3TFO: Patriots @ Bills, Week 1
New England this week travels to Buffalo for their season opener, and their first game since a crushing loss in last year’s AFC Championship. The team’s defense is nearly identical to last year’s group, but the offense is welcoming plenty of new faces at receiver and tight end. The chemistry between Tom Brady and his new cast of receivers is one of the top storylines for the team in 2013, as the team looks to return to the postseason for the sixth year in a row.
The Bills have undergone a more drastic overhaul in recent months, welcoming a new head coach, Doug Marrone, and rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel to Buffalo. The Bills have their work cut out for them this week, facing a team that has completely dominated it over the past 10 years. Since 2003, New England is 18-2 against its divisional rival.
Patriots Offensive Line vs. Bills Front Seven
New England owns one of the league’s elite offensive lines, excelling in both the running and passing games. Only San Francisco earned a better run blocking grade in 2012, and the Patriots allowed pressure on just 25% of passing plays. The unit has all of its starters returning this season, headlined by perennial Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. Though he has not yet received the accolades of his more decorated teammates on the line, center Ryan Wendell was the team’s highest-graded lineman last season thanks to his outstanding work as a run blocker (+24.7).
Mike Pettine, Buffalo’s new defensive coordinator, is installing a defensive system that employs more hybrid looks than the 4-3 that we saw last year. This week, Bill Belichick compared the look of the Bills’ new defense to that of the Jets. The strength of this defense is their formidable defensive line. Last season, defensive tackles Kyle Williams (8.0) and Marcell Dareus (6.1) finished third and ninth, respectively, in Pass Rushing Productivity at their position. Mario Williams was not at his best in 2012, but he still managed 11 sacks and a 9.0 PRP. His matchup against Solder (and possibly Vollmer) should be a good one. Alex Carrington was impressive in limited snaps at DT last year (7.8 PRP), and his performance in a full-time role bears watching.
C.J. Spiller vs. Patriots Front Seven
C.J. Spiller was phenomenal in 2012. Despite run blocking that was mediocre at best (-2.3 cumulative run blocking grade), Spiller matched Adrian Peterson’s 6.0 yards per carry. Spiller raised the bar for running backs with a 94.6 Elusive Rating, the highest score we have ever seen at PFF. Though he is not a bruising back by any means, the Clemson product managed to gain 3.6 yards after contact as a rusher, second only to Peterson. Spiller also proved himself to be a serious threat as a receiver, catching 43 passes and producing 1.90 Yards per Route Run, the third-best mark among running backs. Although he was clearly Buffalo’s best offensive player last season, Spiller had just 207 carries. He will have an All-Pro year if he can continue last season’s pace over a full workload in 2013.
The Patriots’ defense excels against the run, making this week’s matchup one of strength against strength. The group finished with the third-best cumulative run defense grade in 2012, and it returns every starter save for DT Kyle Love. DT Vince Wilfork has anchored this defense for nearly a decade, and he was outstanding last season. Wilfork tallied a Run Stop Percentage of 8.7, fourth-best among defensive tackles. After missing just five tackles last season, Jerod Mayo led all outside linebackers with a Tackling Efficiency of 27.2. New England’s starting linebackers are stout in run defense (each weighs more than 250 pounds), but Spiller will test their sideline-to-sideline speed like few others in this league. Top pick Jamie Collins appears to be the best athlete of the team’s linebackers; expect him to play a role in trying to slow down Spiller.
E.J. Manuel vs. Patriots Pass Defense
After undergoing knee surgery just weeks ago, rookie QB E.J. Manuel will start for the Bills on opening day. It is tough to analyze Manuel at this point because injuries limited him to just 62 snaps in the preseason. For what it is worth, he finished with a +1.9 grade as a passer. Like most rookies, the former Seminole struggled against the blitz in his limited opportunities. He received a +3.1 grade when facing no pressure, and a -1.2 grade when he was blitzed. Manuel is known for his athleticism, but he attempted just one designed run during the preseason. Much like Spiller, Manuel has excellent speed and athleticism for his position, and will test the contain abilities of New England’s front seven.
The Patriots’ pass defense has struggled mightily in recent seasons, but seemed to improve over the course of 2012. The group has a great chance to start the season off on the right foot against a rookie quarterback in his first NFL start. Manuel’s speed will force New England’s defensive ends to focus on containment more than they would if they were facing a traditional pocket passer. This means the team will be counting on Wilfork and Tommy Kelly to provide pressure from the interior. The matchup between top corner Aqib Talib and Bills’ top receiver Stevie Johnson (1.90 Yards per Route Run, 20th among qualifying receivers in 2012) should be one of the day’s best battles.