Perhaps some opening-day jitters got to both teams as the New England Patriots traveled to Buffalo to take on the Bills. It was a back-and-forth affair as neither team showed much respect for the football by combining for five turnovers, including four lost fumbles. The Patriots had the ball last and made it count with a 12-play drive capped by a Stephen Gostkowski 35-yard field goal to escape with the win in a sloppy effort.
Despite the loss, the Bills got an encouraging performance from rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel who ran the new offense efficiently and came up with some big throws when called upon. For New England, they showed the ability to grind out a win even though the offense was unable to put the ball into the end zone in the second half.
As always, Week 1 is a mere sampling of what’s to come the rest of the season, and overreactions will become the norm in the coming days, but both teams had a number of question marks coming in and we now have a better idea of where they stand after 60 minutes of action.
Let’s take a look at the key performances from the game.
New England – Three Performances of Note
New Playmakers in New England
With the well-documented, tumultuous New England offseason now in the rearview, the new-look Patriots got a couple of top performances from a new pair of playmakers. Running back Shane Vereen flashed his all-around ability last January against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round, but it was on full display on Sunday as he graded at +4.4 overall, including +2.3 as a runner and +1.5 in the passing game. Getting the bulk of the carries after starter Stevan Ridley was benched for fumbling twice (only once officially), Vereen picked up 101 yards on 14 attempts and forced three missed tackles. He showed his burst by getting to the edge on his 15-yard run at the end of the fourth quarter that set up kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard game-winning field goal. As a receiver, Vereen caught seven passes for 58 yards and forced three more missed tackles, but missing from the stat sheet is the nifty double move he put on safety Da’Norris Searcy that would have resulted in a big gain had quarterback Tom Brady not overthrown him.
The other playmaker to emerge was free agent wide receiver Danny Amendola (+3.8) who caught 10 passes for 104 yards, but most importantly, all 10 of his receptions picked up first downs. Amendola is often criticized for being unable to stay healthy and, while he did miss a portion of the game on his way to playing 60 of the Patriots’ 95 snaps, he was clearly Brady’s go-to guy at crunch time. The Patriots’ final two drives saw Brady target Amendola on quick slants and crossing routes, and the receiver responded with tough catches in traffic, including three third-down conversions.
The Patriots’ game-winning drive was telling as all seven passes were thrown to Vereen and Amendola, to go with two attempts for Vereen on the ground as New England’s top offensive weapons became quite clear on Sunday.
Stat Sheet Lies
We often find ourselves arguing against the traditional stat sheet here at PFF, and one of the big misconceptions about looking at an NFL boxscore is adding up tackle totals to determine a defensive player’s worth. Our stats and grades debates go well beyond just that, but Sunday’s game was a great example of misleading tackle totals in the case of linebacker Jerod Mayo. We had him down for 12 solo tackles and an assist, but the -2.0 overall grade just doesn’t match up. He was often caught out of position in the running game, particularly with Manuel giving a read-option look throughout the clash. He had other issues at the second level as offensive tackle Cordy Glenn was able to lock on a couple times, including the 5:05 mark of the second quarter and 3:08 mark of the third. Mayo still finished with three stops in the running game, and his -0.6 run defense grade is not horrible, but it’s not the best work we’ve seen from last year’s No. 2 rated 4-3 outside linebacker. In coverage, the four receptions surrendered for 27 yards doesn’t look bad, but Mayo’s worst play was getting lost on a deep crossing route from tight end Scott Chandler that was subsequently dropped — yet another missing stat-sheet item. When you throw in an uncharacteristic unnecessary roughness penalty, it was not a strong all-around day for Mayo.
