New England Patriots: Buffalo Bills
The New England Patriots are locked into the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, while the Buffalo Bills' long shot playoff hopes were dashed last Sunday when they lost in Oakland. So from that standpoint, nothing can be gained when the teams meet up Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
But don't tell that to coaches Bill Belichick and Doug Marrone.
Each in his own way, they have stressed this week that there are no meaningless games in the NFL.
ESPN Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Mike Rodak (Bills) preview the matchup with some bigger-picture thoughts:
Reiss: Mike, with the Bills having been eliminated from the playoffs, it’s time to look to the future. What do you think the team needs to threaten the Patriots for the top spot in the division?
Rodak: The Bills have put a lot of pieces in place, but quarterback isn’t one of them. Taking EJ Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft was a whiff that put the Bills back three years at that position. Without a first-round pick next May, it’s going to be a challenge for the Bills to find the right quarterback for next season. The reality is that whoever they decide will be their starter -- whether it’s Orton, Manuel, a second-day draft pick, a free agent or a trade acquisition -- will be flawed in some way, and the Bills will still have to make up for it elsewhere on their roster. Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin III have both been the subject of media-based speculation, and at least from this perspective, the Bills should consider taking a shot at both if they’re available on the trade market.
Mike, the Patriots won by the skin of their teeth in the Meadowlands last weekend. Was it an anomaly or true cause for concern for the playoffs?
Reiss: More of the former, but that doesn’t mean some of the issues that cropped up should just be swept under the locker room rug. They have to protect quarterback Tom Brady better, establish more of a running game early and generate more of a consistent pass rush. The Jets often play the Patriots tough, and they won more one-on-one matchups on defense; that's a credit to them. In that sense, it had a little bit of a feel of the past two Super Bowl losses for the Patriots, where struggles up front paralyze the rest of the offense for stretches. The Patriots are searching for some answers and more consistency on offense right now, and the return of injured left guard Dan Connolly (knee) and receiver Julian Edelman (concussion) in the playoffs should help them find them.
Specific to the Bills, things seemed to come together pretty nicely for them on defense this year. What contributed most to that?
Rodak: It starts up front with the defensive line, which just sent three players to the 2015 Pro Bowl this week: Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, and Marcell Dareus. Along with Jerry Hughes, that line has been able to produce all sorts of pressure on quarterbacks this season. When you do that, it takes a tremendous burden off the linebackers and secondary. While there are good players in the Bills’ back seven -- Stephon Gilmore (first) and Aaron Williams (second) are both former high-round picks -- the success of the group as a whole is a result of the talent up front. They set the tone. To Marrone’s credit, he has brought in accomplished coaches from the outside as his defensive coordinators -- Mike Pettine last season and Jim Schwartz this season -- who have done well at maximizing the unit’s strengths.
If the Bills are playing for anything in this game, it’s a chance to win at Gillette Stadium for the first time in that building’s history. Given that the Patriots have now locked up the top seed in the AFC playoffs, do you expect them to take the foot off the gas at all?
Reiss: Yes, I view this game as being similar to a fourth preseason contest when the third preseason game doesn’t go as well as planned. I could envision a scenario where the Patriots want to develop a little momentum on offense, and if that comes early, they start making some personnel changes such as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski taking a seat. On defense, key players such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, among others, figure to be "protected" as well. The team also has the luxury of allowing some of its injured players extra time to recover, which I’d expect them to do. So their approach preparation-wise won’t change, but I do believe their personnel-related approach will be different than the norm. How significant, and if Brady and Co. play at all, is obviously something we'll be watching closely.
The Bills don’t have a first-round draft pick in 2015 after trading it to move up five spots for receiver Sammy Watkins. Good trade? Bad trade?
Rodak: Bad trade. General manager Doug Whaley’s reasoning was clear when he swung the deal back in May, but the truth is that it hasn’t panned out. Here’s what Whaley said about the deal right after making it: “The high costs not making the playoffs is something we weighed in and we thought this guy was going to get us to the playoffs.” The Bills, of course, did not make the playoffs this season. Here’s what else Whaley said: “This game is about making plays and surrounding our quarterback with playmakers. He’s automatically going to make our quarterback better and us better as a team.” The Bills benched their quarterback at the time, Manuel, after four games this season, so it’s hard to argue that Watkins made him better. From both of those angles, the trade was a failure that left the organization behind the 8-ball in the 2015 draft.
