Commentary

Bills can score, but can't outpace Pats

Expect more 'video game' offensive numbers from Brady & Co. on Sunday in Buffalo

Updated: September 22, 2011, 4:56 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's road contest against the Buffalo Bills:

Mike: Let's start with the streak. The Patriots have defeated the Bills 15 straight times, and it's been interesting to hear both sides talk about it this week. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have said it doesn't matter. Belichick said most of the players who suited up in those games will be watching on TV Sunday. On the flip side, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick referenced the streak in comments to reporters, setting the surprising 2-0 Bills up as the underdog. Does the streak matter in your mind?

Tedy: It could be a factor if the Patriots get up by 14 points early. Then you're sitting there on that Bills bench and you're thinking to yourself, "Here we go again. When in this going to stop?" That's when the seed could be planted. But during the week, if you're the Bills you have all the hope it's going to end and you prepare with that in mind.

Patriots defense vs. Bills offense

Mike: No team in the NFL has scored more than the Bills, who went on the road and beat the Chiefs 41-7 in the season opener, then topped the Raiders 38-35 last week. And I know from past "breakdowns" how highly you think of running back Fred Jackson.

[+] EnlargeFred Jackson
John Rieger/US PresswireFred Jackson isn't a big name, but Tedy Bruschi considers him the top threat on the Bills' offense.

Tedy: This goes back to when I played. Jackson is not nationally known, because he has been hidden in Buffalo, but if you've played against him and if you watch the games, you see how he is an all-around running back. He is tough to tackle, he catches the ball well and he can run in between the tackles, and can get to the edge of the defense. He's leading the league in rushing with 229 yards. When the Bills win, it's usually because he plays well. Going back to last year, in five of the last six Bills victories, Jackson has more than 100 yards of combined offense. It's simple: When Fred Jackson rolls, this team rolls. He's the No. 1 threat on this offense.

Mike: Jackson is in his fifth year out of Coe College. He's 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds and having played against him, can you think of another running back that he might compare favorably to in terms of style of play?

Tedy: Arian Foster is one who comes to mind, in the sense that he can run between the tackles, catch the ball, just a huge threat out of the backfield. The way he runs, the legs are up and down, piston-like movement.

Mike: You combine Jackson with C.J. Spiller and it's a nice combination. In speaking with some of the Patriots' players this week, they didn't need any reminder of how Spiller hurt them with big plays last year. He had a 41-yard reception in the 34-3 late-season Patriots blowout and earlier in the year delivered a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. So the 2010 first-round pick can really be explosive, as can Fitzpatrick.

Tedy: You have to be ready for a shootout Sunday. Fitzpatrick is a good quarterback who is decisive. I love the way he sees it, makes the read, and delivers the ball. As a defense, you look at him and say "He's going to throw us a couple every game." So you have to take advantage of that. They may hit you in the hands, and it's whether you catch it or not that can turn the game. This is an offensive team that you want to steal possessions from. They're going to go up and down the field on this Patriots defense, but just like last week against the Chargers, those big plays will be needed on defense. Fitzpatrick is the type of quarterback, even though he has done some great things these last two weeks, who will give a defense the chance to make those plays.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
John Rieger/US PresswireRyan Fitzpatrick has seven touchdowns and just one interception through two games, but Tedy Bruschi says the former Harvard QB can be counted on to make a few mistakes Sunday.

Mike: Receiver Brad Smith, the former New York Jets player, is another threat to keep an eye on. The Bills can use him as a Wildcat-type option, and he's hurt the Patriots in the past. Also, along the offensive line, starting right guard Kraig Urbik is out with a knee injury. I think that's a matchup edge to the Patriots, and they'll need their interior defensive linemen -- Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth -- to be difference-makers.

Tedy: Agree on Haynesworth. He's due and this is a game in which his presence could be felt. On the flip side for the Bills, receiver Roscoe Parrish is someone who has given the Patriots headaches at times, but he's out for the year with an ankle injury.

Mike: There have been a lot of questions about the Patriots' defense and the performance through the first two weeks. A lot of yardage given up, but they have come up with some big stops and turnovers. How do you think Bill Belichick views the unit's performance?

Tedy: I don't think the coaches on this defensive staff are happy with all the yardage given up. But you know with Coach Belichick, the victory is the most important thing, but he'll find those coachable aspects of the game. I also think he recognizes trends of the NFL, and to me, this is where the NFL is right now. You throw it all around the yard -- up and down the field -- so if you're a defensive team in the NFL you try to focus on a few key areas, the red area and forcing turnovers. It's almost inevitable that offenses are going to get down there, there's just so much skill and new schemes you have to get used to, so the question becomes "When they get down to the 20-yard line, can you stop them?" That's when the field shrinks and those spread offenses can have trouble getting it into the end zone. So being a solid red zone defensive team is big, and making those big plays like we saw with Vince Wilfork and Sergio Brown last week.

Mike: Along those lines, the Patriots' red zone defense ranks 14th in the NFL, with five touchdowns allowed in 10 trips. In terms of turnover differential, the Patriots are third-best with a plus-4, with five takeaways and one giveaway. I think Bills head coach Chan Gailey is a good play-caller, so this is a good challenge for New England. And when I think about what you say, it brings to light the importance of the secondary playing better than last week. I thought they missed some opportunities for big plays. Fair?

Tedy: I think it is. Being in position is one thing, but that's not enough. Once it's up in the air, and once it's coming down, there it is -- can you win that one-on-one battle? That's your chance. Right now, the Patriots' defensive backs are not winning the majority of those situations.

Mike: I was surprised that the Bills traded veteran receiver Lee Evans earlier this year, but they've done just fine without him. So I was wrong on that one. They have a nice group of pass-catchers.

