Don't miss Part 1, of this three-part series
1) Injuries are a part of the NFL game and teams have to do different things to compensate for players who are affected by them. What hurdles have the Bills had to overcome this year compared to last season?
Tyler Dunne: The Bills have been hit mildly hard by injuries this year - but nothing like the injury apocalypse that struck last season. Last season, 17 Bills players were placed on injured reserve. This season, each of Buffalo's three losses can be directly connected to a single injury. At Arizona, the offense crumbled when Trent Edwards was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a concussion. At Miami, Chad Pennington used and abused a hobbled Terrence McGee all day, as Ted Ginn Jr. racked up 175 yards on seven receptions. Last week - with Buffalo devoid of its starting center and right guard - Kris Jenkins lived in the Bills' backfield as the offense generated a pathetic 30 yards on the ground. And in all three losses, the overlying Achilles heel for the Bills was a horrid pass rush that has produced only three sacks in the last three games. Now, it appears a two-time Pro-Bowler Aaron Schobel's foot issues will keep him out of the next four games.
No, the Bills haven't nearly experienced the injuries New England has. Edwards is back at full strength (albeit, struggling). McGee returned to form last week with a solid game against Laveranues Coles. And really, Schobel was struggling anyways on the edge. The No. 1 concern is the offensive line. Last season's big-ink signings Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker and camp holdout Jason Peters have underachieved, while Brad Butler (sprained knee) and Melvin Fowler (elbow) are battling injuries. This unit must get rolling if Buffalo wants to get back on track.
2) The Bills injury report this week reads like a list of who's who of their starting lineup. Who will replace Aaron Schobel and Donte Whitner and which injury is more of a handicap for the Bills against New England?
|Aaron Schobel earned a reputation for getting to Brady.|
(AP Photo/Don Heupel)
TD: Chris Denney and Bryan Scott will most likely sub in for Schobel and Whitner. Whitner's absence will be felt most. The strong safety has been the one constant force on Buffalo's evolving defense, playing in 38 of a possible 41 games in his three-year career. He willingly sticks his nose into run support and rarely ever is out of position in deep center. Scott has started the last few weeks at free safety, so accelerating into play-after-play game mode isn't the concern.
The problem lies in how much Buffalo's defense is predicated on Whitner. Much like Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh and Bob Sanders in Indianapolis, the Bills initiate much of their defense through Whitner's versatility. He's a dependable crutch to lean on in nearly every scheme. Whitner's void plays into New England's refined offense this season. The Patriots should have judicious success blooping passes out of the backfield to Kevin Faulk and across the middle to Wes Welker (the duo has 81 combined receptions). From 0-to-10 yards - where he prefers to attack anyways - Matt Cassell could be deadly efficient. Whitner, the glue to Buffalo's defense, has dried to the injury list.
Don't forget morale, either. Whitner is a rock in the locker room. This past summer he mobilized his team mentally, guaranteeing a playoff berth in front of a national audience. A very bold move for a mediocre team in a loaded conference at the time. But his teammates bought into it and started the year 4-0. Whitner will be extremely difficult to supplant - particularly against the Patriots.
3) Trent Edwards played well enough as a rookie to show that he could be the quarterback of the future in Buffalo. Some quarterback experts have called Edwards one of the best prospects they've seen in years. How has he done, and do you think he's deserving of those accolades?
TD: I'm on the Edwards bandwagon, guilty as charged. The mechanics. The moxie. The poise. The 1-2-3 progressions. Trent Edwards is a textbook quarterback prospect. In two years, his numbers have been Jenna Fischer-glamorous, if not Jessica Alba - 3,355 yards, 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions. But even through the mediocre production, it's easy to see that Edwards has staying power.
Three of Buffalo's first four wins were fourth-quarter comebacks orchestrated by Edwards. He isn't wide-eyed by the moment, genuinely maintaining the same demeanor after thrilling wins and self-inflicted losses. Edwards' strength is precision, accuracy, channeling through his progressions with comfort i.e. his completion percentage (68 percent, fifth in NFL), QB rating (90.8, tenth) and first-down percentage (36 percent, sixth).
