The Buffalo Bills will come into Gillette Stadium Sunday night for a prime time game on ESPN. It’ll be a motivated Bills team that comes in, having not scored an offensive touchdown at Gillette since 2002. With a 2-0 division record, the Bills will also know they’re not quite dead yet and if they can knock off the Patriots, it’ll go a long way towards keeping them in the AFC East race.
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. THE BUFFALO DEFENSE
Buffalo has really struggled defending the run this season. A lot of the big runs they have given up have come right up the middle of the defense. A big loss for Buffalo was big Pat Williams, defensive tackle, in the middle who left in the offseason in free agency. His fill in, Tim Anderson, has thus far not lived up to his high draft pick status and the holes in the middle have been gaping. End Aaron Schobel is a good player, but a better pass rusher than run defender. The rest of the front line is average at best and the Bills defense as a whole ranks 31st in the NFL against the run.
At linebacker, their best player was Takeo Spikes, who they’ve lost for the year to injury. His replacement, Angelo Crowell, was a top notch special teams player but hasn’t translated that success over to defense. In the middle, London Fletcher is one of the more overrated players in the NFL. He makes a lot of tackles down field, but he is undersized and not stout against the run. He is not effective at all against a power running game. At the other linebacker, Jeff Posey is a below average NFL player.
Given this amongst the front seven, the Patriots should have opportunities to run the ball. One problem could be the health of Patriots running back, Corey Dillon, who missed the last game and remains out of practice to date. Should he remain out, the Patriots should not abandon the running attack and allow Patrick Pass to expand on the promise he showed as a primary runner in the last game.
In the secondary, things are better for Buffalo. Nate Clements is a top corner on one side. On the other side, Terrence McGee can make some plays on the ball, but gets beat a fair amount as well. At safety the Bills have converted corner Troy Vincent who does not appear to be adjusting to safety and aging former Patriots player Lawyer Milloy who thus far this year has been a shell of his former self. Expect some opportunities down the field for the Patriots on this crew and a balanced attack against a defense that offers many opportunities both running and passing. The tight ends could have a particularly good day against the non-physical Vincent and the slowing Milloy.
THE BUFFALO OFFENSE VERSUS THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE
This could be a case of who wins when a resistable force meets a movable object? So far, the Patriots pass defense has been mostly horrific this season. They have given up huge plays in every game and only turned one interception. Meanwhile, on the other side, they’ll be facing the second worst passing offense in the NFL, one that hasn’t even thrown for 200 yards in any game yet this year.
At quarterback, Buffalo has journeyman Kelly Holcomb. Holcomb is competent enough, nothing spectacular, but he can be a game manager and complete some passes on you if you give him time. The Patriots need to create pressure as he is not nearly effective when you get him moving. It’ll be interesting to see if the Patriots continue their use of Dan Klecko as a rush end this week. He showed some promise last game in that role. With Patriots defensive linemen Jarvis Green, Marquise Hill, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren all showing up on the injury report this week, its worth keeping an eye on whether most of these player dress Sunday night as it will be critical to getting a rush on Holcomb and preventing him from being effective.
Given their own struggles and notwithstanding the Patriots struggles, it seems far more likely that on offense, the Bills game plan will be to throw as little as possible, save for a few surprises here and there, and try a heavy dose of running back Willis McGahee. If he gets in a rhythm, the Bills will hope to keep the game close and win it at the end. The newly reordered Patriots linebacking unit will be the key to making sure this strategy does not take hold. The Patriots absolutely have to be disciplined on first and second downs and not allow an established running game to gash them. This will be the key. If they can keep the Bills in a lot of 3rd and 5 or longer situations, they’ll cause turnovers and win this game in a blow out. If you start seeing a lot of 3rd and 3s or 3rd and 1 early on and as the game moves along, fans should be worried because a good, physical runner like McGahee will convert most of those to keep drives alive and insure the game is close at the end.
The Patriots should try a different lineup at linebacker with Roosevelt Colvin gettin a chance to be a full-time player finally, three years after he signed. Willie McGinest and Chad Brown will be chipping in at the other outside spot. All three are playmakers who have to begin to cause more disruption for the Patriots to return to their former defensive glory. Inside, of course, all eyes will be on returning heart and sole linebacker Tedy Bruschi, coming back from a mild stroke in the offseason. Put inside with Mike Vrabel and Monty Beisel, we should know how effective this new look will be shutting down the run as McGahee is a solid running back.
In the secondary, it should prove interesting to see if the Patriots can improve their play against what are generally good receivers for Buffalo that for whatever reason have not clicked in the passing game so far. Look for the unit to be better than it was before the bye with corner Randall Gay returning and new signee Arturo Freeman getting comfortable at safety. The other safety, Eugene Wilson, with two more weeks to get used to running the reconfigured unit should improve as well. If the Patriots front seven can get pressure against the below average Buffalo offensive line, and GDRV thinks they will, the Patriots finally should start to see some of the interceptions that have been so sorely missing this year.
THE PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS VS. THE BUFFALO SPECIAL TEAMS
The Bills have an outstanding special teams unit. Their returners, Terrence McGee and Jonathan Smith, are among the best in the league. They are solid in coverage. Kicker Rian Lindell has outstanding range and punter Brian Moorman is one of the three best punters in the NFL. Buffalo special teams coach Bobby April is one of the best special teams coaches in the league and always has top units. This is no exception. The Patriots do not want this game to be close, because they could lose it on special teams if it is as that is the one area Buffalo has a clear advantage.
All in all, I see the week off greatly benefitting the Patriots. They are a better team than Buffalo. They are at home. They will have the emotional edge with the return of Tedy Bruschi. They know how important division games are in the NFL. And they’ll win easy 30-13.