Breaking down Bills vs Patriots

The Buffalo Bills will kick off the first regular season of the Marv Levy-Dick Jauron Era against the defending AFC East champion New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. at 1 pm with a very different team than the squabbling squad that crawled to the end of a disastrous 2005 campaign with a 5-11 record.

With a new General Manager and Head Coach, new Offensive and Defensive Coordinators and five additional new assistant coaches, a new offense and a totally different defensive system, and 21 new players, few are predicting much success this season for the rebuilding Bills who face the formidable task of beginning their 2006 schedule on the road, where they have struggled in recent years, against a powerful division foe in the Patriots, who have beaten the Bills in ten of their last eleven match-ups.

Yet, with all of the changes that have taken place in the off-season for both teams, the young Bills may be in a better position to make this game close or even steal an upset win than most observers think possible.

The Buffalo Bills Offense vs The New England Defense:

While many observers have considered the quarterback position to be the Bills' biggest weakness and question-mark, the biggest question about the Buffalo Bills offense entering this season is the quality of its offensive line. To put it bluntly, the Bills offensive line was atrocious last season. For the Bills to have any chance of being competitive this season, the offensive line must be significantly better.

Gone are the under-achieving, unmotivated Mike Williams, oversized penalty machine Bennie Anderson, under-strength Trey Teague, and slow-to-develop backups Greg Jerman, Justin Geissinger, Dylan McFarland. No loss.

villarial2F5557C5_1.jpgUnlike the last two seasons when the starting offensive linemen spent little time working together as a unit prior to the start of the season, from virtually the beginning of the Bills' offseason Organized Team Activities (OTAs) this season, they have been able to keep the same group of starting offensive linemen together as a unit. The lighter, more athletic Melvin Fowler, a free agent addition from Minnesota, has replaced Trey Teague as the Bills starting center. Free agent signing Tutan Reyes, who started for the Carolina Panthers last season, has taken over at left guard next to the unspectacular, but surprisingly adequate Mike Gandy at left tackle. The oft-injured Chris Villarial returns at right guard, after reportedly contemplating retirement and taking time off in the offseason to recover from the injuries that hampered him last season, next to the talented, but still-developing Jason Peters who signed a long-term extension with the Bills in the offseason. Second year man Duke Preston got some work in at center and both guard positions, where he figures to be a key reserve, especially during the team's OTAs, but, for the most part, the starting offensive line has been set since the OTAs and, as a result, has begun to develop a degree of cohesion that it simply did not have prior to the last two seasons.

But, will that translate into better offensive line play for the Bills?

That is the key question that must be answered in the affirmative for the Bills to have any chance of being competitive against the Patriots and during the season. And, the Patriots will certainly test the Bills offensive line right out of the box.

pl_177632mcgahee_1.jpgWhile the Bills were able to run the ball effectively with Willis McGahee in their first meeting last season, for the most part, the Patriots' defensive line, led by Pro Bowler Richard Seymour and massive nose-tackle Vince Wilfork, have manhandled the Bills' offensive line, allowing their excellent linebacking corps, led by Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Roosevelt Colvin and the now-departed Willie McGinest to make big plays. With Reyes and Fowler being even smaller than the players that they are replacing in Anderson and Teague, the Bills offensive line could be in for a very rough game if they cannot find a way to use their quickness and speed to somehow neutralize the Pat's defensive line, which has been bolstered by the addition of nose-tackle Jonathan Sullivan, a former first-round pick, who underachieved with the Saints, and also features young studs Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and Marquise Hill.

After getting off to a slow start, the Bills' starting offensive line showed improvement in each of its preseason games, especially in pass-blocking. But, the preseason doesn't mean much compared to the regular season and the Bills' offensive line must show that their improvement during the preseason was no fluke.

Typically, offensive lines coached by Bills offensive line coach Jim McNally tend to start the season being stronger in one area—either run-blocking or pass-blocking—and gradually get better in the area where they are weaker as the season progresses. If this continues to be the case with this offensive line group, that could be good news for Bills starting quarterback JP Losman, because the starting offensive line did a decent job of protecting him in their last two preseason games and was markedly better in pass-blocking than run-blocking. But, it could be bad news for Bills running back Willis McGahee who will be looking to get his season off to a good start after a disappointing campaign last season.

Going into a hostile environment on the road with a still-young, still-inexperienced starting QB, the Bills' offensive line must not only show that they are better at protecting their quarterback than the line was last season, but they must do a better job of opening holes for Willis McGahee in the run game than they did in the preseason.

