The New England Patriots have to face off against a couple of big playmakers on the Buffalo Bills, but they should be able to take care of business defensively with a rookie quarterback at the helm. C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson are the two players to watch for the closest on the Bills offense, but there are also a few other solid players to watch for like left tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie wide receiver Robert Woods. Below are my three keys to victory for the New England Patriots.
1. Contain C.J. Spiller
The easiest way for the Buffalo Bills to win this game is to have C.J. Spiller rip off a couple of huge runs, because that’s really the only way to beat the Patriots run defense. The Pats clearly have a harder time stopping quicker backs than strong backs who mostly run between the tackles, and Spiller is the most agile back in the game. He did a nice job in the last meeting between these two teams, and he’s going to get much more carries as the Bills focal point of the offense. You have to contain him, because he is just so tough to bring down once he gets into the secondary. The Patriots need to continue to receive solid tackling from the secondary, because big rushing plays from Spiller could make this game a closer affair than it needs to be. There is no doubt that Spiller is the best player on the Bills offense, and there is no doubt that the Bills will want to give him the ball as much as possible, especially with E.J. Manuel making his debut whilst coming off of an injury. The Patriots run defense is certainly well-equipped to stop both Spiller and Fred Jackson, but they did allow a combined 150 rushing yards out of both players the last time these two teams faced. The result? A 37-31 win that was closer than it should have been.
2. Getting Pressure
It is pretty obvious that the vast majority of rookie quarterbacks are significantly better when not facing pressure, because dealing with the heat is something that gets better with experience. Rookie quarterbacks making their regular season debuts are more susceptible to breaking down under pressure, and the Patriots need to take advantage of it by blitzing. As we saw in the preseason, E.J. Manuel is better off when he isn’t under pressure, but he is significantly worse under pressure. The game moves so much faster in the regular season than it does in the preseason, and the Patriots can take advantage of that fact blitzing. Although it is more ideal for the Patriots get the pressure they need from their four-man rush, that wasn’t the case last year in most games.
Chandler Jones is poised for a breakout season, and we’ll see if he can show that he can make the jump to being an elite pass rusher in his first game in 2013. Cordy Glenn isn’t the easiest player to face, as he is also a talented, young player who looks poised to make a jump in his second year. But Jones will need to pass this test, because he will be facing harder offensive tackles later on. Tommy Kelly was a great addition in the offseason and should push the pocket, but center Eric Wood is a very good pass protector and can handle him. Somebody at DE should step up, and we’ll see if a backup like Michael Buchanan can chip in with a good day.
But the Patriots should mix in some blitzes throughout the game to keep the rookie signal-caller on his toes, and delayed blitzes with Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower were an effective option down the stretch last season. Since Mayo is better in coverage than Hightower, it makes more sense to blitz Hightower and take out Brandon Spikes for Jamie Collins or Dane Fletcher in those situations. The last thing you want to do is leave yourself susceptible in coverage and get beat on a screen pass to C.J. Spiller, who is an excellent pass-catcher, while blitzing. Defensive back blitzes shouldn’t be ruled out either, as Kyle Arrington does an excellent job on nickel blitzes when called upon to do so. Steve Gregory is also somebody who can effectively blitz as a safety, and the Patriots could try and mix things up by playing him close to the line of scrimmage and having him biltz. While that is a bit risky, the Patriots could have a third safety playing coverage in that scenario.
3. Covering Stevie Johnson
Stevie Johnson is easily the best wide receiver on the Buffalo Bills, and I don’t mean that as an insult to rookie Robert Woods, who looks like a solid player. Johnson is easily the player with the best track record among the Bills receivers, and he is also clearly the best playmaker of the bunch. If the Bills want to win, then they will have to make sure to get the ball to Johnson as much as possible. Covering Johnson won’t be a big deal in two-wide sets, because Aqib Talib should be able to contain him. Although Johnson will “get his” against Talib, he won’t explode to a big day or anything. But the Bills have a cunning plan in three-wide sets, and that is to play Stevie Johnson in the slot. The goal is obviously to create mis-matches and playing Johnson in the slot against Kyle Arrington is a mis-match. Arrington is a solid player, but a No. 1, “X” receiver being covered by a prototypical slot receiver who is four inches shorter is indeed a mis-match.
I’m wondering if the Patriots will decide to kick Talib inside in nickel packages for that purpose, or if they will allow Arrington to cover Johnson but use Devin McCourty as safety help on the inside. That would leave the Patriots a bit vulnerable on the outside and on deep routes, but Johnson is clearly their most talented player. T.J. Graham would have to have a breakout game in order to make the Patriots pay for that decision, because Robert Woods probably isn’t going to beat them deep. Plus, Alfonzo Dennard, who will play tomorrow barring any unexpected circumstances, is plenty good enough to hang with Graham, who was horrible last season (I’m sure he has improved significantly this offseason, though, and will be an average player).
Guessing the Patriots gameplan against the Bills is tricky business due to the main variables out there, but I am certain that the Patriots will win if they can contain Stevie Johnson, who is the only legitimate receiving threat on the Bills. He will have a big game, but it takes more than two players to beat a team.