Let’s look ahead to the playoffs. The Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens in the past two AFC championship games. If there’s a team in the AFC that could knock them out this year, who do you think it would be?
Reiss: I’ll pick the Patriots, because I believe if they play up to their capabilities, the only team that can beat them is themselves. We spend a lot of time around these parts worrying about “teams you’d like to avoid” or “problem areas that could sink the season,” and part of that is the talk-radio mentality that often sets the agenda. I play along with it at times, too, but I truly think it’s all about the Patriots this year. If forced to pick one team, I’d still go with Denver.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft tabbed division foes the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets to the "Ice Bucket Challenge" on Tuesday, according to the Boston Herald.
After completing the ice bucket challenge, Pats owner Robert Kraft challenged the Jets, Fins and Bills.— Karen Guregian (@kguregian) August 12, 2014
The awareness campaign for ALS has taken social media by storm in recent weeks. Those challenged must dump a bucket of ice over their head, record it on video, and then challenge others to do the same. Those completing or passing on the challenge are encouraged to donate to ALS research.
Kraft and Patriots coach Bill Belichick were challenged Monday by New York Giants owner John Mara. The Patriots completed the challenge as a full team after Tuesday's practice before Kraft turned the task over to his AFC East opponents.
Earlier Tuesday, Bills center Eric Wood and fellow offensive linemen Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears completed a separate challenge from assistant strength and conditioning coach Dan Liburd. Afterwards, Wood nominated Bills offensive line coach Pat Morris for the challenge.
The Bills weren't alone. Players and coaches from the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, and Seattle Seahawks also completed the challenge Tuesday.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
“My legs are still shaking a little bit. But I’m excited. I’m so excited,” Johnson said Tuesday on the program. “I always have been a fan of Doug [Marrone] and the Buffalo Bills [and it’s] just getting the opportunity to spread my wings and getting up from under the shadows of Coach Belichick. So it’s a good thing and a good opportunity. ”
Johnson, who got his start in coaching from Belichick, detailed how his responsibilities varied in his 14 years with the Patriots, including his start as almost a personal coach for linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer.
“That’s a long story. That was my project, I had to learn Andy Katzenmoyer,” Johnson said on the program, before detailing how and why he moved from inside linebackers coach, to linebackers coach, to defensive line coach, then back to linebackers.
Johnson, who said his move to Buffalo has already contributed to him learning more about the game by hearing a different terminology among coaches, was asked if he has ambitions to become a defensive coordinator at some point.
“I would love to,” he answered. “In a sense, those 13 years that I played in the NFL, I graduated to calling a lot of the defenses and having the responsibility of running our defense and being an extension of the coach from the sideline. It’s a dream of mine, a goal of mine.”
Johnson was asked what Bills fans should know about the mystique of Belichick.
“He is what you see. That is him. It’s like his mind is constantly going. He’s always thinking, he’s always trying to stay three steps, three months, three years ahead. So lots of times, you can’t really take him personal because he has walked by me plenty of times in the hallway and doesn’t say hello, or with his head down or whatever," he said.
"I know a lot of players, when they first experience Bill, they think, ‘This guy is dry. He doesn’t address anybody. Did I do anything wrong? Is he mad at me?’ I’m like, ‘Trust me, if he’s not talking to you, it’s a good thing. It’s just being Bill.’ But as soon as he stops you in the hall and starts talking to you, that’s when you need to pay attention and see what you’ve been doing wrong in the past or out there on the field, because something is coming.”
Johnson also spoke of his friendship with Belichick and how much he appreciated Belichick's remarks about him, before adding he's "a guy we’re going to beat next year twice."
It's not immediately known what role Johnson will fill on the Bills' staff, but he is expected to work under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who was hired last week.
The Bills are without both of their linebackers coaches from last season. Outside linebackers coach Jim O'Neil became the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, while inside linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach was fired. The Bills have also granted the Browns permission to interview defensive line coach Anthony Weaver.
Johnson, 49, spent the past 14 seasons as an assistant coach for the Patriots, serving as an assistant linebackers coach (2000), inside linebackers coach (2001-2003), defensive line coach (2004-2011), and linebackers coach (2012-2013). He decided to leave the team earlier this month.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a statement that he was "proud and honored to have spent more years of my career with Pepper Johnson than any other player or coach." Johnson played under Belichick as a linebacker with the New York Giants (1986-92), Cleveland Browns (1993-95) and New York Jets (1997-98).
