In the lead-up today's Patriots match-up against their divisional foes, the Buffalo Bills, I asked Buffalo Rumbling's Brian Galliford some questions about the Bills, their surprising 2-0 record, and other topics:
What's the state of the Bills defense? Last year, if I remember correctly, they were switching to the 3-4, but seemed to abandon that approach mid-season for a return to the 4-3. What can Patriots fans expect on Sunday?
The Bills have predominantly 3-4 personnel, and they run a hybrid front - their base defense is a 3-4, but they'll run some 4-3 and a lot of four-man lines in sub packages, as well. They're bigger and tougher in the front seven, which was a priority going into the off-season. They'll still give up rushing yardage, but they're stouter - and because the offense is performing, we haven't seen a ton of that yet. They still can't rush the passer effectively, but haven't done a lot of blitzing in the first two weeks, either. Moderate gains have been made, but as Oakland proved, this is a defense that can still be scored on, and frequently.
At quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick has been playing at a Pro Bowl level thus far this season. He's tied for the league lead in touchdown passes with Matthew Stafford and none other than Tom Brady. He's already coming off an impressive 2010 campaign. In your mind, are the Bills still looking for the quarterback of the future? Or is Fitzpatrick that guy? In addition, what's the key to stopping him.
GM Buddy Nix drafted Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in San Diego. He knows what a quarterback looks like. They knew what they had in Fitzpatrick during the off-season, but had Cam Newton been available, he'd have been the pick. The Bills very clearly like Fitzpatrick; in fact, they're trying to sign him to a contract extension. But Nix and Chan Gailey know the name of the game is to find a long-term quarterback, and as good as Fitzpatrick has been, he'll still be 29 in November. They'll get a longer-term guy if they can, but that is looking increasingly unlikely.
As for stopping him: put pressure on him and force turnovers. Pretty straightforward. As good as Fitzpatrick has been, he's still susceptible to turning the ball over in bunches, as he proved in a late-season loss to New England last season.
If I recall correctly, the Bills have struggled along the offensive line in recent years due to both injury and personnel issues, yet I only see that Ryan Fitzpatrick has been sacked once this season. What's the state of the Bills offensive line? Is the play at that position improved?
This is a classic the whole is greater than the sum of the parts situation. There's not a lot of elite-level talent on this line - and that's a theme for the entire offense, as a matter of fact - but across the board, each player is playing well. They're playing consistent football, and if Chan Gailey gets consistency, he's a master at masking the flaws of his players. Fitzpatrick has been sacked twice - one was nullified due to a Raiders penalty - and only hit a few more times after that. The line has been pass protecting well, but what's most impressive is their run blocking; combined, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Their best lineman, left guard Andy Levitre, has been borderline dominant in the first two games.
Give me one player defensively that you think could be an x-factor when it comes to stopping the Patriots vaunted offense?
It's going to have to be Shawne Merriman. He's been on cruise control in the first two weeks rushing the passer, but has looked pretty good defending the run. The team has been rotating him out of the lineup frequently to keep him fresh; if this isn't a game that they want him fresh for, I don't know what they're saving him for. Obviously, the best way to slow Tom Brady down is to pressure him, and if Merriman isn't keying that effort, the Bills are toast.
Prediction for the Game:
Much like last year's Week 3 contest, which the Patriots won 38-30 in New England, I'm expecting a Pats win in something of a shootout. This Bills team is better than that one, but they've lost the element of surprise, and they're still not as good as New England. Patriots 38, Bills 27