In week one against the visiting Indianapolis Colts, the Bills' defense looked good. It allowed only 14 points and registered two takeaways against Andrew Luck and one of the - at least on paper - more potent offensive attacks in the NFL. While playing defensive football is a complementary sport, Buffalo's defensive line is probably the one position group that stands out on this side of the ball.
The unit features edge defenders Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams as well as defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, who was suspended in week one and will play his first game of the season on Sunday. That's a combined 10 Pro Bowls and six All Pro nominations. With all that talent in the trenches, the Patriots have to find ways to neutralize it - especially given the fact that New England might field an all-rookie interior offensive line.
Here are five ways they can and probably will try to do so.
Keep the defense honest
As a defensive lineman, you need to be able to effectively defend both the pass and the rush. Being prepared for either coming up is therefore a key to playing the position. However, it gets a lot easier if you don't have worry about one or the other. In New England's case, the play call defenders often don't have to worry about is the rush because with Tom Brady as a quarterback - let's face it - passing the football is usually a good plan.
Against the Bills, though, the Patriots need to try to stay balanced because a) its defensive line is better than the Steelers' and b) the offensive line may consist of one to three rookies, who have all shown to be better run blockers than pass protectors. If New England can keep Marcell Dareus and company guessing as to whether a run or pass will be called, the Patriots' chances of effectively moving the ball (also via play action) will increase and less pressure will be put on the young and inexperienced offensive line.
The four tight end package
Last week, the Patriots used their four tight end package almost exclusively in the red zone. Against the Bills, however, we might see the formation and different variations of it more often in order to gain control over the line of scrimmage. With fullback James Develin on injured reserve, the team will use its tight ends (or as seen against the Steelers at one point, guard Shaq Mason) to get a push - depending on the match-ups in either the pass or the run game. This is one of the formation's advantages: if the defense fields a lighter personell to counter the pass, the Patriots can run the ball; if not, they can throw it. Thus, as mentioned above, the defense can be kept on its heels.
Use Tom Brady's quick release
It is no secret that Tom Brady is a pretty good quarterback and one of his trademarks is releasing the ball quickly to counter the opposing pass rush. You don't have to look any further than the last two games the Patriots have played to find the team employing this tactic. In each of those contests, Brady tries to get rid of the ball before the pass rush has the chance to get to the quarterback. Against the Steelers, for instance, his average snap-to-throw time was 1.85 seconds.
If the offensive protectors can keep up for 2.5 seconds when the Patriots pass the ball, the football will be out of Brady's hands and the pass rush effectively neutralized. Of course, it takes two to tango and New England has to make sure that Brady is put in a position to release the ball quickly:
Use short routes
In the Super Bowl, the Patriots' longest developing pass play was a 22-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Rob Gronkowski, who ran a go route. Having the chance and time to go deep, though, probably does not happen often given Buffalo's defensive line. Therefore, New England needs to use a lot of short and underneath routes to give Brady the chance to get the football out quickly.
The receivers - particularly Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and this game's receiving back - need to be crisp in their route running and able to create yards after the catch in order to make this plan work. The offense will then be able to drive down the field methodically and possibly create openings elsewhere, especially for Gronkowski and Scott Chandler.
Channel the pass rush
There is probably no better quarterback in the NFL when it comes to moving in the pocket than Tom Brady. While he will never be considered a mobile passer, Brady is able to take calculated steps to maximize the time and space he has available (for instance, look at this play). If the offensive line is able to create opportunities for Brady to buy said time and space via forcing the pass rush to run by him, finding the open receiver beyond his first read will be easier for New England's quarterback.
In order to establish an offensive rhythm and attack the few weaknesses of Buffalo's defense - its safeties and linebackers in coverage - executing those five methods will be key. We know the Patriots will use them because they did so in the past, but the question is how effective they can be against a very good defense in both scheme and players? One thing is sure, the team needs to execute the plan but not be afraid of changing it if it doesn't work.