And, perhaps more importantly, they must stay healthy because, except for Duke Preston, the Bills have no experienced offensive linemen on their bench. Coach Dick Jauron, unimpressed by the inept play of his slow-to-develop veteran backups, chose to take the risk of keeping the three offensive linemen that the Bills took in the later rounds of the draft, Brad Butler, Terrance Pennington and Aaron Merz, on the Bills' 53-man roster rather than any experienced veterans, in the hope that, if the starters can stay healthy, the rookies will develop into better players by mid-season than any of the vets that he could have kept instead. It's a big risk that the Bills don't want to have to pay for by being forced to give extensive playing time to a rookie in this game.

While the play of the offensive line will be critical to the Bills' chances of success against the Patriots, the play of the individual players on the line may go largely unnoticed by most fans. One player whose play will not go unnoticed will be starting QB JP Losman, whose every movement is likely to be scrutinized and subject to criticism by even the most casual Bills fan. Losman, who beat out Kelly Holcomb, who controversially replaced Losman as the Bills' starting QB twice last season, and newcomer Craig Nall, for the starting job must demonstrate this season that has what it takes to be a successful starting QB in the NFL and is capable of leading the Bills in the future.

Losman, who was handed the starting QB job by the now-departed Bills management prior to last season and whose immaturity got him off on the wrong foot with a lot of his older teammates on that squad, played poorly, completing only 49.9 % of his passes, and took a lot of lumps last season. With a new regime taking over at One Bills Drive, Losman had a lot to prove to the new Bills GM, Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator even before the preseason began. Working hard and showing greater maturity than in the past, Losman clearly won the starting QB competition in training camp, showing improved decision-making, a better arm than his competitors, and completing 67% of his passes in the preseason. In the process, he won the respect of his teammates, some of whom were calling for him to be named the starter even before HC Dick Jauron and his staff decided to officially give the job to him.

While Losman will be facing an excellent Patriots' secondary that has largely recovered from the rash of injuries that devastated that unit last season and will have its leader, strong safety Rodney Harrison back to lead a talent group of defensive backs that includes safety Eugene Wilson and cornerbacks Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and Randall Gay, he will have some extremely fast targets at wide receiver and a couple of new tight ends to throw to.

With Eric Moulds, one of Losman's biggest and most vocal critics last season, gone to Houston in a trade, Lee Evans has been asked to step up to the # 1 WR job. Evans, who has caught 16 TD passes and averaged 16.5 yards per catch over two years as the Bills' # 2 WR, demonstrated in the preseason that he is poised to have a breakout season taking over from the bigger, but slowing Moulds. Losman and Evans have had a rapport on the field ever since their first preseason workouts after the two of them were drafted in the first round by the Bills three years ago that should serve the offense in good stead.

pl_177634evans_1.jpgTo replace Moulds, in the offseason the Bills signed free agent Andre Davis, an extremely fast 6'1" wide receiver whose career with Cleveland and New England was hampered by injuries and then decided to bring back Peerless Price, who combined with Moulds to give the Bills a lethal receiving duo before Price decided that he wanted to be paid # 1 WR money and was traded to Atlanta. Price, who was humbled by his failure to produce in Atlanta and an ill-fated reunion with Drew Bledsoe in Dallas last season, beat out Josh Reed, who was resigned by the Bills after last season, for the # 2 starting WR job. While a lot of observers have written off Price based on his performance since leaving the Bills, he appears to have begun to develop a nice rapport with Losman, snagging 4 passes, including a 54-yard TD pass, in limited playing time during the preseason. In Evans and Price, Losman has a pair of exceedingly fast deep-threats as his starting wide outs. Andre Davis and the slender, but elusive Roscoe Parrish add even more speed. While Josh Reed and Sam Aiken do not have the same kind of deep speed as the Bills' other four receivers and both have continued to show the inconsistency catching the ball that has plagued both of their careers, surprisingly, Reed's career numbers are as good as those of any # 3 WR in the league and he caught more passes for first downs on third down from Losman last year than any other Bills receiver.

In addition to throwing to the Bills wide receivers, in OC Steve Fairchild's new offense, Losman can be expected to throw to his tight ends and running backs as well. On two occasions in the preseason, the Bills completed screen passes to their tight end, something that hadn't been seen from a Bills offense in recent memory. While Robert Royal earned a reputation as a good blocking tight end with Washington before signing with the Bills as a free agent, the Bills have made it clear that they expect to use him as a receiver as well and they have in training camp and the preseason. While the Bills did not throw to him much in the preseason, second year tight end Kevin Everett, who lost his entire rookie season to injury, offers the Bills the intriguing possibility of a deep-threat from the TE position, which is something that they have not had in years.

