The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will be squaring off at 1 p.m. ET today, so let’s take a look at five matchups to watch this morning as we draw closer to gameday.
I’m not exactly sure how often Mario Williams will line up against Nate Solder vs. Sebastian Vollmer, but I’m guessing he will spend most of his time being blocked by the New England Patriots young left tackle. Solder is growing into one of the league’s best tackles, and he should have a big third year in the NFL. The Colorado product has always been a good run blocker, but he made a huge jump in pass protection between his rookie year and sophomore year in the NFL. That difference was huge for the health of the Patriots offense, and Solder also further improved his run blocking. Not only that, but his ability to screen block is huge for the Patriots offense, as the Pats will continue to throw screens to versatile RB Shane Vereen.
Mario Williams recorded 11 sacks last season, but he had a disappointing season in Buffalo relative to his talent, expectations, and contract. Things are looking up for him this year, and Doug Marrone praised Williams and his work ethic earlier this week. Solder will have his hands full against Williams, who is still one of the most talent defensive playmakers in the NFL. Solder should hold his own on the left side, but he is known for having some lapses in protection.
2. Patriots CBs vs. WR Stevie Johnson
I’m not exactly sure how the New England Patriots will gameplan against Stevie Johnson, but they will have to stop this guy. Johnson is by far the Bills best wide receiver, and that’s a testament to his talent (Robert Woods is no slouch as an incoming rookie out of USC either). Aqib Talib will definitely be covering the Bills “X” receiver in two-wide sets, but it will be interesting to see how the Patriots handle Johnson in three-wide sets. The Bills want to line him up in the slot to take advantage of some potential mis-matches, and this is becoming more of a trend in this league (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers love doing this with Vincent Jackson). Kyle Arrington is a solid player, but it’s obvious that he isn’t the ideal player to face off against a guy like Johnson (the size disadvantage is significant). Aqib Talib is the ideal player to cover Johnson, and his run defense and ability in press coverage make him a CB who can play inside as well as outside. Let’s see if the Patriots kick Talib inside or if they allow Arrington to stick with Johnson. The latter option has to include safety help, because it isn’t wise to have Arrington line up against Johnson one-on-one.
3. Patriots interior OL vs. Bills DTs
This matchup mainly goes for the passing game, because the Buffalo Bills have one of the best pass rushing duos at defensive tackle in the NFL. Kyle Williams is a star player who is a monster in every facet of the game, while Marcell Dareus is one of the best defensive tackles in the game at pushing the pocket. Both players combined for 13 sacks last season, which is terrific for a DT pairing. Not only that, but Williams was also playing through an injury last year. Dareus is nothing to speak highly of as a run defender, but he is clearly an elite interior pass rusher.
The Patriots interior of the offensive line is one of the best around at run blocking, with mauling center Ryan Wendell leading the way. But Wendell has his fair share of issues in pass protection, despite improvements made last season. I want to see if he is up to the task of helping to contain Williams and Dareus, and all eyes will also be on the right guard position. Logan Mankins should be able to hold down the fort on the left side, but RG could be of concern if Marcus Cannon doesn’t get things down at his new position immediately. If that happens, then Dan Connolly could also find himself having a tough day. I like Connolly as a run blocker, but he was the Patriots biggest liability as a pass blocker last year. That’s not to say he’s bad (that’s more reflective of just how terrific this line is), but he isn’t as good as either of the Bills DTs.
4. Blitz vs. E.J. Manuel
One thing that sometimes goes unnoticed about the New England Patriots defense is the fact that they have several players who can be valuable blitzers. Outside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower excel at delayed blitzes, and the Patriots were able to use them effectively down the stretch last season in order to manufacture pressure with Chandler Jones out with an ankle injury. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, as we saw against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the preseason, is one of the best blitzing MLBs around due to his explosiveness, hard-hitting, and generally vicious playing style. How would E.J. Manuel react to a guy like him barreling through the inside of the offensive line?
The Patriots also have two players in the secondary who are adept at rushing the passer when asked to, but I do think the Patriots will hold off on using Kyle Arrington on nickel blitzes in order to focus their efforts on covering Stevie Johnson. Steve Gregory is not good in coverage at all, but he had the best success of his career with the San Diego Chargers when he was a backup. The Chargers used a sub-package with him as the third safety, and they would play him close to the line of scrimmage in order to take advantage of his terrific nose for the football. The Patriots used him against the Detroit Lions in this sub-package as a blitzing safety, and I could see them doing this against the Bills even with the depth at safety tested with Nate Ebner and Duron Harmon out. Gregory could be used close to the LOS as a blitzer, Devin McCourty can continue to do his excellent work in deep coverage, and the Patriots can use Tavon Wilson at strong safety and have him play intermediate zone or man coverage.