Week 17 Scouting Report: Buffalo Bills
|AP Photo/Gary Wiepert|
When the Patriots have the ball:
The Bills have invested a lot in their defensive line and have a formidable pass rush to show for it. After a down year last year, DE Mario Williams has returned to his dominant Pro Bowl form. The former #1 overall pick has racked up 13 sacks this year, including one of Buffalo's seven last week in their suffocating performance against Ryan Tannehill and Miami. He and big Alan Branch bookend one of the best defensive tackle duos in the game, as both Marcel Dareus (7.5 sacks, 44 tackles) and fellow Pro Bowler Kyle Williams (10.5 sacks, 42 tackles) have wreaked havoc all year long. Not to be outdone, linebacker Jerry Hughes has broken through after being labeled a first round bust in Indianapolis to add 10 sacks to Buffalo's league leading 56 on the season.
The Patriots offensive line exceeded all expectations by keeping Tom Brady upright in Baltimore despite Logan Mankins playing offensive tackle, but protecting Brady this week has to be a top concern again, especially if Nate Solder is still out with his concussion.
One of the ways the Pats helped out their reshuffled O-line last week was establishing the run. By doing so, New England forced Baltimore defenders like Terrell Suggs to respect the threat of the run, slowing down their pass rush in the process. Buffalo can be run on, as they've allowed the 10th most yards on the ground this year, so look for the Pats to continue to feed their two-headed monster of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley.
Another key way to slow a pass rush is the screen game, but that option might be dramatically weakened if Shane Vereen is unable to go this week. Vereen is listed as questionable after suffering a groin injury in the first quarter of the Pats win over Baltimore. If he cannot go, the drop-off from him to Brandon Bolden as a third down back is startling. Bolden can get what the defense gives him, but Vereen is a mismatch creating weapon. My guess would be that the expected absence of Vereen leads to a heavier workload for the team's power backs, just as it did last week.
Another reason to emphasize the running game is that it might be the most effective way to move the ball against Buffalo's defense. Aided by that pass rush, the Bills have quietly turned into one of the best pass defenses in the NFL. They hold opposing quarterbacks to a league low 55.1% completion percentage. Their 210.4 pass yards allowed per game is fifth lowest in the league, ranking right up there with elite defenses like Seattle, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Carolina. Their 22 interceptions rank second in the league, behind only Seattle and the legion of boom. It's not a coincidence that opposing passers have a 75.2 rating facing Buffalo, tied with San Francisco for second-worst in the league behind, you guessed it, Seattle.
How has Buffalo done this? There's no question that the pass rush has helped; one merely needs to watch last week's domination of Miami to see that. However, the secondary has also benefited from the emergence of cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore missed the first Bills-Pats matchup with an injury, but the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft has played very well this season, taking pressure of fellow starter Leodis McKelvin. Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso has also emerged this year, giving the Bills a presence in the middle of the field in coverage that they'd been lacking. They've also benefited from another Pro Bowl season from safety Jarius Byrd, who remains one of the best in the business. He's coupled with former Jet Jim Leonhard to form the backline of this secondary.
Where are the weaknesses to attack in this secondary? Leonhard is starting because Aaron Williams, a 2011 second rounder who's started 14 games while playing a mix of cornerback and safety, is doubtful with a rib injury. The Patriots could look to expose some of the depth guys forced onto the field in Williams' absence.
Furthermore, the Bills have proven to be vulnerable to the big play. Despite their gaudy numbers overall against the pass, they've allowed 14 pass plays of 40 or more yards, a number that is tied with Detroit for the third most in the league. If the Patriots are able to establish the run, play action could open up some big plays down the field, especially with both Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins tentatively expected to play Sunday.
While I expect the Pats to take a shot or two downfield, look for Tom Brady to spend the majority of his dropbacks throwing quick, short passes. This will not only help to neutralize the effect of the pass rush, but also fits their personnel, as Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both most effective when using their quickness to get open quickly and gain yards after the catch.
When the Bills have the ball:
It all starts with the running game for Buffalo. Led by the tag-team backfield of CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson, the Bills rank near the top of the league in nearly every rushing statistic. They've averaged 4.2 yards per carry while rushing a league high 34 times a game, churning out 142 yards a game on the ground, second to only the Philadelphia Eagles.
Speaking of the Chip Kelly Eagles, the Bills also share Philadelphia's affinity for quick-paced, no huddle offense. The Doug Marrone Bills have run an average of 67 plays a game, a number that ranks right up there amongst league leaders. Not only will the Patriots have to contend with Spiller and Jackson, but they'll also have to deal with the pace of their offense, which could very well mess with Coach Belichick's penchant for mixing and matching personnel while also bringing a fatigue factor to New England's bigger defensive personnel.
Both of these things are bad news for a New England defense that ranks near the bottom in run defense. They've shown a little improvement in recent weeks, with DT Sealver Siliga emerging as a starter next to rookie Chris Jones, but much of the progress has come against the dormant running games of Cleveland, Miami and Baltimore. Lest we forget, it was only a few weeks ago that the Pats defense was making Ben Tate look like the second coming of Jim Brown.
One key for this defense in recent weeks has been the improved play of Donta Hightower. Hightower seemed to be sleepwalking through much of the year, but he has really stepped it up (at least against the run) in recent weeks. It will be imperative for Hightower and Brandon Spikes to tackle well against the slippery Spiller in the open field, as Spiller has the explosive ability to quickly turn a seemingly dead play into a long touchdown.
