NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England takes the field Sunday in Buffalo faced with the possibility of losing their third straight game and falling to 1-3 on the season. The Patriots lost their first meeting with the Bills last year, and they will have to avoid a repeat of that performance in order to avoid being left behind in a tight AFC East race.
The Patriots will likely be without a number of their major contributors on Sunday and will be forced to rely on key reserves in order to reach .500 on the season. Below are ten keys to the Patriots’ first matchup against the Buffalo Bills.
1. Who will miss the game, and how will the Patriots account for their inactive players?
As expected, tight end Aaron Hernandez will miss week four with an ankle injury; New England lacks an athletic reserve tight end to assume Hernandez’s role, so Michael Hoomanawanui should continue to take the field when New England uses two tight ends. He played 18 snaps last week against Baltimore and could assume an even larger role considering the strength of Buffalo’s defensive line. Wide receiver Julian Edelman has also been ruled out for the week with a hand injury; Deion Branch, who took 44 snaps in week three, will assume the third wide receiver role. New England also suffered a major loss when it was revealed that Logan Mankins will not play this week; he will likely be replaced at left guard by Donald Thomas, who has been on the field for 100 snaps this season and looked effective. Running back Shane Vereen will be active for the first time this season, but other questionable players include offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back), offensive guard Nick McDonald (shoulder), defensive tackle Kyle Love (knee), defensive ends Brandon Deaderick (ankle) and Justin Francis (ankle), and cornerbacks Sterling Moore (knee) and Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring.) Many of those players should be inactive (Francis, Deaderick, and Dennard have already been ruled out for the game), so depth in the trenches and at cornerback could become an issue. Luckily, tight end Rob Gronkowski (hip) will play. The other two major names on the list are Vollmer and Love, whose absences would significantly increase the possibility of Buffalo winning the game.
2. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels must significantly improve his playcalling
Josh McDaniels’ playcalling thus far has left a lot to be desired. It often appears that McDaniels attempts to surprise opposing defenses by calling counterintuitive plays – Danny Woodhead’s failed toss attempt on third and long being the most major example – or to maintain a particular pass/run ratio which prevents the offense from sustaining drives. New England’s propensity for calling draw plays in what appear obvious passing situations has infuriated the fan base. Perhaps even more alarming, New England’s offense has largely failed to get the ball into the hands of their most dangerous offensive weapon: Rob Gronkowski. He was thrown 15 passes over the first two games of the season and responded with two touchdowns and 135 yards through the air, but targeted just three times in last week’s contest, blocking on 49 snaps compared to running 34 routes. By comparison, Deion Branch was also targeted three times, Kellen Winslow twice, Michael Hoomanawanui was thrown to once, and Danny Woodhead either ran the ball or was thrown to on 17 occasions. McDaniels and the Patriots must devise ways to get the ball into the hands of their top playmakers in order to succeed.
3. How will New England divide their workload in the running game on Sunday?
Shane Vereen (foot) was listed as questionable again this week, and while he is active for the first time this season, it appears unlikely that he will make a significant impact against the Bills. The majority of New England’s carries should again be divided between Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead, with Vereen and rookie Brandon Bolden possibly getting a few touches as well. Last week, Danny Woodhead played a surprisingly substantial role – he was on the field for 52 snaps compared to 26 for Ridley and five for Bolden – and Woodhead’s performance on the ground left a lot to be desired; he rushed for just 34 yards on 15 attempts and is averaging 2.5 yards per carry on the season. Josh McDaniels surprisingly continued to give the ball to Woodhead, including a number of draw plays which were consistently ineffective. Hopefully the Patriots turn to Stevan Ridley for the vast majority of the carries on Sunday, as he is averaging 4.5 yards per carry to this point and is a much more physical running back than Woodhead; being overshadowed by Woodhead once again in New England’s gameplan would be inexcusable. Brandon Bolden will likely have a role on special teams – he participated on all four special teams units last week – but he has received just seven carries this season and may only get the ball on the goal line or during a blowout.
4. Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker must consistently win their one-on-one matchups
Receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker figure to provide New England with their biggest matchup advantage on the offensive side of the ball. Lloyd’s production has escalated each week this season, and he made nine catches for 108 yards in a difficult matchup against the Baltimore Ravens last week. The same can be said for Wes Welker, New England’s franchise player, who caught just three passes for 14 yards in the Patriots’ season opener but who has 237 receiving yards over the past two games combined. New England may not be able to challenge deep down the field this week – Bills safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson form one of the most underrated safety tandems on the league – but Buffalo’s cornerbacks have struggled in coverage through three weeks. Rookie right cornerback Stephon Gilmore has allowed 228 yards and two touchdowns on 20 attempts, while left cornerback Aaron Williams has performed slightly better but still allowed two touchdowns of his own on the season, with a 104.7 quarterback rating against. Both Lloyd and Welker should be heavily featured in New England’s gameplan as the Patriots look to test Buffalo’s inexperienced starting cornerbacks.
5. How heavily will Rob Gronkowski be integrated into New England’s offensive gameplan?
After last week’s loss to Baltimore, Tom Brady suggested that he would have liked to get Rob Gronkowski more involved in the offense, but Gronkowski’s recent hip injury may limit his effectiveness against Buffalo this week. Gronkowski will likely be kept in to block on a fair amount of his snaps, but it will also be important to challenge Buffalo’s linebackers and safeties with New England’s most dangerous weapon. Otherwise, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker could see increased attention and force the Patriots to focus on running the ball and targeting the depth of their team, such as wide receiver Deion Branch and tight end Michael Hoomananwanui. Regardless, it’s reasonable to expect Gronkowski to improve on his week three production, especially because the Patriots will be without not only “F” tight end Aaron Hernandez but also third wide receiver Julian Edelman, which should limit the three-wide receiver sets to some extent. Gronkowski also figures to be the Patriots’ primary target in the red zone. It’s possible that New England will return to the Ace personnel grouping (1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE) in order to allow Gronkowski to contribute as a receiver, while second tight end Michael Hoomananwanui stays in as an added blocker.