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(WKBW) - At 6-5, the Buffalo Bills are in the throes of a playoff race and likely need a minimum of three — if not four wins to obtain one of the two Wild Card spots in the AFC. The trouble is, this week, they’ve got a whopper of an opponent on deck.
The Bills will welcome in the New England Patriots to New Era Field on Sunday — a team that has won its last seven games and is as much of a Super Bowl contender as any other club in the league. And once again, it looks like they’re poised to win the AFC East to continue their outright dominance since Tom Brady has taken over at quarterback.
The Bills got back on track last week in Kansas City, but can they parlay that into a win over the Patriots? Five things to watch for in the upcoming contest:
1) McDermott’s game plan for Brady - There are two schools of thought on how to defend Tom Brady that the quarterback has equally thwarted in his time in New England. Teams can either blitz him, or they only send four (or less) players at the quarterback to concentrate more on coverage. So which type is Sean McDermott? There really isn’t a way of getting inside his mind for what his plan is on Sunday, but you can only go by what he’s done in his past. The last time McDermott’s defense went up against the Patriots, it was back in 2013 when he was the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers — a game that his team ended up winning. So, I went back and charted how McDermott played Brady and the results put him firmly on #TeamCoverage. Brady dropped back a total of 45 times (including plays that resulted in penalties). The Panthers sent four or fewer rushers at Brady 35 of those 45 plays — a whopping 78-percent of dropbacks. Of those 45 attempts, the Panthers were able to bring him down for a sack twice and hurried him seven times. Obviously, the two sacks resulted in a loss, but on the seven hurried attempts, Brady went just 1-of-7 for 11 yards and an interception — which is a shocking statistic for a player that is as good as he is. And of those nine plays that resulted in either a sack or a hurried throw, eight of those plays came on a play where they sent four or fewer players at Brady. The Panthers also crowded the line of scrimmage with linebackers and defensive lineman alike, in an attempt to cause chaos along the offensive line and creating a missed assignment. Considering the success from that day, I would be willing to bet that McDermott and the Bills would approach playing Brady the same way — as it also falls into their normal defensive philosophy. The key will be generating heat on Brady with four defenders or less.
2) Manufacturing a pass rush - So how do they do that, given the personnel they are dealing with? Really, the Bills have struggled in this area for much of the year, but based on the Kansas City game there might be an avenue toward getting heat on Brady. The Bills reduced Lorenzo Alexander’s defensive role and put him in a position to succeed by making him mostly a pass rusher — or at the very least — being a defender at the line that made the opposition think he’d be rushing off the edge. If they can channel that again this week and keep him fresh while doing so, they can use him to attack Brady off the edge. He’s the second-best pass rusher they have after Jerry Hughes, and if I were the Bills I’d think about flipping Hughes to the left side of the defense occasionally throughout the game to take advantage of a mismatch. Along the New England offensive line, the player to attack is right tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Normally a backup for the Patriots, he’s had to start in place of the injured Marcus Cannon and will likely do so again on Sunday. With Shaq Lawson still trying to figure it out as a pass rusher this season, utilizing Hughes in a plus matchup on the opposite side would help the Bills hurry Brady just before the throw — which will dramatically dip his accuracy more often than not. Hughes and Alexander could both fit in this role, but there has to be effective pressure on Sunday. Another thing you might see is the Bills using Ramon Humber as one of the four rushers up the middle — which is one of his strengths as a defender. The Bills might try to use him when they crowd the line of scrimmage, and potentially drop a defensive end into coverage to keep themselves without a lapse for Brady to exploit.
3) What to do with Gronkowski? - The Bills were a little fortunate on Sunday defensively. They certainly did a great job to stop the run last week against Kansas City, which had been a problem for a few weeks in a row. However, the one player they didn’t account for significantly enough was tight end Travis Kelce, but Alex Smith’s tentative quarterbacking didn’t spot it nearly enough, and Kelce left that game without making as huge of an impact as he could have. He was consistently open in coverage in different spots on the field, and Smith just didn’t see him. Kelce is as close a comparison to Gronkowski as you’ll find in the NFL, and you’ll have to figure the Patriots use Gronkowski in a similar way — only with the all-knowing Brady as their quarterback. I think Micah Hyde is going to be a huge part of the game plan to stop Gronkowski. He has the instincts and recognition skills, and that has helped him be one of the top safeties in the league this season. They could use Hyde as a bit of a Gronkowski spy. If they keep the tight end in the underneath areas, then no big deal there, the linebackers can take control of that and try to lead to a gang tackle after the reception. However, it’s the intermediate-to-deep areas that they can use Hyde to pick up Gronkowski and try to take that part of the Patriots game plan away from them. If they don’t pay him enough attention, Brady will find him — and he will find him a lot against a Bills defense that has typically struggled to cover the tight end in the middle areas of the field.
