Sunday’s upcoming game features perhaps the Patriots’ most familiar opponent, the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots and Bills will meet for the 113th time overall, with the Patriots having won 28 of the last 32 matchups and 13 of 14 at Gillette Stadium.
And no current coach has faced Bill Belichick more than Rex Ryan, who is 4-11 all time vs. Belichick (including postseason) with the Jets and Bills. The Patriots won both games against Rex and the Bills last year, 40-32 in Buffalo and 20-13 in Foxborough.
But there are plenty of new wrinkles for Sunday’s matchup. Tom Brady won’t be the Patriots quarterback, of course. The Patriots also don’t have Chandler Jones, who had three sacks in Buffalo last year. The Bills have a new offensive coordinator in Anthony Lynn, don’t have Percy Harvin or Karlos Williams anymore, and Chris Hogan had six catches for 95 yards in the last matchup . . . for the Bills.
To get a better feel for the Bills, we flipped on the game film of their 33-18 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, their first win of the season after two close losses to the Ravens and Jets.
■ Coordinator: Anthony Lynn.
■ Key skill players: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB LeSean McCoy, RB Mike Gillislee, WR Sammy Watkins, WR Robert Woods, TE Charles Clay, RB Reggie Bush.
■ Personnel notes: Sammy Watkins missed last week’s game with a foot injury, replaced in the lineup by Marquise Goodwin and Walter Powell. Left tackle Cordy Glenn has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, replaced by Cyrus Kouandjio. RT Seantrel Henderson is finishing up a four-game suspension for substance abuse and has been replaced by Jordan Mills. Reggie Bush was active last week but did not play a snap, falling behind Gillislee on the depth chart.
What to expect: This is pretty much the same Bills offense from last year. The Bills have a ton of speed at the skill positions, a mauling offensive line led by Richie Incognito and one of the league’s most dynamic athletes at quarterback in Taylor. They also are extremely limited in the passing game and fairly one-dimensional.
The Bills are 15th in points, averaging 23.7 per game. But they’re 30th in total offense, 32nd in passing yards, and tied for 31st in first downs per game (14.3). Taylor is averaging just 175 passing yards per game and completing 61 percent of his passes, down from 63.7 last year.
The Bills fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman after two weeks and promoted Lynn, also the running backs coach. Lynn’s missive last week against the Cardinals: Simplify the game for Taylor by giving him fewer options at the line of scrimmage, run the offense at a faster pace to get the defense off-balance, and run the football.
And run the football the Bills did. Taylor only completed 14 of 25 passes for 119 yards against the Cardinals, but the Bills rushed for 208 yards on 32 carries, averaging 6.5 yards per carry with three touchdowns.
The Bills play power football and love to run pulls, traps and wham blocks with their guards and tight ends.
They are ninth in the NFL in rushing yards and they’re averaging a healthy 4.8 yards per carry. McCoy is the workhorse, carrying 17 times for 110 yards and two scores against Arizona. He had a beautiful 17-yard run on a classic counter trey, in which the entire line blocks to the right, but McCoy and fullback Jerome Felton cut back to the left. Felton had a number of excellent lead blocks against the Cardinals.
And Taylor’s ability to run is the X factor. Not only can he break the pocket and pull off a big scramble at any time, but the Bills will call designed read-option runs for him as well. Taylor ran nine times for 76 yards and a touchdown last week, and the highlight of his day was a 49-yard scamper on a read-option run.
All of the elements of the Bills’ run game were on display on that play — pre-snap trickery with the wide receiver going in motion for an end-around, a fake handoff and misdirection to McCoy, a fake option pitch to the wide receiver, great downfield blocking from the Bills’ receivers, and tremendous breakaway speed for Taylor.
The Patriots will have to be very disciplined in keeping Taylor contained, and defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long must make sure they set the edge and force all of the run action inside.
But the Bills’ passing attack is still quite limited, especially if Watkins doesn’t play. Taylor has thrown for fewer than 120 yards in two of his three starts this season. He has a big arm, and always is dangerous to scramble around and hit a receiver deep on a broken play. But if he’s not chucking it deep, Taylor has to rely on play-action, bootlegs and quick passes. He also is hesitant to stand in the pocket and look for receivers over the middle, instead forcing many of his passes to the right side.
The Patriots sacked Taylor 10 times in two games last year (including eight times in the first game), and expect them to drop seven and eight into coverage, keep Taylor contained in the pocket (spying on him with linebackers Jamie Collins or Jonathan Freeny), and force Taylor to beat them with long, sustained drives. They also have to prepare for the Wildcat and other gimmick plays.
■ Coordinator: Dennis Thurman.
■ Key players: DT Kyle Williams, OLB Jerry Hughes, MLB Preston Brown, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Ronald Darby, SS Aaron Williams.
■ Personnel notes: DT Marcell Dareus is finishing up a four-game suspension for substance abuse, replaced by Corbin Bryant. Ronald Darby missed last week with a hamstring injury, replaced by Corey White.
■ What to expect: This is the same Rex Ryan defense we’ve gotten to know over the years – the 3-4 base alignment, aggressive blitzing and zone blitzing, disguising the rush with two-point stances and cornerbacks that can get physical. But it’s just not working out so well in Buffalo.
The Bills are 17th in points allowed (22.7 per game), 23d in total defense and 22d against the pass. But the Bills’ 10 sacks are tied for third-most in the NFL (Hughes and Alexander lead the team with three each), and the Bills are allowing only 3.4 yards per carry, fifth-best in the NFL.
They had a much better overall performance against Arizona on Sunday, holding the Cardinals to 348 total yards and forcing five turnovers, including four interceptions of Carson Palmer. Unfortunately, the Bills’ defensive game plan against the Cardinals likely won’t translate much to the Patriots game. The Bills went all-out to stop the Cardinals’ deep-passing attack, often playing deep Cover 2 or Cover 4 and conceding the short and intermediate part of the field. The Cardinals got down 17-0 and 23-7, and Palmer just started chucking the ball up deep, leading to the four turnovers and five sacks.
But the Patriots don’t have much of a deep passing game. Assuming Jimmy Garoppolo plays, the Patriots likely will utilize the short, quick passing game that Garoppolo ran to perfection against the Cardinals and Dolphins,and the Bills should counter by stacking the box and playing one-deep safety.
Hughes likes to line up across from the right tackle and should be a good test for Marcus Cannon, who dominated a clearly-not-100-percent J.J. Watt last week. Williams is a handful in the middle of the defense and should be a good test for the Patriots’ young interior line. The Bills like to blitz linebackers Preston Brown and Zach Brown, but the Patriots might be able to take advantage of both in the passing game with Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett and James White.
Thurman (who now does most of the defensive play-calling) likely will try to confuse Garoppolo by disguising his pass rush and sending constant zone blitzes, and it will be up to Garoppolo to diagnose the pressure and find the correct receiver before the rush gets to him. Also expect the Patriots to use lots of three-receiver sets to test Darby’s hamstring and test the depth of the Bills’ secondary. Tom Brady threw for 743 yards, four touchdowns and one interception last year using this game plan. Let’s see how Garoppolo does.
Bills special teams
The Bills have a dangerous kick returner in Brandon Tate, the former Patriot who had a 31-yard punt return for the Bills last week. Kicker Dan Carpenter has a big leg, but struggles with consistency and missed an extra point last week.