In two games this season, the New England Patriots have struggled defending tall, physical receivers. In Week 1, Brandon Marshall torched the Pats to the tune of seven receptions for 139 yards. Last weekend, Vincent Jackson hauled in 10 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
The player getting the most blame for those issues? Second-year cornerback Devin McCourty, who has been targeted early and often by Miami and San Diego despite having the best reputation of any Patriots defensive back.
This week, the Patriots will need to contend with another tall receiver; though not nearly the game-breaking playmaker that either Marshall or Jackson is, David Nelson's hot start (14 receptions, 149 yards, touchdown) this season surely has him on Bill Belichick's radar. Given Nelson's importance to the Buffalo Bills' passing attack out of the slot, as well as McCourty's struggles, don't be surprised if McCourty spends most of his time on the outside across from Stevie Johnson and Donald Jones.
The fact that Johnson is less than 100 percent health-wise heading into this contest may help dictate how the Patriots defend Buffalo's receivers. It's not an easy group to defend, clearly, but in a group with a proven (albeit dinged) player in Johnson, as well as two tall, lanky matchup problems (Nelson and tight end Scott Chandler), Jones is sort of the forgotten man on the outside.
He's so forgotten, in fact, that he's put up just 27 yards on six receptions (with a touchdown, mind you) in the team's first two games. He's not been targeted nearly as frequently as his teammates, and his big plays have been of a much quieter variety - such as the critical interception break-up pictured in this post, or the fourth-down conversion that preceded it against Oakland. Chan Gailey remains high on Jones, but there's no question that he's the forgotten man for the moment.
The Patriots do not match up corners on specific receivers, so it's likely that McCourty will spend significant chunks of field time covering both Johnson and Jones, while multiple teammates focus on Nelson inside. Obviously, if Johnson is healthy enough to continue to be effective, that's a matchup that the team might look to exploit. It gets even more interesting when McCourty is on Jones; if Jones can win those matchups on the edge - and as he's the most physical of Buffalo's receivers, he maintains some of what made both Marshall and Jackson so difficult for McCourty to handle - the Bills should remain highly effective through the air.