This is the final film review of the regular season; after this point we'll likely be watching tape of some familiar faces. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have expressed their desire to not just win, but also execute for a full sixty minutes. It's been a long time since the Patriots have looked good from start to finish of a game (Lions game? Broncos game? Bears game?).
So while it makes sense for the Patriots to rest their key starters, the fact that they are in such clear need of tuning up might outweigh the need to sit the starters. If the game is a blowout, look for the Patriots to sit the starters. If it's a dogfight, look for the Patriots to stay involved. The Bills are ready to fight to the end- so the Patriots are in for a treat.
I watched the Bills past two games against the Packers (a win) and the Raiders (a loss) and the Bills actually aren't inconsistent in their efforts. I'd actually argue that they're very consistent. The defense is stifling, but they lost a few players along the way against the Raiders (DT Marcell Dareus and CB Stephon Gilmore) which derailed their playoff hopes. The offense is nothing to write home about; they have players who can make huge plays, but they're so far and few between that drives are difficult to sustain.
Here's this week's review:
When the Bills run the ball
If you think the Patriots interior line is bad, the Buffalo interior line is right there with it. They have a quality left guard in Kraig Urbik, who had his way against the Packers, but was quiet against the Raiders, but no one else. If the Bills run inside, they'll have success behind Urbik, but they'll go nowhere to the right side.
Their running backs are talented in their own ways; Anthony Dixon is a bigger back, C.J. Spiller is a speedy back, and Fred Jackson is as good as ever. FJax has found the Fountain of Youth. The other backs can be stopped with solid defensive integrity (don't give up the edge!), but Jackson will make his own yardage every time. He can squirt through arm tackles, so every attempt needs to be with great technique, or a group tackle.
The Patriots will likely counter with a heavier front, although it will be situational whether it be a 4-3 or a 3-4 base. Either way, expect New England to throw some beef on the line to prevent the Bills from using their rushing attack to sustain drives.
When the Bills pass the ball
The Buffalo passing attack is extremely inconsistent. They benefit from huge breakdowns in opposing defenses, which they will take advantage of, but they struggle to string together consecutive positive plays.
Wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods have strong hands if they get the target and they should definitely be watched due to their route running abilities. Watkins should never get a free release, while Woods is less dangerous (but still a threat).
The Raiders put DB Charles Woodson on TE Scott Chandler up the seam and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots use Devin McCourty in a similar fashion. This would involve playing Duron Harmon over Pat Chung, so Harmon can hold down the deep safety position.
A-gap blitzes will be extremely important due to the Bills poor interior play, but also because quarterback Kyle Orton breaks down with pressure in his face. He hurries throws, will throw high, or wide, but he'll always miss his target with a hand in his face.
The Patriots should pair up Darrelle Revis with Sammy Watkins, and Brandon Browner on Robert Woods. Chris Hogan, the Bills slot receiver, would be a fine match-up against either Kyle Arrington or Logan Ryan, so look for both defensive backs to receive snaps. Chung isn't a good match-up on the tight end Chandler, so look for McCourty or linebacker bracket coverage to help defend as Chandler always has a great game against the Patriots.
It's also important that the Bills use their running backs heavily in the passing game, so Jamie Collins will be an important player in stopping any broken plays.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Bills are somehow allowing more rushing yards per game than the Patriots. Still, the Buffalo defensive front seven do a great job of preventing consistent positive rushes. Their defensive line is more than willing to eat space to allow their linebackers to clean up, but they're also more than capable to do the dirty work themselves. The linebackers do a good job clogging all the rushing lanes inside so it looks like the opposing running backs are hitting a brick wall.
Still, outside runs are fairly successful, so look for Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, and Jonas Gray to all get their fair chance of breaking a big run to the outside. Additionally, the Packers had a lot of success running counter and cutbacks for Eddie Lacy; maybe with some hard work LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray can have a day inside.
It was very evident that both the Raiders and the Packers had success running pull blocks with their guards to the inside. Since the Bills front seven is so North-South their players don't really possess the lateral quickness to knock away seal blockers to make the play; there's no DT with the same lateral quickness as Sheldon Richardson (thank goodness). With DT Marcell Dareus a question mark, the Patriots should be able to attack his replacement.
This seems like it should be a Vereen day, but as it's Week 17 everyone should get their chance to be on the field. Also, Blount generated the most All Purpose Yards since 2007 when the Patriots faced the Bills last season, so don't count him out.
When the Patriots pass the ball
The Bills passing defense is awesome. They benefit from an extremely solid front four, who can generate pressure on their own, but the secondary is tremendous in their own right. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is greatly underrated (or at least he always steps up against the Patriots), but he might not play this game due to injury. If he's out, it changes the entire landscape of the passing defense.
What Buffalo does so well is just defending the big throws. They sit on the top of routes so deep shots are far and few between, and force opposing defenses try and sustain long drives down the field. What's most difficult is that the cornerbacks always position themselves with the ability to come back and attack the ball- so back-shoulder and hitch routes won't have much space to succeed.
A side effect of this defense means that Tom Brady will have a lot of room to run if he has an open lane, so don't be surprised if Brady takes off a couple times to fire up the offense.
The best way to attack the defense is with quick screens and swing passes to get the ball out and to start generating yards after the catch (YAC) quickly. It will be more fruitful to mix in some short gains in the outside passing game to spread out the defense and open up some field for players on the inside.
When attacking the second level, the Patriots need to focus on more lateral routes instead of vertical; the Bills will sit on all the vertical routes- they've allowed 34 passes of 20+ yards, which is second best in the league (the Patriots have allowed 59 which is tied for 29th). By attacking horizontally, the Patriots receivers should be able to manufacture some degree of separation from the defensive backs to open up passing lanes for Brady to target.
Bills kicker Dan Carpenter is awesome. He's good from 55, so if the Bills get inside the Patriots 40 yard line, the Bills are probably going to be leaving with three points. He leads the league in field goals made.
Buffalo is the second most penalized team in the league and have received the most penalty flags on defense.
The Bills have turned the ball over multiple times in seven games this season.