But, if the Bills are going to have any chance of keeping this game close and perhaps stealing a win on the road, they are going to have to get a big game from their most important offensive weapon, running back Willis McGahee.

Despite rushing for a career high 1,247 yards last season on 325 carries, Willis McGahee managed only a paltry 3.8 yards per carry and scored just 5 touchdowns, down from 13 in less playing time the previous year. Some of that was due to the poor performance of the Bills' offensive line, some of it was undoubtedly due to the way that the coaching staff used McGahee, and some of it was due to McGahee himself. Willis, who was angry with then-HC Mike Mularkey because he was often pulled on third-downs and in the red zone, felt that he was misused by Mularkey last year and showed it by playing lethargically in the second half of the season. In addition, after bulking up to 240 pounds in order to be better able to take the pounding of running between the tackles in Mularkey's offense, McGahee, who is still trying to come back from the devastating knee injury that ended his college career, seemed to have lost a so e of his speed. His longest run of the season was just 27 yards.

While McGahee irritated Coach Jauron by choosing to work out in Miami during the offseason rather than participating in any of the team's volutary OTAs, when Willis did show up in Buffalo, he came to camp in excellent shape, officially weighing a svelte 228 pounds, excited about OC Steve Fairchild's new offense. Unlike Mike Mularkey's "pound it between the tackles until they collapse" power running game, Fairchild's offense apparently features sweeps and stretch plays designed to get McGahee out into space on the edges and give him cut-back lanes. In addition, instead of only dumping the ball off to fullback Daimon Shelton, as in Mularkey's offense, Fairchild's offense includes designed pass plays to the running back. While McGahee has only 50 catches in his two years with the Bills, Willis was a good receiver in college and could be a dangerous receiver catching the ball in space. Even though the Bills' offensive line struggled to open holes for him in the preseason, when they were able to get him a crease, McGahee looked faster and quicker than he has since arriving in Buffalo, ripping off a 61 yard TD jaunt against the Bengals, his longest run as a pro.

A slimmer, faster, happier McGahee can make things a lot easier for JP Losman if he can run the ball effectively against the Patriots on Sunday. The question is whether he will be able to do that.

After the way that McGahee ran against them in their first meeting with the Bills last season, it is likely that the Pats will focus their attention on stopping Willis, especially early in the game, and make JP Losman prove to them that he can beat them with his arm. With Tedy Bruschi's broken wrist raising doubts about his availability at the beginning of the season, the Patriots signed Junior Seau hours after the Chargers gave him a retirement party. While the aging Seau is no longer the force that he used to be, the Patriots' linebacking corps, with Mike Vrabel on the outside or sliding into the middle to replace Bruschi, if he can't play (don't bet on Tedy missing the game!), and pass-rusher extraordinaire Roosevelt Colvin joined by youngsters Tully Banta-Cain, Don Davis and surprising rookie Pierre Woods, is capable of exploiting the havoc that their excellent front-four is capable of creating to throttle even the best running attack in the NFL. Still, the Bills will have to run the ball and continue to run the ball, even if they are not particularly successful initially, in order to keep the Patriots' defense honest and prevent them from teeing off on JP Losman. And, when the Bills' offensive line does open up a hole or give him a crack to run through, McGahee is going to have to run hard and use his speed to exploit it.

Can the Bills run the ball successfully on the Patriots?

They have to in order to have any chance of winning this game on the road in Foxboro where the crowd will be loud and jacked up even more by this being the first game of the season. They have been able to do it in the past with an offensive line that was not as good as this one has the potential to be. The Bills' offensive line has struggled in the running game through the preseason and the Pats, who will undoubtedly try to shut down their running attack, will give them their stiffest test to date. So, the performance of the Bills' offensive line will play a major role in the outcome of the game.

If the Bills' offensive line does not play effectively, it could be a very difficult day for JP Losman and Willis McGahee and the rest of the Bills. If they can protect JP Losman and give Willis McGahee some room to run, the Bills' new offense, with its quick-strike capability, could keep the Bills close enough to make things tough on the Patriots.

The Buffalo Bills Defense vs The New England Offense:

The disintegration of the Buffalo defense, that fell from 2nd in the NFL the year before to 29th overall in the league last season, was a critical factor in the collapse of the Bills last year. Even worse than its final ranking in overall defense was the fact that the Bills defense finished last in the league in red zone defense, was the worst rushing defense in the league in the second half of the season and failed to respond to the entreaties of two of its leaders, injured LB Takeo Spikes and MLB London Fletcher, when they addressed their teammates exhorting them to play better.

