Patriots: Week 10 Insiders Perspective
Much has changed since the Patriots and Bills last met back on Oct. 3, a game New England won 31-17. Back then, New England was looking for its 18th straight win while Buffalo was looking for its first under new head coach Mike Malarkey. Lawyer Milloy was out of Buffalo's lineup and his buddy Ty Law was in New England's. Both teams had their starting right tackles - Mike Williams for Buffalo and Tom Ashworth for New England - in the mix. And Willis McGahee was an afterthought in Buffalo's offense, but has since emerged into its centerpiece.
Buffalo lost its first four games, but has since won three of its last four including a huge division win over the Jets in Buffalo last week. They actually come to Foxborough Sunday night to face the first place 7-1 Pats riding a longer winning streak (2) than the Patriots (1). This week they will look to sweep a two-game division stretch that they viewed as critical to the rest of their season.
While sitting at 3-5 on the year, Buffalo has won its last two division games over the Jets and Dolphins and is 2-2 in the division. It is desperate to make that 3-2 this week with a Dec. 5 game against Miami - the Bills' last AFC East contest.
McGahee may just be the biggest reason Buffalo is holding out hope that it can overcome its woeful start. The second-year runner out of Miami has rushed for more than 100 yards in all three of his starts this season, all of which have been Buffalo wins. He has been the workhorse in the Bills' run-first offense and toted it 37 times for 132 yards against the Jets last week.
"(McGahee) runs hard, has good speed, can run outside or with power inside and he catches the ball well," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They want to run the ball and they have. It has set up their play action, helped them convert on third down and they haven't turned the ball over. They're playing games on the terms they want to play them."
That might be the biggest difference of all between this week and the Oct. 3 meeting. The Bills defense has been solid all season, but in three of the last four weeks the offense has avoided third-and-long, negative plays and turnovers. After scoring just 51 points in its first four games - all losses - the Bills have scored 86 in the four games since, winning three.
"They're executing better than they did a month ago," Belichick said. "When you come in as a first year coach, not everything is the way you want it in the first week. You have to go through situations to see how things are run. There's no time frame on how long it takes, but they're certainly further along than they were. Clearly there's a new emphasis to that offense than what was there the last couple of years."
Simply put, the emphasis is on the running game. Under Gregg Williams, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride led a pass first, pass always approach, but with Malarkey coming over from Pittsburgh, he has instilled a different mentality.
"Their offense is a lot more efficient than it was when we played them," safety Rodney Harrison admitted. "They're not turning the ball over and they're playing a very physical brand of football."
That brand will make them tougher to defend than the predictable Rams were a week ago. Without starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Pool, the Patriots appeared vulnerable against the Rams' high-flying passing game, but Belichick game planned for St. Louis to throw all day and he flooded the zones with bodies, which made it difficult for Marc Bulger to deliver the ball in rhythm.
With the Bills prepared to pound the ball from the outset, they could force New England to bring Rodney Harrison into the box and leave a corner exposed in one-on-one coverage. Last week, the Patriots used five and six defensive backs throughout, but Buffalo can make them play with four by dictating personnel matchups.
When Harrison is in the box to play the run, which he presumably will be, the Bills can take some shots downfield against backup corners like Earthwind Moreland, Randall Gay and Asante Samuel. If Harrison stays deep to protect over the top of those young corners, Buffalo will pound away at the seven-man front with McGahee.
The Steelers used that approach in dealing New England its first loss of the season back on Oct. 31 and the Patriots could not stop the run with seven defenders as big power backs Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis pounded away. Buffalo's running game is similar scheme-wise to Pittsburgh's and McGahee has taken it to the next level.
"You just have to get your mind right," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of preparing for the Bills. "When you know a team is going to try to be physical with you and impose its will to run the ball, you have to get yourself ready physically. There isn't as much mental stress in terms of passing concepts. But they have a good running back in McGahee and they like him and want to pump him a little bit so you have to get it in your head that they are going to try to run the ball."