Schwartz served as a personnel scout for the Browns from 1993-95.
It is believed that Johnson departed the Patriots to seek opportunities for advancement. Schwartz, a veteran coach who was fired after five seasons with the Detroit Lions, could be in line for another head coaching job as soon as the 2015 season. That could potentially open the door for Johnson to become the Bills' defensive coordinator.
The Patriots needed a late drive to beat the Bills 23-21 in the opener, but the teams went in mostly opposite directions over the next 15 weeks.
Unfortunately for the Bills, the script is a familiar one. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 1999, the longest active drought, so now the focus turns to next season.
Meanwhile, the Patriots enter another finale with playoff positioning in mind after having clinched the AFC East title for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons. The Patriots could actually thank the Bills for that, because Buffalo’s 19-0 victory against Miami last Sunday handed the division crown to New England.
Here to preview the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Mike Reiss (Patriots).
Reiss: Mike, this seems pretty obvious, but coach Doug Marrone is finishing his first season, and a win against the Patriots could go a long way toward the foundation he’s attempting to establish. What signs, if any, have you seen from Marrone that the Bills are on the right track?
Rodak: Mike, I think the past two games have said something about this team. After their 27-6 loss to Tampa on Dec. 8, the season was essentially over for Buffalo. They could have packed it in and waited until next season to make improvement. Instead, they have strung together their first back-to-back wins of the season. Does that matter in the long run? Probably not, but Marrone often talks about establishing a sense of accountability and resiliency in his team, and there have been some signs of that over the past two weeks.
Mike, the Patriots have shown plenty of resiliency this season too. Is this the best coaching job you've seen from Bill Belichick?
Reiss: Belichick and his staff have been coaching their tails off, no doubt about that. I have always rated 2008 at the top of the mountain, because when you lose Tom Brady on the 15th offensive play of a season and still manage to go 11-5, that’s pretty remarkable from this viewpoint. I think we’ve seen in recent years what often happens when a superstar quarterback is lost for the season -- the 2011 Colts with Peyton Manning as one example, which cost team president Bill Polian his job. We also see how the Packers are struggling this season without Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots have been hit hard by injuries this season too and also have quite a few young players who have been asked to take on significant roles. So it’s been impressive.
As for young players being asked to carry the load for the Bills, the big question from here is if EJ Manuel is a franchise quarterback to build around. What is your opinion on Manuel in that regard?
Rodak: That is a tough call, and it's going to be the biggest question Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley will need to address this offseason. From a leadership standpoint, Manuel has a presence and a poise that any successful quarterback needs. But it hasn't translated to consistency on the field. Since returning from his second knee injury, Manuel has thrown six interceptions and shown wild swings in accuracy as a passer. The Bills seem content with pressing forward with Manuel and allowing him to develop with live action each Sunday. That is the approach most teams take with young quarterbacks; it doesn't always work out. In most cases, deciding when to make a change is difficult. However Manuel's career unfolds, the Bills would be smart to have a Plan B, even as soon as next season. With J.P. Losman, that Plan B was Kelly Holcomb. With Trent Edwards, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ultimately, neither of those veteran backups put the Bills in the right spot to win, which is why I think the organization must aim higher when hedging their bets with Manuel. Drafting another quarterback in the first round isn't an option that should be immediately dismissed.
This week, Marrone mentioned how the Patriots have several rookies playing roles on both sides of the ball. Watching undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano back in spring camps, I never would have thought he would be contributing as much as he has this season. But can the Patriots rely on Vellano and their other younger players in the playoffs? It doesn't seem that long ago when safety Patrick Chung, then in his second season, botched a fake punt that cost the Patriots in a divisional playoff loss to the Jets.
Reiss: Mike, I’d be shocked if the Bills take another quarterback in the first round. If they do in 2014, Buffalo wings on me from Duff’s for the next five years every time the Patriots come to western New York.
