When the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills go at each other on Saturday, two of the best teams in the NFL will share the field for a highly anticipated rivalry matchup — one that projects to be a highly contested affair that could be decided by how a few key matchups unfold over the course of it. With that being said, let’s take a look at six of them that certainly could have a major impact on the game’s final result.
New England’s linebackers vs. Devin Singletary
Devin Singletary saw action in just four of the Bills’ first seven games of the season and touched the football only 29 combined times — a number that has gone up substantially since then. Over Buffalo’s last seven contests, the rookie running back has averaged 19 touches a game: he registered a combined 116 rushing attempts for 557 yards and a touchdown, while also adding 19 receptions for 134 yards and another score.
While veteran Frank Gore is still a capable ball carrier, it is the Singletary show now in the backfield. The third-round pick is a legitimate dual-threat back, and one the Patriots need to be prepared for on Saturday after not seeing him in Week 4. Back then, he was declared inactive after being listed as questionable on the injury report due to a hamstring injury. Healthy now, New England knows it needs to pay special attention to the youngster.
“He’s had good quickness. He’s in there on all downs. He’s got some speed to the outside, good quickness to make guys miss, he’s involved in the passing game,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about Singletary earlier this week. “He’s a three-down player. So, when they’ve been going no-huddle, which they’ve done that in some games, then certainly it benefits you to have the same back on the field and not have to sub backs situationally.”
The Patriots’ off-the-ball linebackers in particular will play a big role when it comes to limiting Singletary. Not only will Dont’a Hightower and company try to clog any potential running lanes from developing, they also will likely be matched up against him in coverage. And if they can limit his impact, the Bills’ offense should be much easier to stop on the whole.
Jason McCourty vs. Cole Beasley
With Jonathan Jones already being ruled out of the game due to a groin injury, the Patriots need to find another defender to match up in the slot against Buffalo’s Cole Beasley — one of the team’s most dangerous pass catchers: the free agency signing has caught 60 passes so far this season for 670 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Seven catches and 75 receiving yards stem from his first game against New England this season.
Jones would have been the obvious matchup this week, but his injury status changes things. The obvious choice to replace him would be veteran cornerback Jason McCourty, who has spent 32.8% of his defensive snaps in the slot so far this season. For comparison, J.C. Jackson — another candidate to take on Beasley — has played only 16.0% in the slot and will likely remain the starting outside cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore.
Of course, McCourty is a question mark himself entering the game after missing three of the last four games due to a groin injury. While appearing in all three of the Patriots’ practices this week, he was still listed as questionable on Thursday’s final injury report. If the 32-year-old is unable to go, New England will likely need to get creative against Beasley: safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty might see regular snaps against him.
Isaiah Wynn & Marcus Cannon vs. Buffalo’s edge rushers
The Bills have a potent defensive front, and a group that has multiple players capable of making an impact from the edge. Buffalo’s edge rushers can be classified as follows — a basic categorization that should give us a better understanding of how they use the group and which matchups can be expected for the Patriots’ starting offensive tackle tandem, Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon, to occur during the game:
- Defensive right edge rushers: Jerry Hughes
- Defensive left edge rushers: Trent Murphy, Darryl Johnson
- Swing edge rushers: Shaq Lawson, Lorenzo Alexander
As can be seen, the Bills have a deep rotation at the edge. Jerry Hughes, who has registered 4.5 sacks among his team-leading 46 combined quarterback pressures so far this season, will primarily go against Patriots left tackle Isaiah Wynn — a player that was not available when the two teams met in Week 4. Wynn is certainly capable of limiting the impact Hughes and swing rushers Shaq Lawson and Lorenzo Alexander have, though.
The same goes for the other end of the line, even though Marcus Cannon has had far more ups and downs so far this season than his left-side running mate. Buffalo knows this as well, and will likely try to attack Cannon’s rhythm by mixing things up against him and trying to put him in unfavorable situations on a down-to-down basis. The veteran holding down the fort would be big for the Patriots, even if it includes losing some battles from time to time.
New England’s interior offensive line vs. Buffalo’s interior pass rushers
Buffalo’s defensive line is not just a problem due to its edge rush but also because of the pressure it can create from the interior. Two players in particular stand out in this area, and they have had impressive seasons so far: first-round draft pick Ed Oliver has registered a combined 25 quarterback disruptions in his first year in the league, with veteran Jordan Phillips leading the team with 9.5 sacks from his defensive tackle spot.
Guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, and center Ted Karras, will have their work cut out for them even though they are coming off one of their best games of the season against another strong defensive front (the Cincinnati Bengals’). If they cannot consistently create an upfield push in the running game against Oliver and Phillips, and fail to hold up in pass protection, New England’s offense will struggle to generate momentum against Buffalo’s talented defense.
Sony Michel vs. Buffalo’s run defense
The Bills’ defense is one of the best in football in large parts because of its ability to make life hard on opposing passing games week-in and week-out: the rush has been relentless at times, while the secondary — led by Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White — has been no less impressive. New England will eventually have to throw the football, but the primary goal should therefore be to establish a presence on the ground first.
This is something the Patriots failed to do that when they traveled to Buffalo in Week 4. Back then, the team ran the football just 20 times compared to 39 pass attempts by Tom Brady. Ideally, those numbers would be more level on Saturday as the running game might be New England’s best shot at generating at least some momentum on offense — for three reasons:
1.) Buffalo ranks third against the pass in DVOA (-16.9%) but only 19th versus the run (-8.4%). If there is a weakness to this unit, it is the ground game. New England should actually be better equipped in this area this time around and with Isaiah Wynn back in the fold after missing the late September matchup on injured reserve.
2.) New England’s passing offense — one that includes a hobbled Julian Edelman, in-season trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu, and rookie N’Keal Harry playing in his sixth career game as its top three wide receiver options — is not yet in sync. The play-action game could help create some openings down the field for the three.
3.) Shortening the game by controlling the clock on offense should play in the hands of the Patriots defense, as it could force Buffalo to throw the ball more often against New England’s tremendous secondary.
Jamie Collins Sr. vs. Josh Allen
While Devin Singletary and Frank Gore are a potent two-headed running attack, quarterback Josh Allen’s scramble abilities cannot be underestimated either. Not counting kneel-downs at the end of either half, the second-year passer has already carried the football 89 times this season for 480 times — an impressive average of 5.4 yards per rushing attempt — while also scoring a team-high nine rushing touchdowns.
Needless to say that the Patriots need to be able to contain the former first-round draft selection on the ground. How will they try to do that? Playing zone coverage could help eliminate the threat of the running game, but it appears more likely that the team employs a spy to mirror the quarterback’s movements and potentially go after him in case he tries to attempt a run — something he did five times in Week 4 for a combined gain of 26 yards.
Back in late September, Jamie Collins was the primary defender used to play that role and he mostly looked good against the 23-year-old. While Allen did average 5.2 yards per carry, limiting him to just five carries is certainly a positive from New England’s perspective. Collins and New England’s defense repeating this performance would go a long way towards slowing Buffalo’s offense down.