W2W4: New England Patriots (6-1) Offense vs Buffalo Bills (4-3) Defense

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is ready to face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is ready to face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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New England Patriots
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been fantastic since Tom Brady returned at quarterback. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports /

The New England Patriots faced the Bills in week four with an offense which will be just a distant memory come 1PM on Sunday. Then, rookie Jacoby Brissett completed one pass to a wide receiver on eight targets (Julian Edelman for 16 yards) and fed running back James White (five receptions for 50 yards and tight end Martellus Bennett (5 catches for 109 yards).

Tight end Rob Gronkowski was still slowed by his hamstring injury and played 39 snaps but mainly as a blocker or decoy, rarely running routes as a receiver. Without Tom Brady and Gronkowski, the offense struggled to maintain any momentum.

The Patriots gained just 25 total yards on their first three drives with all ending with punts. A fumble by Brissett killed a potential scoring drive and another three-and-out going backwards ended their ineffective first half.

The second half opened with a New England 11-play drive that ended with a missed field goal. After that, two more punts and a drive ending without converting a fourth down ended any hope for the Patriots as they ran out of gas waiting for their big guns to return on offense.

Patriots’ Matchup Headache

The big guns are back as Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady have combined for 16 completions for 364 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With the return of the New England dynamic duo the Patriots have scored 33, 35, and 27 points.

The Patriots have not been able to fully utilize Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett together as Bennett has been slowed by an ankle injury the past two weeks and is questionable for Sunday after missing practice on Friday. Add in Julian Edelman slowed by a foot injury and off his usual pace with just 37 catches for 321 yards this season and the offense has yet to hit its stride.

Buffalo interior linebackers Preston Brown and Zach Brown have to be accounted for as blitzers and both have been above average in zone coverage against most tight ends. Gronkowski and Bennett create a unique matchup problem for teams.

Usually safety Aaron Williams would help in coverage but a cheap shot by Miami wide receiver Jarvis Landry last week has him questionable with a neck injury.

The Patriots have seen running back James White take a key role in the offense coming out of the backfield and fulfilling some his promise after being a fourth round draft pick in 2014. White has 27 catches for 244 yards and three touchdowns–all in the past two weeks.

Last week against the Steelers, New England used the three wide receiver offense to jump-start the passing game in the second half. Danny Amendola ended up with 19 snaps played with the offense and rookie Malcolm Mitchell with 30.

Although they had no catches and one target combined, their role in the formations opened seams for Gronkowski to punish Pittsburgh.

Buffalo is blessed with two excellent cornerbacks with former first-round draft pick Stephon Gilmore and last year’s second-round steal Ronald Darby. With two aggressive, ball-hawking, and potentially shutdown cornerbacks, the Bills are able to smother opposing wide receivers with them and free safety Corey Graham.

The best matchup for New England’s offense (other than the tight ends) could be finding Buffalo’s slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. Robey-Coleman had a strong game two weeks ago, but that was against San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Danny Amendola (or Julian Edelman in the slot) could take advantage of Robey-Coleman covering in the slot.

Bills’ Pass Rush

Rex Ryan is always trying to find ways to fluster Brady by showing him unique coverage schemes and pressure from unexpected places. He has thrown the amoeba defensive front at him in the past, blitzes from different angles and from all kinds of different position groups, and occasionally flooding zones with seven or eight defender.

The 2016 Bills front seven has been missing superstar Marcell Dareus (suspension and hamstring injury) and Mario Williams (released in the offseason and in Miami), but it is still a formidable group. Mario Williams took a step back last season leading to his release.

Disruptive defensive tackle Kyle Williams (out injured much of 2015) is back and the return of Dareus next to him should help in collapsing the pocket. Dareus–when on the field–is arguably the best defensive tackle in an AFC East equal to Miami’s Ndamukong Suh and the Jets’ trio of Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Leonard Williams.

Linebacker Jerry Hughes finally cashed in with a big contract extension in the offseason and still leads the pass rushing group. Opposite Hughes is 33 year old journeyman outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander who has nine sacks in seven games after having just nine career sacks in nine seasons coming into 2016.

Taking advantage of Hughes (four sacks) getting most of the attention, the former Washington, Arizona, and Oakland special teams player has been the surprise of the season so far. With 16 career starts over nine seasons, his production has been mind-boggling. Hughes has been slowed by a hand injury this week but should still play on Sunday.

The Bills also get rookie first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson back as last week he played for the first time as he returned from the PUP list after practicing last week. He played just 14 snaps and should play more this week.

Fresh legs, enthusiasm, and explosiveness is exactly what Buffalo needs. He will have to take snaps from Alexander but it could be advantageous for Buffalo to keep Alexander fresh.

Tackles Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder will have their hands full handling Hughes, Lawson and Alexander while the young interior of rookie Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason will have Williams, Dareus, Leger Douzable (who played well last week against Miami) and Adolphus Washington to contend with all game.

Buffalo has the allowed the fewest passing touchdowns with just four touchdowns allowed through the air over seven games. They have allowed the 11th fewest passing yards (1,650 yards) but will miss hard-hitting safety Aaron Williams (who is unlikely to play Sunday and possibly the entire season). However, with Brady and Gronkowski back and clicking, the Bills will have a much tougher time slowing the Patriots’ passing attack.