Here are 10 things we’ll be keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Patriots-Bills game:
In the Patriots’ passing game, who replaces Kevin Faulk on third down? When it comes to the short passing game, which player will be that security blanket for quarterback Tom Brady now that Faulk is done for the year? It’s likely that the Patriots will put more responsibilities on the shoulders of wide receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, as well as running back Sammy Morris (probably the second-best receiving back on the team after Faulk — last season, Morris caught 71.4 percent of the balls thrown his way and gained 9.7 yards per reception). In addition, look for rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski to take on more of a role in that capacity.
Bottom line? It’s not just one guy who will be charged with replacing Faulk.
“I think everybody has to pick it up, especially on those third downs,” Welker said. “I think everybody is going to have to pick it up and make sure that they're trying to pick up the slack where Kevin was such a meaningful part of our offense and make some plays on those third downs.”
Leadership. Faulk also provided a sizable dose of leadership, both on and off the field. He was a captain. He’s also the only one on the roster who was around before Belichick became head coach and he’s one of the only guys on the team — maybe the only guy — who has the gravitas to approach Brady and ask him if something’s wrong. Faulk’s sideline speeches are legendary stuff — if things start to go south for whatever reason on Sunday, who will be the guy who will step up and draw a line?
New England’s run defense. The Patriots will be forced to deal with what linebacker Tully Banta-Cain referred to as the “three-headed monster” this week in Buffalo running backs Marshawn Lynch, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. While there are questions about the the Bills' receivers, their running backs remain a threat in both the running and passing games, particularly Spiller, who is second on the team with 10 catches.
“They have a three-headed monster in the backfield with Lynch, Spiller and Jackson," Banta-Cain said. “They can create plays to get [Spiller] the ball. He's great in space.”
Avoiding the trap. On paper, this doesn’t appear to be much of a contest. Even though the Patriots had second-half issues the last two weeks against the Bengals and Jets, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be confident in their chances against the woeful Bills. The problem might be in being too confident, but Vince Wilfork says that’s not going to be a problem.
“This is the National Football League. It’s early. I always expect the best out of a team we’re playing. Teams normally play the best when they play us, too. So, it’s any given Sunday,” Wilfork said. “But we know what we need to do. This week is about how well we can play. It’s the Patriots. Can we get better? It’s about what we can do in putting it on the field Sunday.”
Darius Butler. The second-year cornerback had a miserable afternoon last Sunday against the Jets. To his credit, while some of his teammates declined to talk, he faced the music after the game, answering every question from the media. He discussed the need to have a short memory and bounce back against the Bills. While this week probably won’t present the same challenge, a return to form would go a long way toward re-establishing the confidence level of the UConn product.
“It’s a long season — we can’t really walk around with your head down,” Butler said after Sunday’s game. “You know you’re going to take some bumps, take some bruises. We took some [Sunday], but now, it’s just on to our next opponent.”
Buffalo’s special teams. Even though Buffalo’s former special teams coach Bobby April isn’t around anymore (he was replaced in the offseason by Bruce DeHaven), the Bills remain one of the better special teams units in the league. If Buffalo is going to seize control of the game, chances are it will happen as a result of a big play on special teams from either Spiller or Roscoe Parrish.
“Bruce has a long history in the league and he’s an excellent coach. I think they do a great job in their kicking game. They are always very competitive. [The special teams] were good in the past and they’re good now,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “To be good in the kicking game, it all starts with the specialists. If the specialists are good, then you have a chance to be good. And I think their specialists are very good. They have a good group of core players.”
Brady to Moss. Brady tried to go deep to Randy Moss five times last week against the Jets, and they were only able to complete one pass longer than 30 yards, the 34-yard touchdown pass over Darrelle Revis. While some of those passes came in the second half — when the Patriots were trying to get back into the game quickly — the quarterback appeared to abandon the spread-the-wealth philosophy that allowed them to build the early lead.
The two have been able to find each other on intermediate routes in the range of 30 yards or so — the two had a 32-yarder in the opener, as well as a spectacular 34-yard touchdown pass on Sunday. But the two have misfired on deep balls on several occasions throughout the preseason and into the first two weeks of the regular season — there was only one deep ball of note thrown in the preseason, a 65-yard scoring strike from Brady to Moss against the Rams.
Stephen Gostkowski. While the rest of New England’s special teamers have gotten off to an excellent start (rookie punter Zoltan Mesko is tied for the league lead with a 49.1 average), Gostkowski has struggled mightily out of the gate on field goal attempts, going 1-for-4 through the first two games. (Gostkowski has missed from 37, 47 and 56 yards.) It’s been a rare streak for the Memphis product, who only missed five field-goal attempts all last season.
“Steve has had a good preseason. He’s worked hard,” Belichick said. “It’s still a combination of a snapper, holder, kicker; it’s a whole operation. I think everybody can be better, including everybody. That’s what we’re all working for. I know we want to pin all the interceptions on the quarterback and the missed kicks on the kicker, but there are other things involved in the play and they all can lead up to the end result, so everybody needs to strive to improve.”
Crowd noise. Sunday’s game against the Bills is the first home contest since Brady intimated he would like to hear the Gillette Stadium stick around longer and be a little more vocal than it was in the season opener against the Bengals. While he steered clear of the topic during his midweek press conference, he expanded on the idea in an interview with WAAF this week.
“I think that’s always a great advantage for the home team and playing in front of your home crowd and when communication is an issue for an offense, it makes it especially tough,” Brady said. “Hopefully, we give the fans a reason to cheer. Hopefully, they’re screaming loud the whole game because we’re making a lot of great play out there. That’s what I’m sure hoping.”
Finishing strong. One sterling scoring drive aside (against the Bengals), the Patriots have played mostly substandard football in the second half on both offense and defense over the first two weeks of the regular season. (Through two games, New England has been outscored 39-14 in the second half, including 18-0 last week against the Jets.) A solid 60 minutes against the Bills would be a good way to begin building some second-half consistency for New England on both sides of the ball.
“We have to perform better in the second half,” Brady said. “You always try to play consistently for four quarters and that’s our goal. It didn’t happen last week. The first week of the year we played pretty good. So, this is a new team. Like I said, regardless of what happened last year, that was last year’s team and this year’s team needs to perform well for four quarters. I think we’re going to do that this weekend.”