By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots travel to Buffalo on Sunday to take on the Bills in a divisional game matchup. The Pats come in at 1-2 and in the unfamiliar position of being behind Buffalo 2-1 in the standings.
New England lost on a last second field goal to Baltimore after a loss where they missed a last second field goal the week before against Arizona. Buffalo started strong but stumbled a bit in the second half in beating the Browns last week.
Divisional matchups always bring out the intensity and this one is never short on that. Buffalo came back from a big deficit last season to beat the Patriots on a late field goal in Buffalo 34-31 last year as Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick had huge games. They also intercepted Tom Brady four times in the win.
This one should be an intense, hard-fought game, so ….on to the matchups.
Patriots Running Game-
The Patriots under Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels have shown a bigger reliance on the running game in the quest to remain balanced. On Week 1 it worked to a tee with the team rushing for 162 yards, against Arizona they were less successful. Then against the Ravens; they only averaged 2.3 yards per carry. That number needs to improve.
The problem is, the Bills are much improved over that sieve team that could be run upon at will. With tackles Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus, the Bills have turned the corner with their run defense. They held Cleveland’s Trent Richardson to just 27 yards on 12 carries last week.
Bills MLB Kelvin Sheppard has been a big playmaker in the middle of the field. With this one, the Patriots are going to have to mix things up a bit and try to take advantage of the aggressiveness of the DEs Mario Williams and Mark Anderson and try to get Stevan Ridley into the second level of the defense.
While they are much improved in the run defense this is one area the Patriots can, if they game plan this right can turn this into a big advantage. If they run the football well it makes the passing game that much more effective.
Bills Running Game-
The Bills started the season with Fred Jackson as their starting running back, but he hurt his knee in the opener, so C.J. Spiller took over and through two weeks, led the NFL in rushing until he too went down with a shoulder injury. So Buffalo turns to Tashard Choice and he gains 91 yards last week against an underrated Browns defense.
What does all of this mean? That Buffalo is very deep at the running back position and that their offensive line is playing extremely well.
Jackson has said he will return for this game and he has always given the Patriots problems, rushing 93 times for 465 yards in his career against New England. Of his 93 carries, 13 have gone for 10 yards or more.
The Patriots until last week were playing extremely well on defense against the run. With Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork in the middle and big athletic LBs Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower with Brandon Spikes at MLB, the Patriots front seven is very difficult to run against in their base defense.
But the caveat here is the sub-packages; Baltimore uses Ray Rice in the passing game much like Buffalo uses Jackson. And last week when the Patriots were in their sub-defense, the Ravens gashed them hard with the running game. I expect Buffalo to test the waters this week a lot doing the exact same thing until the Patriots can stop them.
The big matchup here is the center of the Bills offensive line, which is excellent with C Eric Wood, LG Andy Levitre and RG Kriag Urbik. They will be trying to push Love and Wilfork back and get to Spikes at the second level. This will be a second big test in a row for the Patriots front seven.
Patriots Passing Game-
Tom Brady has been a thorn in the side of Buffalo since he took over the Patriots starting QB role in 2001. With that in mind, the changes the Bills made on their defensive front were done with Brady in mind.
The Bills brought in both Williams and Anderson to mainly play against Brady, to help a pass rush that last season was pretty much non-existent. After a slow start, the Bills pass rush is being to get better. Buffalo has gone to the 4-3 defense with more speed to the edge and big bodies in the middle to anchor against the run.
Buffalo has three good corners in Aaron Williams, rookie Stephon Gilmore and Terrence McGee (slot), this group is in the top four group of CBs having played press coverage this season. Their philosophy is to put pressure on the QB and have the CBs take away the underneath routes and force the QB into making mistakes. It worked well on Sunday with four sacks against the Browns.
Brady has had his share of troubles with defenses by Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt in the past. And with Buffalo targeting what the Patriots do best, Brady will have to adjust. Brandon Lloyd has started getting much more comfortable in his timing with Brady and he may be the guy to open things up this week.
Now that Wes Welker has once again become part of the plan on offense he and Lloyd will look to break the man coverage and get to the second level. Gilmore has been susceptible to the double moves and pump fakes (not uncommon for a rookie CB) so look for them to test the water there. The key is the protection for Brady.
Baltimore was blitzing a lot and the result was to force the Patriots to keep TE Rob Gronkowski in to block much more than normal. The key for the Patriots here is to get the Gronk back into the passing game much more this week. Now that Kelvin Winslow has had some extra time to learn the offense, I would expect him to see some quality snaps this week.