The Patriots have had their troubles against the run this season, allowing both Indianapolis and Pittsburgh to eclipse the 200-yard mark while allowing an average of 119 yards per game - 30 yards more per game than they allowed last season. Travis Henry was productive for Buffalo in the first meeting between the clubs, rushing 24 times for 98 yards.
After thumping a finesse team last week, New England must gear up for another physical battle against a running team that can now more effectively use play action to strike big down the field with Drew Bledsoe and wideouts Eric Moulds and Lee Evans, who might be better to exploit the Patriots suspect, inexperienced secondary than Martz's Rams were.
SERIES HISTORY: 90th meeting. Patriots lead series 48-40-1. The Patriots have won six of the last seven meetings dating back to 2000 and went through a five-game span from 1999-2001 when four of the games were decided in overtime. New England is 14-6 in the last 20 meetings and 7-2 since Belichick took over. The Patriots have won the last three in Foxborough by an average of 17 points per game.
The Patriots' two-minute offense has been remarkable this season. While it hasn't been called upon to win a game in the waning seconds of regulation, it has been near dominant at the end of the first half. New England has scored on its last possession of the first half in three straight games, in six of eight this season and seven of the last nine dating back to Super Bowl XXXVIII.
New England scored last-possession touchdowns this season against Pittsburgh, the Jets, Miami and Buffalo while kicking field goals against the Rams and Colts. It did not score on its final first half possession against the Cardinals and Seahawks but did score a touchdown to end the half against the Panthers in last year's Super Bowl.
"If you're confident in your two-minute offense and you execute it on the practice field, then you have the confidence to push the envelope in the game," coach Bill Belichick said. "It's definitely helped us this season."
The Patriots have scored 74 second quarter points this year and 34 of those have come on the team's final possession of the half.
- The Bills-Patriots matchup has been one-sided during the Tom Brady era in
New England. Brady is 6-1 in seven starts against Buffalo, having completed
62 percent of his passes for 1,417 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions,
four of which came in the 2003 season opener. He has a 90.8 passer rating
against Buffalo. Drew Bledsoe, on the other hand, is 1-4 against the Patriots.
He has completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,190 yards with five touchdowns
and eight interceptions for a 68.8 passer rating.
- It's November, which makes it Patriots time. Counting the postseason, New
England is 29-4 since 2001 in games played after Nov. 1 with three of those
losses coming in 2002. It went 11-1 after Nov. 1 in 2001, 6-3 in 2002, 11-0
in 2003 and is 1-0 so far this season. The Rams, Raiders, Titans and Jets
were the four teams to beat the Pats during that stretch, but New England
is 4-0 against Buffalo over that period.
- Last year's meeting in Foxborough was a revenge game for the Patriots. After
losing 31-0 in Buffalo to open the season, the Patriots laid a thumping on
the Bills in the regular season finale in Foxborough by the same 31-0 score.
The 13-2 Patriots had already clinched the division and a playoff bye, but
played hard to the bitter end of the blowout, looking to preserve the shutout,
which they did when Larry Izzo intercepted Travis Brown in the end zone to
end the game. With New England headed for the postseason and Buffalo headed
home, the win avenged the season opening loss, which was arguably the worst
game in Tom Brady's career and the worst loss of the Belichick era.
- The Patriots have 23 sacks through eight games this season, putting them
on pace for 46, which would be the team's most sacks in a season since 1986
when they record 48. Bledsoe has been a frequent victim of the New England
defense since joining the Bills, having been sacked 17 times in the five meetings
between the clubs, including six in the first meeting this year. But after
allowing 23 sacks in is first six games this season, the Bills offensive front
has gone two straight games without allowing Bledsoe to go down, which marks
the first time since 1993 the Bills have gone consecutive games without allowing
- New England has won eight straight games against AFC East competition and
is 17-3 in its last 20 division games. The defending division champs have
not lost an AFC East game since last year's season opener at Buffalo and have
beaten each divisional foe once this season.