As a result, GM Marv Levy and Head Coach Dick Jauron decided that, in order to turn the Bills' fortunes around, the Bills' defense needed to be rebuilt. Having been impressed by the ferocious defense of the Chicago Bears, which led the league in defense and propelled the Bears to a playoff berth last season, Levy and Jauron decided to hire Perry Fewell, the Bears defensive backs coach, as the Bills new Defensive Coordinator to install a similar type of defense.

The Chicago version of the "Tampa Cover 2" defense that DC Fewell brought to the Bills in the offseason is as different from the defense that the Bills have had in recent years under Gregg Williams and Jerry Gray as their "Titans 46" defensive system was from the "3-4 Defense" that the Bills ran when Marv Levy and Wade Phillips were coaching the Bills. It is predicated on speed, quickness and penetration instead of size, lane discipline and intricate blitz packages. Instead of having behemoths on the defensive line to stand up the offensive linemen and having the linebackers fill the gaps, the Bills new defense relies on smaller defensive linemen to use their quickness to get penetration into the opposition's backfield to stop the run or, failing that, to disrupt the blocking schemes while the linebackers, who must be fast, react and run to the ball, knifing through the disrupted blocking. Instead of having the defensive linemen engage the blockers before rushing the passer and sophisticated blitzes to put pressure on the opposing quarterback while the cornerbacks are "left on an island" playing a lot of man-to-man defense on the wide receivers, the defensive linemen in the Bills' new defense are supposed to use their speed and quickness to get into the backfield before the offensive linemen can engage them, putting them in a position to put pressure on the opposing quarterback more quickly and, in most instances, without the assistance of blitzing linebackers or defensive backs, which, in turn, allows the linebackers and defensive backs to zone coverage, where the cornerbacks get help in covering the wide receivers deep down the field from the safeties, much more frequently.

dillon2545652_1.jpgThe "Tampa Cover 2" defense gets its name from the defense that Indianapolis Colts' HC Tony Dungy developed when he was the Tampa Bay Bucs Defensive Coordinator. Dungy's defensive system was based on a variation of "Cover 2" zone pass defense in which the field is divided into zones with the cornerbacks responsible for the short-to-medium outside zones, the outside linebackers are responsible for the underneath zones on each half of the field, the two safeties are responsible for the deep outside zones, and the middle linebacker is responsible for the deep middle zone. Because the cornerbacks can expect help in covering the wide receivers on the outside, it is a defense that does not require expensive "shutdown corners", like some other defensive systems do. But, it does require fast safeties who can not only help support against the run, but get back to cover the deep outside zones and a fast middle linebacker who is swift enough to get back and cover tight ends, running backs and even, at times, wide receivers, in the deep middle part of the field. Additionally, because, given enough time, NFL caliber QBs are expected to be able to find the open man in a zone defense, a good pass rush is essential to the success of this defense. Speed and quickness at linebacker and on the defensive line are essential to aggressive, "run full-speed to the ball at all times" attacking style that is necessary to compensate for the vulnerable aspects of this defensive system.

In order to implement this new defensive system that Fewell brought with him from Chicago, it was necessary for the Bills get rid of those defensive players on their roster who were not young enough and fast enough to play effectively in this new system and replace them with players who fit their new defense. Regardless of their roles in last season's lockerroom squabbling or the collapse of the Bills defense, several of the Bills high-profile, but aging defensive players, like Lawyer Milloy, who had clearly lost more than a step from his Pro Bowl prime, and Sam Adams, who had a long reputation for not possessing the greatest stamina, obviously did not possess the qualities required at their positions in this defense. And, as a result, they were let go in the offseason.

While much has been made in some quarters of the Bills' decision to jettison players like Milloy, Adams, Bannan, Edwards and Posey—and more recently Rashad Baker and Eric King—and replace them with younger, less experienced players, the fact is that, while these players may still be able to play effectively in the NFL in certain types of defenses, for the most part, they lacked at least some of the qualities required to be effective at their positions in the Bills' new defensive system.

123456.jpgTo replace these departing players, GM Marv Levy and the Bills' brain-trust used six of their first seven selections in the draft on defensive players. Even though the Bills had signed strong safety Matt Bowen from Washington, Levy used the # 8 pick in the draft to select strong safety Donte Whitner instead of selecting a quarterback or taking defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley, who was considered to be one of the top two DTs in the draft. Even more controversially, after taking Whitner, who many thought the Bills could have traded down and still selected a couple of spots lower, the Bills traded back up into the end of the first round to take DT John McCargo, a player that many draft gurus thought would be drafted a couple of rounds later, even though many NFL draft boards had McCargo rated as the third best DT in the draft. Despite evidence that Whitner would have been taken by another club before the Bills could have drafted him had they traded down and that McCargo would have gone to the NY Giants if the Bills had not traded up to get him, many draft experts and Bills fans still remain very critical of how the Bills handled their draft. But, all of the Bills draft picks made the team's 53-man roster and several can be expected to play important roles on Sunday against the Patriots.

