Here are the 10 matchups we’re looking forward to seeing Sunday when the Patriots meet the Bills in upstate New York.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes vs. running backs Tashard Choice and/or Fred Jackson -- Spikes is one of the Patriots’ leading run defenders, and he was part of a group that played very well against the run for the first 10 or so quarters of the season. In the second half against the Ravens, the Patriots (and the run defense) got away from what made it so good over the first two-plus games. There was sloppy tackling, bad routes and generally poor choices. The Pats can’t make the same mistakes against a Buffalo running game that’s averaging 178 yards per game. One thing to watch for, per our pal at Nuggetpalooza: The Bills lead the league with six rushes of 20-plus yards this season. The Patriots defense is one of six that has yet to allow a run of 20 or more yards this season.
Cornerback Devin McCourty vs. wide receiver Stevie Johnson: For the first two-plus weeks of the season, McCourty was playing as well as he did as a rookie, denying big receivers like Larry Fitzgerald much of anything, staying away from bad pass interference calls and providing good support against the run. (Only four passes were completed against him in the first two weeks of the season.) Then came the second half of the loss to the Ravens, a game in which McCourty got turned around on a handful of occasions and ended up committing a killer PI penalty late in the fourth to set up the game-winning field goal. The Patriots need McCourty to return to the form he flashed over the first 10 quarters of the season, particularly against Johnson, who is the Bills’ best receiver and a noted birthday-cake aficionado. For more on McCourty’s thought process heading into this week, check out our story here.
Patriots interior O-line vs. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams: This was already going to be a big test for New England, but it could get even bigger considering that left guard Logan Mankins is questionable with a balky hip. That would leave the Patriots thin along the interior against a Buffalo pass rush that’s one of the best in the league. Buffalo has nine sacks through three games (by way of comparison, the rest of the AFC East has 10 sacks combined). As our scout told us earlier this week, Buffalo will be looking to get pressure with its front four, and while the defensive ends will draw the bulk of the attention, the interior might be where the New England offensive line faces its biggest test.
Left tackle Nate Solder vs. defensive end Mark Anderson: Solder will be going up against his former teammate in Anderson, who finished with 10 sacks last season for the Patriots and has one through three games with the Bills. After a rough start to the preseason, Solder, and the rest of the left side of the offensive line, has started to stabilize. Through three games, Solder, center Ryan Wendell and Brady are the only three members of the New England offense not to take a single snap off. According to Pro Football Focus, the second-year Colorado product has yielded one sack and seven quarterback hurries through three games.
Defensive end Chandler Jones vs. left tackle Cordy Glenn: It was astounding to look at the box score and see that the Patriots failed to register a single quarterback hit last week against the Ravens. No hits, not even a sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in 39 dropbacks. Flacco, who ended up throwing for 382 yards, had plenty of time to stand back in the pocket all night and find the open receiver. Simply put, that’s not sustainable. Jones and the rest of the New England front seven will have a difficult challenge this week against Glenn and the Bills offensive line, which has yielded only one sack of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick through three games. The Jones-Glenn matchup will be intriguing for several reasons, not the least of which is that (according to our pals to Pro Football Focus), Glenn has allowed just two hurries over three games. It’s a big week not only for Jones but the rest of New England’s rookie class, which has come back to earth a bit after its strong performance in the opener against the Titans.
Patriots punt coverage unit vs. Leodis McKelvin: The Bills have always had one of the best special teams units in the league, and McKelvin is one of the NFL’s premiere punt returners. This is a pretty good matchup: As Nuggetpalooza notes, Buffalo is far and away the league leader in punt returns (the Bills average 29.7 yards per return -- the Titans are No. 2 at 17.2). McKelvin, who had an 88-yard return for a touchdown earlier this season, is facing a team in the Patriots that hasn’t given up a punt return for a touchdown since 2006. (Only one team -- the Jets, dating all the way back to 2003 -- has a longer streak without allowing a punt returner to take one to the house.)
Running back Stevan Ridley vs. linebackers Nick Barnett and Arthur Moats: As our scout friend intimated here, it should be a big week for New England’s running backs. Whether it’s carrying the ball, providing support as an extra blocker against an impressive Buffalo pass rush or possibly working in the screen game out of the backfield, there should be a lot on their plate this week. (In the screen game, I’m sure the Patriots would love to have a pass-catcher like Shane Vereen, but the second-year back out of Cal has rarely been healthy -- he’s been on the injury report every day since the start of the regular season with a foot problem he suffered in preseason, so it would be a bit much to count on him this week.) Ridley and Danny Woodhead likely will see the bulk of the action, with Ridley continuing to work as the traditional between-the-tackles guy and Woodhead as the uptempo guy who sees the majority of his work when the Patriots go no-huddle. Barnett and Moats are two of Buffalo’s best defenders against the run -- PFF has Barnett at a +8.9 against the run (best on the Bills) while Moats is +5.1 (tied for second). Expect these two guys to be around the ball when the Patriots try to move the chains on the ground.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski vs. linebacker Bryan Scott: The Patriots have targeted those hybrid safety/linebackers -- referred to by coaches as scouts as the “money” position -- over the years. New England has tried to make Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo fill that role the last couple of seasons. It now seems like the Bills have their own “money” player in Scott. A converted defensive back, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder has moved to linebacker this season and enjoyed great success. He is one of those rare defenders who has the size and speed to hang with Gronkowski, and while he won’t be working him exclusively in man coverage, expect to see them matched up on a lot of occasions on Sunday -- Scott is considered the best pass-defender on the Bills and has graded out at a +5.1 through the first three games of the season. (For what it’s worth, Gronkowski always kills the Bills: In four games against them, he has 22 catches for 314 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers represent his best numbers against any opponent.)
Wide receiver Wes Welker vs. slot corner Justin Rogers: With no Aaron Hernandez for a second consecutive week and the Kellen Winslow experience having come to an end in Foxboro, expect the Patriots to utilize more three-receiver sets against the Bills. That should mean another big week for both Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who received the bulk of the targets last week (Lloyd had 12, Welker had 10, which accounted for more than half of Brady’s 41 pass attempts.) In addition, with Edelman already downgraded to out because of a hand injury he suffered against the Ravens, expect more snaps for Deion Branch. Welker likely will see lots of Rogers, who has worked extensively in the slot to this point in the season for the Bills.
Patriots vs. their inability to close: New England had a nine-point lead and the ball midway through the fourth quarter last week against the Ravens and couldn’t seal the deal. While the Patriots have been one of the most consistently successful teams over the last few seasons, they’ve displayed a nagging inability to finish off opponents. (As an example, in the regular-season and Super Bowl losses to the Giants last season, New England held a fourth-quarter lead but couldn’t finish them off.) The same is true for their offensive work -- the Patriots are 6-for-12 when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone this season. For a team that’s lost two games by a combined total of three points, it’s the difference between 1-2 and 3-0.