NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots have a chance to secure a first-round bye in their season finale this afternoon, but in order to do so they’ll have to win a divisional matchup against the 6-9 Buffalo Bills, a team which nearly beat New England earlier in the season and which boasts a strong running game and an aggressive defense which currently ranks first in sacks and fifth vs. the pass. Read on for ten keys to New England’s last regular-season contest of 2013.
1. How conservative will New England be in dealing with all of their injured players?
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, having been one of the most injury-plagued teams in the league this season, the Patriots will be entering their final contest of the regular season with another substantial injury report, with a total of eighteen players appearing, of which only five are listed as probable. Wide receiver Josh Boyce has already been ruled out once again, while it appears that free safety Devin McCourty will also miss the game after sustaining a concussion in last week’s victory at Baltimore, as he is currently listed as doubtful. Combined with the aforementioned players listed as probable, that leaves a total of eleven players earning head coach Bill Belichick’s notorious “questionable” designation.
Of those eleven, the vast majority are major contributions. Running back Shane Vereen (groin), wide receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), offensive tackle Nate Solder (concussion), defensive end Rob Ninkovich (ankle), linebackers Brandon Spikes (knee) and Dane Fletcher (groin), cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder) and Kyle Arrington (groin), and strong safety Steve Gregory (finger/knee) would have all been expected to play major roles, with the remaining player, offensive lineman Will Svitek (ankle) typically a swing reserve on the line.
Because New England’s first-round bye is on the line this week, it will be interesting to see whether the team opts to rest the majority of their players to allow them some extra time to recover before the playoffs, or if the possibility of losing, and potentially being forced to appear in the wild-card round as a result, would be too costly to suit up against Buffalo without many of their most important starters and rotational players.
2. With E.J. Manuel unlikely to play, what can the Patriots do to confuse Thad Lewis?
An injured knee prevented Bills starting quarterback E.J. Manuel from appearing in last week’s divisional contest versus the Dolphins; this week, the team announced that he will be sidelined once again, having previously been listed as doubtful to participate in what is essentially a meaningless game for Buffalo, having already been eliminated from the playoffs. That means that, rather than take the field against Manuel as they did back in the season opener, the Patriots will be playing against Thad Lewis, who will be making his fifth start of the season for the Bills, thus far having completed 60.2% of his passes averaging 6.6 yards per attempt, while posting an even touchdown-to-interception ratio, with three apiece.
Of Lewis’ 128 attempts, seventy (54.7%) have been on throws traveling less than ten yards downfield, where he has averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt. However, Lewis has been unable to complete passes consistently on longer attempts, with only half of his throws beyond ten yards having been completed, of which the vast majority have come via intermediate throws. That means that the Patriots should be able to clog the short area of the field, forcing him to abandon the confidence-building short throws and take some shots downfield. It’s also worth noting that, according to Pro Football Focus, Lewis heavily favors passing over the middle of the field rather than trying to throw sideline routes.
On the season, Lewis has completed 58.2% of his passes for 5.9 yards per attempt against typical or conservative pass rushers, with his completion percentage improving to 64.9% and his average leaping to 8.4 against additional rushers, meaning that taking a more conservative approach is probably best when it comes to defending against Lewis. Sending additional rushers after a quarterback who tends to get rid of the ball quickly on short-yardage routes may not be the best strategy.
3. Will a banged-up defensive front be able to stop the Bills’ run-heavy offense?
While it may be true that Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller ultimately didn’t enjoy the monster season expected of him when it was announced that run-oriented coach Doug Marrone would be leaving Syracuse to join the Bills last season, that Marrone’s arrival has coincided with an increased emphasis on running the ball cannot be denied, as the Bills are currently ranked first in the league in attempts (511), while the team also ranks second in rushing yards. Perhaps the team’s staggering number of attempts has been partially influenced by working with young quarterbacks for the entire season, but regardless, it’s clear that Marrone’s Bills teams will force opponents to stop the run in order to win, something that could cause problems for New England.
