After defeating the Indianapolis Colts, the Buffalo Bills will host the New England Patriots this Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium in a game that’s been circled on the calendars of the coaches, players and fans ever since Rex Ryan was hired as the team’s Head Coach. The reigning Super Bowl Champions come to Buffalo fresh off of a 28-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, so this game has big divisional implications.
The Patriots had an interesting offseason to say the least, losing CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner, CB Logan Ryan, CB/S Kyle Arrington, CB Alfonzo Dennard, RB Shane Vereen, RB Steven Ridley, LB Akeem Ayers, and released long-time nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Their replacements are less than ideal, particularly in the secondary, where they now start Super Bowl Hero, Malcolm Butler and below-average veterans n Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown at cornerback. On the defensive line, they were starting rookie first-round pick, Malcolm Brown and 2014’s 1st rounder Dominique Easley, who suffered a hip injury and is doubtful to play on Sunday.
Let’s take a look at the top matchups on both sides of the ball that will ultimately determine the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Bills DT Marcell Dareus vs. Patriots Interior OL G Tre Jackson, G Shaq Mason, C David Andrews
Marcell Dareus is making his 2015 season debut on Sunday after missing the Colts game due to a suspension. Last year, Dareus was arguably the best defensive tackle in football, recording 10 sacks and 32 total QB Pressures, while racking up 33 tackles against the run, good for fourth-best at his position. He just signed a six-year contract extension worth $102 million with $60 million guaranteed and is ready to feast on these inexperienced linemen.
Against the Steelers, the Patriots were forced to play three rookies on the offensive line—fourth-round guards Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson, as well as undrafted center David Andrews. The three combined to allow just two QB hits and four QB hurries, which doesn’t sound too badly on the surface, but keep in mind that Tom Brady averaged 1.9 seconds from snap-to-throw.
Dareus has the physical talent to not only occupy the double-teams he’ll see from the nose tackle positon, but fight through them and get after the passer. Dareus showed off his ridiculous speed for a 6’3” 330+ pound man in this video he posted to his Instagram account during the offseason.
Bills TE Charles Clay vs Patriots S Patrick Chung, LB Don’t’a Hightower
The Patriots have a big, physical front seven, but the sheer weight, bulk and “thumper” nature of their linebackers—who weigh an average of 265 pounds– can be exploited by quicker tight ends and slot receivers with seam and underneath routes. Last week, Steelers’ tight end Heath Miller caught eight passes on 10 targets for 84 yards, recording receptions against Patrick Chung, Don’t’a Hightower, Duron Harmon and Jamie Collins.
The Bills’ big free agent acquisition, Charles Clay, caught four passes for 47 yards against the Colts and has a similar matchup this week. Without a premier cornerback on the Patriots’ roster, Sammy Watkins should be more involved in the passing game which should allow Clay to make plays in space.
Bills OT Cordy Glenn/Seantrel Henderson vs Patriots DE Chandler Jones/Rob Ninkovich/Jabaal Sheard
Second-year right tackle Seantrel Henderson had a rough outing against the Colts, particularly when run blocking. Bills’ running backs gained just 23 yards on nine carries when running behind Henderson, who allowed three pressures in pass protection. He’ll be facing off against Jabaal Sheard, a 6’3” 275-pound edge defender that does a good job playing both the run and pass.
Last year with the Browns he recorded 44 tackles and two sacks, and registering four QB hits and 24 QB pressures in 353 pass rush snaps. Last week against the Steelers, Sheard picked up his first sack of the year and pressured Ben Roethlisberger four times, while making two stops against the run. On the opposite side, Bills’ left tackle will face off with Chandler Jones, a 6’5” 265-pounder with great speed, length and power with the talent to disrupt the course of the game at a moment’s notice.
Coming off of a 2014 campaign in which he recorded 47 tackles, forced two fumbles and broke up two passes, Jones added eight sacks while registering eight QB hits and 31 hurries in 425 pass rush snaps (recorded a pressure on 11.7-percent of snaps).