As for the Patriots, the rookies playing the largest roles are now [receiver] Aaron Dobson, [defensive tackle] Chris Jones, [cornerback] Logan Ryan and [punter] Ryan Allen. The others are sprinkled in from more of a complementary standpoint or as a short-term fill-in (e.g., Josh Kline at left guard vs. Baltimore). Vellano, for one, has seen his snaps decrease in recent weeks in favor of second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. Anytime a team has rookies and youngsters playing front-line roles, it comes with some added risk. But I’d say this about the Patriots this season: As young as they are in certain spots, no moment seems too big for most of the players on the roster.
Defensively, the Bills look strong up front. What do you see from them on that side of the ball?
Rodak: They certainly are, Mike. At this point, it's safe to call it the best defensive line in the league. The Bills have benefited from career seasons from both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, who are both serious candidates for the Pro Bowl. Same with Mario Williams, who is enjoying his best season since signing his monster deal with Buffalo. But there have also been some under-the-radar contributors. Whaley's offseason swap of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard for defensive end Jerry Hughes has paid dividends. You can add Hughes to the list of players having career seasons under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In the secondary, that theme continues with Leodis McKelvin, who had four shaky years before finding his groove this season. The Bills have also gotten big things from their smallest player -- 5-foot-7 slot cornerback Nickell Robey, who went undrafted in the spring but has played like an early-round pick. There have been bad moments for the defense, but in general, they came mostly earlier in the season. Right now, it looks like a unit on the rise.
Mike, one area where the Bills have been vulnerable at points this season has been their run defense. They rank 20th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per rush. Is the Patriots' running game capable of exploiting that weakness? And perhaps more importantly, will the Patriots need their ground attack to advance in the playoffs?
Reiss: They are certainly capable of doing it, and last Sunday’s win against the Ravens is the evidence. The Patriots entered the game with a mindset of being physical, and they won the battle of the line of scrimmage, churning out 142 yards on the ground against a sturdy Ravens front that struggled against some zone runs. The Patriots ran it 34 times and had 28 dropbacks in the game. I don’t think they necessarily have to have that type of split in the playoffs to win, but like most offenses, this attack is at its best when it's most balanced. Ball security was a big issue the first few months of the season, mostly with running backs Stevan Ridley, and to a lesser degree with LeGarrette Blount (fumble in Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals), but that has subsided. One of the big keys with the running game last Sunday is it helped the Patriots in the red zone, where they are still recalibrating after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 8.
It’s a bold proclamation from Johnson, though he’s had some success against the Patriots during his career, hauling in four touchdown passes.
Johnson’s words got us thinking about possible ways the Patriots could counter him tomorrow, which is the focus of the debut of “X’s and O’s thoughts,” which we’ll aim to use each week in this space.
Concept: Aqib Talib shadowing Johnson
Johnson is an efficient player from the slot whose game is more dependent on his precise route-running and quickness than it is his speed. Talib is typically the Patriots' left cornerback, though he does have the requisite traits to kick inside to the slot if needed.
One of the issues in shadowing Johnson with Talib is that it puts the onus on the Patriots' other cornerbacks to match up with Buffalo’s speed players, highlighted by receivers T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin. Talib is a talented perimeter cornerback who can neutralize such speed players with his own speed and length.
The Patriots did not have games where they exclusively used Talib to shadow an opposing receiver, rather he was called upon for particular stretches to take on such players as Andre Johnson of the Texans.
While it seems unlikely that they’d use Talib strictly in a shadow role over Johnson, if Johnson starts to have some success on Sunday, it’s a wrinkle the Patriots could turn to on an as-needed basis.
Either way, we’ll find out on Sunday whether Johnson’s words were accurate or an underestimation of the Patriots' secondary.
The Buffalo Bills on Wednesday named rookie quarterback EJ Manuel their starter, and he won't have to wait long to face his first major test in the NFL. The Bills are hosting the New England Patriots in their opener Sunday, pitting Manuel against one of the league's most accomplished passers, Tom Brady. With Brady adjusting to the absence of last season's top five receivers, there's no shortage of intrigue in this tilt between division rivals.
Let's dive into this one:
Mike Rodak: Mike, we've seen Brady put on some passing clinics against the Bills in his career. In 2007, he threw for five touchdowns and nearly 400 yards at Ralph Wilson Stadium, as one example. Yet his past two trips to Buffalo have been different. In 2011, he threw four interceptions, and the Patriots lost. Brady looked much better in his visit last season, but it was largely the running game that powered the Patriots to a second-half comeback and the win. With so many new faces on offense, what can we expect out of Brady on Sunday?
