ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – It’s the first game of the season and there is so much expected of the Patriots.
In facing the Bills, there are a number of challenges defensively. But mostly, there are questions about the makeup of this roster. Here’s what we’ll be watching:
1) The receivers — Everyone wants to know how this group will look and handle a real NFL game. Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfeld, and Josh Boyce all figure to play prominent roles. (Rookie Aaron Dobson is out with a hamstring injury.) Thompkins in particular is expected to be a big part of the offense. Sudfeld will fill in the for the injured Rob Gronkowski. The bar was set high last season when the Patriots had the fourth-ranked passing offense in the league. Can this group live up to that standard?
2) How the team handles C.J. Spiller — The shifty running back for the Bills averaged 6 yards per carry last season and ran for 1,244 yards as a part-time player. The Bills plan on using him extensively this season. In their last meeting with the Bills, Spiller tallied 131 yards from scrimmage. This is a good first test for linebackers Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, and rookie Jamie Collins.
3) The situation at right guard — Will Svitek is out with a knee injury after playing the entire preseason at right guard. Linemen Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon have both practiced with the first team group at right guard this summer before suffering injuries of their own. But both Connolly and Cannon are healthy now and available for today’s game. Who gets the nod?
4) How linebacker Jamie Collins is used — We’ve seen Collins cycle in and out on passing downs during the preseason. The thought is that he will substitute for Spikes in passing situations, taking advantage of his skills as a former safety and hopefully improving upon the team’s dismal pass defense last season, which was ranked 29th overall.
5) The depth in the secondary — There’s a talented group of receivers in Buffalo. From the loquacious Stevie Johnson to the speedy rookie Marquise Goodwin. There’s also rookie wideout Robert Woods, a dynamic player for Southern California just a year ago. It will be a tough group to handle, especially when they get into three- and four-receiver sets. In the season opener, the Patriots will have to go without safety Duron Harmon, who is out with a hamstring injury, and defensive back Nate Ebner, team’s fourth safety. Backups Marquice Cole and Logan Ryan figure to play more prominently. Cole, who is a natural cornerback, has experience at safety as well.
6) E.J. Manuel — Watching rookie quarterbacks in their debut is always fun. It’ll be baptism by fire as the Patriots will likely try and confuse Manuel as much as possible with different looks.