Stout Up Front
The annual cries for an upgraded pass rush will likely rage on in New England, but they continued their run-stopping ways on Sunday in Buffalo. All four starting defensive linemen graded in the positive against the run, led by DT Vince Wilfork (+3.6) and DE Rob Ninkovich (+2.4). Wilfork had his way with left guard Colin Brown as he maneuvered him into running lanes and consistently pushed him back at the point of attack. He set the tone for their battle at the 10:18 mark in the first quarter and never looked back. Ninkovich was often the player being targeted by Manuel’s option action in the backfield, but he still managed to get in on seven tackles, including six stops. He always seemed to be ready for whatever the Bills threw at him, whether it was taking a great angle to cut off the flat route to C.J. Spiller with 4:12 to go in the third, or having the awareness to shake WR Stevie Johnson’s back side cutoff in order to get in on the tackle on the first play of the fourth quarter. Ninkovich appeared to be one step ahead of the Bills on Sunday.
Buffalo – Three Performances of Note
Rookie Looks Comfortable
As mentioned, Manuel showed well in his debut, grading at +1.4 overall. The Bills kept it simple for him as they used his running threat in an attempt to open up the ground game, while sprinkling in a number of rollouts and short passes throughout the day. However, he did make some downfield throws when necessary, namely his two touchdowns. The first was a blown coverage from New England as CB Aqib Talib failed to trail rookie WR Robert Woods and Manuel found him in the middle of the end zone at the end of the first half. The second touchdown was a beautifully lofted pass to Johnson, though a couple missteps from free safety Devin McCourty certainly helped. There weren’t a lot of missteps for Manuel, though he’ll likely want a mulligan on a couple of deep passes down the left sideline. He was nearly intercepted by CB Alfonzo Dennard with 8:56 to go in the first, though it was a great play by Dennard to get both hands on the pass. Manuel’s throw to WR T.J. Graham at the 14:33 mark of the fourth had no chance of being intercepted as it landed well out of bounds, and we’re left to wonder what would have happened if it was thrown in a spot where the speedy Graham could make a play on it. For the day, only seven of Manuel’s 27 targeted passes went beyond 10 yards, but he executed the simple Bills game plan and had them in position to win in the fourth quarter.
Questions at Left Guard
The left guard position has been a hot-button issue throughout Bills camp given the departure of free agent Andy Levitre, and it wasn’t a good start to the post-Levitre era.
We’ve already mentioned some of LG Brown’s difficult day, as he finished at -7.8 and was just as poor as a run blocker (-4.4) as he was in pass protection (-3.7). Brown may have had the most difficult task on the Bills’ line, however, as he often found himself battling not only the Patriots’ best run defender in Wilfork, but also their best pass rusher in Jones. Not only did Wilfork control Brown in the running game, he also bull-rushed him for a pressure with 1:43 to go in the second quarter. Jones lined up on the inside, a new wrinkle for the Patriots, as he played defensive right tackle (on a four-man line) seven times on Sunday after doing so only three times all of last season. He beat Brown for a hit and two hurries in his limited time, going to his outside shoulder each time. It looks like the Levitre whispers will continue for at least another week in Buffalo.
More Stat Sheet Lies
Sometimes our own stat sheets tell some false truths, such as DT Marcell Dareus’ six stops, which look pretty but don’t compare to his -1.1 grade for the game, particularly the -3.1 against the run. There were certainly some positives, as the six stops would indicate, particularly in the second half when Dareus beat RG Dan Connolly a number of times to get in on the action. It was a small measure of revenge for Dareus after Connolly put him on the ground with a great reach block on the last play of the first quarter. The mammoth hole led to a 20-yard gain for Ridley. Dareus found himself on the ground all too easily laster in the game, this time from center Ryan Wendell, who turned and planted him to open up yet another gaping hole that led to a 21-yard gain for Vereen. Dareus was sealed out of a number of first-half runs before his second-half surge, but it was too late to recover from the poor grade.
- The Patriots blitzed Manuel on only six of his 32 drop-backs. He went 3 of 6 for 29 yards on those plays, but graded at +1.2.
- Despite only six pass rushes at the position, all three of DE Chandler Jones’ pressures came from defensive right tackle
- Bills LT Cordy Glenn did not give up a pressure on 32 attempts.
PFF Game Ball
It’s tough to differentiate between Amendola and Vereen, who both stepped up to make plays for the Patriots when the rest of their respective position groups were inconsistent throughout the game. It’s difficult to see the Patriots wining without both performances.
Follow Steve on Twitter.