Cordy Glenn is a big man, standing 6’5” and weighing 345 pounds, so while he’s a powerful run blocker and can anchor against bigger pass rushers, he can struggle with speed rushers—like Chandler Jones—at times. Glenn was solid in pass protection last week against the Colts but struggled as a run blocker, allowing Bills’ ball-carriers to gain just 19 yards on seven carries when following him.
Games like these are won in the trenches, particularly for a Buffalo team that wants to run to establish the run, grind the clock and keep Tom Brady on the sidelines for as long as possible.
Bills WR Sammy Watkins vs Patriots CB Malcolm Butler
Sammy Watkins caught a lot of slack last week because he went catchless on the two targets he saw. In a win. Where he was used (in my opinion) as a decoy on 15 of his 22 routes, running go routes against Vontae Davis, who had help from a safety as well. This freed up Percy Harvin, Charles Clay and Robert Woods to make plays against Indianapolis’ lesser cornerbacks Darius Butler and Jalil Brown.
This week, every receiver has a favorable matchup, as the Patriots cornerback group went from Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington to Malcolm Butler, Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher in the offseason. Against the Steelers, Malcolm Butler allowed Antonio Brown to catch nine passes for 133 yards and a touchdown, in addition to an 18-yard gain by Markus Wheaton. Butler was an offseason hero for his Super Bowl-saving interception in the endzone, but the truth is, he’s a raw, inexperienced and quite frankly, an average player.
Sammy Watkins is a fantastic athlete that showed explosiveness, hand use and breakaway speed on the go routes against the Colts that we didn’t see in his injury-plagued rookie season. Look for Sammy to score his first touchdown of 2015 on Sunday.
Key to the Game: Defend Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski (6’7” 265 lbs) is the most dominant tight end in the league and his rapport with Tom Brady is unmatched by any QB-WR/TE duo in the league. Gronk has always showed up against the Bills, catching 37-of-51 targets for 543 yards (14.6 yards-per-reception, 10.6 yards-per-attempt), with 159 yards-after-catch and nine touchdowns in seven career games against his hometown team. Rex Ryan’s Jets’ teams played him a little better, allowing him to haul in 37-of-62 targets for 461 yards and five touchdowns.
Stephon Gilmore stated that he wanted to cover Gronkowski one-on-one, telling The Buffalo News’ Ty Dunne,
“I can go inside,” Gilmore said. “He’s a bigger guy so it’s not like I’m going inside on a smaller guy. But like I said, it’s whatever the coaches want me to do to help this team win. I want him.”
The likely scenario is that Gilmore will see time vs Gronkowski, but Nigel Bradham and Aaron Williams will also play a role in bracketing coverage to him.
Last season, Rex Ryan’s Jets were able to contain Gronkowski by jamming him at the line with an outside linebacker who’d play man coverage with safety help directly on top. This created a double, or even triple coverage on the All-World tight end.
The following clip shows two plays in which jamming Gronk caused incompletions—the first he’s lined up at the left tight end, the second he’s on the right.
Prediction: Bills 24 – Patriots 20
The Patriots offensive line can’t match up with the Bills’ defensive line, so expect Tom Brady to get the ball out of his hands quickly on three-step drops, targeting slot receiver Julian Edelman on underneath routes. Rob Gronkowski sees most of his action on the crossers and slants underneath with Bradham, and defend the seam and out routes with Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Williams. I just can’t see the Patriots being able to get a respectable run game going with the offensive line talent, at their disposal.
For the Bills, they’ll need the offensive line to be more consistent with their run blocking, particularly on the right side if they want to sustain drives and convert third downs at a better rate than the five-for-13 they did last week. The Patriots are built to stop the run, but DeAngelo Williams picked up 127 yards on 21 carries against them last year with a similar quality offensive line.
This will be a close, intense game but I think the Bills finally have what it takes to bring them down.
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