Mike Reiss: We've seen an invigorated Brady this year, Mike, and it's probably because he knows more is being asked of him. In a way, he's not just the team's quarterback, but also another coach with all the new faces at receiver and tight end. He's 36 years old, but he looks like he's about 26 in terms of the way he's playing. As you know from your time around the Patriots, this is an attack that takes pride in tailoring itself on a week-to-week basis in hopes of exploiting the opponents' weakness. That's why they were so content to run the ball out of their two-TE package last year in Orchard Park when the Bills went to their small nickel defense. Given what you've seen from the Bills' defense, what might be the weaknesses the Patriots will target?
Rodak: A few weeks ago, Mike, my reaction would have been that the Patriots should try to do what they did last season, and test the Bills' run defense. But a few things have changed recently that may have offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pondering more of a passing-based attack. First, the Bills lost their top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, for the first six to eight weeks of the season. That's a huge blow, and the Bills are struggling to find a capable replacement.
Second, safety Jairus Byrd is dealing with plantar fasciitis. His foot injury kept him sidelined even during some light warm-up drills at Monday's practice, and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reports that Byrd's injury could affect his ability to play Sunday and beyond. Without Gilmore and Byrd, the Bills have what could be a porous secondary. There are matchups there the Patriots can take advantage of. Speaking of matchups, Bills receiver Steve Johnson said this week that he believes the Patriots "don't have anybody to stop him." Is he right?
Reiss: Hard not to appreciate Johnson's sense of humor. He was kidding, right? He had me right up until the point that he was listing off Patriots defenders and mentioned safety Patrick Chung, who is now with the Eagles. Johnson had six catches for 86 yards in November 2012; one difference this time around for the Patriots is the presence of top cornerback Aqib Talib, who didn't play in that game and has been a difference-maker since his arrival.
Overall, there hasn't been as much attention placed on the Patriots' defense because so much focus has been on the new faces at receiver and tight end, and maybe there should be. It's hard to tell if this unit will be better than last year's; it's almost the same defense, and they're banking on the development of some younger players, like defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower to elevate them. The main thing that stands out to me in this matchup is that the Bills have impressive speed and playmaking ability with running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and multiple weapons that can hurt a defense in tight end Scott Chandler and receivers Johnson, T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. I want to see if the Patriots can match their speed while in their sub defense. Will we be seeing Spiller throwing up on the sideline by the end of this one because he was used so much?
Rodak: I don't think so, Mike. I think the Bills want to air it out and test the Patriots' defense. The Bills started the preseason by staying conservative with their offensive game plan, but they mixed in a lot more "go" patterns later. One thing is clear: The Bills have the speed at receiver to be a major threat to the Patriots. While Woods and Graham may work more in the short-to-intermediate area, I can see the Bills trying to hit some home runs, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick called them Monday, with Johnson and Goodwin. As we saw last season in Seattle, it's possible to get behind the Patriots' defense, and when an offense can make those big plays in their own stadium, it gets the home crowd going.
I won't go as far as saying the Bills will defeat the Patriots, but the big play is something the Patriots will have to look out for. But beyond that, Mike, I think the Bills' offense may be dangerous for its pace. I know the Patriots are thin at defensive tackle and made some surprising moves at defensive end during final cuts last weekend. When the Bills turn the dial up on offense Sunday, how do the Patriots compensate on defense?
Reiss: Every season, it seems Belichick has a more liberal substitution pattern defensively in the opener because it's the first time all of these players will be going wire-to-wire. So I'd expect some element of that. But if the Bills quicken the pace, the substitutions might have to be more on a series-by-series basis than within a particular series. Overall, this isn't something that will be new to the Patriots' defense; they see it themselves, to a degree, in practice each day while going up against Brady and New England's fast-paced offense. Linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday that Belichick makes sure players are in physical condition to answer such a challenge.
But like you, I do think it's fair to question how they handle the deep ball and some of the other threats the Bills present. Even if it's Jeff Tuel throwing it, we saw in the third preseason game that he can get the ball downfield -- his first pass attempt against the Redskins was a completed long bomb down the left side to Graham (called back because of offensive pass interference). I'd sum up thoughts on the Patriots' defense this way: It's a unit that has thrived off turnovers. But if those aren't there, the question is if it's a unit that still can control a game.
