3TFO: Bills @ Patriots, Week 10
At the beginning of the year, many figured that defensive improvements in the form of splashy free agent signings and high draft picks would allow the Buffalo Bills to build on their surprising 2011 season, and earn one of the AFC’s Wild Card spots. Currently sitting at 3-5, and winless in their two division games, the Bills look like they will be hard-pressed to find themselves playing in January.
While they still feature one of the league’s strongest running games, led by a terrific year from halfback CJ Spiller, they have underperformed in nearly every other phase of the game. The team faces a huge challenge this weekend, traveling to Foxborough to take on the division-leading Patriots. A win in New England may be the only way for the Bills to jumpstart their disappointing season, and give the team the confidence they need to make a run to the playoffs in a weak AFC.
After destroying St. Louis in London two weeks ago, New England spent their bye week resting their banged-up team. The Patriots also appeared to have shored up their biggest weakness, the defensive secondary, by trading for talented cornerback Aqib Talib. Unfortunately for fans of the team, Talib is not eligible to play this week due to an NFL suspension. However, both fans and team officials are hopeful that this addition will help the Patriots make a return to the Super Bowl. Let’s look at the matchups that will determine the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Patriots Secondary
When these teams met in Week 4, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick performed with the maddening inconsistency that has defined his career. On one hand, he threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns, and lead his team to a 14-7 halftime lead. On the other, he threw four interceptions, which helped New England explode for 45 second-half points on their way to a blowout victory. Fitzpatrick will have to do a much better job of limiting his mistakes if the Bills hope to beat the Patriots on Sunday.
Fitzpatrick has been helped by solid pass protection in 2012; all of Buffalo’s offensive linemen have graded positively in this area so far and the unit ranks fourth in the NFL with a cumulative Pass Blocking Efficiency of 85.5. Look for Fitzpatrick to take advantage of the strong protection, and to test a Patriots secondary that has yet to prove that they can consistently defend the deep pass.
New England’s secondary has struggled mightily, both with injuries and inconsistency, for the second consecutive year. Talib should help to stabilize the unit, but he will not arrive until after Sunday’s game. CB Devin McCourty has been the unit’s only consistent player in coverage, but injuries and inconsistent play from Patriot safeties inspired Bill Belichick to move McCourty to FS in recent weeks. The return of starting safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung will leave the Patriots with some personnel decisions to make. Rookie CB Alfonzo Dennard has played very well in limited snaps; opposing QB’s have a passer rating of just 37.3 when throwing in his direction. One wonders if his recent performance has convinced Belichick to start Dennard at RCB over Kyle Arrington, one of PFF’s lowest-rated corners at the season’s halfway mark (NFL-worst 155.8 QB rating against.)
Mario Williams vs. Sebastian Vollmer
It is probably safe to say that Buffalo has been less than thrilled with the early returns from their $100 million investment in defensive end Mario Williams. Though a wrist injury has likely limited Williams’ performance, his work as a pass rusher has left something to be desired this year. His Pass Rushing Productivity of 7.4 is a far cry from the elite level that the Bills hoped for when they signed him in the offseason. Elsewhere on the defensive line, DT Kyle WIlliams has turned in an excellent year thus far; his PRP of 8.3 ranks second only to Geno Atkins among defensive tackles. DE Kyle Moore has played extremely well since the team lost Mark Anderson to injury, with an off-the-charts PRP of 16.7 in limited reps. The group will need to do its best work against a Patriots offensive line that has been solid in pass protection in 2012.
After an injury-marred 2011 season, Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has responded in the best way possible this year. Not only has he played in all eight of the team’s games, but he has been its most dependable lineman, and was recently named as a starter on PFF’s Pro Bowl Cheat Sheet. He has graded positively as a run blocker, but has done his best work in pass protection, surrendering just 14 total pressures for a PBE of 96.6. Vollmer completely stonewalled Williams in their last meeting, not allowing a single pressure. Vollmer and the Patriots’ line cannot let their guard down on Sunday; while the Bills defensive line has grossly underperformed in 2012, they are still an enviably talented group that is fully capable of wrecking an offensive game plan.
Stevan Ridley vs. Bills Run Defense
Simply put, New England’s running attack annihilated the Bills’ defense during their Week 4 meeting. Halfbacks Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley combined to rush for 243 yards, as the Patriots crushed their divisional rival. Bolden has been nursing a knee injury in recent weeks, and is unlikely to play. This means the bulk of the rushing responsibilities will fall on Ridley’s capable shoulders. While all of New England’s offensive linemen graded positively as run blockers during Week 4, TE’s Rob Gronkowski (+4.6 run-blocking grade that week) and Daniel Fells (+4.1) deserve the most credit. It should be noted that the Bills played the vast majority of the game in their nickel defense, which was no match for the Patriots’ ground game. We will find out Sunday if Buffalo has implemented a new defensive strategy to try to slow the Patriots league-leading offense.
The Bills’ run defense was pathetic in their Week 4 loss to New England. They graded at -14.1 as a unit against the run, missing 11 tackles. Buffalo clearly designed their defensive game plan with the intention of stopping the Patriots’ lethal passing attack, as they spent most of the game with nickelback Justin Rogers and nickel linebacker Bryan Scott on the field. Though Scott managed seven stops and did not miss a tackle, the Bills’ defense was completely manhandled by the Patriots’ run blockers. Missed tackles on every level of the defense only amplified Buffalo’s problems. The Bills will likely use their personnel differently this week, to try to avoid being gashed by New England’s running backs. They will have to be careful not to overcompensate, however, or Tom Brady will eat them alive through the air.