Over the course of the season, touches have been split primarily between Fred Jackson, who has 237 combined rushing attempts and receptions, and Spiller, who has 210. When Buffalo and New England first played, Jackson touched the ball a total of seventeen times, while Spiller received twenty-two touches, albeit with less effectiveness than Jackson offered in that game. Last week, Spiller received twenty-three touches, while Jackson was given slightly fewer, twenty-one. Combined, the two players were able to gain 188 of the team’s 203 yards, which came over the course of fifty-one carries. Thus, preparing to defend the run this afternoon should be New England’s primary concern defensively.
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the team is currently dealing with some injuries in their defensive front, with starting left end Rob Ninkovich and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes both being listed as questionable. The Patriots will need all of the help they can get up front, otherwise this may turn out to be a difficult game for the team to win, especially if the Bills are able to secure an early lead and begin grinding out the clock against the league’s twenty-ninth-ranked run defense.
4. How will the absence of Stevie Johnson (personal) impact Buffalo’s offense?
Despite a relatively unproductive season in which he caught just fifty-two of one-hundred targets for 597 yards and three touchdowns, Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson is easily the team’s most dangerous receiving option, someone who would have posed a considerable threat to the Patriots had he played. However, Johnson is dealing with the recent death of his mother and has been ruled out for this week’s game, his second straight absence. Last week versus Miami, Buffalo utilized a starting duo of T.J. Graham and Robert Woods, with Chris Hogan lining up in the slot and Marcus Easley stepping into the game once Woods was ejected for throwing a punch at Dolphins safety Reshad Jones.
Exactly how the Patriots will attempt to defend the aforementioned receivers remains somewhat unclear, as cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard are currently listed as questionable and could be held out of the game in order to recover before the playoffs. Although New England made the surprising decision to release cornerback and special teams ace Marquice Cole this week, the team promptly promoted practice-squad cornerback Justin Green to the active roster so as to ensure that at least three players are health at the position, the other two being Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan. If anything, the decision to release Cole, the superior special-teams player, indicates that the Patriots may be planning on needing their fifth cornerback to contribute defensively.
Additionally, Buffalo’s 6’7” tight end, Scott Chandler, has been effective versus New England in the past; devising an approach which limits Chandler’s production proved especially difficult in 2012, when he caught a combined three touchdown passes over two games. Utilizing Chandler and his two primary running backs, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, should help quarterback Thad Lewis compensate for Johnson’s absence.
5. Can New England’s secondary limit big plays with Devin McCourty likely inactive?
Mentioned earlier was that Bills starting quarterback Thad Lewis tends to lean on the short passing game for much of his production through the air; however, given the Patriots’ injuries in the secondary, this week’s game will offer him an opportunity to take some shots downfield against a New England defense which will be without arguably their best player in free safety Devin McCourty, who has provided reliable deep coverage ever since converting to the position from cornerback following the team’s acquisition of Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. To compound matters, starting strong safety Steve Gregory is also listed as questionable, as mentioned earlier; Gregory is currently dealing with finger and knee injuries, which, although likely not severe enough to keep him from playing, may limit his effectiveness.
When McCourty left last week’s contest at Baltimore, the Patriots replaced him with rookie third-round pick Duron Harmon, who took fifty snaps over the course of the game, turning in an impressive performance. Harmon has taken 362 snaps overall with the defense this season, playing relatively mistake-free football, but he is not the same athlete that McCourty is and will consequently have to continue to avoid mental mistakes in order to avoid being victimized down the field. While his rookie season has been encouraging overall, Buffalo may decide that it’s worth testing him early in order to ascertain his reliability in deep coverage.
The opportunity to expose Harmon to more game situations and subsequently evaluate him in further depth during this afternoon’s performance should be one of the most interesting aspects of this week’s contest, as he is currently the most convincing in-house competition for Steve Gregory, who has struggled in recent weeks and whose release would save the Patriots a modest sum this offseason. Harmon’s play over the remainder of the season would ideally allow New England to simultaneously get younger and save money at the position, while any struggles would indicate to the team that he requires additional development before being considered for a starting role.
6. Are there weaknesses along Buffalo’s line, and if so, how can they be exploited?
During the 2012 NFL Draft, the Bills took a step toward reshaping their offensive line when they used the forty-first overall pick on Georgia left tackle Cordy Glenn, who, at 6’6” and 345 pounds, has been everything the team was hoping for in a blindside protector, promptly taking over the starting role and having allowed just two sacks thus far in his second season. In the past year, Buffalo’s front office also gave a vote of confidence to two of their other starters on the offensive line, rewarding right guard Kraig Urbik with a four-year, $15 million contract extension back in December and locking up the player next to him, center Eric Wood, with a four-year, $25.4 million extension of his own in late August.
