BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
Although the Buffalo Bills (6-9) go into Sunday’s tilt against the New England Patriots (11-4) with no playoff implications on the line, they could derive extra motivation from what a win would prevent their AFC East rivals from obtaining.
After beating the Baltimore Ravens (8-7) last week, the Patriots put themselves in control of securing a first-round playoff bye. If they were to fall to Buffalo this Sunday, that would leave the door open for the Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) to sneak in and steal the final bye.
With the Bills eliminated from the playoffs and focused on staying healthy and developing their young talent, the ability to ruin the Patriots’ playoff seeding might add some extra fuel to the fire, especially after Buffalo lost to New England in Week 1. Coming off of their first back-to-back wins of the season, the Bills will also be looking to continue their momentum into the offseason as they finish their Doug Marrone.
Bills backups back in action
With wide receiver Stevie Johnson staying with his family in California following his mother’s funeral, and quarterback EJ Manuel staying on the bench as he continues to recover from a knee injury, the Bills offense will be led by backups again in New England on Sunday.
Running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller will still be carrying the ball, but the extra weight on the shoulders of fill-in quarterback Thad Lewis and wide receivers Chris Hogan and T.J. Graham will be crucial in determining the outcome of the game.
With Manuel and Johnson out in last week’s Bills win against Miami, none of those three really made a major impact. Lewis did his best as a game manager, throwing for 193 yards and one interception, while Hogan and Graham combined for four catches for 35 yards. The Buffalo defense was able to step up and shut down the Dolphins offense, but that is going to be a harder task this week against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
The Bills will likely need more than 19 points in order to pull out a victory, so Lewis is going to have to make some plays with his arm. Those plays can’t always be to Robert Woods, as the Patriots are likely to lock onto Woods as the only consistent receiving threat in the Bills offense. The aforementioned receivers and Marquise Goodwin, who is listed as probable on Buffalo’s injury report after leaving last week’s game early with a knee injury, will have to make the most of their opportunities.
Lewis hasn’t been shy about trying to make plays down the field, so look for the Bills to try and hit speedsters Goodwin and Graham on a few deep routes. If they can connect on one or two, it could go a long way to taking some pressure off of the defense.
Can the Buffalo pass-rush get to Brady?
The Bills lead the NFL in sacks after seven against the Dolphins last Sunday brought their season total to 56.
While cornerback Nickell Robey got a lot of attention for his two-sack performance against Miami, it’s been the Buffalo defensive line that continues to be the most disruptive unit in football. The Bills have three linemen with double-digit sacks this season: Mario Williams has 13, Kyle Williams has 10.5 and Jerry Hughes has 10. The Bills place so much emphasis on their defensive line getting to the quarterback that according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, the unit’s goal is for Marcell Dareus to reach a double-digit total for the season by getting 2.5 sacks Sunday.
“We want all the guys to get 10, they’re waiting on me now,” Dareus told Brown. “They’re going to try to get me free so I can get there. We reached all the goals, Kyle got his 10, Jerry got his 10, Mario has his 13—everything is coming together.”
It’s a tall order, but one that seems to be within the Bills’ grasp based on the way they have been taking to Mike Pettine’s aggressive hybrid scheme of late.
The way to beat the Patriots is by disrupting Tom Brady’s rhythm. Brady doesn’t like to get hit. It’s been a problem for him this season, as the Patriots have given up 39 sacks and dealt with injuries to their offensive line throughout the entire campaign. The Patriots lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to the injured reserve in October with a broken leg, while left tackle Nate Solder is listed as questionable on New England’s injury report with a concussion. They have a weakness inside with right guard Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell, which the Bills will look to exploit with their rotation of aggressive and physical interior linemen.
If the Bills are able to continue their dominance up front, it could disrupt the flow of the Patriots offense and create enough opportunities for the Buffalo defense to make key stops or create turnovers that could swing the momentum of the game.
Offensive line struggles and turnovers
Turnovers have been the story for the Bills throughout much of the season. Mediocre offensive line play has led to 48 negative-yardage rushing plays, 44 sacks, 98 quarterback hits and forced the Bills offense into many mistakes that it might not have made otherwise. There have also been mistakes made by the Bills on their own, such as the fumbles by Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler that directly led to Buffalo’s overtime loss against Atlanta on Dec. 1. The tackles in the backfield, however, have played in a role in the Bills fumbling 31 times this season, the most in the league.
Although Buffalo has only lost twelve of those fumbles, it’s still a disturbing number for the offense’s ball security.
Two lost fumbles, including one in the red zone, cost the Bills in their season-opening loss to the Patriots. With 10 turnovers in their last four games, this is clearly not a problem that has gone away for the Buffalo offense. The Bills have turned the ball over 27 times this season, the eighth-most in the NFL, and they cannot afford to give any more away this Sunday. The defense will already have its hands full with Brady, so giving him more opportunities is not a recipe for success.
Patriots Running Backs vs. Bills Run Defense
Despite the dominance of their defensive line against the pass, the Bills have still be vulnerable against the run this season. The Bills have allowed 4.2 yards per rushing attempt and have given up 16 runs of 20 or more yards, the second-most allowed by any defense in the NFL.
The Patriots running backs had some issues with fumbling early in the season, and Stevan Ridley has lost time to Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount as a result, but they rushed for 142 yards against the Ravens last Sunday, even running the ball more times than they threw it.
The Patriots will likely look to run the ball often against the Bills. If the Bills defensive line has success getting into the backfield, look for the Patriots to try to allow pass-rushers upfield and drop in draws or screen passes to the offense to turn its disadvantage on the line into an advantage and in turn put pressure on the underperforming Bills linebackers to step up and make plays.
Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso has been consistent all season, but the Bills haven’t gotten much from Nigel Bradham and Arthur Moats. Some Bills are going to have to make plays at the second level if Buffalo is going to consistently stop the Patriots rushing attack.
Danny Amendola vs. Nickell Robey
With the aforementioned battle on the lines already covered, the next-most intriguing matchup might be the battle between Patriots receiver Danny Amendola against Bills undrafted free agent nickel cornerback Nickell Robey. Since Amendola is slender in stature, the Patriots usually line him up in the slot, which is where Robey mostly does his work.
With McKelvin and Gilmore holding down the starting cornerback spots on the outside, Robey has emerged as a playmaker inside, totaling 38 tackles, three sacks and an interception. He has been solid in run support but can often get beat by a step or two over the middle, which is all Amendola will need to make the Bills pay.
New England’s slot receivers killed the Bills in Week 1, consistently moving the chains and keeping their offense on the field. Amendola and Julian Edelman combined to haul in 17 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns, even with Amendola leaving the game for spurts because of an injury that caused him to miss the Patriots’ next three games.
If the Bills have any hope of winning Sunday, they are going to need to take Amendola and Edelman away as much as possible to force Brady to rely more on his young, inconsistent and banged-up outside receivers, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, who are both listed as questionable on New England’s injury report. Making Brady go to the outside might be the best way for the Bills defense to open up some playmaking opportunities and stop the Patriots from sustaining long drives.
With the Patriots searching for a playoff bye and playing at home, where Brady has won 11 straight against the Bills, this might be too big of a challenge for the short-handed Bills. The Bills have been playing with incredible resiliency lately and their defense will likely keep them competitive, but turnovers and not having enough firepower to keep up with Brady and Co. might be too much for the Buffalo offense to overcome.
Patriots 27, Bills 20