NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots eviscerated the Buffalo Bills’ defense back in week four, scoring 52 points in a decisive 24-point victory. Read on to find out how New England can extend their winning streak to three games this afternoon.
1. Which of New England’s 14 questionable players will play on Sunday?
The bye week was expected to allow New England’s injured players to recover, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Wide receiver Julian Edelman (hand) and defensive tackle Kyle Love (knee) were both full participants in practice and will play on Sunday. Unfortunately for New England, tight end Aaron Hernandez has already been ruled out for today’s game according to NFL Network’s Albert Breer. Safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung have been limited in practice this week, but neither player is likely to play. Questionable guard Logan Mankins (calf/hip), guard Nick McDonald (shoulder), defensive tackle Ron Brace (elbow), and cornerback Kyle Arrington (concussion) could go either way. Other questionable players who should be active include wide receivers Brandon Lloyd (knee) and Wes Welker (ankle), tight end Rob Gronkowski (hip), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/knee), and linebackers Dont’a Hightower (hamstring), Jerod Mayo (elbow), and Brandon Spikes (knee). Three players have already been ruled out: running back Brandon Bolden (suspension), defensive end Trevor Scott (hamstring), and linebacker Tracy White (foot).
2. Can New England’s offensive line continue to protect Tom Brady?
Buffalo’s expensive defensive line was a concern heading into the first matchup between the Bills and Patriots back in week four; however, they were not a major factor in the game. Quarterback Tom Brady was sacked just one time – split between defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus – but highly-paid defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson were unsuccessful. Anderson is currently recovering from a knee injury and is considered unlikely to play this week, while Williams has recorded just 4.5 sacks through eight games for the Bills. New England’s tackles have played well so far this season: Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have allowed just three combined sacks. Last week, acclaimed Rams defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn were both silenced by Solder and Vollmer; another such performance from New England’s bookends would be disastrous for Buffalo. Most of the Bills’ pressure will have to come from their defensive tackles, where Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus may give Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, and Donald Thomas trouble. If Mankins is inactive, look for Donald Thomas to get the start; Thomas has played very well as a rotational player this season, preventing opposing rushers from sacking Brady on any of his 193 pass protection attempts.
3. Will the Patriots be able to replicate their previous success on the ground?
The most astounding aspect of New England’s week four victory was the running game’s success: the Patriots gained 247 yards and four touchdowns on the ground against what was expected to be a stout Buffalo front seven. Brandon Bolden led New England’s rushing attack that week, gaining 137 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, but he will miss the game due to his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. That places an increased burden on Stevan Ridley (22 carries for 106 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo in week four) to carry the load. Reserve Shane Vereen began to see an increased role last week as well (eight touches for 39 yards and a touchdown), and Danny Woodhead remains one of Josh McDaniels’ most utilized players. Woodhead primarily contributed as a receiver last time, but the Bills are a team which may become susceptible to delayed handoffs if Tom Brady can establish the passing game early. The Patriots must succeed on the ground once again in order to prevent Buffalo from focusing on disrupting Brady in the pocket; fortunately, the Bills are currently ranked 31st in run defense.
4. New England should take advantage of an unhealthy Bills secondary
2012 first-round pick Stephon Gilmore has played fairly well at cornerback this season for the Bills, allowing 25 receptions and three touchdowns on 45 attempts, but a knee injury will force Buffalo’s left cornerback, Aaron Williams, to miss the game. Fourth cornerback Terrence McGee (knee) has also been ruled out. That means the Bills will be forced to rely heavily on slot cornerback Justin Rogers and reserves Ron Brooks and Leodis McKelvin; Brooks, a rookie, has yet to play this season. Needless to say, this group of cornerbacks is appetizing for the likes of Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, and Julian Edelman. Buffalo’s starting safeties, Jairus Byrd and George Wilson, may limit the deep passing game, but it would be a surprise if the Patriots struggled to win one-on-one matchups on the boundaries and especially in the slot. The Bills’ only hope is that their pass rush will be able to prevent Tom Brady from having enough time to capitalize on Buffalo’s weaknesses at cornerback.
5. Will Bills running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson be limited once again?
Running back C.J. Spiller has undoubtedly been Buffalo’s most dangerous offensive weapon this season; Spiller is averaging 7.2 yards per carry and 9.8 yards per reception on 102 touches, with five total touchdowns. He has the speed to beat defenders to the edge for big gains and has gained 20 yards or more on five separate touches over Buffalo’s past three games. Fred Jackson’s role has decreased this season but he is a versatile, powerful back who has been successful against New England in the past as well. However, neither player made a major impact back in week four: Spiller gained 38 yards on ten touches, and Jackson gained 79 yards on 16 touches, but averaged just 2.2 yards per attempt on the ground. The Patriots are prioritize stout run defense, and they can demoralize Buffalo early in the game by taking away the Bills’ ability to run the ball. New England’s chances of winning will increase exponentially if Buffalo becomes a one-dimensional offense.