While Coach Jauron has not said whether Donte Whitner will start at strong safety against the Patriots or not, he has confirmed that Whitner will play and will play significant minutes. Fifth-round pick Kyle Williams, who is listed as the starter at one DT position on the Bills' depth chart after an impressive preseason, and John McCargo are both part of the Bills' 4-man rotation at defensive tackle. Since the Bills' new defensive system requires them to rotate their defensive linemen frequently, both are expected to log a considerable amount of playing time. While free safety Ko Simpson and linebacker Keith Ellison are not expected to play much on defense, both will have key roles on special teams and Simpson, who showed remarkable ball-hawking ability in training camp, could see some playing time spelling Troy Vincent, the team's elder statesman, on defense.

While Aaron Schobel, who was third in the NFL with 12 sacks and has 46 ½ sacks in his five year career, gives the Bills a solid pass rusher at one defensive end spot and Takeo Spikes, who looks to have made a successful recovery from the torn Achilles tendon injury that he had last season, London Fletcher and Angelo Crowell, who had a marvelous season replacing Spikes last year, give the Bills a strong linebacking corps, questions abound about the ability of the Bills front seven to be effective playing in their new defensive system. While the Bills starting defense got progressively better during the preseason, they allowed each of their first three preseason opponents to score a touchdown on a long drive on their first possession of the game—a disturbing trend eerily reminiscent of the way that the Bills defense consistently allowed the opposition to put up points on long drives at the end of the first half and/or at the beginning of the third quarter in the vast majority of their games last season.

Perhaps the biggest question about the Bills' defense and their front seven, in particular, is: can they stop the run?

51592217EZ003_Bills_Pats111422_lowerschobel_1.jpgThe Bills were utterly pathetic against the run last season, giving up 150 or more rushing yards in 10 of their 16 games. One of the weaknesses of the "Tampa Cover 2" defense is that teams with big offensive lines that are committed to running the ball can wear down the smaller defensive linemen and linebackers in this type of defense. While the Bills' starting defense did not give up a lot of yards per carry in the preseason, they did give up some fairly long runs that yielded first downs. When it comes to stopping the run, the Bills new defense seems to be an "all or nothing" proposition where either the opposition gets stopped for a loss or little gain or it is able to gain a significant chunk of yardage, enough for a first down.


While appearing to be better suited to playing in this new type of defensive system than the defense that the Bills played last season, the fact that returning defensive linemen Tim Anderson, Chris Kelsay, Aaron Schobel and Ryan Denney, who had a terrific preseason after resigning with the Bills, were not very effective against the run last year raises doubts about how much better the Bills can be at stopping the run this season. The Bears and the Buccaneers have had success defending against the run with the same defensive system, but the Bears have Tommie Harris, Alex Brown and Brian Urlacher and the Bucs have Anthony McFarland, Simeon Rice and Derrick Brooks. Until the Bills prove that their front seven players can be just as effective in this defense as the Bears' and Bucs' players have been, the question of whether the Bills can do a better job of stopping the run than they did last season and whether they can be effective against the run will remain. With the Pats' WR corps at less than optimum strength for this game, it is very likely that the Patriots will test the ability of the Bills' new defense to stop the run on Sunday.

While the Pats did not run the ball nearly as effectively last season as they had in previous years and many observers have written off Corey Dillon as being washed-up and on the downside of his career, it would be a huge mistake to dismiss or underestimate the Patriots' running game. Dillon is healthy again, after an injury plagued season last year, and ready to show that "experts" who are writing him off are wrong. In addition, rookie RB Laurence Maroney has been extremely impressive in the preseason, showing breakaway speed that can turn a simple 10 yard jaunt into a long run "to the house". And, while second year offensive tackle Nick Kaczur is banged up and questionable for Sunday's game, the rest of the Patriots' starting offensive line is healthy, including offensive tackle Matt Light, their best lineman, who missed almost all of last season.

The Patriots may not be the same kind of "grind-it-out-wear-you-down" running team that say the Pittsburgh Steelers are, but their certainly good enough to test the whether the Bills' new defense be effective at stopping the run. The Bills' defense must do a good job of bottling up the Patriots' running game because, if they don't, Tom Brady will be able to keep them off balance enough to be able to pick apart their secondary even without his favorite wide receiver and a depleted WR corps.