Tedy: It starts with Steve Johnson at receiver. He's legit, another unsung NFL player who doesn't get a lot of attention because he's in Buffalo. The thing with Stevie is that he's dealing with a groin injury. Last week, there was a series of plays in which he required attention from the medical staff because the groin was aggravated. He isn't handling a full practice load right now. It's a groin, it's a receiver, but will he be at full strength? That will be something to watch, because Johnson is Fitzpatrick's No. 1 option.

Patriots offense vs. Bills defense

Mike: One of the big questions this week is how the Patriots adjust without tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is expected to miss the game with a knee injury. Hernandez has been great through the first two games, his 14 receptions third on the team.

Tedy: He's a matchup nightmare, and now that the Bills can anticipate Hernandez not being there, that's less game planning for them. Whenever you go up against a threat like that, you have to game plan in terms of how you plan to disrupt the timing of the passing game -- do you want to double-team him with a linebacker? There are various things you have to work on, and I think this helps them from a planning perspective. For the Patriots, I think Hernandez is on his way to possibly being better than Dallas Clark, and now you ask the question "Who do they look to instead?"

[+] EnlargeChad Ochocinco
Elsa/Getty ImagesWith Aaron Hernandez out, this might be the week Chad Ochocinco becomes a bigger part of the offense.

Mike: I see a few different options. First, you could promote Garrett Mills from the practice squad as he is the same type of tight end as Hernandez, albeit not with the same talent level. Second, you could go to more three-receiver sets and ask more of Chad Ochocinco. Third, you lean on more of a traditional two-tight end package and try to grind it out with the running game.

Tedy: I talked about this on "SportsCenter" last week when the question was asked, "Can Chad help this team?" The answer was, "Absolutely." He provides depth and you know it's inevitable that an injury will occur. I could envision it unfolding that Ochocinco is depended on more this week, giving the Patriots a chance to develop that relationship even more.

Mike: The Patriots have had two or more tight ends on the field for 125 of 151 snaps through two games, so this will be interesting to watch how much they alter this. The overall offense has been sizzling, and quarterback Tom Brady is a big reason why. Your thoughts on Brady's two-game stretch?

Tedy: I've seen it before, and I'm sure we'll see it again. It's beautiful to watch. Now that I'm away from the game and I can watch as a fan and analyst and see the decisions and production he has compared to others, you can recognize it's the right way to do it. You see it from him and Aaron Rodgers, then you see the other end of the spectrum. The thing that stands out to me is that the hard part for Brady is done during the week. He's so competitive in practice situations and in the film room; he does so much on the practice field that when it comes to Sunday he's letting it go. When he's going to an away game and he's getting on that bus to the airport, he's at peace. He knows he has done all of his preparation and all of his work, and then Sunday becomes the fun part.

Mike: There was a scary moment in Sunday's win over the Chargers, though, when nose tackle Antonio Garay lunged low at Brady. It was a hold-your-breath moment. Everything I understand about the rule is that the Garay hit should have been a penalty. I think the league got it right when it handed out a $15,000 fine to Garay as a message that hits like that won't be tolerated. Garay got past center Dan Connolly on the play.

Tedy: When you look at that center position, I call it the "Koppen Effect", and what it means with Connolly in there. Teams might try to exploit that, figuring the quickest way to get to Brady is right up the middle.

Mike: This week will be a good test for Connolly as Bills nose tackle Kyle Williams is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. The Bills also have an impressive rookie in first-round draft choice Marcell Dareus along the defensive line.

Tedy: You'll hear Williams' name come up this week. He's one of the better interior linemen out there. He causes problems and has a great motor, always hustling and making plays. On Dareus, I think everyone knew that he was the one guarantee going into the draft. His size, athletic ability and explosiveness off the ball stand out. There were plays you saw him in space against a player like Cam Newton and he was able to bring the player down.

Mike: Nick Barnett, the longtime Green Bay Packers player (2003-2010), has been a nice signing for them as well. He had 14 tackles and a forced fumble in the Week 2 win over the Raiders. That followed up a four-tackle game in the season opener in which he had one pass defended. Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien described the Bills' defense this way: "aggressive, very disciplined [and] plays with tremendous effort." Shawne Merriman hasn't given them the pass-rush burst they were hoping for at this point. From the Patriots' side, do you think the offense can keep playing at this high level?

Tedy: I think the video game continues. These numbers, they're ridiculous. It looks like it will be another shootout this week against the Bills. One thing to factor in is the weather, and as it gets colder it can be harder to produce these outputs. But when you have Brady, anything is possible.

Mike: Special-teams-wise, we don't know if punter Zoltan Mesko will be ready to go. The Bills are traditionally one of the NFL's better special-teams units, so that area of the game shouldn't be overlooked.

Tedy: There is always the option of putting Stephen Gostkowski out there to punt, but do you really want your kicker doing that? With three seconds left on the clock, you just want him to focus on that one thing, making that field goal for the victory. There is a reason they're called specialists; it's that you want them focusing on one thing and one thing alone.

Mike: Now for predictions. The Patriots took some hits on the injury front against the Chargers, so if there was a time for their long winning streak over the Bills to end, one could envision this being the time. But it's not like the Bills aren't dealing with their own injury issues, and when Brady is playing at this level, it's hard to pick against the Patriots. In a matchup of the NFL's two highest-scoring teams, the scoreboard operator can expect a workout. Patriots 34, Bills 24

Tedy: I like these Bills. They're a bunch of scrappers. Many of them were not highly touted coming out of college and have had to earn every bit of respect they have. Having said that, the Patriots are like the "big brother" of the Buffalo Bills. That's a fact when you beat a team 15 straight times. On Sunday I think they make it 16. Patriots 42, Bills 28

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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