6. Can New England’s blockers keep Tom Brady upright against Buffalo’s elite defensive line?
With Logan Mankins already ruled out for week four, the Patriots’ starting offensive line will be under even more pressure against an elite Buffalo defensive front which includes defensive ends Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, and Chris Kelsay as well as defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Left tackle Nate Solder has played surprisingly well, allowing just one sack on the season, and he will be tasked with preventing former Patriot Mark Anderson from beating him to the edge. Sebastian Vollmer has looked good this season as well, although he will have to battle through a back injury while matching up against Buffalo’s prize free agent, Mario Williams. Defending against Dareus and Williams on the interior could be even more difficult, as New England will likely have to clear rushing lines and prevent interior pressure from two quality defensive tackles with a makeshift offensive line. Ryan Wendell looks like the long-term answer at center so far, but he must prove he can handle the size and power Buffalo brings in the middle. He will be flanked by Donald Thomas on the left and Dan Connolly on the right, who are unproven against top talent; Connolly has struggled to hold up against size and strength at the right guard spot. With time, Tom Brady can dissect Buffalo’s coverages, but whether or not he will have the opportunity to sit in the pocket is questionable.
7. Can New England’s pass rush disrupt Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ passing attack?
Through three games, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been sacked just once and is playing very well against the blitz; Fitzpatrick has thrown for 255 yards and four touchdowns on 30 attempts against five or more rushers. That means New England will likely have to rely on their front four’s ability to create pressure against a Buffalo line consisting of left tackle Cordy Glenn, left guard Andy Levitre, center Eric Wood, right guard Kraig Urbik, and right tackle Erik Pears. The Patriots’ rush was disappointing against Baltimore last week – they recorded 13 pressures but failed to sack Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco – and Flacco responded by dissecting New England’s defense, passing for 382 yards and three touchdowns on the night. A similar performance by Fitzpatrick would almost ensure a Bills victory, so should the Patriots find themselves unable to penetrate into the backfield consistently, they will have to rely on effectively disguising their zone coverages in order to confuse Fitzpatrick and force turnovers; the passer threw six interceptions over his two games against New England last season.
8. Will New England’s defensive backs be able to cover Bills star Stevie Johnson?
In stark contrast to Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty’s extremely poor start to the 2011 season, the first two games of McCourty’s 2012 campaign were extremely impressive; over two games the cornerback allowed just four completions on 11 attempts, with three passes defended. Against Baltimore last week, McCourty was not as fortunate, giving up 83 yards and a touchdown on 12 attempts while also committing pass interference on Jacoby Jones during Baltimore’s final drive, a penalty which proved devastating. McCourty’s early-season struggles last year included a poor performance against Stevie Johnson; the Bills wideout caught all four of his targets for 38 yards and a touchdown against McCourty. However, McCourty rebounded in week 17, preventing completions on both of the two passes thrown his way. Sunday’s matchup represents one of McCourty’s biggest tests; that is, if McCourty even gets the opportunity to cover Johnson. Buffalo often splits Johnson out to the left side, where he would be covered by Kyle Arrington; New England’s right cornerback has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 12/15 attempts in his direction for 168 yards and a touchdown. Arrington intercepted two passes in New England’s week three matchup against the Bills last season from the slot (Leigh Bodden was playing on the right side), but allowed Stevie Johnson to catch three passes on four attempts in week 17, including Johnson’s touchdown reception; look for the Bills to test Arrington with Johnson on Sunday.
9. Buffalo’s offensive success will be largely dependent on the health of Jackson, Spiller
Bills running back Fred Jackson enjoyed an incredible 2011 campaign; his 161 total yards on just 17 touches (including a rushing touchdown) were instrumental in Buffalo’s week three victory over New England last year. However, Jackson rushed just six times in Buffalo’s season opener before injuring his knee. Jackson is currently listed as questionable for week four but is expected to return to the field on Sunday; Bills head coach Chan Gailey revealed on Thursday that he thinks Jackson “will have the opportunity to play.” C.J. Spiller received the majority of the carries over the first two games of the season, rushing for over 100 yards in each contest and scoring three touchdowns; Spiller hurt his shoulder early in last week’s contest against the Cleveland Browns and is currently listed as questionable, but practiced on both Thursday and Friday and should play as well. The Patriots began the season with two impressive performances against the run but were victimized by Ray Rice last week to the tune of 150 total yards, including 101 on the ground; they will have to perform much better against Buffalo on Sunday in order to win.
10. Patriots will have to cover well on kick and punt returns in order to contain Leodis McKelvin
Leodis McKelvin never lived up to expectations as a fourth-round pick out of Troy in 2008, but has established himself as one of the premier return specialists in the league this season. McKelvin has averaged 26.3 yards per return on four kicks in 2012, with all four going for over 20 yards. As a punt returner, McKelvin is even more dangerous: he has returned six punts for 178 yards (an average of 29.7 yards per return), including an 88-yard return for a touchdown in week two against the Kansas City Chiefs. Consequently, New England’s key special teams players, including Matthew Slater and Marquice Cole, must get downfield quickly in order to prevent McKelvin from setting up Buffalo’s offense with excellent starting field position. Luckily, the Patriots have strong coverage units including players such as Nate Ebner (two tackles), Brandon Bolden (twice), Tracy White (one), Marquice Cole (one), Trevor Scott (one), and starting cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty, who have also made tackles.