Another tough dynamic of the matchup for the Pats is quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who will get the start in place of the injured EJ Manuel. The Patriots bigger defense has struggled a bit to contain mobile quarterbacks (see Cam Newton) this year, and the former Duke QB certainly has the speed to threaten a defense with his legs. The Pats will certainly look at this as a tune-up in defending athletic QBs, especially with Andrew Luck and Alex Smith looming as potential foes in the playoffs.
Lewis has started four games already this season with decidedly mixed results. The Bills are 2-2 in those starts, with Lewis throwing 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Lewis played very well in his first career start, a Week 6 overtime loss to Cincinnati in which he threw 2 touchdowns, no interceptions and also ran for a score. Since then it's been more of a struggle, with Lewis throwing only 1 touchdown and three picks while completing 60% of his passes.
Lewis hasn't been helped out much by his offensive line in those starts. He's been sacked 14 times in those four games, a number that's just about par for the course with an offensive line that's surrendered the fifth most sacks in the league (44). Left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Eric Wood are solid players, but the rest of Buffalo's line consists of backup types like Doug Legursky and Erik Pears. Look for the Pats to try to exploit those mismatches, perhaps with a few more stunts and blitzes to try to create confusion amongst the line.
Lewis also won't be helped by the absence of top receiver Stevie Johnson, who is mourning the unexpected death of his mother. With Johnson out, the Bills main receiving corp will consist of rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin along with second year man TJ Graham. Woods has been the most consistent of the bunch, catching 39 balls for 560 yards and 3 touchdowns in 12 starts as a second round rookie. Goodwin and Graham have both flashed talent as complementary pieces, but both will see expanded roles this game. The Patriots will have to keep an eye on Goodwin, who has the raw speed to take the top off of any defense.
Covering the tight end has been an issue for the 2013 Patriots, who will likely have to contend with Scott Chandler without the services of Devin McCourty. Chandler has quietly caught 50 passes for 600 yards this year and has had his moments against the Pats over the years. With the Pats surely concerned with the deep ball, especially with speedsters like Goodwin playing more, it could be up to athletic rookie linebacker Jamie Collins to keep Chandler from exposing the middle zones of the Pats D, although Collins is also the Pats best matchup against the receiving abilities of both Spiller and Jackson out of the backfield.
One of the underlooked positives from last week's win over Baltimore was the return of the defense's opportunistic ways. While two of the team's four forced turnovers and both defensive scores came late against backup QB Tyrod Taylor, it was still an encouraging sign for a defense that had been going through a bit of dry streak forcing turnovers.
The opportunities should be there to rack up some more turnovers against Buffalo. The Bills have fumbled 31 times as a team, with Lewis alone putting it on the ground 6 times in his four starts. Furthermore, Lewis has thrown a pick in each of his last three starts. The Patriots ability to capitalize on Buffalo mistakes will likely determine whether the Pats can put a inferior Buffalo team away early or let them dangerously hang around in the game.
The Patriots special teams come into this game riding high after their best all around performance of the year against Baltimore. However, Stephen Gostkowski won't have the benefit of kicking in September-like conditions this week, meaning touchbacks should be harder to come by. The coverage teams will likely have to make a few more stops of their own this week against Buffalo return teams that haven't been great but do feature explosive athletes in Goodwin and Leodis McKelvin. A big play or two on special teams could be huge for a Buffalo team looking for whatever edge it can get against the Goliath of the AFC East; it will be up to Pro Bowler Matthew Slater and his teammates to keep them from doing so.
The Pats will likely be without Devin McCourty (concussion) and Shane Vereen (groin), with Nate Solder also very questionable for this one after suffering two concussions in two weeks recently. This will likely mean more playing time for rookie safety Duron Harmon, third down back Brandon Bolden, as well as another game with Logan Mankins playing left tackle next to rookie guard Josh Kline.
On the Buffalo side, starting quarterback EJ Manuel will be sidelined with a knee injury, opening the door for Thaddeus Lewis to make his 5th career start. Stevie Johnson will also be missing, as he mourns the loss of his mother, meaning more opportunities for young receivers like Marquise Goodwin and TJ Graham. Finally, safety/cornerback Aaron Williams is doubtful with a rib injury, meaning former Jet Jim Leonhard will get the start at safety next to Jarius Byrd.
Bill Belichick gets the checkmark here, obviously, but don't overlook the job Doug Marrone has done in his first year in Buffalo. His Bills have played hard and largely been competitive despite fighting through some injuries at quarterback and playing a lot of young, inexperienced players. Buffalo's 6-9 record certainly looks more impressive when you factor in an overtime loss to the playoff bound Bengals, competitive losses to New England and Kansas City, and wins over Carolina, Baltimore and the Dolphins (twice). There's reason to be optimistic about Buffalo's future.
The Patriots will be looking to finish a perfect 8-0 at home this season. Doing so will also ensure that the Pats play their first playoff game within the comfy confines of Gillette Stadium, as they will be guaranteed a first round bye with a win.
Of course, the Pats could have a playoff bye clinched before kickoff, in the unlikely scenario that both Cincinnati and Indianapolis lose their 1 pm matchups with Baltimore and Jacksonville respectively. Even in that scenario, the Patriots will still be playing for the change to leapfrog Denver for the the conference's top seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, although they'll need Oakland to pull of a huge upset of the Broncos for that to become possible.
Finally, it would be foolish to overlook the David vs. Goliath aspect. The Patriots have dominated the AFC East during the Brady/Belichick era, with the Bills particularly serving as their personal Washington Generals. Tom Brady is 21-2 all time against Buffalo, including a perfect 11-0 at Gillette Stadium. This Buffalo team certainly seemed to relish playing the role of spoiler against Miami last week; don't be surprised if this young, feisty team comes out guns a-blazing in an attempt to push their rivals back into Wild Card weekend.