The New England Patriots held on by a single yard in Chicago last week with the defense facing an Andy Reid offense for the third straight week. Two weeks after defeating Indianapolis and Frank Reich, a week after going toe-to-toe against young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes (and Reid himself), the Patriots had to hold the goal line on a Hail Mary pass to beat Mitch Trubisky and Matt Nagy’s Bears.
The Patriots fell behind to Chicago 17-7 early in the second quarter after fumbles by Cordarrelle Patterson on a kick-return and rookie Sony Michel (on a play he injured his knee). The special teams responded with a 95 yard kickoff return by Patterson and later in the third quarter Dont’a Hightower blocked a punt which was scooped by Kyle Van Noy and returned 29 yards to give the Patriots a lead they would not relinquish.
Despite losing Michel, Tom Brady led the way with 277 yards passing and three touchdowns including another interception on a pass that hit a receiver–James Develin this time–between the numbers (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). James White stepped up with eight catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns to go with 40 yards on the ground.
This week’s game will be broadcast by ESPN and can be seen locally on WCVB-TV Channel 5 in Boston and on WLNE-TV ABC6 in the Providence, RI and New Bedford, MA area. With Jon Gruden in Oakland, the much-maligned new team for Monday Night Football will have the Patriots for the only time this week in Buffalo.
Joe Tessitore will handle play-by-play duties with former Dallas Cowboy tight end Jason Witten as the color analyst. Booger McFarland and Lisa Salters will work from the sidelines (with McFarland in his ill-conceived and hideous Booger-mobile blocking the view of fans from the stands).
On the radio, there are much better options available. Monday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Kevin Harlan will call the game with Ross Tucker providing analysis.
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and talk radio star Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win over Chicago was the fourth consecutive game the Patriots scored 38 or more points (although with an asterisk as special teams scored two touchdowns). The Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three to stayed in fourth place in the NFL with 214 points scored. Coming out of week three ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs, the Patriots care now up to eighth in the league converting 44.2% of third downs for the season. The Red Zone scoring percentage of 69.2 (18 of 26 drives) is good for seventh in the NFL.
ATTACK THE LINEBACKERS:
The Buffalo Bills’ defense has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde unit in 2018. In week 1 against the Ravens, the defense allowed 369 total yards and 47 points. in week 2 against the Chargers, it was 31 points and almost 350 total yards.
The defense turned it around in three of the next four games limiting the Vikings to six points, the Titans to 12 points and Houston to 20 points and only 216 total yards. The only poor performance in that stretch was against Green Bay. the Packers scored over 20 points and totaled over 400 yards of total offense against the Bills.
Last week in Indianapolis, the bills were embarrassed as the Colts piled up 37 points and over 375 total yards. Indianapolis topped 200 yards rushing becoming the fifth team to rush for over 100 yards against Buffalo this season. Not surprisingly Buffalo is 2-0 allowing less than 100 yards rushing and 0-4 when allowing 109 or more rushing yards.
Rookie Tremaine Edmunds, former Boston College Eagle Matt Milano, and veteran Lorenzo Alexander are the primary trio of linebackers in Buffalo. Edmunds is extremely athletic but is one of the youngest players in the NFL, he has a lot of learning to do on the job. Different looks and stunts, primarily in the running game, have been a problem for him.
Milano, a 5th round draft pick out of Boston College last season, has stepped into a starting role in recent weeks. The undersized linebacker has been a tackling machine in Buffalo this season. He had lost snaps earlier in the season to Ramon Humber but he has become a solid blitzer and tackler.
Alexander is 35 years old this season, and the Bills have been cautious with him. His snaps have been reduced in a few of the recent blowouts. He has gotten regular days off during the week from practice as well. He is one of the few productive pass-rushers other than defensive end Jerry Hughes and the Bills need him to disrupt opposing passing attacks particularly on third downs.
Inexperienced, undersized and old. Is it any surprise this is the group that the Patriots offense will be looking to exploit on Monday night. Any of these three the Patriots can get in coverage of tight end Rob Gronkowski, will likely result in quarterback Tom Brady trying to get the ball to his tight end.
