3TFO: Bills @ Patriots, Week 17
Though they clinched the AFC East last week, the New England Patriots still have much to play for in Week 17. While the AFC’s top seed is still possible for the Patriots, a win would guarantee them a first round bye, earning this injury-ravaged team a much-needed week off. Buffalo has been eliminated from playoff contention for weeks, but a win this week over the best team in their division would help build momentum into 2014 for an exciting, young Bills team.
Patriots Offensive Line vs. Bills Front Four
New England’s interior offensive line has struggled this season, which does not bode well against Buffalo’s excellent defensive front. Guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell have been decent run blockers, but rank near the bottom of their positions in pass protection. Marcus Cannon has really struggled as a run blocker this season (-10.3). This group will greatly benefit from Nate Solder’s return to the field. Solder (+21.5), the team’s best lineman, has missed time recently with concussion issues.
Led by an excellent front seven, Buffalo has quietly built one of the NFL’s toughest defenses. The group trails only Seattle and Kansas City in our cumulative defensive grading. The Bills have one of the league’s elite defensive lines and the group excels against both the run and the pass. Kyle Williams (+36.1) is our third-highest-graded 3-4 defensive end, and Marcell Dareus has been excellent at nose tackle. Dareus ranks third at his position in Run Stop Percentage and has also added nine sacks. Mario Williams (14 sacks) has been productive as well, but the real surprise of the group has been former Colt Jerry Hughes. Hughes’ +19.8 pass rushing grade is the second best among 3-4 OLB’s, and he has thrived in his role of situational pass rusher. All four players have positive grades in both pass rushing and run defense, making the group one of the most versatile and talented units in the game today.
Quarterback E.J. Manuel, Buffalo’s 2013 first-round pick, has missed time this year due to knee injuries and was absent from last week’s game. Manuel (-19.8) is our second-lowest graded quarterback this season, but it is worth noting that his best (and only positively-graded game) came in Week 1 against New England. Thad Lewis started for the Bills last week, but spent most of his day handing the ball off as Buffalo ran for over 200 yards. Lewis has started four games for Buffalo this year, and currently has a grade of -5.0. Whoever ends up starting for the Bills this weekend can be confident that their blind side will be protected. Second-year left tackle Cordy Glenn (+22.0) has emerged as a star. Glenn ranks fourth among tackles with a 96.5 Pass Blocking Effeiciency, and has given up just two sacks in 2013. His battle with New England’s rising star defensive end Chandler Jones (13 sacks) should be fun to watch.
Bills Running Game vs. Patriots Front Seven
While just two Bills’ offensive linemen have positive run blocking grades, Buffalo has still managed to get great production from their rushing attack. The team ranks second in rushing yards, and leads the league in rushing attempts. C.J. Spiller has been very disappointing, especially given the preseason hype. His -9.2 grade is the second-worst of any back, though he has still rushed for more than 800 yards at a healthy 4.5 YPA. Fred Jackson has submitted another season of reliable play, as his +9.4 cumulative grade reflects. Jackson grades positively as a rusher, receiver, and pass protector, and has also run for over 800 yards. Buffalo was able to overwhelm Miami’s stout run defense last week, so they are surely eager to face a New England defense that ranks 31st in rushing yards allowed.
New England traded for DT Isaac Sopoaga at this year’s deadline in order to bolster a defensive line group that had lost both of its starters at that position. Sopoaga has been a disappointment so far and seems to have been replaced in the rotation by free agent addition Sealver Siliga in recent weeks. Siliga has started each of the past three games, and has a run defense grade of +2.7 since joining the team. Siliga has given the team a reliable nose tackle that can play stout against the run, something the group has been missing since losing Vince Wilfork early in the year. Much of the job of containing Jackson and Spiller will fall on the capable shoulders of linebackers Brandon Spikes and Donta Hightower this week. Spikes leads all inside linebackers with a +13.2 run defense grade, and also leads his position in Tackling Efficiency. Though Hightower has been the target of media criticism due to his struggles in pass coverage, he has submitted a fine year as a run defender. His +10.4 grade in that department is the fourth-best among 4-3 OLB’s, and he ranks second among that group in Tackling Efficiency as well. These two are big, powerful, and rarely miss tackles, and they will need to be at their very best against an excellent duo of running backs this weekend.