While the on-field point of view has to take a backseat to the personal perspective when it comes to yesterday’s news that Josh Gordon left the team and is now indefinitely suspended, it cannot be denied that the New England Patriots’ offense suffered a tremendous loss: Gordon has been a top-two wide receiver for the team ever since it acquired him via trade from the Cleveland Browns in late September.
Without Gordon in the lineup, the Patriots will have to turn to their rotational depth options at wide receiver to attack a Buffalo Bills defense that is among the best in the NFL against the pass. In 14 games this season, New England’s division rivals have allowed just one quarterback to throw for over 300 yards: the Patriots’ Tom Brady, who completed 29 of 45 pass attempts for 324 yards — 42 of which gained by Gordon and his four catches.
Since the two teams’ week eight meeting, however, Buffalo’s defense has been tremendous and surrendered only 19.8 points per contest. According to Corey Giacovelli the unit’s overall communication is a big reason for its improved success. “Even though the defense is full of young players, they have been communicating effectively with one another getting on the same page,” Corey, who covers the Bills for our sister site Buffalo Rumblings, said.
Ahead of the upcoming game between the Patriots and Bills, Pats Pulpit spoke with Corey about the matchup between New England’s offense and Buffalo’s defense — and a special focus had to be placed on the aforementioned passing game. After all, the Bills defense ranks first in the NFL in giving up air yards per game (187.4/contest) and is also a top-ten unit when it comes to touchdown passes (10th; 20), yards per attempt (3rd; 6.5) and passer rating (7th; 86.6).
They key has been the pass rush with the mix of coverage in the secondary,” Corey said when asked about what makes the unit as a whole so successful against the pass. “When the pass rush is getting to the quarterback and forcing those short throws is where this secondary excels and we see short yardage plays. When the pass rush can not get there in time we are seeing the secondary being beat at times.”
Regarding the upcoming meeting with the Patriots in particular, Corey thinks that the Bills might have to get creative despite being generally well equipped to put pressure on Tom Brady. “Brady is one of the best at being able to read blitzes when he gets to the line of scrimmage so the team will have to stack the box with 8 to keep him guessing on who is and isn’t coming after him,” he said about the matchup.
“When the team is only bringing a four man rush it will be up to the individual players to win their matchups,” Corey continued about a unit that ranks just 27th in the NFL in total sacks (31) but 19th in sacks per pass attempt (7.13%). “The one thing the team has is a deep rotation that should keep them fresh all game long assuming that the offense does not go three and out on every possession.”
But despite Buffalo’s depth in the front seven and ability to attack the pocket, there are mismatches favoring the Patriots. “The big weakness the Patriots should be looking to exploit is the absence of linebacker Matt Milano,” Corey said. “He did an excellent job when he was in coverage on Rob Gronkowski but with him missing the day there is no one that can handle him one-on-one forcing the team to probably double him all game long.”
Even though Gronkowski is having a statistical down year as a pass catcher, his presence might still help free things up elsewhere. In turn, the team’s remaining wide receivers as well as receiving back James White might become the focal point in the team’s offensive aerial attack — as has been the case the last time the two teams met: White led the Patriots with 10 catches for 79 yards, while Edelman caught nine passes for 104.
And despite Gordon no longer being a part of the equation, the Bills’ defensive backs will be challenged going against New England’s aerial attack. One player to particularly keep an eye on, according to Corey, is cornerback Levi Wallace. “[The] undrafted corner has been playing a lot recently after some injuries,” he said about the rookie. “He has had some rough snaps but when he is clicking he is hard to beat in coverage.”
“With Tre’Davious White on one side of the ball, Brady may be looking at Wallace as a guy to exploit,” Corey continued. The matchup between the 23-year old and one of the Patriots’ wide receivers — likely Chris Hogan or Phillip Dorsett — might become a key battle in the game for both teams, and where Gordon’s absence might be particularly felt. If Wallace can limit New England’s primary receiving options behind Edelman, White and Gronkowski, the Bills’ defensive success might continue. Whether or not this is enough to win remains to be seen, though.