New QB, coach make Bills a mystery
Expect the Patriots to figure things out against overmatched Buffalo in opener
Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the team's next game. This week, it's the season opener, on the road against the Buffalo Bills.
Mike: Tedy, great to be back for another season dissecting the action. We start with a familiar foe, the Bills, as this marks the ninth time the teams will open a season against each other. That makes the Bills the Patriots' most frequent opening opponent, as we remember the most recent openers in 2003, 2006 and 2009.
Tedy: Great to have football back, Reiss. Let's dive right in. With Buffalo, you have to start with their new coach, Doug Marrone. He was the head coach at Syracuse from 2009 to 2012, so he brings an element of a college energy to Orchard Park. That's what they need. This is a city that has harsh winters and a football team that hasn't won in a long time. They need someone with a new energy that is going to help them have a new outlook on the season. I think Marrone brings that. He also knows what the NFL is all about from his time in the league as an assistant; prior to his time at Syracuse he was the Jets offensive line coach (2002-2005) and the Saints offensive coordinator (2006-2008).
Mike: Marrone was one of the hot head coaching candidates this offseason and it seemed like a coup for Buffalo to land him. He's a native of the Bronx who also played at Syracuse, so he has some history in Western New York and knows what the Bills franchise means to the region. Bill Belichick often says the season-opening game is unlike any other in terms of unpredictability, and Marrone's presence adds another layer to it.
Tedy: The Patriots, from a coaching staff standpoint, have to be all-encompassing because there is a lot of mystery to a new team that is coming out with a new quarterback, a new head coach, a new philosophy, a new energy. So you have to be ready for everything in terms of hurry-up offense, new formations, personnel groupings and motions and new defensive wrinkles that you haven't seen in the preseason. There's no real book on this head coach or coaching staff working together. So this can be a huge sideline adjustment game for the Patriots because of that mystery. Once the game plan is recognized by the Patriots coaching staff in the first quarter, then the adjustments can be made.
Mike: Quarterback EJ Manuel had what the Bills called "minor" surgery on his left knee on Aug. 18. He has taken part in practice this week and the Bills announced Sept. 4 that he will start in the opener. From what we saw in the preseason, he's an athletic quarterback who can get the ball downfield. The Bills also had veteran Kevin Kolb as his backup, but he ended up on injured reserve after sustaining a concussion in the preseason. That has bumped undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel out of Washington State up the depth chart. Manuel, the team's first-round pick, has some big-play ability -- both with the deep ball and with his running ability -- but one would think the Bills will want to be careful how much they lean on him, giving him a chance to ease in as he makes his first career NFL regular-season start.
Tedy: A running game can be a big help for an untested quarterback put in that type of spot and that's where C.J. Spiller is big for the Bills. With last year's coaching staff, led by Chan Gailey, I was waiting to see when they'd figure out how to use Spiller. He can be one of the most explosive weapons in the NFL, but it seemed like they didn't always see it that way, especially early in the year when Fred Jackson might have had the upper hand on him. By the end of the year, it seemed like they figured it out with Spiller. It looks like it won't take the new coaching staff, with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, long to figure out what they have in Spiller. He'll be the No. 1 priority for the Patriots to stop. When an offensive coach says publicly that he's going to give a player the football until he throws up, you have to take note. For the Patriots, you almost have to take a Marshall Faulk-type approach to him the way you handle him on every offensive snap -- find out where he is, make sure you have him accounted for, and even if he doesn't have the ball do what you have to do to make sure he doesn't get it.
Mike: Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo was talking about Spiller this week and said, "He averaged 6 yards a carry last year. He's a very explosive player. I've seen the growth from when he was a rookie [in 2010] to now -- he takes the ball anywhere; he'll test the edge, and if the edge is set he'll run up inside. He has a strong lower body that has developed over the years. He's an all-around back." Mayo also touched on how the Bills' tempo will stress the communication of the Patriots defense.
Tedy: Mayo will be key in all hurry-up situations. The quicker he gets the defenses communicated to the D-line and secondary, the more efficient they will be. The worst feeling in the world is when an offensive unit is snapping the ball and you don't know if everyone is on the same page. This offense prides itself on tempo and conditioning. They hope that their no-huddle will get defenses worn out in the second half. With the Patriots thin along the defensive line, you have to be ready for no-huddle, because the more snaps that Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly play in the first half, it could make them less effective in the second half. The last thing you want to see is your D-line with their hands on their hips sucking air because they are tired. If that happens in a no-huddle game, you've got problems.
Mike: Let's touch on receiver Stevie Johnson and his comments this week that the Patriots don't have anyone to stop him. Cornerback Aqib Talib might have something to say about that.
Tedy: I look at his comments and think it's about time that someone stepped up to the plate to get themselves and that team motivated to say, "That's enough." Even if it's in the form of saying "They can't stop me," and even if he's uneducated on the Patriots' roster by thinking safety Patrick Chung was still on the team, I understand what he's trying to do. If I played on the Bills, I would be sick and tired of losing to the New England Patriots. I would be so tired of it being a foregone conclusion that the Pats were going to get the divisional hats and T-shirts every single year. Maybe someone needs to light a fire underneath this team so this team can say, "Enough is enough, let's start making a mark in this division." Now, could it have been done in a better way? Sure. You have to at least know your opponent's roster, Stevie.
