NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots will begin the season this afternoon with a divisional matchup against the Buffalo Bills, who made sweeping changes to their organization this offseason, with CEO Russ Brandon being promoted to President and effectively assuming complete control of the team. Brandon hired head coach Doug Marrone from the Syracuse Orange, who brought offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett with him; former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was hired for the same position with the Bills. In April, Buffalo drafted quarterback E.J. Manuel to replace 2012 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, and in May, general manager Buddy Nix announced that he would step down, with assistant general manager Doug Whaley being promoted. Read on for ten keys to New England’s season opener at Buffalo.
1. How healthy is Bills first-round pick E.J. Manuel?
At first it looked as though the New England Patriots may have the good fortune of playing undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel to begin their season, but now news has emerged which confirms that the Bills will have their rookie first-round pick, E.J. Manuel, under center on opening weekend. Manuel did not play in Buffalo’s two most recent preseason games, but he impressed over the course of his first two appearances, completing 16/21 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown, adding a second score on the ground, in a win over the Colts, and following that performance with a 10/12 game in another win, this time over the Vikings, those passes gaining a total of 92 yards and a touchdown.
Among April’s most pro-ready passers, Manuel can throw with touch and has the benefits of both size (6’4”, 237) and athleticism (running the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds at the Combine.) Of course, that the former Florida State star is just two weeks removed from a minor knee procedure remains cause for concern among Bills fans. Buffalo will clearly benefit from Manuel’s presence as opposed to turning the game over to Tuel, but whether or not Manuel offers the Bills a true dual threat this weekend is unknown. However, Manuel will reportedly play with “no limitations”, so the Patriots should prepare for a fully healthy opponent.
Manuel’s lack of exposure at the pro level may make it somewhat difficult for New England to determine how Buffalo plans to use him, but the Patriots have historically played well against rookie passers. As the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe pointed out earlier this week, New England holds a 13-4 record versus rookie quarterbacks under head coach Bill Belichick, an impressive .765 winning percentage which dwarfs the league average of .579.
2. Will New England be able to contain C.J. Spiller?
This season, Bills running back C.J. Spiller, himself a former first-round pick, is projected to receive the most substantial workload of his career under head coach Doug Marrone, whose track record at Syracuse reveals an average of 41 rushing attempts per contest. Additionally, it seems as though Spiller will remain on the field throughout the game regardless of the situation, meaning he’ll have a chance to demonstrate his ability to rush the ball around the goal line.
Last season, Spiller gained a total of 1,703 yards, averaging six yards per carry and contributing as a receiver by catching 43 passes. Spiller gained 131 yards on ten total touches against the Patriots last November, but was limited to 38 yards on ten touches against New England in September. In order to prevent E.J. Manuel from being too overburdened in his first start, Spiller will need to produce results much closer to November’s than September’s.
Spiller’s world-class speed could create problems if he breaks contain, meaning the Patriots’ ability to set the edge consistently will largely determine the success of their run defense. Edge responsibilities typically fall on players such as Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Dont’a Hightower. Although fellow running back Fred Jackson, now 32 years old, has seemingly been relegated to a reserve role, he did contribute 115 yards on 20 touches in Buffalo’s November game at New England, scoring two touchdowns.
3. How will Buffalo’s redesigned receiving corps perform?
Over the past two seasons, Buffalo has gone to great lengths to overhaul their wide receiver corps. They began in March 2012, when they re-signed Stevie Johnson to a five-year, $36.25 million deal which included $18.05 million in guaranteed money, effectively committing to him as their top receiving option. The following month, they added North Carolina State prospect T.J. Graham in the third-round of the 2012 NFL Draft after Graham posted a 4.34-second 40-yard dash and 6.77-second three-cone drill in Indianapolis.
This offseason, they replaced Donald Jones (who retired after a brief stint Patriots) and David Nelson (who has since been released by the Browns) with two more high picks, investing their second-round selection, #41 overall, on Southern California product Robert Woods, and their third-round selection, #78 overall, on Texas receiver and 2012 Summer Olympics participant Marquise Goodwin.
Both Graham and Goodwin can challenge New England’s defense with their speed alone, while Woods is a significantly more refined option who demonstrated appealing versatility with the Trojans. While the focus of the game will be on Johnson, especially after his comments regarding New England’s secondary, the Patriots may have their hands full with what Buffalo hopes will be a dynamic transformation at receiver.