This has been fun; let's wrap it up with a final thought.
Rodak: Mike, I think it’s important not to overlook Mario Williams in this game. Williams was limited by a wrist injury the previous time he played the Patriots, and despite coming into training camp with a sore foot this season, he should be ready to go Sunday. We've seen top-end pass-rushers like Terrell Suggs and Jason Taylor be effective against the Patriots. I think Williams’ presence makes Patriots left tackle Nate Solder a player to watch. If Brady's timing with his new group of receivers is off slightly -- as is to be expected at this point -- then it could give Williams that extra second to beat Solder and get to Brady. Just like the big play on offense, getting sacks and pressures on defense will make the Buffalo crowd a part of this game. What’s your final thought, Mike?
Reiss: The Bills are the Patriots' most frequent season-opening opponent, this being the ninth time. We remember what happened the previous time a Patriots-Bills opener took place in Orchard Park. It was 2003, and the Bills, lifted emotionally with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and just-released Patriot Lawyer Milloy at safety, recorded a rousing 31-0 victory. Ten years later, can the Bills pull the surprise again? The Patriots are heavy favorites, but there’s always an element of the unknown with a season-opening game. Will look forward to seeing you there.
There was one game played, and it turned out to be a worthwhile watch, as it featured the Patriots' first opponent of the upcoming season, the Bills, traveling to take on the Colts, a team many consider a playoff contender in the AFC.
Focusing on the Bills, there were a few items that stood out upon first viewing.
1. Rookie E.J. Manuel earned the start under center for Buffalo, and though imperfect, he made a strong impression. He missed on just five of 21 attempts, and though he was given a fumble for a botched quarterback-running back exchange, it was a good first step. The yards per attempt/yards per completion was low, but building Manuel's confidence early with manageable throws is key for the Bills. While Kevin Kolb remains on the mend from a minor knee injury, Manuel seems to be tightening his grip on the starting job.
2. Manuel wasn't the only rookie to stand out, as the Bills had 32 of their 44 points scored by rookies. Perhaps no play was more impressive than a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Marquise Goodwin, the speedy receiver the Bills selected in the third round. The former Olympian will be tough for anyone to catch in the open field.
3. Second-round wideout Robert Woods had a fumble on a punt return attempt, but also caught four passes. Meanwhile, undrafted receiver Da'Rick Rogers -- a big time talent -- caught a short touchdown. Much like in New England, there's buzz about rookie receivers in Buffalo.
4. Defensively, we didn't see the best of what the team has to offer because free safety Jairus Byrd has yet to sign his franchise tender. Up front, however, we saw Mario Williams record a sack, a positive sign as the Bills shift to a new defense under Mike Pettine, formerly the Jets defensive boss.
5. Preseason and small sample size or not, it's also impressive to read a box score line of four carries for 36 yards. C.J. Spiller, the uber-talented runner for Buffalo, accomplished that on Sunday.
6. One area to tighten up quickly for the Bills will be penalties, as they were flagged for four in the first quarter alone (nine in total). That's something that any team can ill afford.
As a reminder, you can keep up with all the Bills via former ESPNBoston.com colleague Mike Rodak. Follow him on Twitter here.
NAME: Ryan Allen
2012 STATS: 45 punts, 2,162 yards (48.0-yard average) -- at Louisiana Tech
INJURY STATUS: No known injuries
CHANCE OF MAKING 53-MAN ROSTER: 15%
WHY HE SHOULD MAKE IT: For the first time in his four NFL seasons, veteran Zoltan Mesko has competition for his job. Allen boasts an impressive resume that includes the 2011 and 2012 Ray Guy Awards as the best punter in college football. While Mesko has been generally solid thus far in his career, the Patriots haven't shied away from swapping out punters, cycling through Ken Walter, Josh Miller, Todd Sauerbrun, Chris Hanson and Mesko over the past decade. Allen could potentially be a younger and cheaper option as Mesko enters the final year of his rookie contract.
WHY HE SHOULD NOT MAKE IT: Success in college doesn't always translate into success in the NFL. Of the Ray Guy Award winners since 2004, only two -- Drew Butler (2009) and Chas Henry (2010) -- are still in the league. Unless Mesko struggles considerably this preseason, it is improbable that Allen will be able to beat him out. The more likely scenario is Allen being groomed on the practice squad as insurance against Mesko leaving through free agency next offseason. There is precedent for the Patriots having punters on the practice squad: They had Danny Baugher and Tom Malone on it in 2006, and Malone again in 2008.
