BUFFALO – The Patriots (1-2) face a tough challenge when they travel to Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday to take on the Bills (2-1).
The stadium is a tough place to play, and the Bills’ offense can hurt the Patriots’ defense in a lot of areas where they aren’t as strong. I expect this to be a battle.
The Patriots will emerge with a victory if they can execute these five keys to the game, besides remaining healthy and not turning the ball over:
- Handle the Bills’ defensive line movement: The Bills have two dangerous ends in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, but the Patriots can handle them if they’re just rushing one-on-one. The tackles, Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams, are more problematic (even before LG Logan Mankins was declared out for this game) but manageable. The problem comes when the Bills start stunting with the ends and tackles, and twisting the tackles. The Patriots, for whatever reason, have long had trouble with stunts and twists (think the Giants in the Super Bowl). The Bills are really going to test the likely interior line of LG Donald Thomas, C Ryan Wendell and RG Dan Connolly. Their communication must be perfect. They absolutely must just play with their heads on a constant swivel, keeping in mind that a late danger may emerge. They can’t get off balance and not be able to pickup a late rusher. If the Patriots can handle the stunts, they should be fine offensively.
- Read your keys: Probably more than any other NFL team, the Bills do more with motion, play fakes and deception. It’s like watching a finely tuned college spread offense. The Patriots’ defenders, especially the linebackers and “money” player Tavon Wilson, have been given keys to the Bills’ plays by the coaching staff. “If player X does this, then look for this.” The Patriots need to be on point and read those keys with high efficiency, or else the Bills are going to hit on some big plays in open space.
- Cover tight: If the Patriots sit in zones all day, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will find the holes. What the Patriots need to do is junk their conservative coverages and get physical at the line of scrimmage with the Bills. The longer Fitzpatrick has to hold onto the ball, the more it plays into the Patriots’ hands. The rush will be able to affect Fitzpatrick, and he’ll start to throw the ball into bad spots. The Bills want Fitzpatrick to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible to keep him from making mistakes. Don’t give him easy, quick reads at the snap. And furthermore, the linebackers need to tee off on any crossing patterns. Don't let them feel comfortable.
- Get Wes Welker the ball in space: Welker killed the Bills last year, so they’ll have a better plan for him this year, especially with Aaron Hernandez out, and Rob Gronkowski dealing with an injury. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may have wanted to move away from Welker earlier in the season, but McDaniels really needs Welker in this game. The Patriots should be prepared to use a lot of motion with Welker, and to line him up in unconventional spots in order to get him a little space from the anticipated bracket coverage from the Bills. Welker can’t just line up in the slot. The Bills will clamp down on him.
- Get off to a fast start: The Ralph can be a bit of a zoo, and with the Patriots limping in a little, and the Bills starting to click on both sides of the ball, both the players and fans probably smell blood in the water. The Patriots need to start well and then keep the throttle down. If that means throwing all game, then so be it. Do whatever you have to do to stay out of the negative plays that have really hurt this team at times so far this season.
Like I said, this is a tough spot for the Patriots. There’s a chance this could go bad for them and the game could get out of hand. But I don’t see that happening. With Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Gronkowski and Stevan Ridley/Danny Woodhead, Brady has a good group to go into hostile territory with, and deal with any adversity they encounter. If the defense can force the Bills into a couple of turnovers, I think the Patriots have a good chance to rally and get the type of good, hard-fought division road victory that can get the team back on track.
Patriots 35, Bills 27