4. Can the Patriots prevent Scott Chandler from becoming a problem?
If his performances against New England last season were any indicator, Bills tight end Scott Chandler figures to be a major factor on Sunday. Last September, Chandler caught four of eight targets for 62 yards, adding two touchdowns, then turned in a five-of-eight performance in November, gaining 65 yards and scoring another touchdown. Chandler is not one of the most athletic tight ends in the league, but possesses imposing size at 6’7” and 260 pounds, with which he effectively shields defenders from the ball.
It would be dangerous to entrust coverage responsibility for a player so big to a defensive back, meaning that New England may ultimately opt to cover Chandler with some combination of linebackers. Last season, however, Chandler scored on Spikes during Buffalo’s first game vs. New England, and with Hightower in coverage at New England last November. That means there could be a substantial defensive role for either Dane Fletcher, now fully healthy after tearing his ACL last year, or rookie Jamie Collins, a lanky, athletic option. The Patriots’ struggles against tight ends didn’t begin or end with Chandler last year, so limiting production at the position should be a priority for this year’s defensive unit.
5. Who will win the battle on the edge: Cordy Glenn or Chandler Jones?
Cordy Glenn, a 2012 second-round pick, quickly blossomed into Buffalo’s left tackle of the future during his rookie season, starting all thirteen games he appeared in and limiting opposing pass rushers to just six sacks while contributing effective run blocking as well. Despite his incredible size, length, and bulk at 6’6” and 345 pounds, Glenn is also surprisingly nimble and mirrors effectively in pass protection. Throughout the preseason, Glenn locked down opposing pass rushers, allowing just one pressure over 69 snaps in pass protection. His matchup against fellow 2012 draftee, Patriots right end Chandler Jones, figures to be a staple of Bills/Patriots games for years to come.
Last season, Glenn allowed three pressures and two quarterback hits, while committing a pair of penalties in his two appearances vs. New England, with Jones concluding those two contests having recorded one sack, one hit, and two pressures (Glenn left the first contest early with an injury that would keep him off of the field until week nine.) After a strong start last season, Jones’ production dipped after sustaining two ankle injuries, but he is widely anticipated to take a step forwards in 2013. Turning in an impressive performance against a quality tackle such as Glenn would earn him more widespread recognition around the league. Jones has the length and power to challenge Glenn.
6. How will Buffalo’s interior offensive line perform without Andy Levitre?
Buffalo’s interior offensive line is anchored by center Eric Wood, who recently signed a four-year, $25.4 million contract extension which included a $9 million signing bonus. In Sunday’s contest, primary responsibility for blocking nose tackle Vince Wilfork will fall upon the 6’4”, 311-pound Wood, a former first-round pick who reportedly interested the Patriots that year as well (New England, who originally held the #23 overall pick, traded down after the Minnesota Vikings drafted Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin, with the Patriots ultimately selecting safety Patrick Chung with the #34 overall pick.)
Kraig Urbik, Buffalo’s starting right guard, also deserves mention; a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, Urbik has blossomed into a sold player, earning a four-year, $15 million extension from the Bills in December. At 6’5” and 324 pounds, his size should pose an interesting challenge for New England’s starting defense tackle, Tommy Kelly, an offseason addition whose size, at 6’6” and 300 pounds, is typically an advantage for him.
However, how the Bills cope with the loss of left guard Andy Levitre, who was lured to Tennessee via a six-year, $46.8 million contract, remains a mystery. Projected starter Colin Brown allowed one preseason sack over 118 snaps, but his pro experience is limited. However, he did start a game at New England back in 2011, lining up at center. Brown is massive for the interior offensive line at 6’7” and 326 pounds.
7. Will new Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine be able to create pressure without blitzing?
In recent years, New England has tended to struggle against aggressive defenses which can manufacture consistent pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Rex Ryan’s defensive coordinator in New York from 2009-2012 and an assistant coach in Baltimore from 2002-2008, Buffalo will transition away from Dave Wannstedt’s preferred defense, the 4-3, and towards an attacking multiple front which incorporates a variety of odd looks as well.