The strength of the Bills' defense at this point is its secondary which returns cornerback Terrance McGee, who emerged last season as a quality starting cornerback whose only weakness is a lack of size that makes it difficult for him to cover the bigger receivers in the NFL, and CB Nate Clements, who the Bills franchised in the offseason even though he was coming off of a poor season for him, but still ranks as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. With those two at cornerback, the Bills have the ability to mix up their coverages against the passing game, instead of relying mostly on zone coverages, because both Clements and McGee can be very effective playing man-to-man. And, that will help to make the Bills safeties, the aging Troy Vincent and the inexperienced rookie Whitner, to be more effective. While the Bills used Vincent, who has clearly lost a step, to cover the slot receiver at times in training camp and the preseason, Jabari Greer, who beat out Eric King for the nickel-back position with an impressive training camp, gives the Bills a quality third cornerback to use when the opposition goes to three and four receiver sets. With rookie Ashton Youboty missing most of the OTA sessions and then the last three weeks of the preseason when his mother died, Kiwaukee Thomas, who has experience playing CB in a "Cover 2" style defense made the team as the fourth corner, although it is uncertain whether the Bills will use him as a "dime-back" or have Vincent cover the fourth wide-out in four receiver sets until Youboty is able to catch up on everything that he missed during his extended absences.

As good as the Bills' defensive backs are, their new "Tampa Cover 2" defensive system has an inherent weakness in its pass coverage, a "soft-spot" in the middle of the field, that the Patriots, with its big, fast, pass-catching tight ends, are certain to try to exploit on Sunday.

ey injuries to offensive linemen over the last two seasons have forced the Pats to adjust their game-plans to frequently keep tight end Daniel Graham in to help with the pass-blocking, Graham has shown flashes of the pass-catching ability that made him a first-round draft pick. With the Patriots' offensive line basically healthy again and Ben Watson able to share some of the blocking load, Graham can again be a potent weapon in the Patriots' offense, especially in two tight end sets and against the type of defensive system that the Bills are going to be playing this season. Even if Nick Kaczur's injury prompts the Pats to limit Graham's role in the passing game so that he can help Kaczur's likely replacement, rookie Ryan O'Callaghan, with pass-blocking, with the Patriots' depleted WR corps, it is very likely that the Bills will see a lot of Ben Watson in two tight end sets. Watson, whose speed and pass-catching ability has allowed the Patriots to use him in positions other than as an in-line TE, has had a phenomenal preseason and become one of QB Tom Brady's favorite targets. In recent years the Pats have been very creative in the way that they have used their tight ends and, with their wide receiving corps in turmoil and both Graham and Watson being such good targets, there is no reason to believe that Patriots will suddenly stop trying to find ways to get the ball to their tight ends in this game. Given the rapport that he has developed with Watson and the fact that his favorite wide receiver, Branch, is unlikely to play on Sunday, Tom Brady will undoubtedly look to exploit the weakness in the middle of the Bills "Cover 2" defense by throwing to his tight ends, unless the Bills find a way to take targets away from him and force him to look elsewhere in the passing game.

Can the Bills' defense take the Pats' tight ends out of the game and keep Tom Brady from exploiting the "soft spot" in the middle of the "Cover 2"?

It will be difficult. With Nate Clements and Terrance McGee, the Bills can play man-to-man on the Patriots' wide receivers on the outside and use their linebackers and safeties to cover the Pats' TEs in the middle of the field. But, Troy Vincent has never been a big hitter and has become a below-average tackler, especially when facing bigger, stronger opponents like Graham and Watson. Donte Whitner has the speed and bulk to cover and tackle any of the top tight ends in the league, but he's just a rookie and rookies have a tendency to make mistakes and get caught out of position, something that has happened to Whitner a couple of times already in preseason. If Coy Wire starts at strong safety instead of Whitner, Wire has the size and hitting ability to make the Pats' TEs pay for going into the middle, but Wire has absolutely no feel for pass coverage and has a tendency to get totally lost trying to cover receivers downfield—he's simply an atrocious pass defender. The Bills' linebackers are big enough to handle Graham and Watson after the catch, but Fletcher had trouble keeping up with RBs and TEs on deep routes down the middle of the field three years ago and he has a lot more mileage on him now than he did then. And, while Takeo Spikes looked good in his brief preseason appearance, coming off of an Achilles tear, it is hard to image that he hasn't lost some speed. Angelo Crowell is big and fast, but he'll have to do a better job against Watson and Graham than he did against Antonio Gates last season.