The same applies with running back James White coming out of the backfield. Alexander is probably the best in coverage of the group, but he does not have the physical skills he used to at his current age. Milano is neither quick enough to cover White nor big enough to cover Gronkowski. Edmonds is probably the most athletic linebacker in coverage. However, his inexperience works against him in coverage.
Look for Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to continually try to exploit this unit in coverage. Pre-snap reads will be important so look for a lot of motion and flexing white and Gronkowski them in tight to the line of scrimmage or into the backfield to diagnose the defense.
Exploiting these match-ups could lead to a long night for the Buffalo defense.
ANYONE HEALTHY TO RUN THE BALL?
With a Sony Michel returning to practice on Friday this week, a gaping hole in the Patriots ofensive game plan could be filled. If Michel is able to go on Monday night it gives New England the rushing presence it will need to imitate the game plan the Indianapolis Colts used last week.
The Colts ran the ball 37 times for 220 yards against an overwhelmed Buffalo defense. Marlon Mack rushed for 126 yards and one touchdown while Nyheim Hines in Jordan Wilkins combined to pound out another 93 yards. The Colts much-maligned defensive line pushed around a talented Buffalo Bills defensive line.
The Bills’ front four of Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy on the outside and Star Lotulelei and Kyle Williams inside has the potential to be disruptive and cause havoc on the opposing offenses. The quartet has 13.5 of the Bills’ 19 sacks so far in 2018. The Patriots catch a break with Murphy out after hurting his knee last week. Expected replacement starter Eddie Yarbrough has one career sack in 23 games.
Getting pressure and standing firm against the run has been what has worked for buffalo in their wins. When Buffalo is able to create turnovers, they have played much better and taken the off pressure off the impotent offense. In there two wins the bills created six turnovers. In their five losses there were only six turnovers created.
The Patriots maybe forced to lean on James White, James Develin, and Kenjon Barner in the running game more than they may anticipate. If the interior blockers for the Patriots can make space for the running backs they may need to continue running the football to take pass-rush pressure off their quarterback.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots are 4-0 when they rushed for over 100 yards, or 5-0 when they rushed for more than 95 yards. Both of their losses have come and games where they rushed for less than 90 yards.
Even if the Patriots can only dress two healthy running backs (with Michel doubtful), they need to find a way to effectively run the football on Monday night against Buffalo. If the Patriots cannot run the football effectively it gives the Bills pass rush the opportunity to pin their ears back and rush the quarterback.
JOSH GORDON UNLEASHED:
Last week, New England wide receiver Josh Gordon recorded his first 100 yard receiving game as a member of the New England Patriots. Since coming to New England via trade, Gordon has 13 receptions for 224 yards and one touchdown. More importantly, the team is 4-0 and has scored 38 or more points in all four games he has been in the lineup.
Gordon gives New England the outside receiving threat which they have lacked this season. the reliable receiver and big play threat on the outside was a huge part of the offense last year with Julian Edelman out for the entire season while Brandin Cooks was effective in that role, the Patriots ultimately traded Cooks away for a first round pick in the offseason.
In the early weeks of the season, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson were ineffective in that role as the outside receiving threat. Without Edelman, and no big receiver on the outside capable of getting open, the Patriots offense sputtered..
Buffalo likes to play with just two linebackers and five defensive backs against passing offenses like New England. Cornerbacks Tre’davious White and Phillip Gaines are a solid pair and the trio of safeties in Buffalo are one of their biggest strengths. Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Rafael Bush are all solid tacklers, smart and experienced against passing attacks.
While the Patriots will try to get slot receiver Julian Edelman in mismatches against cornerbacks Taron Johnson and Dontae Johnson, the attention Josh Gordon will take away from Gronkowski and white is vital for the offense to be effective throwing the ball. The bills will likely keep either White or Gaines on Gordon with safety help over the top.
Having Gordon occupying extra defenders make space underneath for white and room in the middle of the field for Gronkowski to get open and make big plays as he returns to his hometown. A couple of deep completions to Gordon can get the entire Bills secondary on their heels.
Gordon does not need to get 100 yards receiving to be effective. While the Patriots would love if he did, he needs only to continue to occupy defenders and create space for the rest of the arsenal of pass-catching targets that Tom Brady has at his disposal.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01