Mike: In addition to Johnson at receiver, they have rookies Robert Woods (second round, Southern Cal) and Marquise Goodwin (third round, Texas), along with T.J. Graham (third round, 2012, NC State). Goodwin has top-level track speed as a kickoff returner as well. And at tight end, Scott Chandler has hurt the Patriots in the past.
Tedy: I'm excited to see Woods. He was one of the most pro-ready receivers to come out of the draft. Chandler is 6-foot-7 and we've seen his presence in the middle of the field in past games against the Patriots. Judging by the Patriots' poor performance in the preseason against the Lions when facing play-action -- Detroit tight end Tony Scheffler and others had success that night -- look for the Bills to try to attack the middle of the field with Chandler.
Mike: On the offensive line, Wood, the center, is the player they're building around after signing him to a contract extension last week. They lost Andy Levitre in free agency to the Titans, left guard has been a concern for them at times this preseason, and right tackle Erik Pears struggled at times last year against the Patriots. This is a matchup that I think favors the Patriots up front. In summing up the Bills' offense, I see a lot of speed and I want to see if the Patriots can keep up.
Tedy: Marrone is a solid offensive line coach. Let's see if his knowledge helps that group.
Mike: Defensively, Belichick made the point that the Bills now look similar to the Jets, which makes sense considering coordinator Mike Pettine is in his first season after spending the last four under Rex Ryan in New York. That means a lot of multiple looks (especially on third down), a heavy blitz percentage and an overall aggressive approach.
Tedy: It's a shift from Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 to Pettine's 3-4. When you look at the teams the Patriots went up against in the preseason, they were opponents with base schemes entirely different to what Pettine does. For some of the young Patriots players, they'll come in, get the game plan, and it's going to be different how they attack this defensive scheme, so it's probably good that they have a couple weeks to prepare for it. They're going to see schemes at game speed that they haven't seen before and it will be interesting to see how they react. During my career, there were times we had separate defensive meetings during the fourth preseason week -- the starters would go over an initial game plan and scouting report on the Week 1 opponent while everyone else playing in the fourth preseason game had different meetings preparing for that.
Mike: The line looks like the strength of the Bills' defense.
Tedy: Mario Williams always jumps off the page. Even though it's a 3-4 base now, Pettine is no dummy. He'll scheme situations and defenses to where Williams is going forward a high percentage of the time. We've seen Zach Sudfeld do impressive things this preseason. If Pettine schemes defenses to where Sudfeld may have to block Williams, that could be trouble. There are two quality players on the inside with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Watching Logan Mankins battle with either of those interior two players will be must-see TV.
Mike: Williams was mostly on the defensive left side last year, meaning he was matched up against right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. But I noticed he was moved around a bit more in the preseason, so I think all the linemen have to be ready to see Williams at some point, as they run games with him. One time in the preseason, against the Redskins, I watched him loop around teammate Kyle Williams and push the right guard into the quarterback. So overall, the line looks tough, but the questions start to show up as we move to the other layers of the defense. Rookie Kiko Alonso, a second-round pick out of Oregon, starts at middle linebacker.
Tedy: It's impressive to see a rookie middle linebacker get the start in Week 1. He's obviously done well and something the coaching staff probably likes about him is his experience against up-tempo offenses, as he's probably used to making quick decisions and adjustments to get people lined up. A middle linebacker has to be looked to as a calming presence. If coaches and teammates feel good about having a rookie in there this early in the season, it reflects well on him as a player. But I could still envision the Patriots still attacking this linebacker group.
Mike: Likewise in the secondary, where cornerback Stephon Gilmore is out (hand/wrist injury) and safety Jairus Byrd might be sidelined with plantar fasciitis. The tipoff that Byrd might not play came when the Bills signed safety Jim Leonhard, who played under Pettine with the Jets.
Tedy: Coaches won't tell you definitive information about players, but the moves they make say a lot. Also, you have the overall situation with Byrd to keep in mind, as he didn't get the long-term contract after receiving the franchise tag. When a player is in that situation, how many risks is he going to take to play on a bad foot? So if Byrd is out, it could be advantageous for the Patriots.
Mike: The Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999, which is the longest playoff drought among current NFL teams. There is always hope in a season-opening game, as we remember from the Bills in 2003 when they smoked the Patriots 31-0 in Orchard Park. That was the Lawyer Milloy game, when he was released by the Patriots and quickly landed with the Bills.
Tedy: They're looking for something to cheer for in Buffalo and this is the time when the hype is at its highest, with a new head coach, a new ideology, new schemes, and a fresh perspective and a new quarterback. Fans will ride that new energy with the atmosphere they bring on opening day. That's something the Patriots will have to deal with in the opening minutes. That game in 2003, you could feel the fans thought it was their time. Orchard Park on opening day is when emotions are at their highest in Buffalo. It's just that in recent years that hope has faded with every passing week of the regular season. We lost that battle in 2003, but that Bills team had much more to offer on that day.
Mike: That season turned out well for the Patriots, with a Super Bowl championship, and they have high hopes this year too. I think they get off to a good start Sunday and record the win. Patriots 31, Bills 21.
Tedy: This Bills team is not only adjusting to a new coaching staff, but they also have some key injuries on the defensive side of the ball. The Bills look like they are going in the right direction, but beating the Patriots is a task they are not ready for. Patriots 41 Bills 20.