occupied three blockers in the middle of the Bills' offensive line while Wright tore through and tackles quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Wright got credit for the sack, but it wouldn't have happened without Brace.
Tully Banta-Cain picked up a sack on a similar play midway through the fourth quarter:
1. The right tackle and right guard double-teamed Wright (99).
2. The center and left guard double-teamed Brace (92).
3. Green, matched up against the left tackle, collapsed the pocket.
4. All Banta-Cain (95) had to do to get to Fitzpatrick was to get past running back Fred Jackson (22) -- and he steamrolled him. Fitzpatrick never had a chance.
(Check out the play yourself at the 20-second mark of this clip.)
Had Brace not occupied the left guard, the entire protection would have changed. The left guard might have been able to help on Green, and that might have allowed the left tackle to stick an arm out and slow down Banta-Cain. Brace occupying two blockers in the middle, though, and the entire left half of the Bills' protection collapsed.
Two of the Patriots' six sacks on Sunday came thanks to the "organized chaos" front Bill Belichick employed in long-yardage situations. Each of the other four came, in large part, thanks to the work Brace did in the middle of the line.
On the final sack of the game, Brace even ran a stunt -- he looped behind the defensive end to his right -- and tucked in behind Banta-Cain on his way to the quarterback. The right guard, center and left guard all got their hands on Brace on his way around, and that means there was only one set of hands on Banta-Cain as the Patriots' best pass-rusher recorded his second sack of the game.