Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week is Sunday's road contest against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: It seems as if every week brings a new storyline, and the big one this week for the Patriots is their inability to close out games the last two weeks. This has been part of the foundation of Bill Belichick's program -- situational football and rising up in critical situations.
Tedy: The Patriots enter the game at 1-2, which is uncharted waters for some of these players over their entire careers. The Patriots haven't had a losing record at any point since 2003, and that's when I was there and we lost to the Buffalo Bills, 31-0 in Week 1. That year turned out OK and we ended up winning the Super Bowl. Now they go into Ralph Wilson Stadium, which I think is a very tough place to play.
Mike: It looks like the Patriots caught a pretty big break with Bills running back C.J. Spiller injuring his left shoulder in last Sunday's win over the Browns. It would be a surprise if he plays Sunday. He was off to a strong start this season.
Tedy: And fellow running back Fred Jackson, there is some question whether he will be available as he attempts to come back from a knee injury sustained in the season opener. Overall, this is an offense that is very creative with head coach Chan Gailey. In the run game, they run some Wildcat with Brad Smith; you saw that against Cleveland. They have direct snaps to their running backs. They do flip plays. They run out of the pistol formation, which is when the quarterback is in a shortened shotgun, and he gets the ball and there is a runner behind him, and another running back, possibly, offset to his left or right. You can run counter plays out of that, bootlegs out of that. It doesn't really matter what running back they have. Without Jackson and Spiller last week, Tashard Choice came in and finished with 20 carries for 91 yards. They're still committed to the run.
Mike: One of the reasons I had some doubts about the Bills entering this year is the volatility of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. He'll look like a Pro Bowl player at some times. Other times, he looks like a rookie.
Tedy: Will it be the good Fitz or the bad Fitz? He threw three interceptions to the New York Jets, but in the last two weeks, he hasn't thrown one. That's who he is. I see him as a quarterback who stares down his receivers and has an elongated delivery. He gives everything he has into throwing the ball. As defenders you can get a good read on that, and get good breaks on the ball, so this is a guy you'll have the opportunity to get interceptions on. But it's going to be harder to sack him. Through three games, he's only been sacked one time, and only been hit eight times. The offensive line has played well and Fitz's decisiveness has helped. He gets the ball, makes a decision, and throws the ball whether the window is small or not. He trusts his arm. So that's the Fitz you get -- he'll read a defense and get rid of the ball, and he's going to take chances.
Mike: In the two meetings against the Bills in 2011, the Patriots were in their sub defense on 126 of a possible 137 snaps (91.9 percent), which reflects how the Bills like to spread the field. When Bill Belichick talked this offseason about the game being played more in space, and how the Patriots were finding themselves in their base defense less, the Bills were mentioned as an example based on their offensive style of play.
Tedy: They really utilize the shotgun and have a creative passing game. This isn't a team that is going to say, 'Here are three tight ends, or here are two tight ends and a fullback and we're going to pound it right at you.' It's not that they won't run; they'll still pop a run on you here or there, which gets you leaning forward to stop it, and then they hit you with that creative passing game that features routes and formations that make defenses communicate. You have bunches. Tight splits with the running back offset. It puts pressure on a defense and the Browns, last week, struggled defending it. They tried playing man-to-man in the red area, and receiver Stevie Johnson came out and had all the middle of the field to work with -- gave the defender a stab outside and then came inside for a wide-open reception and touchdown. Communication is going to be huge with the linebackers and secondary so you don't have that traffic situation in those formations. If you're chasing, it makes it an easy read for Fitzpatrick. You have to get yourself in the best position to defend those formations.
Mike: Speaking of the Patriots' secondary, this is another big test, with Stevie Johnson, for cornerback Devin McCourty. The up and down performance of McCourty has been a lightning rod of sorts. Sunday night in Baltimore, McCourty had a crucial pass interference penalty on the final drive and the secondary struggled for parts of the night.
Tedy: Yes, they gave up 30 points to the Ravens, but I wouldn't panic on this secondary yet, McCourty especially. I think he's going to be OK. I think it's too strong to say that group has reverted to what we saw in 2011; they made some plays. On the pass interference penalty on McCourty, you have to look back, and show you're making an effort to make a play on the ball. Maybe he panicked. Johnson and this Bills' passing game is a threat, and the Patriots can get some help defending it from the line. Fitzpatrick has only been sacked one time, so you might not get to him, but there are still opportunities to make plays with a bull-rush-and-elevate strategy. Fitzpatrick (6-foot-2, 225) isn't the tallest guy and sometimes there is an angle-type delivery, almost sidearm, so if you bull rush and get those hands up, it can make it more challenging by having him throw the ball through a forest. It's similar to what Tom Brady said in the Super Bowl last year and trying to throw through the Giants' defense. That can help out your defense tremendously.