- After two straight road games, the Patriots return home to Gillette Stadium this week where they have won 15 straight games. New England is 19-3 at Gillette since it opened in 2002 and the 15 straight regular and postseason wins is the longest home winning streak in the NFL. The Patriots last home loss was back on Dec. 22, 2002 when it lost to the Jets.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 - The total points Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri needs to reach 1,000 points for his career.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My little league team. We only had 13 guys so I played defensive tackle and tight end." - Rodney Harrison on when the last time he saw players playing two-way football (offense-defense) the way players like Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and Troy Brown have this season for New England.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Patriots' offensive line is thin to say the least. After losing starting right tackle Tom Ashworth for the season with a back injury and his backup, Adrian Klemm, for the season with a foot injury, the Patriots are down to their No. 3 right tackle in Brandon Gorin, who has started the last two games. The club worked out street free agents Jeff Roehl, who has played in 12 NFL games with two starts over two years after a collegiate career at Northwestern, and Sammy Williams, a seven-year veteran who was a sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 1998 and played for Baltimore, Kansas City, San Diego and Jacksonville in his career, making 14 starts while playing in 29 games. It signed neither.
The only move the Patriots made to add depth to the line was adding tackle Lance Nimmo to the practice squad to fill the vacancy left by Earthwind Moreland's elevation to the active roster. Nimmo, 25, was Tampa Bay's 2003 fourth-round draft pick and spent the spring of 2004 playing in NFL Europe. The 6-5, 303-pounder actually spent 2003 with the Jets, but was inactive for all 16 games. He was released at the end of the preseason this year and signed with the Browns practice squad, but was released by Cleveland on Oct. 6.
The Patriots have no true backup tackle on the active roster, and coach Bill Belichick and his players are mum on who would play the spot in the event that either Gorin or left tackle Matt Light went down.
"We'll have seven at the game," Belichick said. "Those players will be backed up one way or the other. We're not committed."
The linemen, for their part, were evasive in answering questions, offering such statements as; "I'll play wherever they want me to."
Right guard Stephen Neal moved out to right tackle in Pittsburgh on Oct. 31 when Light was dinged up and he would presumably move again if needed.
- WR Troy Brown was non-committal about his role on defense this week, but
it's unlikely that he will see as much, if any, action at cornerback against
the Bills unless the score is weighted heavily in New England's favor, eliminating
the run as a possibility for the Bills - an unlikely scenario given the quality
of Buffalo's third-ranked defense. With Buffalo expected to run the ball early
and often, Brown will not be used beyond obvious long-yardage, passing situations.
- S Rodney Harrison did not play on special teams in his first year in New
England last year, but has been covering kicks since the Patriots' dismal
day in Buffalo back on Oct. 3 when Terrence McGee returned a kick 98 yards
for a score. "No one had a harder time against them in the kicking game
than we did," Belichick said this week. While Harrison was relieved of
his special teams duties back around 2000, he first made his name in the kicking
game. "Early on I was a beast on special teams," he said. "That's
how I established myself. I stopped playing special teams probably in my eighth
year, but when (Coach Belichick) told me he wanted me on special teams, I
- WR Deion Branch could return to action this week. He made a rare appearance
in the locker room last week when it was open to the media, a sign that he
was closer to returning. This week, he was upgraded to questionable on the
injury report after being listed as doubtful for the last six games, all of
which he missed. Branch caught eight passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in
a game-and-a-half of action before injuring his knee.
- LBs Mike Vrabel and Roman Phifer could be used to cover kicks this week
if Matt Chatham is unable to play. Chatham is questionable with a hamstring
injury and missed a portion of practice Wednesday.
- CB Asante Samuel should be in the starting lineup Sunday night against the
Bills. He injured his shoulder on the second defensive play of the game last
week in St. Louis and missed most of the game until returning in the fourth
quarter. He will start opposite undrafted rookie free agent Randall Gay while
Earthwind Moreland plays as the nickel back.
- LB Ted Johnson figures to see a bulk of the snaps at inside linebacker this week ahead of Roman Phifer, who saw extended action against the Rams last week. Tedy Bruschi has developed into a more full-time player while Phifer and Johnson play more situationally - Johnson in running situations and Phifer against the pass. Johnson had a strong game in the first meeting with 11 tackles.
