The going gets tougher for the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 of the NFL regular season, as the winless team travels to New England to take on the unbeaten and vastly talented Patriots. After a tough two weeks for the Bills, finger-pointing has begun in the Bills' fan base, and anything less than a competitive showing Sunday will only further those tactics.
The Bills' last two games in Foxboro, however, have been surprisingly competitive visits for the Bills. In 2005, the Pats' 21-16 win came only after the Bills built up a 9-point lead; last season, the Bills held a 17-7 lead at halftime of the season opener, only to allow 12 second-half points and lose by two. Two losses by a combined seven points isn't bad considering the success disparity between the two clubs the past eight seasons. But once again, the Bills face long odds playing a Patriots team that probably has never been as talented as they are today. The Bills will not keep this game competitive unless they can do the following three things:
Offense: Find a Rhythm
Two games, two overly-conservative offensive game plans, two losses, 10 total offensive points. That, folks, is the definition of ineptitude. Opponents have found a quick and easy way to beat the Bills: blitz J.P. Losman. The Steelers did that effectively last week, and the result was a 3-spot for the Bills on the scoreboard. Rest assured that the Patriots will blitz Losman as well; the Bills have got to be prepared to pick up extra pass rushers and, more importantly, get the ball out quickly.
A quick passing attack isn't necessarily a bad plan for the Bills. Losman has yet to find a rhythm in two weeks, especially early in games. If Steve Fairchild lets Losman throw early, it needs to be short, easy passes that are easily completed and move the chains. That will boost Losman's confidence, get the offense clicking and open up the ground game for rookie RB Marshawn Lynch. Without rhythm, this offense will have difficulty moving the chains once again, compromising their defense for a third week in a row. Here's a clue, Fairchild: get Lynch involved early as you usually do, but use him in the passing attack early instead. I promise you, you'll be satisfied - the kid is ready to make plays.
Players to Watch: QB J.P. Losman, RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Josh Reed
Defense: Get Off the Field Yourselves
Given the fact that the Bills are yielding over 470 yards of offense per game, the 41 points opponents have scored in two games is a phenomenally low number. Opponents have routinely driven the ball down the field against the Bills, only to have their drives stall in the red zone, forcing them to kick a field goal. Thus far, the Bills have allowed 7 field goals to just three touchdowns.
The problem defensively, outside of the alarming yardage totals, has been time of possession. Part of that blame lies with the offense, whose inability to sustain drives has left the defense on the field for large chunks of time. But part of the blame also lies with the defense - they're playing their hearts out, but there comes a point when they need to make more plays than they've delivered in two weeks. Containing the outside rush and eliminating the deep pass are obvious musts, but the biggest of them all this weekend is getting off the field on third down.
Players to Watch: DE Aaron Schobel, LB Paul Posluszny, CB Ashton Youboty
Special Teams: Make the Pats Earn It
Let's face it: the Patriots' offense, led by Tom Brady and featuring a diverse set of weapons (L. Maroney, S. Morris, R. Moss, W. Welker, D. Stallworth, B. Watson), will likely have good luck chewing up yards against the defense. It will be up to Buffalo's special teams - specifically P Brian Moorman and the kick/punt coverage units - to make sure that the Patriots are earning those yards and aren't working with any short fields. With two dangerous returners (Ellis Hobbs on kicks, Welker on punts), it is imperative for Buffalo to contain those threats so that the Patriots' offense doesn't have it any easier than they already do.
As usual, Buffalo's two return men - Terrence McGee and Roscoe Parrish - will need to be effective as well. McGee may not return kicks in this game due to injury, however, so expect reserve RB Fred Jackson to see some time there. Turnovers are one way to flip the field and make the Bills' job offensively easier, but effective return units are a far more effective route for the Bills to take in this one. It's imperative that the Bills make a play or two in this department; points will be very hard to come by otherwise.
Players to Watch: PR Roscoe Parrish, P Brian Moorman, CB Jabari Greer