The thinking is that eventually the big-yardage, big-play production will click and the Bills will finally have a franchise quarterback - the first since Jim Kelly retired 12 years ago. The front office will need to infuse more talent into Buffalo's average receiving corps, but Edwards certainly has the tools to elevate into the upper-stratosphere of quarterbacks.
4) Without Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan, the Patriots have used a combination of smoke and mirrors to (Actually called a spread offense) to run the ball against opponents, using Kevin Faulk. That has been successful against lesser opponents (or those with run defense problems). What is it that makes the Bills rush defense so good, allowing under 100 yards per game (12th overall)? And how will they slow down the Patriots ground game averaging over 131 yards per game (7th overall)?
|Bills DL Marcus Stroud is the big man in the middle..|
(AP Photo/Don Heupel)
TD: As long as the ligaments in Marcus Stroud's ankles stay strong, the Bills' run defense should keep excelling. The 6-foot-6 defensive tackle from Jacksonville has returned to his peak form after injuries pushed him out the door in Jacksonville. Twenty-two tackles in eight games doesn't say much, but Stroud is engulfing multiple blockers and allowing Paul Posluszny (57 tackles) and fellow newcomer Kawika Mitchell (40 tackles) to roam mostly unscathed.
It's all night-and-day for a rush defense that limped to 25th in the NFL last season.
I think the Bills defense will neutralize the Pats' popgun rushing attack. While Logan Mankins and co. are specifically effective in slide blocking (blocking one player and sliding downfield to a linebacker), Stroud and Kyle Williams should be able to plug up the middle and shut down whoever is in the Patriots' backfield, unlike New England's recent opponents.
5) Dick Jauron seems like one of the classiest coaches in the NFL. Mike Nolan gets credit for being well dressed, but Jauron seems more like a football coach, a player's coach. What do the Bills have in Jauron that they didn't have in previous coaching regimes (Wade Phillips comes to mind)? And do you think Jauron is bitter about the Patriots 56-10 blowout last year in Buffalo?
TD: Dick Jauron has definitely been a breath of cold, fresh air from Wade Phillips, Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey. He doesn't try to sugarcoat obvious shortcomings. Like Edwards, he doesn't get too high after wins or too low after losses - a sincere, stoic appearance. While Jauron was often criticized for managing games too conservatively through his tenure with Chicago, he is exactly what the Bills' needed. Phillips was erratic (starting Rob Johnson over Doug Flutie in the '99 Wild Card after Flutie was the No. 1 all year). Williams refused to face the obvious (calling the run defense "stout" after getting steamrolled in several games). And Mularkey was plainly a very, very poor play-caller.
Jauron has brought discipline to a Bills franchise that's constantly been in flux. The front office has invested heavily into Jauron-type players, building the team inside-out. After two straight 7-9 seasons, his program has been fully instilled and Buffalo is prepared to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the Music City Miracle in '99.
I don't think Jauron is bitter from last season's drubbing at The Ralph. He doesn't seem like the coach that'd hold grudges or seek personal revenge. Both teams are drastically different since that embarrassing game under the Sunday Night lights, and Jauron will treat the game as such.
6) Which player should we keep an eye on as the most underrated player on the Bills team this season and why?
TD: Let's go with an unknown long shot: tight end Derek Fine. The rookie from Kansas missed the Bills' first six games with a thumb injury. Rather than place Fine on injured reserve, Buffalo saw enough potential in Fine to keep him on the shelf. Now, we're finding out why. In his second game back last week against the Jets, Fine caught four passes for 43 yards with a touchdown, as fellow tight end Robert Royal snagged five catches for 70 yards.
Fine is a Built-for-Trent-Edwards receiver. Last week, Fine showed a knack for settling into open pools within the defense and Edwards found him. Jauron praised the team's now-healthy TE trio of Royal, Fine and Derek Schouman. Fine should see a wealthy share of snaps at New England after last week's encouraging snapshot. The Bills may have found a weakness in New England's pass defense from last weekend (Dallas Clark had 4 receptions for 63 yards) and will implement Fine into the gameplan.
Tyler Dunne covers the Buffalo Bills for Buffalo Football Report, part of the Scout.com network..
Jon Scott is a contributor to Patriots Insider, (the New England Patriots site on Scout.com), and Comcast SportsNet New England.