GAME PLAN: Offensively, the Patriots have to retain the balance that has made them so effective this season, but that will be tough against a formidable Bills front that has big bodies Sam Adams and Pat Williams inside. If Deion Branch is back in the lineup, look for New England to use a lot of three- and four-receiver sets featuring Branch, Troy Brown, David Givens and David Patten. If Branch does return, it will be only the second game all season in which the team's top four wideouts were healthy and able to play together. Charlie Weis will certainly look to use that to his advantage. The Patriots probably won't go with much five-wide empty formation looks because they will need the help in protection against a blitzing Bills defense. Either running back Corey Dillon or tight end Daniel Graham will be in pass protection on most plays. The Patriots may try to run out of a three-wide look to spread the Bills defense somewhat and maybe force Buffalo to play with a nickel back instead of an extra run-defending linebacker. Don't expect the Patriots to line up in a pro set and just run it at the Bills front seven because that will amount to a long day facing third-and-long situations.
Defensively, the Patriots will mix in cover-two looks designed to help the inexperienced starting cornerbacks with a steady diet of controlled blitzes to get after Drew Bledsoe without being too aggressive and susceptible to big plays on the ground. Rodney Harrison's positioning on a given play could dictate how Buffalo plays the down, but if New England plays with seven men in the box, it would have a tough time stopping Willis McGahee. But if Harrison is the eighth run defender, the pressure will be on safety Eugene Wilson to cover the deep part of the field to give the corners needed help on Eric Moulds and Lee Evans. New England will have to mix it up and disguise their coverages to keep Bledsoe guessing.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots CBs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay vs. Bills WRs Eric Moulds and Lee Evans. The Bills have a major advantage in these matchups and will look to exploit the young corners down the field. Samuel is making his sixth career start while Gay is making his second. Ty Law usually locks up with Moulds, but Samuel and Gay will likely play left side/right side as opposed to matching up with specific receivers. Moulds has 47 catches with four touchdowns while the speedy Evans is averaging 20.1 yards per catch and emerging into the replacement for Peerless Price that Buffalo hoped Josh Reed would be.
Patriots LB Mike Vrabel vs. Bills RT Marcus Price. The Patriots might not be happy that Mike Williams is likely out of the lineup since he has been a disappointment since Buffalo used the fourth pick in the draft on him. The Pats are unfamiliar with Price, but he will have his hands full in protection against the savvy Vrabel, who has 3 sacks so far this season and is on pace for a career high 88 tackles.
Patriots WR David Givens vs. Bills CB Troy Vincent. Givens has emerged into a top receiving threat and has posted 100-yard receiving games in each of the last three weeks. Of his 37 receptions, 36 have resulted in a Patriots first down. Only four wide receivers in the NFL have more first downs than Givens. The veteran Vincent was hurt early in the first meeting but should be back in action for the first time this week. Because Brady looks to Givens in key spots, this matchup will be critical.
Patriots RT Brandon Gorin vs. Bills DE Chris Kelsay. Gorin is learning on the fly and has needed help on the right side of the line from tight end Daniel Graham, who has been limited in the passing game because of his use on the line of scrimmage. Kelsay is coming on of late and had one of his two sacks last week against the Jets.
INJURY UPDATE: The good news for Patriots fans is that Corey Dillon is off the injury report. Also, Deion Branch has been upgraded from doubtful to questionable and there were indications last week that Branch might be available for the Bills game. His return would give the Patriots a full complement of healthy receivers for the first time since he was injured in Week 2. Cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Ty Law are both out of the Bills game and will be replaced by Asante Samuel and Randall Gay while Earthwind Moreland slides into the nickel back role ahead of Troy Brown. Special teamer Matt Chatham is questionable with a hamstring that has given him problems this season while Larry Izzo is probable with a knee ailment that he played through last week. Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jim Miller remain probable as they have been listed all season.
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