The New England Patriots have lost three straight games to drop to 1-5 on the year. In order to the win column, they will have to beat one of the best teams in football: the 4-2 Buffalo Bills will visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday for the first of two meetings this season between the division rivals.
In order to get a better understanding of who the Patriots will be up against in Week 7, we exchanged questions with Matthew Byham of Pats Pulpit’s sister site Buffalo Rumblings — the SB Nation community for all things Bills.
Here is what he told us about the upcoming game.
1. The Bills have had one of the league’s best rushing attacks this season. What have been the biggest keys to their success?
I’d say the biggest single key to success has come in those moments where the offense is patient enough and committed to establishing a run game. Incredibly, Buffalo has found a ton of production without quarterback Josh Allen providing nearly as much this season runner (22 carries, 131 yard, 3 TDs). In considering the numbers alone, the results are nearly identical to seasons past, but almost none of the production is due to Allen, who had essentially operated as a near-feature back prior to 2023.
This season, the Bills are very strong running up the middle (rated first), and rank 10th when rushing off rushing off the left end. Despite a couple outings where he was seldom used and/or held in check, James Cook is the team’s leading running back, maintaining 4.8 yards per carry. League-wide, Buffalo is +0.22 yards-per-play better than NFL average.
So, once again, the biggest key may be as simple as a stronger commitment to establishing a more traditional run attack.
2. How significant is Josh Allen’s shoulder injury? Is this gonna be one of those situations where he struggles throwing short but can still launch moonballs effortlessly?
Allen was a full participant at practice on Thursday and Friday, so it would appear he’s good to go this weekend. What you’re referring to, however? If it became an issue in-game, I don’t know that you’d see Allen gutting it out the same way he did the UCL injury for much of the 2022 NFL season. That injury absolutely did affect his short game, but not his deep ball — as evidenced by one of his best “moon balls” last season, which happened on the play immediately after getting injured — essentially a 70-yard football rocket dropped between the numbers and into the hands of wide receiver Gabe Davis.
Where Allen may limit himself even further this weekend is as a runner.
3. How has Buffalo adjusted since losing two of their star players in Matt Milano and Tre’Davious White?
To give you a concise answer: all things considered, reasonably well. And now for the much longer response...
I’d say it’s too soon to really know what to expect long-term from Buffalo’s defense following the loss of White, Milano, and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. Playing out the season with major players at every level of defense will likely change the way they operate, how teams play them, and what success looks like through the season. The Bills’ defense has been a mash unit in recent weeks, which I’d bet fueled your curiosity here. Since losing White for the season to an Achilles tear (less than a year removed from his return off an ACL injury), the defensive back room has faced an unenviable amount of injuries. To this point, White’s has been the only one to keep someone out longer than a game. But almost every cornerback has dealt with fairly significant injuries — Christian Benford (shoulder), Dane Jackson (foot), Kaiir Elam (foot), Taron Johnson (knee/concussion), Cam Lewis (shoulder), Jordan Poyer (knee), and Micah Hyde (back).
Benford has exceeded everyone’s expectations as a sixth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He beat out fellow first-round cornerback Kaiir Elam and even Dane Jackson. When White was lost, things were still okay with Benford and then Jackson coming off the bench. Where they began to trend south was the point when the defense needed to play Elam. For all great that’s come for Benford, just as much, if not more disappointment and regression has been saddled to Elam. Without trying to sound bold here, fortunately, the Bills have a pretty talented and deep defensive back room, with depth that could find themselves as starters on other teams. It’s been interesting to watch how each of them has performed on the field this season.
As for Milano’s replacement? No one’s going to truly replace Milano, but Bills fans said the same about Tremaine Edmunds, and second-year linebacker Terrel Bernard has proven a revelation as Edmunds’ replacement. But back to Milano’s position: When the injury happened, it’s safe to say many felt it was a “sky is falling” situation. Not long before, linebacker Christian Kirksey had chosen to retire, where he’d have been a huge help if the team could have signed him to the active roster. But what was done was done. In came rookie third-round linebacker Dorian Williams — someone who was bestowed with his fair share of doubters given the team’s desire to draft him early and put him behind Milano, instead of learning the ropes at MIKE. But as is often the case, NFL head coaches and coordinators know better than fans and most analysts. Williams has flashed well in what’s amounted to a game and a half of NFL experience. He has much to learn, obviously, but his instincts are phenomenal and his motor knows no quit. The biggest areas of concern with Williams as Milano’s main replacement are occasional lapses in the tackling game, and being out of position due to his lack of experience. As such, McDermott has employed a bit of a platoon at WILL, with linebacker Tyrel Dodson coming in when he wasn’t someone to more soundly lay the wood. Dodson has his own limitations, and a very similar set of doubters, but he’s shown far better in limited snaps during the regular season than I’d bet anyone expected.