Brady was very sharp last week; it’s easy to overlook what a good game he had because of the loss. But Baltimore’s defense is among the best and he moved the team very well against them. The offense has changed this year, I expect it to get better every week, it will be interesting to see how they perform this week against Buffalo.
Bills Passing Game-
Ryan Fitzpatrick had a nightmare first game against the Jets throwing three picks, since then he’s thrown 5 touchdowns with zero interceptions. He’s spread the ball around nicely and with Fred Jackson coming back this week, it will help even more.
Buffalo saw what Baltimore did last week by testing the waters deep early and often against the Patriots and expect them to do the same with Stevie Johnson and David Nelson against Kyle Arrington who had a very poor game last week and Devin McCourty who played well but had a very tough 4th quarter.
One reason they will do so instead of their normal horizontal timing routes is the protection and lack of pass rush of the Patriots. Buffalo’s OL hasn’t allowed a sack yet this season. Cleveland was awarded one when Fitzpatrick dropped the ball but the protection he’s getting is stellar.
The Patriots got a total O-fer in Baltimore, zero sacks, zero QB hits. It is very, very hard when the QB has all day to throw. The front four has to do a better job or putting pressure on Fitzpatrick, who is streaky and can just as easily pick a defense apart as he is to implode. If the front four can’t get it done, then they have to get off the horse and send the blitz which they were loath to do last Sunday. Both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have to bring some heat this week, no QB pressure in the NFL is a recipe for disaster.
Two things to watch for, how the Bills use TE Scott Chandler and Jackson out of the backfield, Jackson absolutely torched the Pats last season with 5 catches for 87 yards and Chandler caught a wide open touchdown on the goal line last season. The passing game on both sides will determine this one.
The Bills, as always have one of the best Special Teams units in the league. Leodis McKelvin is averaging 29.7 yards per punt return and 26.3 yards per kickoff return. He’s a threat to go to the house every time and already has an 88 yard punt return for a TD so far.
The Patriots are still mired in mediocrity in the return department with Julian Edelman injured, the punt return duties will return to Wes Welker with the kickoffs remaining with Devin McCourty. However, Buffalo has allowed a punt return for a touchdown which is very unlike them, allowing 21.7 yards per punt return and nearly 25 yards per kickoff return which are very un-Bills like numbers. It may be the time to strike there because those numbers won’t last very long with their always excellent coverage units.
Both teams kicking games are excellent, Rian Lindell for Buffalo and Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots having excellent range and accuracy. Likewise both punters are excellent as well with Brian Moorman averaging 45.5 yards per punt and Zoltan Mesko booming punts for New England.
This week will be an interesting one in terms of perspective, Buffalo not New England is on top of the division now and will be looking to put distance between themselves and the Patriots, it is a position they’re not used to being in.
The Patriots suffered their second consecutive last minute loss where they had the opportunities to close out games and failed. Bill Belichick has always been excellent at rallying the team when facing adversity, and although this game will only be the quarter point in the season, it is a big game with big divisional implications.
For a young team, this is a big week to toughen their game mentally, Buffalo beat the Patriots up there last year, and with a two game swing in the balance, the stakes are high.
This one should be a very close game this week, the key here is to pressure Fitzpatrick, something the Patriots haven’t been able to do and the Bills are good at denying. Since their Week 1 loss to the Jets, Fitzpatrick has a QB Rating of 112.1. The bottom line is, if you give him time to throw and let the Bills run the ball as effectively as they have, it is a recipe for a long afternoon.
The Patriots offense has been a work in progress but they showed signs of getting their act together last week putting up 30 points on the Ravens defense. This will be a big game in seeing what kind of defense the Bills have. Bufflao’s defense is much better but the Patriots offense is not the Jets, Chiefs or Browns. It offers a distinct difference in challenges in terms of weapons at the disposal of Tom Brady.
The New England OL will have its hands full with Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams. But if there is anyone who can find the cracks in the defense its Brady, look for them to target the rookie Gilmore on the perimeter and the center of the defense with Gronkowski and Winslow.
Last week I wrote that I worried that the Ravens would target the running game against the Patriots sub-packages, and I think the Bills will attempt to do the same. The front seven will have to play much, much better this week to help out the secondary. And the coaches will have to find a way to get some pressure on the QB, otherwise Fitzpatrick will pick them apart.
This one will be close and go down to the wire again, but I think Brady will be able to find enough gaps in the defense to put up the points needed to win. The young defense will step up and make a stop at crunch time (finally). Patriots 31-24