The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will kick off the season tomorrow in a rivalry game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and here is a closer look at five players on the Buffalo Bills offense as we continue our pre-game analysis.
1. RB C.J. Spiller
I might as well just list the Buffalo Bills best player at the top, and C.J. Spiller has drawn praise from head coach Bill Belichick and Patriots star defensive tackle Vince Wilfork this week. Wilfork knows that he will have his “hands full” against Spiller and the Bills rushing attack, which is going to feature even less Fred Jackson than last year. The last time these two teams played, Spiller and Jackson went off for 150 yards. The Patriots have a terrific run defense led by an elite group of linebackers, but their run defense isn’t impenetrable either. It’s going to take a lot for Spiller to have a big game, but he is unquestionably one of the five most talented running backs in this league. His agility and playmaking ability are immense, and he has a chance to take it to the house on any given play. Missed tackles are the last thing you can afford to have happen when facing Spiller.
Another thing to keep in mind when watching C.J. Spiller is his pass-catching ability, and the New England Patriots struggled mightily with handling receiving running backs last year. That will definitely be better in 2013 with Jamie Collins in the fold and Dane Fletcher healthy, but things won’t improve overnight and the Bills can still take advantage of mis-matches in the passing game with Spiller when Collins and Fletcher are not on the field (after all, they are only backups).
2. WR Stevie Johnson
There is no question that Stevie Johnson is the best wide receiver on the Bills, and the Patriots are going to have their hands full with him all day. Aqib Talib should be able to handle Johnson, but things will get dicier when it comes to three-wide sets. The Bills plan is to kick Johnson into the slot in three-wide sets, and that means Johnson will have a height and skill advantage over Kyle Arrington. While Arrington is a solid player and the prototypical slot corner, Johnson is far from being a prototypical slot corner. I want to see how the Patriots gameplan for Johnson in three-wide sets, because they could try and kick Aqib Talib into the nickel in those situations or use Devin McCourty as safety help. It’s not ideal to do that with McCourty, but the Bills don’t really have anyone who can stretch the field, unless if T.J. Graham has a breakout game (Robert Woods is more of an intermediate threat).
3. C Eric Wood
While Eric Wood did deserve his extension and is one of the better centers in this league, he’s not as good as you may think. Wood is a very good pass blocker who should be able to contain Tommy Kelly and any middle blitzes from Brandon Spikes, but he will have a rough time run blocking. Wood’s weakness is clearly run blocking, and that’s not a good thing when going up against Vince Wilfork and Spikes at the heart of the opposing defense. That’s something the Patriots can take advantage of, but Wood is still a solid center overall due to his proficiency in pass protection.
4. QB E.J. Manuel
Well, of course I am going to cop out and pick E.J. Manuel, who is one of the headlining players as a first-round pick making his NFL debut. Manuel is clearly healthy enough to play, and the Buffalo Bills certainly have a better chance with Manuel under center than with Jeff Tuel flinging passes. The Patriots need to make sure to get into Manuel’s face early and often, and they need to get adequate pressure from the four-man front. Chandler Jones should be a big factor in this one as he looks to get a potential breakout year started on the right foot, but the Patriots also need some pressure from Rob Ninkovich on the other side of the defensive line. The sack totals clearly overrate Ninkovich, and the key with Ninko is trying to get him to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. His run defense makes up for that need, but it would nice to see him or one of the backup DEs step up. It’s always important to put pressure on a rookie quarterback, but that’s especially true for Manuel, who is significantly better when not pressured. I think we’ll see some delayed blitzes from Dont’a Hightower as well, and it will be interesting to see how often the Patriots try to “manufacture” pressure on the QB. I want to see how aggressive they are against the former Florida State signal-caller.
5. LT Cordy Glenn
Cordy Glenn was only healthy for one game last season against the New England Patriots, but he held fellow rookie Chandler Jones at bay. Overall, Glenn had a very good rookie season, and he looks poised for a huge sophomore year, especially if health is on his side. The Georgia product is solid in both pass protection and run blocking, and he should be a good opening test for Chandler Jones, who would do wonders for the Patriots defense if he has a breakout year. The Patriots are counting on Jones to provide most of the team’s pass rush, and he also needs to continue to be solid against the run in a team effort to contain C.J. Spiller. Although facing off against Cordy Glenn isn’t an easy task for Jones, it is important for him to beat those kinds of players. I mean, Glenn won’t be the hardest left tackle he goes up against with talents such as D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Andrew Whitworth, and Ryan Clady lined up on the 2013 schedule.