The New England Patriots have averaged 35.3 points over their first three games, but the offense was not always in perfect sync along the way — something it better be on Sunday, when the team is visiting the Buffalo Bills in a battle for AFC East supremacy (for now, at least). The Bills field one of the better defenses in the NFL, after all, and are certainly capable of impacting the game’s rhythm and momentum.
Just take a look at the numbers: Buffalo’s defense surrendered just 39 total points so far this season, which ties the unit for third best league-wide. Furthermore, the group ranks in the top-10 in numerous statistical categories from turnovers to yards given up to yards and points per drive. In short, it is pretty good. To find out how good, Pats Pulpit asked Corey Giacovelli, who works as a staff writer over at our sister blog Buffalo Rumblings.
According to Corey, the hype surrounding the Bills’ defense — ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, for example, recently called it the best in the NFL — certainly appears to be justified at this point in the season: “First, the defense is returning the majority of its’ starters from a year ago. The players are comfortable with the system that Leslie Frazier runs because it utilizes all of their strengths,” he said earlier this week.
“In the middle of the defense they have fast linebackers in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano who have shown to be all over the field and can do it all in run defense or passing defense,” he continued. “Then there is the secondary who may be the most underrated in football. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are a great safety duo that makes sure everyone is in the right place on defense and holds down the back side from any long passing plays.”
“Let us not forget a disruptive front four who have not gotten as many sacks as we would like to see so far but can still get in the backfield in a hurry,” added Corey when speaking about a unit that has registered seven quarterback takedowns so far this year — a solid number that ranks 16th in the league, but one that may not increase much this week going against an offensive line that allowed Tom Brady to be sacked just three times so far.
Keeping the future Hall of Famer clean certainly will be high up on the list of priorities for New England and its offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. In order to leave Buffalo victoriously for the eighth year in a row, however, pass protection will not be the only part of the Patriots’ offensive attack that needs to work well. Too good is the Bills’ defense, which is why Corey thinks that the scheme will play a big role this week.
“You have to keep the Bills on their toes. Run a lot of misdirection and see if you can get a defender out of place,” he said. “A fun fact is that since [Sean] McDermott took over as Bills head coach, Brady has thrown more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3) against the Bills. New England however, has still been able to put plenty of points on the board due to a power rushing game that was able to knock the defense back.”
New England’s ground game could again play a big role versus Buffalo this time around, even though the operation has not worked particularly smoothly three games into the season. Luckily for the Patriots, the Bills’ run defense has not exactly been awe-inspiring either: the unit has surrendered 4.4 yards per attempt so far on the season, giving up 263 yards on 60 attempts. And with the defense surely focusing on defending the pass, holes could open for a New England running back group that will have James White back again.
Speaking of defending the pass, one of the Bills’ pass rushers was pointed out by Corey as an under-the-radar player that Patriots fans may have to keep on their radar: “Do not sleep on seventh round pick Darryl Johnson,” he said about the rookie defender. “He has not made a huge play yet but he is a big fast pass rusher who if he gets an opportunity can be able to get to the quarterback in a hurry.”
Even though neither the Bills’ pass rush nor their run defense has particularly stood out during the last three games from a statistical perspective, the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line needs to bring its A-game for the offense to function well. The trenches could therefore very well become a deciding factor in the contest: if Brady has time and the running backs can operate with comparatively open holes, the day might be a long one for Buffalo.