CLOSEST COMPETITION: P Zoltan Mesko
1. Facing a 3rd & 5 on their opening drive of the second half, the Patriots offensive line was presented with a unique front from the Bills' defense. Defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were actually standing up at the snap and hovering over the interior of the Patriots' line. The two looked to be on a gap-stunt between the center, Ryan Wendell, and either guard. On the play, Dareus was able to sneak past Wendell and collapse the pocket, while left guard Logan Mankins caught Williams in his rush. Unfortunately for Mankins, Wendell was pushed to the ground by Dareus, and Mankins subsequently fell over Wendell, allowing Williams and Dareus to combine for a sack of Tom Brady to end the drive. It was on this play that Mankins injured his left ankle. That added injury to insult.
2. In our first half observations, we dissected a play in which running back Danny Woodhead beat Bills linebacker Nick Barnett with an option route to extend a Patriots drive. In a near carbon copy play, Woodhead managed the Patriots' first score of the second half, once again juking past Barnett on an option route and taking a Brady throw for an 18-yard score. We've talked about it before but it remains worth noting, Brady and Woodhead have a special rapport in these types of situations -- facing a third down and needing a handful of yards to convert. Woodhead always does a good job of finding space, and Brady knows enough to continue to look his way as an outlet.
3. The Patriots couldn't slam the door shut on the Bills until time had nearly expired in the second half, and they'll likely look back to moments such as a 4th & 4 for Buffalo from the Patriots' 28-yard line as plays to explain why that was the case. The Bills came out in an empty set with two receivers to the right side of the offensive formation. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson was checked by rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in coverage. Dennard was basically playing Johnson with even leverage (which is to say he wasn't shaded to the inside or outside), but a shoulder hesitation move from Johnson at the top of his route shook Dennard and allowed him to get open to move the chains. Linebacker Jerod Mayo started out as an additional rusher on the play, but retreated into coverage half-way through his blitz. It's unclear if that was designed or an impromptu movement from Mayo. Nonetheless, the Patriots were unable to tighten up in key moments such as these on Sunday.
4. The Patriots aren't unique in doing this, as it's a play we see in nearly every game every week in the NFL, but it never seems to add up entirely. On a 3rd & 8 from the Bills' 36-yard line to open the fourth quarter, Brady hooked up receiver Brandon Lloyd on an in-breaking pattern that advanced the ball to the 32-yard line, well short of a first down. It's difficult to figure why so many plays on third down are called by teams around the league that send receivers short of the first down, although it's possible that Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were expecting a zone-coverage concept on that play that would have freed space up for Lloyd. Still, that play held the Patriots to a field goal attempt, and Buffalo remained in the thick of the game.
5. Another more general than play-specific thought: it looked like the Patriots played a sufficient amount of man and cover 2-man defenses on Sunday. One area that playing man-to-man defense can expose is the underneath zone, and if a quarterback is able to break the pocket, he usually has ample room to scramble into. Additionally, when a defense plays 2-man (man-to-man with two safeties over the top as help defenders), it opens the door for draws to be more effective. The Bills ran draw plays proficiently on Sunday, with veteran Fred Jackson doing a nice job being patient as a runner and finding space.
6. We already discussed the tackling woes of the Patriots on Sunday, which were exposed in part due to the shiftiness of Bills running back C.J. Spiller. In looking back on his explosive plays as both a runner and receiver, Spiller's speed also highlighted that the Patriots lack of their own speed in their starting linebacker trio outside of Mayo. Mayo isn't a blazer, but he has enough functional speed to play in space. Both Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes, however, had a handful of fits in keeping up with Spiller. Safety Steve Gregory also struggled to keep up with Spiller in open space.
7. Bills receiver Donald Jones had a fourth-quarter touchdown on Sunday, and he nearly had one in the first half as well, coming up about a yard short on a play from inside the 10-yard line. On both plays, Jones was tabbed by Dennard in man coverage. In the first half, Dennard worked over the top of a combination route, which allowed Jones to slide underneath him and get open for the near score. In the second half, Dennard played underneath the combination route, but was unable to jump it fast enough, leaving Jones wide open for the easy score. Man-to-man coverage between the numbers on plays from near the end zone is a difficult duty for a defensive back, but Dennard has to find a way to put himself in better position.