6. How will New England’s pass defense hold up against downfield throws?
Even after their bye week, the Patriots have allowed more passes of 20 or more yards (42) than any other team in the league. Without Steve Gregory or Patrick Chung expected to play, the deep secondary remains one of New England’s biggest concerns in this matchup. Last time the Patriots played Buffalo, Ryan Fitzpatrick connected on six passes of 20 yards or more, four of them resulting in touchdowns, en route to a 350 yard performance. New England will likely employ a lot of high zone coverage in an effort to prevent Buffalo from trying to throw deep; Devin McCourty may see a lot of snaps at safety once again, with Tavon Wilson starting on the strong side. One of Wilson’s weaknesses to this point has been the depth of his zone drops as a result of playing flat-footed; he has been in coverage on two deep touchdown passes: the game-winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice at Seattle, and Chris Givens’ 50-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford last week. Mistakes like those cannot be repeated against the Bills.
7. Can the Patriots defend against Bills tight end Scott Chandler?
Thus far, almost every tight end the Patriots have encountered has played well, including Bills tight end Scott Chandler, who caught four passes for 62 yards and two touchdowns last time the two teams met. In week seven against the Jets, Dustin Keller caught seven passes for 93 yards and a touchdown, and last week Rams tight ends Lance Kendricks, Matthew Mulligan, and Mike McNeill combined to catch seven passes on eight targets, gaining 62 yards. New England attempted covering Chandler with Jerod Mayo, Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, and Tavon Wilson back in week four, and each of the players aside from Wilson allowed a reception. However, it may be difficult for New England to cover Chandler with Wilson for an extended period of time because of Chung’s absence; as mentioned before, Wilson will be responsible for preventing deep throws. The Patriots may have to try their luck with the likes of Mayo, Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower. Chandler is not considered an incredibly athletic tight end, but he uses his size to shield defenders from the ball.
8. Who will New England’s secondary be composed of this week?
Recently-acquired cornerback Aqib Talib’s presence would be welcome this week, but he is currently suspended for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore are no longer on the 53-man roster, and Kyle Arrington’s status for the game is uncertain, so the Patriots do not have many options in their secondary this week. With Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory unlikely to play, the Patriots could be forced to replace three of their starters in the secondary (Arrington being the third.) Devin McCourty may be forced to line up at free safety for the third straight week, and Tavon Wilson will start at strong safety; rookie Nate Ebner could see playing time as the team’s third safety. That leaves only three active cornerbacks: Alfonzo Dennard, Marquice Cole, and Malcolm Williams. Dennard has enjoyed a surprisingly smooth adjustment to the NFL, but Dennard and the rest of New England’s defensive backs must prepare to be heavily tested by Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ receivers.
9. Can Chandler Jones and New England’s pass rush get consistent pressure?
Three Patriots recorded sacks in week four: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Dont’a Hightower. The result was an uneven performance from Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick which included four interceptions and a fumble. Fitzpatrick has a 106.7 rating against the blitz, with five touchdowns and no interceptions, but struggles against complex coverages; all nine of his interceptions have come against rushes of four men or less. Bill Belichick’s conservative, coverage-based defensive schemes should provide the Patriots with some turnover opportunities, although penetration from New England’s defensive line would certainly help. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s offensive line is one of the strengths of their team: Fitzpatrick has been sacked just 11 times on the season. The Bills have had success through the air when Fitzpatrick is well-protected (he holds a quarterback rating of 93.6 without facing pressure), and the Patriots may be punished for rushing their linebackers. New England’s defensive line must reach Fitzpatrick on their own in order to prevent another poor performance against the pass.
10. New England’s coverage units must prevent costly kick/punt returns
Buffalo’s return units are considered some of the best in the league. Two different players have returned kicks for the Bills: Brad Smith is averaging 31.3 yards per kick return with one touchdown on six attempts, while Leodis McKelvin is averaging 29.8 yards on 12 kickoffs. McKelvin also returns Buffalo’s punts: he is averaging 19.5 yards per return over 13 attempts, with one touchdown. Without Trevor Scott, Tracy White, Patrick Chung, or Steve Gregory expected to play, New England’s coverage units will be limited. They must nonetheless prevent the Bills from beginning their drives with excellent field position by forcing touchbacks in the kicking game as well as fair catches in the punting game.