The Buffalo Bills face the New England Patriots for the third time this season, hosting the Super Wild Card Weekend playoff game at Highmark Stadium on Saturday night.
In early December, the Patriots ran over, through, and around the Bills to the tune of 222 rushing yards, including one long rushing TD. In late December, the two teams met again just three weeks later but the story was different. What changed?
In the second game against the Patriots, the Bills deployed a new set of defenders to stop the run. While they didn’t switch all the way to the base 4-3 defense, they subbed in a third linebacker for the second-most snaps on the season. A.J. Klein was in for 30% of the snaps while Taron Johnson saw just 70%. The only time they were flipped more was during the hurricane-force winds in Week 13, where Johnson was only on the field 43% of the time. But that game was also against the Patriots, and New England was still able to run.
One defensive player who was not a factor in Week 13, but played a lot more snaps in Week 16—cornerback Siran Neal.
In Week 13, Dane Jackson played 100% of the snaps against the Patriots in the first game after losing Tre’Davious White. He didn’t play poorly, but Buffalo’s defense was run all over. In Week 16, he came off the field on 20% of the defensive snaps, ceding that playing time to Neal. The bigger-bodied Neal is more than capable of helping in run support and adds 26 pounds over Jackson’s 180.
The pair of Klein and Neal in for Johnson and Jackson could prove to be the difference in the run defense. Klein played 19 snaps while Neal played 13 in the second matchup. In the second game, the Patriots were held to just 149 yards rushing.
While the pairing of the duo of Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips at defensive tackle is certainly another big factor, the introduction of Neal into the lineup could be the difference-maker.