Still, if the Bills are able to crowd the middle of the field and make it difficult for Brady to pick out his tight ends, they could still force Brady to look away from his tight ends in the passing game. But, to do that they will have to consistently put pressure on him with their pass-rush. While Bills fans LOVE to hate Brady and have every reason to do so, the fact remains that Tom Brady is one of the smartest and most accurate passers in the NFL. If given time, Brady can pick apart just about any pass defense in the league. And, he has an uncanny ability to side-step the pass-rush while still looking at his receivers downfield. The Bills defensive line is going to have to use its speed and quickness to get into the Patriots' backfield and get in Brady's face early and often. They are going to have to hit him and do everything that they can to rattle him the way that the Steelers did when the Pats went to Pittsburgh last season. That won't be easy to do and it will be even harder to do in Patriots' home stadium in front of the Pats' home crowd. But the Bills are going to have to try. And, they are going to have to succeed in getting close to Brady quickly enough to force him to look to his wide receivers.

Troy Brown has had a great preseason and Reche Caldwell has looked good as well, with Deion Branch unlikely to play, the Bills cornerbacks match-up better against the Patriots' wide receivers than their safeties and linebackers do, individually, against Watson and Graham. Doug Gabriel had a good game against the Bills last year for the Raiders and Gabriel and Jonathan Smith have been working overtime to learn the Pats offense this week, but Gabriel and Smith have only been with the Patriots for a week now. Their understanding of the Pats' offense and timing with Brady cannot be expected to be ideal. The Bills corners may lose some match-ups to the Pats' wideouts, but they have a better chance of keeping them from dominating the game and giving the Bills' offense an opportunity to keep the game close.

The Bills new defense has been largely untested. Tom Brady and the Pats' two superb tight ends will certainly give one of the biggest weaknesses of their new defensive system a stern test in the passing game and Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney will similarly test the strength of their run defense. The Bills new defense will have to find a way to stand up to those tests for the Bills to have a chance to make this game competitive.

The Buffalo Bills Special Teams vs The New England Special Teams:

This is the one facet of the game where the Bills should have a clear advantage over the Patriots on Sunday.

moorman2_1.jpgWhen Coach Dick Jauron and his staff selected the Bills' 53-man roster following the team's final preseason game, all of the reserves who played key roles on the Bills' special teams in 2005 made the roster, with the exception of FB Joe Burns, who was put on the season-ending Injured Reserve list, and WR Jonathan "Fast Freddy" Smith, who was immediately snapped up off of the waiver wire by the Patriots after being beaten out at WR by Andre Davis and replaced on the Bills' special teams by RB Shaud Williams. Special team's aces Josh Stamer, Mario Haggan, Sam Aiken, Coy Wire and the Bills' superior corps of return men all return from last season's top ranked special team's units.

They will be joined by Andre Davis, who returned kickoffs for the Cleveland Browns when he was with them and showed great ability on punt and kick coverage units in the preseason, and Keith Ellison, whose ability to contribute on special teams was part of his pre-draft profile, and many of the Bills' other rookies. With all of this talent on their special teams, the Bills kick coverage and kick return teams promise to be superb this season once again.

Leading the Bills' special corps of return men is starting CB Terrance McGee, who led the NFL in kickoff returns for the second year in a row last season with an average of 30.2 yards a return. McGee's ability to change momentum and field position in the return game is so dramatic that last season Patriots' HC Bill Belichick had his team kick the ball short and to the sidelines rather than give McGee a chance to get his hands on the ball and give the Bills a big return. That started a trend that some of the Bills other opponents tried to follow in the second half of last season. It is entirely possible that the Pats may try to use that same tactic again on Sunday. If they do, it will be up to the Bills' "up men" on the kick return team to make the Pats pay for kicking away from McGee. With Andre Davis, an accomplished kick returner in his own right, joining the rest of the talented return men that the Bills can put on the field with McGee, including MLB London Fletcher  who has done a creditable job returning short kickoffs when playing on special teams.

parrishpunt_1.jpgWhile the Bills have several talented punt returners, Roscoe Parrish, who missed the beginning of his rookie season last year with a wrist injury, will be the Bills' primary punt returner this season. Parrish's 13.3 yard average on punt returns would have led the NFL last year if he had returned enough punts to qualify for the title. Parrish's quickness, speed and ability to cut on a dime make him a threat to take a punt to the house whenever he gets his hands on the ball. Shaud Williams, who has not been used much by Bobby April until the offseason, has similar qualities and was a top return man in college. Williams' ability to replace Jonathan Smith allowed the Bills to release Smith, who also returned punts for the Bills last season. And, then, there is starting CB Nate Clements, perhaps the Bills most accomplished punt returner in recent years. While the Bills would prefer not to expose Clements to a possible injury returning punts, Clements, who has a 9.5 yard average on 65 punt returns with two going for TDs in his career with the Bills, is a threat to break a big return any time he fields a punt.

