The New England Patriots scored 30+ points in six of their first seven games of the season, with the lone exception being a defensive battle on the road against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4: despite eventually winning the game, the Patriots put up just 16 points that day with only nine of them coming courtesy of the offense. Unfortunately for New England, such inconsistent outings have almost become a norm for the offense recently.
The team has hit the 30-point threshold just once over its last seven contests — it put up 34 against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday; 27 of which via the offense — and this week will have to once again have to go up against the Bills. New England’s AFC East rivals, meanwhile, have continued their strong defensive play after limiting the Patriots in late September and currently rank second in the NFL in scoring because of it.
Judged by all that, the Patriots could be in for another offensive struggle on Saturday. But what can the unit expect out of its opponent in two days? Does it have any obvious weaknesses to exploit? And how should it attack a defense that has surrendered just 14.2 points per game this season? To get a clearer picture, Pats Pulpit spoke with Buffalo Rumblings staff writer Corey Giacovelli about the unit of coordinator Leslie Frazier.
“It is hard to attack the Bills defense because all around it is so good,” Corey said. “You have to keep them on their toes. New England has had success in the past attacking the Bills in the rushing game and using the running back in the passing game. Look for James White and Sony Michel to have a lot of touches in the game as the defense will probably try to minimize the impact that Julian Edelman has in the game.”
“The team has also sometimes struggled in the screen game which is something that the Patriots can do very well,” he added. New England indeed has had some success running screen passes in the past, with James White taking one 23 yards to the house just last week against the Bengals. Of course, however, the Bills’ defense is much more disciplined than the one the Patriots had to go up against in Cincinnati this past weekend.
The other back Corey mentioned might therefore turn out to be a big part of the game plan against a run defense that ranks just 19th in the NFL in yards per carry (4.3): second-year runner Sony Michel is coming off one of his best games of the season and could again see considerable action — something that was not consistently the case in Week 4. Back then, Michel was handed the football off 17 times while gaining 63 rushing yards.
Despite the running game’s struggles in September, establishing a presence on the ground could be the key to New England’s success on Saturday. This rings especially true considering just how well the Bills have played against the pass over the last few weeks, with the defensive front in particular playing some impressive football as mentioned by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during a media conference call on Tuesday.
“The pressure up front can force the quarterback into bad throws or throws that are early. The secondary thrives off of this because they stick to guys like glue the first couple seconds after the snap,” said Corey about the impact the Bills’ front-seven has had on the overall defensive performance. “The trouble is when there is no pressure up front and the receivers are able to run their full routes, that is when they gain separation.”
For New England, playing steady football up front will be important in both the running and the passing game because Corey correctly pointed out that consistent pressure against the quarterback could turn into an issue: “If there is one thing that Tom Brady does not like it is pressure in his face. If the Bills are able to do that then I expect Brady to be spiking a lot of balls into the turf to live and fight another down.”
“Watch out for defensive tackle Jordan Phillips,” he added when speaking about one player in particular that the Patriots should have on their radar. “He may have gotten snubbed from the Pro Bowl but Phillips is second among defensive tackles in sacks and is a disruptive force. He can make a big impact in getting the team off the field as a run stopper or pass rusher, look for him to make a big impact to fire up the defense.”
Seeing consistent playing time in the middle of Buffalo’s defense alongside Star Lotulelei and first-round rookie Ed Oliver, Phillips has been tough to defend this season: he has registered 22 combined quarterback pressures, and ranks first on the team with 9.5 sacks. Eliminating his potential impact as a pass rusher will be big for the Patriots’ inconsistent passing game — as will getting a good push against him on the ground.
Ultimately, it seems as if the Patriots will need to do the same thing they already tried against Cincinnati: establish a presence on the ground to shorten the game, and not give Buffalo’s defense much chances to make impact players either through sacks or turnovers. Considering how New England has played on offense over the last few weeks, however, it will be tough for the team to do all that on a consistent basis.