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Patriots vs. Bills 2013: five questions with the enemy

To prepare for the Buffalo Bills' 2013 season opener with the New England Patriots, we spoke with Greg Knopping at SB Nation's Patriots blog, Pats Pulpit. Read on for his take on key Pats players and themes.

Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE

Let's start on defense. Buffalo has gained over 400 yards in each of their last four games against the Pats. What has changed on that side of the ball for the Pats this offseason?

Knopping: The Patriots haven't made any huge changes on that side of the ball heading into this season. Don't look at that as a negative - it's a huge positive. For the last few years, the Patriots have dealt with a lot of turnover and growing pains on defense. This year, they are looking to improve upon a defense that made steady improvements last season. The secondary remains intact - with all five starters returning (including the star position). Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower look to make big jumps in year two. One new pickup, Tommy Kelly, looks to complement Vince Wilfork inside and will be an upgrade over the Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick combo. The Patriots will probably still allow a lot of yards due to their scheme, but they should continue to improve in 2013.

Is it fair to argue that Jones is the key to an improved defense in New England?

Knopping: Absolutely. If Jones can become the dominant pass rusher the Patriots hope and believe he can become, it will provide the Patriots a boost defensively that they haven't had since the days of Willie McGinest. With his length, explosiveness, and maturity, he has the opportunity to be a difference maker. I'd also throw Dont'a Hightower into that grouping as well. They were both first-year starters under Bill Belichick, which is saying a lot in and of itself. Big things are expected from these two in year two, and the progress of the Pats' defense is going to be tied in large part to how their development goes.

Tell us a little bit about the type of player Zach Sudfeld is; I imagine many Bills fans haven't seen him play before.

Knopping: Sudfeld is a "move" tight end who stands at 6'7" and 255 pounds. He can line up at a variety of spots from h-back, to in-line, to out wide. He doesn't have the quickness or after the catch ability of an Aaron Hernandez, but he is proficient in both of these areas. He's also shown an ability to stretch the seam and make acrobatic catches - making several borderline insane touchdown grabs in training camp. His role might be limited to 20-30 snaps per game once Rob Gronkowski is back, but expect him to play 40-50 snaps against the Bills.

Aside from Danny Amendola, which of the Pats' new receivers had the best rapport with Tom Brady this summer?

Knopping: Got to go with Kenbrell Thompkins here. The rookie free agent impressed since the first day of mini-camp. At 25, he's older for a rookie and really had to go through a lot, both on and off the field to get to where he's at today. He's projected to be the Patriots' No. 2 receiver in 2013. He has solid downfield speed and quickness as well as solid hands, but perhaps his most impressive attribute has been his release off the line. He's already developed a strong rapport with Brady, and if what we've seen the last five weeks is any indication, he will be a go-to option for Brady and the offense this year. This isn't meant to take away anything from the other two rookies on the roster - Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Aaron Dobson (second round). Both players are expected to play a role in the offense this year and both have impressed. But I don't think anyone could have seen the Thompkins story coming.

Do Pats fans expect more emphasis on the running game this season, or will Brady and Josh McDaniels keep doing what they've always done offensively?

Knopping: Business as usual, would be my guess. The running game will continue to be a huge part of the offense, and the Patriots did a lot to establish balance in 2012. The aspect I'm most intrigued to see is how the potential of more three-receiver sets affects the running game. The Patriots will still run a lot of two tight end groupings, but they should return to three-receiver sets more than they have since 2009.