Each week of the season, we’ll ask a beat writer who covers the Patriots’ opponent five questions for some insight.
1. What are 1-2 of the biggest changes you expect to see under Doug Marrone compared to the previous head coach, Chan Gailey?
The difference in offensive tempo will be obvious. Doug Marrone and the coordinator he brought with him from Syracuse, Nathaniel Hackett, don’t huddle. They intend to be among the league leaders in plays per game. On Sunday, though, I don’t know if the Bills will be as keen to increase the tempo as they normally would like. They have a rookie quarterback making his NFL debut and returning from knee surgery. I don’t know if getting into a shootout with Tom Brady is their grand plan.
Defensively, the Bills will look a lot more creative and aggressive. Their previous coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, lined up his players the same way on almost every play, rushed the same four guys and didn’t blitz much. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine tries to confuse quarterbacks by lining up his players in various spots. Everybody is a candidate to blitz. Mario Williams has joked he doesn’t even know what position he plays anymore.
2. How did EJ Manuel look before the knee injury? How do you expect him to perform after taking 2-3 weeks off?
He looked like an intriguing rookie. He was inconsistent and showed jitters at times but also looked the part of a future franchise quarterback. He has a big arm and is dangerous on the move.
But rookie nervousness will be there. Manuel was tightly wound even for his first intrasquad scrimmage. He threw a pick-six to Leodis McKelvin on his first attempt, but got surgical by the end of the session. Same thing in his first preseason game. Manuel looked pedestrian in the beginning, but right before halftime he completed all nine of his passes on a 10-play, 92-yard touchdown drive.
We haven’t seen much of Manuel since his surgery. He didn’t play the final two preseason games, and practices have been closed (aside from watching warmup drills) since he was cleared to return. He seems to be throwing the ball effortlessly, and the receivers tell me he’s the same as before the surgery.
3. Who is one player Patriots fans haven’t heard of but will have an impact on Sunday?
Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso hasn’t even generated much attention in Western New York. He would have commanded a lot more if there wasn’t so much change taking place. After talking about the rookie GM and the rookie head coach and the rookie quarterbacks and the rookie receivers and the new coordinators, Alonso easily gets overlooked. But Alonso has been the starter almost since the Bills drafted him 46th overall out of Oregon. He’s a sideline-to-sideline tackler, has quickness to cover and should have plenty of opportunities to make plays Sunday.
4. Mario Williams didn’t have a great first year in Buffalo. How do you expect him to do under new DC Mike Pettine, and how do you expect the defense to do overall this year?
I suspect Mario Williams will be as good as he wants to be. He has all the tools to be great, but he disappears for long stretches. He made a bad first impression last year, moaning after the season opener that New York Jets right tackle Austin Howard (one career NFL start at the time) kept hitting him in the face and the replacement officials wouldn’t call it. Then there was the whole injured-wrist saga, where the Bills didn’t think Williams was hurt enough to put him on the injury report, but Williams kept mentioning how much it was bothering him. He surprised the Bills by having surgery during the bye week. Bills fans were calling the talk shows and peppering me in the chat rooms about what the Bills could get for him at the trade deadline.
But Williams got hot after his surgery, with seven sacks over the final nine games. Some members of the Bills’ front office still weren’t convinced the surgery was necessary and have told me they think there was a placebo effect for Williams mentally.
Pettine’s defense should give Williams opportunities to get after quarterbacks. But until we see him on the field, how he’ll actually perform is anyone’s guess.
5. Finally, the Bills will win Sunday if….
Manuel has a highly efficient game and the defense comes up with a couple of game-changing plays.
Manuel doesn’t need to have a prolific stat line, but if he can manage the game and be good enough to keep the Patriots’ defense from crowding the box, then the Bills can move the ball with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
As mentioned before, however, the Bills can’t afford to get in a shootout with Tom Brady. A couple of takeaways or a special-teams touchdown will even the odds.