Those three starters are complemented by left guard Doug Legursky and right tackle Erik Pears, rounding out the offensive line, the latter of whom has graded out favorably in pass protection this season according to Pro Football Focus. The Patriots weren’t able to create much pressure on quarterback E.J. Manuel during their first meeting with the Bills, failing to record a sack and tallying just four quarterback hits and five pressures, with one of the hits and four of the pressures being attributed to former left guard Colin Brown, who has since been released. If this week’s game is anything like the season opener, Buffalo quarterback Thad Lewis should have plenty of time to pass the ball.
But despite strong individual performances along the offensive line, the Bills have surrendered forty-four sacks on the season, the seventh-worst total in the league. If New England hopes to add to their forty-four sacks, tied for sixth among pro clubs, they may have more success attempting to delay a decision from Thad Lewis long enough to record coverage sacks. As mentioned earlier, blitzing may not be the most effective way to pressure Lewis, while Fred Jackson, the back who is typically retained in pass protection, is very skilled in blitz pickup. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that players such as Legursky, Wood, and Pears have not been particularly capable run blockers this year despite Buffalo’s overall success on the ground.
7. Can Tom Brady improve on his underwhelming performance vs. Buffalo in the opener?
After entering the season opener as considerable favorites, the Patriots were forced to rely on a fourth-quarter comeback to emerge victorious from their game against the Bills, culminating in a twelve-play drive which ended in a game-winning thirty-five-yard field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The fact that New England was ultimately able to win the game helped mask what was an uncharacteristic performance from Brady, with the quarterback completing just 55.8% of his passes for an average of 5.5 yards per attempt versus a tough Bills defense which was playing without key contributors such as right cornerback Stephon Gilmore and free safety Jairus Byrd, both of whom will be at Buffalo’s disposal this afternoon.
When the Patriots and Bills first met, Brady gained ninety-two of his passing yards by targeting cornerback Justin Rogers and safety Aaron Williams; unfortunately, he won’t be able to target either player this afternoon, as Rogers was released from the team back in November, while Williams has already been ruled out due to a rib injury. Those two roles in the defense will instead by assumed by Gilmore and Byrd, two dramatically more effective players. After initially struggling upon his return from a wrist injury, Gilmore has held opposing receivers to just 104 combined yards over the past three games, intercepting two passes in that span. Byrd has a reputation as one of the best center-fielders in the league, having intercepted four passes on the season.
Injuries to important Patriots personnel could make Brady’s job more difficult as well. If left tackle Nate Solder is unable to return to the field this week, it will be more difficult for New England to protect Brady, who was sacked three times in the season opener, from dangerous Bills rush linebackers Mario Williams, who has thirteen sacks on the season, and Jerry Hughes, who has ten. Furthermore, it would not come as a surprise if running back Shane Vereen, who is also listed as questionable with a groin injury, was held out of this week’s game; Vereen contributed 101 rushing yards and fifty-eight receiving yards over twenty-one combined touches back in September, having been arguably the Patriots’ most productive offensive weapon in that game.
8. What does the recent release of Austin Collie reveal about the Patriots’ receivers?
With three of their seven other receivers currently dealing with injuries, New England waived wide receiver Austin Collie for the second time this season earlier in the week, which appears to signify that wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is ready to return from the hip injury which prevented him from appearing in last week’s victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Aaron Dobson, who is also listed as questionable with a sprained foot, played in a limited capacity last week, so he is currently expected to play as well. Assuming Thompkins is able to suit up, New England would then be projected to have five different receivers at their disposal in the season finale, the others being Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Matthew Slater, the lone inactive being Josh Boyce, who has already been ruled out.
