NFL

4 Bills players to watch against the Patriots on Monday night

The Patriots must contain the dynamic duo of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs on Monday night against the Buffalo Bills.

Stefon Diggs Bills Patriots
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs celebrates after scoring against the Indianapolis Colts. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
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The battle for the right to rule the AFC East begins Monday night as the Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills for the first game of a crucial two-game division set.

New England will certainly be out for revenge after watching Buffalo claim the AFC East crown and sweep the Patriots in the season series last year for the first time in two decades.

This year’s Bills (7-4) haven’t been nearly as unstoppable as last year’s 13-3, AFC-runner-up squad, while the Patriots (8-4) have been worlds better in 2021.

But make no mistake: Buffalo still boasts one of the most talented teams in the league, led by one of its most dynamic young players.

Josh Allen

Whether he truly believes in the hype or not, Bill Belichick has been nothing but complimentary of Allen heading into Monday’s game. You can’t deny the fourth-year quarterback out of Wyoming is a much better player than he was just a few years ago.

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Though his performance this year has been a bit more scattershot than a 2020 season that saw him finish second in the league’s MVP voting, he’s on pace to author a plenty-impressive follow-up to last year’s breakout campaign.

Naturally, Allen’s absurd arm strength and ability to push the ball down the field will be one of the Patriots’ biggest talking points this week. He’s tied for the sixth-most pass attempts of 20 yards or longer and the sixth-highest grade among quarterbacks on those deep throws, according to Pro Football Focus.

But you can’t forget about what he can do with his legs either: he’s racked up 383 yards on the ground through 11 games, with 211 of those coming on scrambles.

The key for the Patriots: contain him within the pocket, and don’t lose discipline on receivers down the field. Allen is capable of beating them from the pocket at this point in his career, but New England’s odds are far better if they make him do it that way than letting him make plays outside of it.

Stefon Diggs

No offense to Cole Beasley or Emmanuel Sanders, but you would be happy to make either of them beat you.

It’s Diggs you have to stop.

By just about every metric, the seven-year veteran is one of the 10 best receivers in football. Diggs is tied for seventh in the NFL in both receptions (67) and touchdowns (seven) and sits at ninth in receiving yards (847).

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The more important stat for the Patriots, though: he ranks third in the league in yards on throws 20 or more yards down the field (349) and is tied for ninth in targets on such throws (19).

New England’s switch to a zone-based coverage plan will be crucial to keeping Diggs from hurting them deep. But that doesn’t mean he can’t turn a short gain into a monster play—not that the Patriots don’t already know that.

When the Bills break the huddle, No. 14 will be the first man the defense tries to find on every play.

Tremaine Edmunds

A talented but raw linebacker who came into the league at 19 years old, Edmunds has started rounding into form in a major way this season.

Bill Belichick even went so far as to call the 23-year-old linebacker “one of the best players in the league.” Even if you see that as a touch too far on the Edmunds love, there’s still a lot to like about him.

It’s hard to create a more imposing linebacker than the 6-foot-5, 250-pound speed demon who ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2018.

His speed and explosiveness make him difficult to outrun from sideline to sideline and hard to block in space. His 26 “stops,” which basically signify how many times he’s blown up a play, are tied for first on the team despite missing two games.

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In pass coverage, his blend of size and athleticism allow him to stick with running backs in man coverage and make him dangerous as a zone coverage defender (as Houston’s Davis Mills learned earlier this season).

Wherever he is on the field, the Patriots have to make sure there’s a body in his way.

Ed Oliver

If there’s one thing that can wreck an offense, it’s pressure and disruption right up the middle. Oliver brings that just about every week.

Though his sack numbers are down, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 draft might be having his best season yet with 26 pressures and 17 stops through 11 games. He especially destroyed the New Orleans Saints last week, racking up six pressures and four stops in a dominant effort.

The former first-round pick’s emergence has been especially important for the Bills with fellow interior game-wrecker Star Lotulelei out for the last three games on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The Bills might be getting Lolutelei (limited in practice) back on Monday, which should bolster Buffalo’s run defense. But Oliver brings much more juice on passing downs, not unlike young Patriots star Christian Barmore.

As seen on the New England side of things, strong interior play from disrupters like Barmore can also open up opportunities for edge rushers like Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy. Oliver and Lotulelei do the same for the likes of Mario Addison (25 pressures) and Jerry Hughes (31 pressures).

The interior offensive line crew of David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Ted Karras will have their hands full enough trying to keep Oliver away from Mac Jones on Monday night.

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