With all the injuries, especially to Milano and also DaQuan Jones, Buffalo’s defense has struggled a bit with run defense. Given the nature of the linebackers now, smaller, athletic marvels — their susceptibility to being run on (through Week 6, on 1st-and-10, the Buffalo Bills allow a whopping 7.26 yards on average) was always in play. DaQuan Jones, prior to his pectoral tear, was playing incredible football, especially as a penetrating DT, but also in freeing up the linebackers to more freely roam and attack the line of scrimmage — to be downhill forces. Interestingly, neither Milano nor Jones’ injury has been labeled as season-ending in nature.
4. The Bills’ defensive front has been one of the league’s most disruptive units, but they’ve also given up some big plays. How can the Patriots limit their strengths and exploit their weaknesses?
This is a difficult question in some ways. Their success on the interior has been built on the backs of guys who, as of now, are either on injured reserve (DaQuan Jones), or ruled out for this Sunday (Ed Oliver). Sure, it’s understood that McDermott employs a heavy rotation along the entire D-line and the reserves are impressive in their own right, but facing a defense without Jones and Oliver could mean a completely different set of rules. I referred to the Bills’ troubles against the run on first down (allowing 7.26 yards per play on average through Week 6), and they’ve only worsened since Jones was lost. But the Bills have a recent history of giving up one, sometimes a couple more, huge run in each game. (Think back to the Bill-Pats wind game in Orchard Park, NY — where Damien Harris had a huge run that proved monumental to the outcome.) Outside of those few instances, the defense remains sound in their run fits and stout as tacklers.
At edge rusher, the Bills employ an impressive platoon of players with elite motors. Greg Rousseau, Leonard Floyd, and A.J. Epenesa have been the biggest names to plan for, and now Von Miller’s working back into regular form. To beat them, it requires islands at offensive tackle, or extra blockers to help what I’d refer to as those linemen who are more like sand bars. Quarterbacks who excel with quick-timing patterns have found reasonable success. Honestly, I’d be shocked if head coach Bill Belichick didn’t find a lot he liked out of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive attack versus Buffalo. The question then becomes if the Patriots have the personnel to similarly match up well.
5. Our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook have the Patriots as 7.5-point underdogs at home. What went right for the Patriots if they pull off the upset?
If I’m being honest, it’s challenging talking about the Bills after their last two performances. Deep down, most people believe the team is good, but they’ve looked anything but so against the Jaguars and Giants. The box score for London tells a different story than what played out on the field. Then against the G-men, I believe head coach Brian Daboll knew exactly how to scheme against Allen. I’ve said Daboll likely knows Allen’s tells as a pro better than anyone, and he for sure shared that intel with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. Thus, I’ve decided to forget the last two games for now, until their troubles become a more general season-long trend. Are they as bad as Weeks 5-6? Probably not. Are they as great as Week 4 where they annihilated the Miami Dolphins? Probably not. But they have Josh Allen and Patriots fans know that once the QB riddle is solved, the sky’s the limit.
So what would New England have done to pull off an upset?
I’d say they found a way to stop Stefon Diggs after already taking away Allen’s other reads. The Allen-to-Diggs connection is stronger than ever, concerning many who cover the team and much of the fan base because of a perceived lack of chemistry with/trust in every other pass catcher behind Diggs.
Apart from that, I’d say the Patriots watched film of the Bills’ struggles against 3-4 defenses, and they forced Allen to throw from inside the pocket and between the sticks out of shotgun, while limiting YAC.
Buffalo has sought balance on offense this season, hence the run game success. So, if New England can limit the damage by the Bill’s running backs, it could pay dividends, as odd as that may sound when there’s still Allen, Diggs, and Davis to consider.
Also, it could be as simple as their showing up. Right? Any given Sunday, as we all know — especially with the playoff nature of the NFL’s week-to-week drama. Everyone’s out there to earn their paycheck and retain their jobs. What could stand in their way is a Bills team that’s likely very motivated to dispel rumors of offensive trouble, and distance themselves from the version of the team the last two games. Failing that, trouble begins to turn to trend. I think this game is going to be a tense affair, and whichever team can establish a sound pocket within a diverse groove will leave Gillette Stadium victorious.
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