The trick for Pettine is to get pressure against Brady without sending additional rushers, as Brady threw for 1,626 yards, twenty-two touchdowns, and zero interceptions vs. the blitz last season, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt. However, Brady completed just 38% of his passes when under pressure in 2012, throwing four touchdowns to three interceptions and averaging just 5.2 yards per attempt. Of course, Buffalo’s primary option will be their $96 million man, Mario Williams, who should function in a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role. Williams lines up on the left side of the field, which means he’ll often be matched up against Sebastian Vollmer, who concluded last season in a bit of a slump. However, it should be noted that Williams failed to record a sack in either game against New England last season.
8. Will New England’s interior offensive line hold up against Buffalo’s tackles?
Buffalo’s interior defensive line play has been a strength of their defense ever since Kyle Williams emerged as one of the top nose tackles in the league years ago. After two sub-par years from once-elite tackle Marcus Stroud, the Bills opted to part ways with him and bring in Alabama star Marcell Dareus via the third overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, who quickly developed into a dynamic pass-rusher, especially given his size at 6’3” and 331 pounds. Dareus has accounted for 5.5 sacks in each of his first two seasons, playing well in each contest against the Patriots last year.
The presence of both Williams and Dareus could potentially throw a wrench into New England’s plans, as the past few years have shown that interior penetration is one of the most difficult factors for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ passing game to overcome. Fortunately for New England, left guard Logan Mankins and center Ryan Wendell are both quality starters, but the right guard position, like Buffalo’s left guard spot, is currently an uncertainty. Dan Connolly is probably the most likely candidate to start on opening weekend after starting New England’s final preseason game, but he figures to be on a short leash, as Marcus Cannon, a superior yet unproven talent, waits in the wings. Will Svitek, who manned the right guard position over the first three preseason games, has been ruled out with a knee injury.
9. How will Buffalo’s secondary function without Stephon Gilmore and potentially Jairus Byrd?
In recent years, Buffalo has taken some steps towards rebuilding their secondary, uncovering one of the best single-high safeties in the league in Jairus Byrd, acquired in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft and selecting Stephon Gilmore with the tenth overall pick in last year’s draft, providing the team with two long-term fixtures. However, it’s possible that both players will miss the season opener, with Gilmore not expected back until week six or so after undergoing wrist surgery and Byrd dealing with plantar fasciitis, which has cut into his practice time and led to a “doubtful” designation from the Bills.
Gilmore’s first-team role may be handed down to a platoon of Ron Brooks, a 2012 fourth-round pick, and Justin Rogers, a 2011 seventh-rounder who played more frequently than Brooks last season. The opposite cornerback spot will be manned by Leodis McKelvin, whom Buffalo signed to a four-year, $17 million contract with $6 million in guaranteed money this past March. McKelvin was on the field for just 354 snaps last year, but evidently impressed Buffalo’s new decision-makers during film review. In the deep secondary, it appears as though Jim Leonhard, DaNorris Searcy, and Aaron Williams will rotate in at safety, Leonhard being a recent free agent addition. Regardless of how Buffalo chooses to arrange their secondary, their defensive back play should be appealing to New England from a game-planning perspective.
10. What type of workload can be expected for each of New England’s running backs?
Last September, the Patriots steamrolled Buffalo 52-28, largely due to the effectiveness of New England’s ground attack, which gained an astonishing 247 yards and three touchdowns, with running back Danny Woodhead also contributing a third-quarter receiving touchdown. Stevan Ridley gained 106 yards and two touchdowns over 22 attempts, splitting carries with then-rookie Brandon Bolden, who had his best game as a pro to date, gaining 137 rushing yards over 16 attempts (8.6 yards per attempt) and scoring one of the Patriots’ three touchdowns on the ground. Woodhead’s only touches were his two catches, while Shane Vereen carried the ball just once and caught one pass.
New England scored four more times on the ground in the rematch, but their production dipped to just 117 yards, carrying the ball 29 times as opposed to 40. Ridley had another consistent game, gaining 98 yards and scoring a touchdown on his 22 carries, but Woodhead received only five touches (one rushing attempt) and Vereen carried the ball five times and caught one pass; Bolden missed the game while serving his four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Based on those two games, it appears as though Ridley should be in line for another 20-25 carries, but it will be interesting to see how thoroughly New England’s coaching staff decides to work Vereen and offseason acquisitions LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington into the offense. Vereen appears in line for an increased role following Woodhead’s departure, but last season’s ball distribution does not support the idea that he will receive a substantial workload this week. Bolden has been ruled out with a knee injury.
Final Prediction: Patriots 28, Bills 21