Mike: The Bills have second-round pick Cordy Glenn at left tackle, then Andy Levitre (left guard), Eric Wood (center), Kraig Urbik (right guard) and Erik Pears (right tackle) along the line. For the Patriots, I thought the defensive ends -- Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich -- didn't generate as much pressure as desired in Baltimore. Part of that is the responsibility of setting the edge first in the running game and not just running up the field. As for this week, the Jones-Glenn matchup will be fun to watch -- two young, highly touted rookies.
Tedy: And on the other side, you have the veteran defensive end, Mario Williams. He had a slow start to the season, getting his first sack as a Bill last week. You're starting to see him making some plays. The Bills are a front-four based scheme under coordinator Dave Wannstedt. It's not too complex. They're going to play zone coverage and mix in man-to-man, and let their front four get pressure on the quarterback. They have a pretty good front four, with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in the middle, and then Mark Anderson and Williams on the outside, with Chris Kelsay rotating in. That's the "win or lose" area of this game. I didn't think they looked dominant against the Browns on the road, but they contained running back Trent Richardson. Now the defense is coming home, Williams is generating a little momentum, and the idea is to go get Tom Brady and put him on his back. It's a different defense at home, which makes this a huge test for the Patriots' offensive line.
Mike: Williams has mostly been used at left end, setting up a good one-on-one matchup against right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. It's been a steady progression for Vollmer, who missed most of training camp as he recovered from a back injury and has steadily worked his way up to a full-time load. After rotating with Marcus Cannon for the first two games of the season, he played every snap Sunday in Baltimore, and the timing couldn't be better.
Tedy: I thought the offensive line, including Vollmer, turned in its best game so far against the Ravens. The two-minute drive at the end of the second quarter, no one was coming close to Tom Brady. They are protecting him on the interior, so the Ravens couldn't get much pocket push in there. This is a different type of challenge against the Bills but it had to be encouraging for Bill Belichick to see that type of performance.
Mike: What else stands out to you about the Bills defense?
Tedy: They've done a nice job to build it up. Kelvin Sheppard, the middle linebacker, is a 2011 third-round pick out of LSU. Nick Barnett provides a veteran presence at linebacker. Arthur Moats is solid. In the secondary, cornerback Aaron Williams was a second-round pick last year and cornerback Stephon Gilmore was a first-round pick this year. They're building it, and it's almost like they've been building for this game. Now you're seeing a team with a couple of years under a new coach and general manager, and you see some promising young players on every level of the defense. There are playmakers on every level. And there is some better depth on every level. Now here comes the big test for them.
Mike: Safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson both qualify as playmakers based on what we've seen in recent years. They've had some turnovers against the Patriots. We could put cornerback Leodis McKelvin in there as well.
Tedy: McKelvin is also a factor on special teams and he's been doing some good things returning the ball. Meanwhile, the Patriots have been struggling a bit on the punt team, and they made some adjustments last week in replacing rookie Nate Ebner, who gave up that blocked punt to the Cardinals in Week 2. I remember Bill Belichick doing this when I played. When we had breakdowns, he turned to the veterans and said, 'We need you to cover kicks.' Jerod Mayo was added to the punt team last week, so that's something to watch.
Mike: Let's get to some predictions. Two thoughts come to mind for the Patriots: pass protection and win the turnover battle. We could say that every week, but the reason it especially rings true this week is the Bills' reliance on the front four on defense. One could make a case this is as good of a front they'll face this year. Then you look at the Bills' style of play -- they'll give you some chances for turnovers at times and you have to take advantage. You can't have what happened last week with Devin McCourty dropping that fourth-quarter interception. The Patriots are plus-4 in the turnover differential (5 takeaways, 1 giveaway) and the Bills are plus-1 (6 takeaways, 5 giveaways). I think the Patriots rise up in both areas and realize they are a play or two away from putting it all together. Patriots 35, Bills 21.
Tedy: I don't know which Patriots team will show up. They haven't been in a situation like this in a long time. The Bills have been preparing for this very game for the last two years. They drafted Marcell Dareus to be their Vince Wilfork. They backed up the Brinks truck for Mario Williams for this game. To get after Tom Brady. Then they signed Mark Anderson to do the same thing. "Based on what?!" That's what Coach Belichick used to say when players felt it was only a matter of time before we started playing winning football again. Well, based on what I've seen from the Patriots the past two weeks, they have a long way to go. Going into Orchard Park to play a solid Bills team might be too much for them. Bills 31, Pats 28.