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Five New England Patriots to watch vs. the Buffalo Bills

Bill Belichick’s charges find themselves in an unfamiliar position

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New England Patriots Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills meet on Sunday for their first matchup of the Bills2023 NFL season. For the first time in storied head coach Bill Belichick’s career with New England, the Patriots are only 1-5 through six games; they’ve been 2-4 a couple of times, but in terms of overall wins and losses, this is the worst Patriots team Belichick has had at this point in a season.

The season isn’t only six games long, however, and streaks can break just as easily as they start. New England has struggled on offense, having only outscored the New York Giants on the season. Defensively, New England has been solid in terms of yards allowed (No. 10), but not so much as it relates to points allowed (No. 24).

Buffalo isn’t going to storm into Foxborough and come out with an easy victory — those aren’t common in the NFL, and the Bills have had struggles of their own of late. However, if the team wants to push their record to 5-2 while simultaneously driving a dagger into their longtime foes, they’re going they’ll need to control the Patriots’ top play makers on both offense and defense.

Here are five New England Patriots players to watch this week.

RB Ezekiel Elliott

This was really a toss-up between the two top backs, as neither has proven to be tremendously effective this season. Rhamondre Stevenson, the starter, is dealing with an ankle injury right now, and he’s also averaging just three yards per carry so far (78 carries, 234 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns). Elliott hasn’t exactly looked rejuvenated since leaving the Dallas Cowboys, but he has been the slightly more effective rusher for the Patriots overall. In his six games, Zeke has 49 carries for 193 yards and a touchdown. He averages 3.9 yards per carry. Buffalo has been prone to allowing a big play or three in the run game when the first two levels of the defense don’t work well together, and it’s caused some otherwise great efforts against the run to appear more pedestrian thanks to huge gains by opposing rushers. Elliott is my bet to be the guy who breaks a big one, but it’s just as likely that Buffalo fits its gaps and holds him to something like eight carries for 19 yards on the day. Buffalo needs to stop plays like letting that ninth carry go for 25 yards in order to take the next step defensively.

WR Kendrick Bourne

Similar to Buffalo’s passing offense, the Patriots have one target who sees the lion’s share of the throws his way, and then they have a group of players who don’t really present as clear No. 2 options. Unlike Buffalo’s offense, neither the Patriots’ quarterback nor their top wideout is anywhere near as good as Josh Allen or Stefon Diggs. Bourne has seen 44 targets so far this year, catching 28 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. All of those numbers lead the team. With Hunter Henry dealing with an ankle injury and JuJu Smith-Schuster failing to find much chemistry with quarterback Mac Jones, it’s been Borne who leads the way in New England’s passing attack. I don’t imagine that Buffalo will mirror Bourne or DeVante Parker, New England’s other outside wideout, so it will be up to Christian Benford and whoever suits up across from him to make sure Bourne stays under wraps. Kaiir Elam, who has started the last two contests, is dealing with an ankle injury this week. Dane Jackson sat last week due to a foot injury, and practice squad call-up Ja’Marcus Ingram has appeared in consecutive weeks to relieve Elam. Depending on who’s across from him, Bourne may have a more favorable matchup than we’d have anticipated, but it will be up to the Bills to force Jones to throw the ball elsewhere on Sunday.

CB J.C. Jackson

The veteran was recently re-acquired by New England thanks to the shoulder injury suffered by stud rookie corner Christian Gonzalez. That injury landed Gonzalez on Injured Reserve, and placed Jackson back in the starting lineup for the Pats last week in his second game back with the team. He and Stefon Diggs have had some battles before, and they’re likely to have another one this week. In two games back with the Patriots, teams are 4-of-10 for a total of 42 yards when targeting Jackson in the passing game.

S Kyle Dugger

The Jack-of-all-trades defensive back could be used in myriad ways this week. It’s possible that he plays some deep safety if the Pats try to mix in some Cover-2. He may also wind up in the slot covering either Buffalo’s wideouts (Deonte Harty or Khalil Shakir) or their tight ends (Dawson Knox or Dalton Kincaid). It’s also possible that Dugger could spend some time mirroring Josh Allen, as teams that have had success with Buffalo’s offense this year have often had a player spy Allen before “firing” on a blitz when the mobile QB commits to leaving the pocket. The difference between Dugger and most of those players, though, is that teams often use a linebacker in that role. Dugger is a bigger defensive back, so he might be used in that role. Either way, Allen and the Bills need to know where he is at all times. He leads the Pats in tackles with 41.

(Stay tuned for an update/replacement for the IR’d Judon)

LB Matt Judon

The veteran pass rusher is having another stellar season so far, as he’s notched four sacks, five tackles for loss, and nine quarterback hits already this season. He’s clearly the top issue in New England’s pass rush, though he’s hardly the only problem up front given that players like Josh Uche and Deatrich Wise Jr. are still on the roster. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey will probably try to keep a tight end or a running back — and possibly both — on the side Judon is to help chip him rather than give him one-on-one looks against Buffalo’s tackles. However, if right tackle Spencer Brown and left tackle Dion Dawkins can continue their run of strong play, there will be openings after those chips. If Dorsey can leave his tackles on an island for some plays, there could be big plays in the making for a Bills offense that has lacked them in the last few weeks.

LB Ja’Whaun Bentley

Alright, let’s try this again... given that the Patriots are dealing with plenty of injuries to the defensive front — including to Matt Judon and Josh Uche — the need to play coverage is greater. They’ll also need to mix those coverages in order to try and confuse quarterback Josh Allen. The teams that have given Allen fits so far this year have used big middle linebackers as mirrors, sending those players on blitzes when Allen breaks free from the pocket. Last week, New York Giants middle linebacker Bobby Okereke was able to read Allen’s eyes and tip a pass that led to an interception. Creating turnovers is going to be New England’s best shot at winning this one, and if head coach Bill Belichick has some tricks up his sleeve, alternating the mirror between a highly athletic safety like Dugger and a huge middle linebacker like Bentley could create just enough confusion up front to give them a chance at the ball.