Had New England’s coaching staff expected to be without Dobson and/or Thompkins, it would stand to reason that they would choose to retain Collie on roster to offer some depth in the event of an injury. He appeared for only one offensive snap last week despite Thompkins’ injury, but caught two of the three passes thrown his way in week fifteen at Miami and would have represented a security policy at the position. The team’s projected starters, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson on the outside and Julian Edelman in the slot, are projected to have difficult matchups against Buffalo’s top three cornerbacks, Leodis McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore, and Nickell Robey.
Consequently, that may create opportunities for the Patriots to work Thompkins onto the field in four-receiver sets, with the goal being to force the Bills into favorable formations more conducive to passing. Buffalo likes to use a third safety rather than a fourth cornerback, last week playing Da’Norris Searcy, their top reserve safety behind current starters Jairus Byrd and Jim Leonhard, for thirty-two snaps, while the team’s fourth cornerback, Ron Brooks, was sent onto the field only once in order to rush from the slot, a capacity he was used in during the season opener as well on three of his ten snaps in that game.
9. After injuring his groin last week, will Shane Vereen be able to take the field?
Three seasons into his pro career, it appears that New England’s 2011 second-round pick, Shane Vereen, can be considered an effective contributor as both a runner and a receiver, having improved his yards-per-attempt from 4.0 in 2012 to 4.9 this season, while additionally averaging over six catches per game on the year. However, Vereen’s value as a dual-threat has been constrained by an inability to stay healthy, having appeared in just twenty-five regular-season games since entering the league, with his eight-six touches thus far in 2013 representing his highest total of any season. This week, it appears as though the Patriots may be without Vereen’s services again, as he is listed as questionable after injuring his groin just seven snaps into last week’s game at Baltimore; he is officially listed as questionable, having participated in a limited capacity each day in practice, but it would not come as a surprise if it were deemed more responsible to allow him extra time to recuperate.
When considering the impact the third-year running back had in New England’s last meeting with the Bills – rushing for 101 yards and catching seven passes for 58 more, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt on the ground and 8.3 through the air – Vereen’s absence would be a a fairly substantial blow against one of the league’s better defensive units, especially because Vereen is the only true receiving threat the Patriots have out of the backfield. In the event of his absence, rushing responsibilities would likely be divided primarily between starter LeGarrette Blount, who gained just fifteen yards over his seven attempts at Buffalo in the season opener, and Stevan Ridley, who gained forty-six yards on his nine carries in that game.
Regardless of whether or not Vereen plays, New England would be wise to emphasize rushing the ball early and often, as the Bills have struggled to defend the run this season, ranking twenty-third in that regard; an offensive gameplan which emphasizes keeping the ball on the ground makes sense, even if Buffalo’s massive defensive line makes the decision seem a bit counter-intuitive.
10. How will New England’s offensive line be composed this week relative to last?
As a consequence of Bill Belichick’s tendency to list as many players as possible as “questionable” on a weekly basis, it’s always difficult to divine which injured Patriots players will be active in any given week, meaning that, despite having practiced in a limited capacity each day this week, it’s difficult to say whether or not left tackle Nate Solder will be active this week to help protect Tom Brady from Buffalo’s aggressive defense, which currently leads the league in sacks with fifty-six; however, based on the composition of New England’s offensive line against Baltimore last week, we at least know what to expect if Solder doesn’t play. Left guard Logan Mankins was lined up at left tackle, with undrafted rookie Josh Kline starting at left guard.
Despite having spent his entire pro career on the inside, Mankins played well enough on the blindside to create some confidence in his ability to hold up against the likes of linebackers Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, who have combined for twenty-three sacks on the season; the bigger concern is that Kline may be unable to block Buffalo’s talented defensive tackles, most notably Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, two highly-productive starters. Kline must also come mentally prepared to be targeted by Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who blitzes plenty of different players, with thirteen different defenders having rushed the passer in Buffalo’s win last week, including three linebackers and five defensive backs.
Buffalo’s ability to create pressure, as well as the presence of Jairus Byrd in high zone coverage, will likely prevent New England from taking too many shots downfield; instead, the Patriots should attempt to protect Brady and make life easier on their offensive line by trying to establish the short passing game, something their personnel is more conducive to regardless. There won’t be any shortcuts against the league’s fifth-best pass defense; rather, the emphasis should be on avoiding mistakes and limiting the amount of times Bills rushers are able to hit Brady.
Final Prediction: Patriots 24, Bills 17