By BBD Writer Eric Samulski
After two wins in their last two games the Bills seem to be getting themselves back on track. However, their journey gets a bit tougher when the Patriots come to town. Despite their 1-2 record, New England certainly has more talent than the Chiefs and Browns teams that the Bills easily handled. If the Bills can scrap out a win here, it will give them an early two game lead on the Pats for the division and help cement the notion that a playoff push might be for real. However, in order for the Bills to get that victory, they’re going to have to answer a few questions…
Question One: Who’s going to run the ball for this offense?
After Fred Jackson went down in week one, many people thought the Bills offense could be doomed. Then CJ Spiller took the ball and never stopped running. Averaging over ten yards a carry, Spiller was cementing himself as one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers, until he got injured as well. Both men appear to be exceptionally quick healers and have been back out on the practice field this week. However, we still don’t know who is going to carry the ball for the Bills this week. It seems more likely than Fred Jackson would be active, but the Bills should be hesitant to rush either player back and risk re-aggravating their respective injuries. If Fred Jackson earns the start, Tashard Choice will certainly spell him in order to cut down on his early workload. Regardless of who’s running the ball for the Bills, they will need to move the chains, control the clock, and try to keep Brady off the field as much as possible.
Question Two: Can the linebackers stop Gronkowski?
Athletic tight ends have long been a problem for the Bills defense. Last year against New England, Gronkowski and Hernandez had a field day against the Bills linebacking corps. With Hernandez out it’s one less weapon for the Bills to stop, but it doesn’t make it any easier to contain Gronkowski. The only way teams have been able to do that is by putting so much pressure on Brady that McDaniels is forced to keep Gronk in to block. If the Bills can’t do that then their linebackers are going to need to step up. Covering these type of athletic tight ends is the reason that Dave Wannstedt kept Bryan Scott around as a hybrid LB/S. This is the test where he proves his worth.
Question Three: Can the Bills WRs take advantage if Belicheck schemes for Stevie?
Since he took over as a head coach, Bill Belicheck has shown a knack for scheming to eliminate an opponent’s best weapon. He decides who the focal point of an offense is and coaches up his defense to ensure that other players are forced to make plays. A week ago that might have meant that he would sell out to stop Spiller and the run game. Now it’s likely that he’ll shift his secondary to take away Stevie Johnson. With the Bills running backs banged up and their secondary receivers failing to step up on a consistent basis, taking away Stevie Johnson could put the Bills at a real disadvantage. However, the Pats are thin in the secondary and if Donald Jones and TJ Graham can make some plays, the Bills could really make Belicheck pay.
Question Four: Can Fitzpatrick keep his turnovers to a minimum?
It’s no surprise that the Bills are 2-0 since Fitzpatrick started cutting down on his interceptions. The bearded gunslinger has been known to force passes into tight coverage and often is among the league leaders in picks. Since the Bills have been able to control the clock with the run, Fitz has taken fewer risks. He needs to keep that up even if the running game stalls a bit this Sunday. He doesn’t need to win the game with dangerous passes. He can still use the openings in the defense to make smart throws and slowly move the chains. If he turns the ball over a couple times, the Bills offense will fall out of rhythm and place too much pressure on the defense to single-handedly win the game. When you play the Patriots, you can’t give them any extra possessions.
Question Five: Can the Bills take advantage of the Pats O-line issues?
If there’s one area where the Patriots are weak this season it appears to be on their offensive line. With Brian Waters failing to show up for camp and Matt Light retiring, the Patriots were forced to rotate a few new linemen into their plans. The results have been less than stellar. The Patriots have allowed seven sacks in their first three games, good for 20th in the NFL. The Cardinals in particular showed that good edge rushing is especially effective against the Patriots. With the regular refs back, Mario Williams has fewer excuses regarding the way he’s being blocked. After notching 1.5 sacks last week Bills fans can hope that it’s just the beginning of a successful season. If he keeps it up, and the Bills can get pressure on Brady, they can frustrate him and take some control of the game.
Question Six: Can McKelvin and Rogers contain the slot?
In week three last year Wes Welker lit the Bills up for 217 yards and two touchdowns on 16 receptions. The Bills cornerbacks were utterly unable to bump him off his routes or make tackles in the open field to prevent yards after catch. This year the task of containing Welker will fall to a rotation of Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers. Both are quick and have shown the ability to run with any wide receiver in the NFL. They don’t even need to make plays on the ball in order to be effective covering Welker in the slot. If they are able to bat the ball away or simply limit his yards after the catch it will be a huge improvement on the way that the Bills usually cover him.
Question Seven: How will Shawn Powell handle the pressure of his first game?
When the Bills released Brian Moorman this week there was an outcry from the community chastising the team for getting riding of its captain and longest tenured player. While Moorman was a fan favorite and a class act his production had really dipped in the last few years. He consistently ranked in the bottom third in net punting yards and punts inside the twenty. Meanwhile Powell, who was the NCAA’s leading punter last year, showed real promise in training camp with the Bills this year. It’s never easy to replace such a well-liked player, but the Bills need Powell to show up with something to prove this week. If he’s able to turn the field over on the Patriots then he can make life harder on their offense and put the Bills defense in more positions of power. It’d go a long way towards earning a victory.
Prediction: Pats 24 Bills 17
I think this game will be close, but with Spiller likely out and Fred Jackson not at 100% the Bills are really facing an uphill battle. I think the defense will keep them in the game for a long time, but at some point the lack of running game is going to put pressure back on Fitzpatrick’s shoulders, and he’s likely to turn the ball over once or twice. The Bills secondary receivers haven’t proven that they can step up if Stevie Johnson is taken away, so I’m not sure the Bills have the offensive firepower to match the Patriots.