On Saturday, the Buffalo Bills will take on the New England Patriots for the first time since their Week 4 contest. This time, a lot more is riding on the game, as the Patriots can clinch the division with a win while Buffalo will still have a chance at the division crown with a win of their own. These two teams have changed a lot since their game earlier in the season. For more on the Patriots, we talked with Bernd Buchmasser from Pats Pulpit.
1) What has made Stephon Gilmore so dominant this season?
Gilmore already looked like the best cornerback in the NFL last season, so his play in 2019 is not that big of a surprise or development when compared to 2018. So, what does make him so dominant? Now as then, his combination of athleticism, technique, and experience is what allows him to play on an island against the best pass catchers in all of football. The first two are on display on a week-to-week basis and the list of players he went up against is a confirmation of his skill set and how much confidence the Patriots have in him: Gilmore shadowed players such as DeAndre Hopkins, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham Jr. and Travis Kelce—all different types of receivers—and looked good against all of them because he is capable of sticking to their hips no matter what kind of moves they attempt or compete when they try to out-muscle him at the top of routes or on jump-balls.
His experience, meanwhile, has helped the entire Patriots secondary: now in his third year in the system, Gilmore has developed a nice chemistry with fellow defensive backs Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Jason McCourty (who missed three of the last four games with a groin injury) and J.C. Jackson. The group has played a lot of football together, which allows New England to run aggressive man-to-man schemes and move its players around to put them in the best possible positions. Gilmore is both a reason for that and a beneficiary.
2) What kind of improvements can the offense make to get back on track?
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In all seriousness, though, the Patriots have to play with the hand they have been dealt (or rather: dealt themselves) in terms of personnel and need to do one thing first and foremost: try to develop a chemistry similar to the one the defense already has. There are two areas in particular where this becomes important: the offensive line and the quarterback-receiver connection. The O-line has struggled with consistency both in terms of play and personnel, and getting all five men on the same field and the same page is imperative because it might allow the team to finally develop some momentum on the ground —something that helped them win a Super Bowl last year. This is especially important because of the second area I mentioned.
The Patriots’ passing game has struggled at times this season. While it is easy to blame Tom Brady for this, and he certainly has missed some passes, his receiving corps is a big reason: whether it is players simply not getting open against man coverage or not being on the same page as their quarterback, New England’s usually reliable aerial attack has not been able to lift off so far. I would argue that getting the quarterback-receiver connection improved—something that can only happen due to repeated reps in practice and during games—has to be the main goal, especially as it relates to in-season trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu and first-round rookie N’Keal Harry.
3) What adjustments, if any, do you see the team making heading into the second Buffalo match-up?
Offensively, I think the Patriots should try to invest more in the running game after calling 20 runs compared to 39 passes in Week 4. The Bills’ defense is good in both areas, of course, but the running game might be New England’s best shot at generating at least some momentum on offense—for three reasons:
1.) Buffalo ranks third against the pass in DVOA (-16.9%) but only 19th versus the run (-8.4%). If there is a weakness to this unit (and weakness is used for lack of better term), it is the ground game. New England should actually be better equipped in this area this time around, with starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn back in the fold after missing the late September matchup on injured reserve.
2.) New England’s passing offense, as mentioned above, is not yet in sync. Creating space off of play-action could help create some openings down the field.
3.) Shortening the game might play in the hands of the Patriots’ defense, as it could force Buffalo to throw the ball more often against New England’s tremendous secondary.
Speaking of defense: I think New England will put more emphasis on stopping the run on Saturday. In Week 4, Frank Gore and Josh Allen combined to gain 135 yards on 22 carries for 6.1 yards per attempt. The Patriots have to find a way to get the latter two numbers down if they want to play the game on their terms and force Buffalo to become more one-dimensional towards the pass.
4) Who is someone who did not make an impact in Week 4 but can make one Saturday?
Two players come to mind: left tackle Isaiah Wynn and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Wynn, as noted above, missed the first game between the Patriots and Bills this season on injured reserve due to a toe injury. He is a clear upgrade over Marshall Newhouse in both pass protection and run blocking—a player that still needs to hit his groove but certainly makes the offense as a whole better. Hightower, meanwhile, is one of New England’s defensive leaders and a true three-down linebacker: not only is he the unit’s primary on-field signal caller, he also is one of its most consistent and versatile playmakers, capable of playing on and off the line and defending both the run and the pass fairly well. If the Patriots indeed want to bring the yards-per-rushing-attempt down this week, having Hightower available is big.
5) Prediction for the game?
I like this Bills team, I really do. And I certainly think that they are capable of beating the Patriots, even on the road, if New England plays a sloppy game or fails to generate at least some momentum on offense. However, I have learned not to bet against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and company. I’m therefore taking the Patriots with a score of… uh, 17-14 or something like that. It will be a hard-fought affair, but one that sees the home team make just enough plays to pull out the win. [Prepares emotionally for the Patriots doing just the opposite and losing by two scores.]