For the third week in a row, the New England Patriots will try to capture the AFC East. The path to their 10th straight division title and playoff birth is a clear one: win and you’re in. In the Patriots’ way stands a Buffalo Bills team that is sitting at 5-9 and in the middle of nowhere when it comes to the standings. That being said, the Bills have improved quite a bit since the early season and have won three of their last five games.
New England, for comparison, has went just 2-of-5 recently. And even though the home team is still clearly favored to win on Sunday — unsurprisingly considering that it plays at Gillette Stadium, has a long and successful history against the Bills including a win earlier this year, and is still the better squad top-to-bottom — the game projects to be an interesting one. Here are five things to look for when the two division rivals face off on Sunday.
1. How will the Patriots replace Josh Gordon?
Yesterday’s news that Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon will step away from football temporarily and be indefinitely suspended by the NFL for violating his reinstatement terms is one of the biggest stories of the season — and one that will have a profound impact on the team’s offense. After all, Gordon has played 72% of the team’s offensive snaps in his 11 games and served as one of the team’s top two at the wide receiver position.
In this role, the veteran caught 40 passes for 720 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Patriots will need to find a way to replace this production, and Gordon’s role as an X-receiver within the team’s offense. In both the short and the long term, the likeliest scenario is that the team’s entire wide receiver group — excluding Julian Edelman, who will remain the number one target — will help fill the void. One player to keep an eye on in particular, however, is Phillip Dorsett.
While he played only 12% of offensive snaps since the Edelman-Gordon duo emerged, the former first-round pick has generally been productive when given the chance. Now of course, he cannot be expected to replace Josh Gordon one-for-one — the two have a different skill set — but it would not be a surprise to see Dorsett serve as the number three receiver on Sunday with Chris Hogan taking the number two role and Cordarrelle Patterson again seeing time as a package-specific weapon.
2. Will New England be able to contain Josh Allen?
Make no mistake about it, Bills quarterback Josh Allen is more of a threat as a runner than he is as a passer at this point in his career. Just look at the numbers: the first-round rookie leads Buffalo in rushing yards (506), rushing touchdowns (6), rushing yards per game (50.6) and yards per carry (6.7), and also has the team’s longest run this season (45 yards). He is a serious threat on the ground and the Patriots have to prepare for him as such.
As we already pointed out in our film breakdown yesterday, containing Allen has to be the number one priority for the Patriots defense on Sunday:
In order to slow down Josh Allen, the NFL’s most dangerous scrambling quarterback, New England needs a solid performance from everyone in the front seven. Discipline, sound technique and a game plan respecting the passer as a ball carrier are imperative in order to find success against the talented rookie.
In order to do that, the unit needs from past mistakes it made against mobile quarterbacks like the Chicago Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky, and play a disciplined game up front. Will they be able to do that? That’s the proverbial million-dollar question.
However, a game plan like it was used the last three weeks — daring teams to run the ball in order to take away their strengths in the passing game — will likely not be on display on Sunday. New England needs to respect the threat that Allen presents as a scrambling quarterback.
3. Will there be any changes to the Patriots’ run defense personnel?
Speaking of the Patriots’ run defense: it was atrocious the last three weeks — in fact, it was historically atrocious. The unit gave up 7.5 yards a rush between weeks 13 and 15, the worst three-game stretch in franchise history. Clearly, the run defense is something that needs to be addressed. And with a Bills team visiting Foxboro that attempts the fifth most runs in the NFL (29.8 per game), a quick fix would certainly be welcome.
One way to try to do that is by changing the personnel up front. While Lawrence Guy has been solid, Malcom Brown and Adam Butler have both struggled in the running game. Bringing another body into the rotation and lifting some pressure off especially Brown and Butler — a player whose strengths lie in the passing game and not when it comes to stopping the run — could do the trick in the short term.
Danny Shelton, who was acquired via trade by the Patriots this offseason, is the one man that can be inserted into the lineup and it would not be a surprise if he makes his return on Sunday. And the numbers show that the run defense is better with him on the field (via colleague Rich Hill):
RBs vs Patriots with Danny Shelton active: 214 carries for 949 yards (4.43 YPC) and 4 touchdowns
RBs vs Patriots w/o Shelton: 41 carries for 353 yards (8.61 YPC) and 2 touchdowns.
Don’t be surprised if the former first-round draft pick is back in the lineup on Sunday, helping improve the interior of the defensive line.
And with Shelton back, all that needs to be addressed is the edge. While Trey Flowers is a force versus the run and one of the NFL’s better players when it comes to setting a hard edge in the ground game, the other side of the Patriots’ line has had its issues — just look at last week’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when the team effectively ran away from Flowers and attacked the other side.
Whether it was a linebacker or a pure defensive end, whoever lined up opposite Flowers was successfully targeted by the Steelers. Will we see a change in personnel there as well? Maybe with more Dont’a Hightower on the edge, and a more traditional 5-2 look (with Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts off the ball)? It is certainly possible. Whatever New England decides to do, the results can’t be much worse than what the team already tried.
4. Will Buffalo again turn to trickery?
When the Patriots traveled to Buffalo in week eight, the Bills received the opening kickoff and initially moved the football well by using trickery. No matter if it was wild-cat formations, jet sweeps or other misdirection concepts, ex-Patriots tight end coach and current Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll got creative against his former team.
One reason for that might have been Allen’s absence — he was out with an elbow injury — but the plan could also serve as a blue print for Sunday’s game. With the rookie far superior than Derek Anderson, who started in week eight, it would not be at all surprising if the Bills again dug deep into their playbook to come up with creative play calls to stress the Patriots defense both on the ground and through the air.
5. Which Patriots red zone offense will show up?
Last week, the Patriots reached the Steelers red zone three times but came away with just three points — not exactly a recipe for success. One week earlier, New England scored touchdowns on three of six red area possessions. One week before that, the team found the end zone on two of three trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. So which Patriots red zone defense will show up on Sunday?
Despite the unit’s recent slump, it would not be a surprise if it saw improvement coming in two days. After all, Buffalo is inconsistent when it comes to stopping teams deep into its territory: on the year, teams have scored 32 touchdowns on 44 red zone trips for a success rate of 72.7% — the fifth-worst in the NFL. For comparison, the Patriots offense still finds the end zone 58.0% of the time when it is in the red area.
Of course, it all comes down to execution and the players themselves. Will Rob Gronkowski improve in the red area? Will James White see a bigger role? How will Josh Gordon’s eventual replacements look? The answers to all these questions could have an impact on New England’s red zone performance as well.