By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots are returning to action this Sunday at home against the Buffalo Bills after the bye week and the long trip to London. The Patriots return at 5-3 in first place in the AFC East a game ahead of the Miami Dolphins and two games ahead of the Bills and Jets.
The Patriots offense is number one in the league in terms of points and yardage while the defense remains a question mark being 24th in yardage allowed and 10th in points allowed at the half way point.
Buffalo entered this season with sky high hopes of making the playoffs and perhaps unseating the Patriots as the division champions behind a rebuilt defense and better offensive play. But it hasn’t happened, the Bills rank as one of the worst defenses in the league and their defensive line, supposed to be a position of strength has struggled in both rushing the quarterback and stopping the run.
So while the teams get ready to hook up in Foxboro for the 106th time, let’s take a look at the matchups:
Patriots Running Game-
This should be an area where the Patriots have a huge advantage, they are running the ball for just under 150 yards per game behind Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen. Brandon Bolden is out with a knee injury and his availability is unknown for this one. By mixing in four running backs that have different sizes and skill sets, it keeps their opponents off-balance and legs fresh.
Buffalo has been gashed horribly by the run giving up 169.5 yards per game and a whopping 5.7 yards per rush. In the first matchup in Buffalo, the Patriots took advantage of the Bills lighter sub-packages trying to limit Tom Brady and the Pats passing game and gashed their defense for nearly 250 yards.
Looking for the Patriots to try and run at the right side of the Bills defense, normally the Patriots like to run left, but with Mario Williams ailing with a bad wrist and Marcell Dareus underperforming, they will use Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly on the offense to run at those two.
Kyle Williams has played very well, especially against the run this year, but with Mark Anderson hurt and likely out for this game, it will make the Bills even thinner on defense. But one thing in their favor was the improved second half run defense against the Texans. After a rough first half, the Bills defense was much better after intermission.
Bills Running Game-
The Bills feature a pair of talented running backs in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller and a big, talented, deep offensive line, Spiller and Jackson complement each other perfectly. Spiller is averaging an outstanding 7.2 yards per carry and Patriots fans know how Jackson has hurt them in the past but the Bills coaches pulled a head scratcher last week against Houston by giving Spiller only six carries in the close loss.
Another head scratcher was the Bills pass to run ratio which was 38-16 that in a close game takes away two of their biggest weapons. Look for that to change this week, with their defense banged up, look for Buffalo to try and establish the run behind the big OL and set up the play-action pass. Even with RT Erik Pears on IR, this is a very good group.
The Patriots much maligned defense has been very good in one area and that has been in defending the run this year. The defensive line has stood up and allowed a group of big, physical linebackers to clean up and make plays.
A good matchup to watch is Bills C Eric Wood against DT Vince Wilfork in the middle. If Wilfork can hold his ground, it allows MLB Brandon Spikes to play downhill where he is a devastating run-stuffer and a big hitter in the middle. The Patriots allow only 3.5 yards per rush and have been excellent against the rush most of the season allowing only 88.6 yards per game.
Patriots Passing Game-
Tom Brady has enjoyed unprecedented success against the Bills defense, especially in Foxboro and during the first game back in September was no exception. The Bills pass rush woes have continued this season and when Brady gets good protection the results are generally very good for the Patriots.
The Bills defense is banged up right now and with Terrence McGee was placed on IR, Aaron Williams not expected to play as is DE Mark Anderson. Mario Williams had surgery on his ailing wrist and still isn’t close to 100 percent, things aren’t looking good for the Bills defense.
Rookie CB Stephon Gillmore who is going to be a major player in the league and he did a great job of shutting down Brandon Lloyd in the first game, but the Patriots have a plethora of weapons at their disposal and on a good day the Bills have trouble matching up. Now with so many injuries, the Bills biggest weakness is down the middle with their safeties and the linebackers in coverage. Look for Brady to attack the middle with Gronkowski and Welker again with play action.
Bills Passing Game-
Ryan Fitzpatrick can be very, very good or at times make horrible decisions with the ball and attempt to force passes where they should never go. He’s passed for a lot of yards against the New England defense but he’s also thrown for a lot of interceptions.
Buffalo has weapons for him to work with, Stevie Johnson (banged up with a thigh contusion), Donald Jones and TE Scott Chandler have been effective at times out of the spread formation. Add in Jackson and Spiller, a talented offensive line that doesn’t give up sacks and one has to scratch their head as to why they aren’t more effective.
With RT Erik Pears out, it shouldn’t affect the pass protection much as they are deep at the offensive line. The Patriots struggles on the back end are much documented and deserved, but it is not just the secondary, the linebackers struggle in coverage and the pass rush is very inconsistent.
Buffalo, like New England will attempt to attack the middle of the field and then dump off passes in the flat to get the Patriots caught out of position. Fitzpatrick will get his yards, the key will be limiting the turnovers, for the Patriots, its forcing the turnovers and making Fitzpatrick feel the compulsion to score on every drive.
The Bills STs units remain one of the best, as they always are. Rookie P Shawn Powell and K Rian Lindell are excellent, and that isn’t easy kicking in the swirling winds of Buffalo. The Bills coverage units are solid and their return game is outstanding. Leodis McKelvin averages nearly 30 yards per kick return and nearly 20 per punt return.
McKelvin’s punt return average is nearly that of the Patriots kick return units. This is a big key here, the Pats need to limit his returns and that means kicking it out of the end zone.
The Patriots kicking game has stabilized and is very steady with Zoltan Mesko and Stephen Gostkowski and will be needed to take away a very big Bills advantage in the kicking game. The Patriots coverage units have been fairly consistent this season and have done a great job but the return game remains a big position of weakness. Other than a fluke return against the Jets, the units haven’t done a great job this season.
The Patriots under Bill Belichick are 22-3 against Buffalo, and Tom Brady in NE against the Bills defense has been similarly outstanding. The Patriots are coming off of a bye week and while not 100 percent healthy are rested and have had two weeks to prepare for this game.
The last two games the Patriots have faced Buffalo they’ve scored 101 points. While dropping another 50 is not realistic, it isn’t fantasy to assume they will have plenty of success on offense. With Buffalo a disappointing 3-5, they have to be feeling the heat and can’t afford to drop to 3-6 and 0-3 in the division.
This one should have some interesting matchups as the Bills are coming in a tad desperate as they can ill afford another loss at this juncture of the season if they want a shot at the playoffs. So I expect the Bills to throw the kitchen sink at the Patriots.
Look for trick plays, Wildcat passes, reverses on kicks or punts, selling out with blitzes…etc. They’ll empty out the playbook here.
I think Buffalo’s game plan is to get Jackson and Spiller more involved. But if they try to establish the run to pass, it’s an invitation to lose. For the Bills, they need to pass early and set up short runs to keep the Patriots defense off-balance. If there is one aspect of NE’s defense that is solid, it’s the run defense. Trying to establish the run first won’t work.
For New England, it is staying patient and running the ball right at the Bills suspect run defense, once they start to get into a rhythm, the play-action pass down the middle will be there just as it has before.
The Patriots need to take away the run and get up early and force the game into Fitzpatrick’s hands. That sounds strange considering their struggles in the secondary, but it also means the chances for turnovers increase substantially.
In the end, the Patriots and Tom Brady have far too many weapons for the Bills to cover. Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski will again have big games. Fitzpatrick and the Bills will get their yards and score some points but it won’t be enough. The Pats will hold service at home. Patriots 38-24