Bills place-kicker Rian Lindell has not always given Bills fans reason to have confidence in him, Lindell has continued to improve since his arrival in Buffalo and had a superb season last year. Lindell converted on 82.86% of his field goal attempts (29 of 35) last season and was the first Bills kicker to hit on 100% of his PAT attempts in a season, with a minimum of 50 tries. Additionally, Lindell tied Steve Christie for the team record with three FGs of 50+ yards in a season. Lindell also averaged a respectable 60.9 yards on his kickoffs with excellent hang-time that allowed the Bills' kick coverage unit to hold the opposition to a paltry 20.4 yards a return, good for 4th best in the NFL. Not bad for kicking in the swirling winds of Ralph Wilson Stadium and the other cold-weather venues where the Bills play most of their games.

lindellmoorman.jpgAs good as Lindell was for the Bills last season, punter Brian Moorman was even better. Punting in less than ideal conditions, Moorman led the NFL in punting with a gross average of 45.7 yards per punt, which allowed the Bills punt coverage team to lead the league in net yards per punt with an average of 39.1 yards a punt. Moorman is an important weapon for the Bills because his punting can help the Bills consistently gain an advantage in field position.

The Patriots' Josh Miller is a fine punter in his own right, finishing 4th in the league behind Moorman with a 45.1 yard gross average per punt in 2005. And, the Pats' punt coverage team finished 5th in the league yielding a 38.0 yard average. Overall, the Patriots' special teams are probably not quite as good as the Bills, especially with Adam Vinatieri now kicking for the Colts and key special teams players Barry Gardner, Tebucky Jones and Mel Mitchell on IR and lost for the season.

 Pats rookie Steven Gostkowski has had a good preseason and there is no telling how good he can be, it is hard to imagine that he can be more clutch or better in high-pressure situations than Vinatieri. It's hard to say whether Gostkowski will be able to match Vinatieri's 61.8 yard average and 10 touchbacks on kickoffs, which helped the Pats' decent-but-not-great kick coverage teams to finish in the middle of the pack.

The Bills will have to use their advantage in special teams to dictate field position and put their offense in a good position to score if they want to have a chance to win this game. The Bills' special teams have the ability to do that and possess the potential to change the momentum of the game and even put points up on the board for the team. But, both the Bills' offense and defense will have to do their part to give their special teams a chance to influence the outcome of this game.


The Outlook :


It is never easy to win on the road in the NFL. Not for the best of teams. Especially when you are facing an experienced team that has won a division title and has an experienced, top-flight quarterback who has been successful in the biggest game of all.

With a new head coach, new coaching staff, new offense, a completely different defensive system, 21 new players, 10 of them rookies, the Buffalo Bills are a rebuilding team. And, they are about to open their season on the road in the home of the defending champions of their division, a team that has won three Super Bowl titles in the last five years and that is a favorite to win the division and contend for a title again this year.  Given all of that, it would be utterly unreasonable to expect the Bills to win this game.

But, for various reasons that I have outlined above, circumstances have presented the Bills with a unique opportunity in which some of the Patriots' obvious advantages have been at least lessened somewhat, if not negated. Can the Bills take advantage of this opportunity to keep the game competitive and perhaps even "steal" a win? The odds are overwhelming that their youth, inexperience and lack of time to gel as a team will prevent them from doing so. But, the opportunity does exist. And, stranger things have happened—especially early on in a NFL season.

While it would be unreasonable to expect the Bills to win this game, nevertheless, it should be an interesting game for Bills fans to watch. It will be interesting to see the new Bills coaching staff and their new offense and defensive system in action in a regular season game against a top-quality division opponent. It should be fascinating to see how the team responds to them and how it reacts in various situations during the course of the game. With JP Losman showing improvement and promise in the preseason after a disastrous season last year, it should be exciting to see him and the Bills' other young players, like Donte Whitner, Kyle Williams and John McCargo, go up against a good opponent in the Pats. The Bills may not win or even be able to keep this game competitive, but it will be interesting to see how they play and are able to answer some of the many questions about this team. Not all of the answers are likely to be good ones, but, undoubtedly, some of them will be and it will be interesting to see what surprises—and disappointments—this team might have in store for its fans this season.

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