8. Running back Stevan Ridley had nearly 100 yards on the ground on Sunday, and his efforts don't need to be mitigated much, but it seemed like there were a handful of instances where he deviated from the hole and tried to bounce the play outside for more yards. That has been something that he's avoided throughout much of the 2012 season and has allowed him to be one of the best backs in all of football. While he showed decisiveness on several other carries, it just seemed like there were plays on which he wanted to do too much on Sunday.
9. In games earlier this season, we examined scenarios in which the Patriots have sped to the line in an effort to catch a defense out of position, and actually hurt themselves in doing so. After Ridley plunged for a first down to give New England a 1st & goal from the two-yard line and less than three minutes remained on the clock, the Patriots encountered this fate again. The Patriots rushed to the line for a quick handoff to Ridley, who was eventually tackled for a loss. Given that their lead was just three points, time was quickly running out on the game clock, and Buffalo was already down a timeout, it would have served the Patriots well to huddle up, milk the clock and take the snap with roughly 2:15 remaining. The offensive series went downhill from there, as a false start and a pair of incompletions ensued, leaving Buffalo with two timeouts plus the two-minute warning and a six-point deficit rather than much worse.
10. A wrap-up thought from the game: the Patriots were not able to consistently generate pressure with just four rushers on Sunday, and they were also unable to consistently cover the Bills' impressive skill position players. With that in mind, it came as a surprise that they did not call for additional rushers/blitzers more often on Sunday, because on the occasions that they did, it often produced better results. It isn't as simple as saying the Patriots should have blitzed on every down -- that's not the answer -- but the team seemed to put a lot of trust in its ability to cover the Bills down the field after a day in which Ryan Fitzpatrick was clearly experiencing success. With Aqib Talib due to be activated to the roster soon, likely today, help is on its way for the Patriots secondary, and it’s needed.
Though some of those calls were obvious, such as offsides and false starts, there were also some judgments that appeared could have gone either way.
Among the calls that will be most in question was a pass interference call on Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore that occurred in the end zone.
The call was on a second-quarter deep pass intended for Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd, and gave the Patriots the ball on the Bills' one-yard line (a 37-yard penalty). The throw to Lloyd landed several feet out of bounds, and did not appear to be catchable. The Patriots eventually scored a touchdown to expand their lead.
"That's a terrible call," Gilmore said. "I think Lloyd came up to me and he said he tripped over my feet. But I didn't even touch him. I didn't know what the call was."
The rookie cornerback felt that his technique on the play was sound.
"I was playing great defense. I was running with him, I wasn't even touching him," he continued. "I don't know what happened, because when he threw the ball, I speed-turned and I'm looking at the ball and he's throwing a flag behind me. I don't know what the reason for the flag was."
Earlier in the game, Gilmore was called for another pass interference penalty in the end zone. In total, the Bills were flagged for defensive pass interference four times, including three times in the end zone. Buffalo entered the game tied for the fewest pass interference penalties in the league, with just one in their first eight games.
Gilmore was asked if he felt like the flags were loose overall during the game.
“Very loose,” he said. “Those two plays, (Bills cornerback) Leodis (McKelvin) had a flag, it was like 50 yards right there. The penalties killed -- I think we played OK, but I think we gave them more than what they earned. It’s a bad feeling.”
Between the 14 penalties called and three turnovers committed, the Bills did themselves no favor in a tight game against a division rival. They outgained the Patriots 481 to 347 yards in total offense, and controlled the clock with an edge in time of possession, 33:50 to 26:10.
"You can sit here and talk about them, should they have been called, shouldn't they have been called," Bills coach Chan Gailey said after the game. "You've got to look at the film and decide. You always have questions about them."
Like Gailey, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick reserved judgment on the calls until he's had a chance to review them on film.
"That's not for me to judge," he said. "I didn't see -- I know we jumped offsides a few times, and that's something we can't do. I don't know about the other ones. We'll look at the film and look at them, (but) you've got to be able to try to overcome those."
And while the Patriots made their own share of mistakes, including seven penalties for 73 yards, the Bills' self-inflicted wounds are likely to linger as they prepare to turn the page to their Week 11 game, just four days away against Miami.