4) Defending the running backs - If all goes well and the Bills are able to manufacture a pass rush on Tom Brady on Sunday, that will likely lead to Brady focus more on completing short, high-percentage passes in areas that the players have room to roam — and also against plus matchups on the field. The Bills linebackers are going to be quite important in this game if the first part of the game plan (getting to Brady) comes through. The Patriots have a pair of running backs in Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead that can be weapons for them in the passing game. Between Ramon Humber, Matt Milano, and maybe even Lorenzo Alexander, they cannot lose track of those players by peaking into the backfield for too long. Their reaction to those players must be immediate as soon as they leave the backfield on a delayed route. Both players are fairly shifty and can put up some yards after the catch. The Bills will truly need a full team defensive effort to try and slow down the Brady attack to the point where the offense has a chance to stay in the game.
5) The running game is everything to the Bills on offense this week - We’ve spent a lot of the preview here on what the Bills need to do defensively — and for good reason. However, on the offensive side of the ball, it is extremely important for the Bills to establish their ground game for many different reasons. The first is the obvious one: LeSean McCoy (who sat out of Friday’s practice but is considered to be good to go on Sunday) is the best offensive piece that they have. When the Bills are really going well on offense, it’s McCoy leading the way for them. The Patriots, though they have been a better defense lately, are still susceptible to allowing an opposing running back to get going. If McCoy and the rushing offense can establish themselves, it will also help reduce the amount of Patriots offensive possessions in the game by holding on to the ball for longer, with more running clocks, than a pass-first offense would mostly do. With a bunch of turnovers against this Patriots team looking unlikely, time of possession becomes their next best friend to try and manufacture a closer game by simply ticking away time off the clock. If they can do that, and combine it with the total defensive effort, this game could be closer than expected.
Buffalo OUT: WR Kelvin Benjamin, RB Mike Tolbert, LT Cordy Glenn, G John Miller QUESTIONABLE: FB Patrick DiMarco, T Seantrel Henderson, DE Eddie Yarbrough, TE Nick O’Leary
New England OUT: RT Marcus Cannon, WR Chris Hogan QUESTIONABLE: C David Andrews, LB Marquis Flowers, DE Trey Flowers, LB Trevor Reilly, CB Eric Rowe, WR Matt Slater, LB Kyle Van Noy, T LaAdrian Waddle
Prediction: Patriots over Bills - The New England Patriots truly are frightening for opposing teams. As an opponent, you know what’s coming, but they just go ahead and do it anyway no matter how much work you’ve put in through the week. I really liked the game plan McDermott had for Brady back in 2013, and there’s a lot of insight to draw from that — and maybe even in a year or two, it can put the Bills right in the mix to actually beat the Patriots. However, what it comes down to for me is just an overall talent disparity on this Bills defense as compared to the one they employed in Carolina in 2013. The linebackers just aren’t as quick or reactive enough to thwart the play of running backs or tight ends in coverage consistently enough, and the defensive line hasn’t been able to sustain a pass rush with just four players through the season. I think the Bills can put up a good fight early on, but eventually lacking the players that they truly need to play the type of defense Sean McDermott wants will come back to bite them. That said, knowing how Bill Belichick flips the script from one week to the next with his team, I wouldn’t at all be shocked to see them attack the Bills up the middle on the ground and actually have former Bills player Mike Gillislee active on game day to do just that. The Bills need to play a perfect game on Sunday to come out with a victory against perhaps the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl this season. We’re going to learn quite a bit about this Bills team — especially after they were just embarrassed the last time they played at New Era Field. I can’t pick against the Patriots in this spot, but I think the game plan the Bills and McDermott have in place for Brady could give the Patriots a little bit more of a game than expected.