Scouting Report: What you have to know about Patriots-Bills

October 29, 2016 - 6:05 am
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[caption id="attachment_113188" align="alignright" width="350"]Rob Gronkowski has almost always played well against his old hometown team.  (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) Rob Gronkowski has almost always played well against his old hometown team. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)[/caption] Everything you have to know about this Sunday's game at New Era Field between the Patriots and Bills. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL New England is in a great place when it comes to the ground game. Over the first half of the season, LeGarrette Blount has emerged as one of the best and sturdiest backs in the league with 143 carries for 566 yards and eight rushing touchdowns (already a career-high). Blount's totals have dropped off slightly since he was asked to shoulder most of the offensive load over the first four games of the season, but he still closed out the Steelers last week with a season-high 127 yards. Thanks in large part to the work of Blount, the Patriots are sixth-best in the league on the ground at 122.7 rushing yards per game. On the other side of the ball, the Bills are 27th in the league against the run (125 yards per game). Now some of that is because they have been missing some key pieces along the way like defensive tackle Marcell Dareus — who is expected to make his season debut this week after sitting for a four-game suspension and dealing with a hamstring issue the last three weeks. But if Sunday's game follows the same blueprint as last week against the Steelers — that is to say, New England gets up by seven to 10 points in the second half and needs to grind down the clock — expect Blount to get a ton of work down the stretch. Bottom line? Even with Dareus back in the lineup and Zach Brown (who leads the Bills in tackles) having a good year, no one should be surprised if Blount tops 100 yards on Sunday. WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL Despite the fact that the Bills do a pretty good job getting after the quarterback — particularly Lorenzo Alexander, who has nine sacks through seven games — this is a winnable matchup for New England for a few reasons, not the least of which is that tight end Rob Gronkowski (17 catches, 375 yards, 2 TDs) perennially feasts on the Bills. The native of upstate New York is on a bit of a roll since shaking off his early-season hamstring woes with at least 90 receiving yards a game in his last three contests. Overall, in 10 career games against Buffalo, his per game averages are some of the best of any teams he's faced -- just short of five catches and 70 yards per contest, to go along with an average of one touchdown per game. The Bills have never had a good answer for Gronkowski, and despite the fact that fellow tight end Martellus Bennett is a question mark heading into this one because of an ankle issue, there's no reason to think he won't be able to get his yards again this time around. After missing the first four games, Tom Brady has thrust himself into the MVP conversation with a white-hot start (76-for-101, 1,004 yards, 8 TDs, 0 INTs, passer rating of 132.6). Overall, the Patriots are 10th in the league when it comes to the passing game at 261 yards per game. The strength of the Buffalo defense to this point in the season is its ability to hold up against the run. The Bills are 11th in the league against the pass at 235.7 yards per game allowed. They do a good job generating pressure ( Alexander's nine sacks leads a team with 21 overall, good for third in the league), and they do a good job taking the football away. Buffalo is second in the league when it comes to turnover rate at plus-eight, trailing only the Vikings (plus-11). Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Nickell Robey-Coleman have two interceptions each, while linebacker Preston Brown has two fumble recoveries and Alexander has three forced fumbles. One thing worth noting — according to these totals from Football Outsiders, the Bills have a number of strengths when it comes to pass defense, including good numbers defending No. 2 receivers and backs. However, Buffalo appears to be vulnerable against No.1 receivers (the Bills have allowed an 7.6 catches and 78.8 receiving yards to top receivers, 31st overall) and defending the middle of the field (FO has them last when it comes to allowing pass plays between the hash marks). Something to keep in mind. WHEN THE BILLS RUN THE BALL The effectiveness of the Buffalo offense is predicated completely on LeSean McCoy. Simply put, he's the primary reason the Bills are one of the best running teams in the league at 152.3 rushing yards per game. (Buffalo only trails the Cowboys in this department.) He leads the team with 112 carries, 598 yards and six touchdowns, and his 5.3 yards per carry is second in the league. Of course, chances are good he won't be able to go this weekend because Rex Ryan decided to test him last week against the Dolphins instead of sitting him and resting him for a more important game. Now it looks like McCoy can't go, making last week's move an unforgivable act that should draw plenty of criticism. If McCoy was at 100 percent this weekend, Buffalo has a legitimate shot. But now? Not so much. Expect backup Mike Gillislee (22 carries, 137 yards, 2 TDs) to get the bulk of the work on Sunday against New England. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor also has the potential to do some damage on the ground, with 41 carries for 271 yards and a pair of touchdowns. WHEN THE BILLS PASS THE BALL On paper, this is the least impactful of the four different matchups, especially if McCoy (20 catches, 23 targets, 97 yards, 1 TD) and Sammy Watkins aren't able to go. Taylor (60 percent completion rate, 1,297 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs passer rating of 91.9) has had some very good moments — including his last outing against the Patriots — but with no McCoy, the Bills will have to find someone else to step into the void. Our guess? It's going to be tight end Charles Clay (24 catches, 36 targets, 268 yards), who has bedeviled New England at times in his career. The other two top targets for Buffalo on Sunday will be wide receiver Robert Woods (25 catches on 37 targets, 240 yards, 1 TD) and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (12 catches, 32 targets, 258 yards, 3 TDs). At 21.5 yards per catch, Goodwin is the closest thing to a deep threat the Bills have. With no McCoy in the lineup, the defensive priorities are twofold: one, slow Clay, likely with a combo package that includes (but is not limited to) Patrick Chung and Jamie Collins. And two, contain Taylor. Gap discipline and containment are huge when faced with defending a mobile quarterback like Taylor. In this case, it's not so much about pinning your ears back and trying to chase him down. Instead, it's more about keeping him in the pocket and having him beat you with the arm. Overall, the Patriots are 19th against the pass, having yielded 259 passing yards per contest. Collins leads the team with two interceptions, while Jabaal Sheard (3.5) and Malcom Brown (2) lead the team in sacks. SPECIAL TEAMS New England's special teams has struggled much of the season. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is having an uncharacteristically erratic year (7-for-10 on field goals and two missed extra points), while punter Ryan Allen has also been up-and-down (43.9 average, 24th in the league and a 40.7 net, 14th in the league). The Patriots are 30th in the league in terms of kick returns (16.8) and 18th in punt returns (8.9), and have no returns for touchdowns. In Buffalo, kicker Dan Carpenter is 9-for-11 on field-goal attempts and 20-for-22 on extra points. Punter Colton Schmidt is 27th in the league in average (43.7) and 16th in net (40.5). As a team, the Bills are 28th when it comes to kick returns (18.4 yards) and 32nd in punt returns (3.9 yards). They do not have a return for touchdown in either department. THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… the Bills are able to locate some healing waters between now and kickoff and sprinkle some on the hamstring of McCoy so he's somewhere approaching 100 percent. Barring that, New England needs its offensive line to answer the call. If Alexander — or any other rusher — is able to get consistent traction and get after Brady, especially in the early going, it'll set a bad tone for the Patriots. THE BILLS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… they can't find a way to slow Gronkowski. The big fella has crushed the Bills in the past, including a masterful performance last September in Orchard Park where he had seven catches on 13 targets for 113 yards and a touchdown. BY THE NUMBERS — Brady's 25 victories over Bills are one short of matching NFL record for most wins by a quarterback against one opponent. Brett Favre had 26 career wins against Detroit. UNDER THE RADAR PERFORMER: Alexander probably doesn't qualify as an under-the-radar type anymore, so that means we'll move to Gillislee, the guy who is expected to pick up the slack in place of McCoy. The 5-foot-11, 208-pounder was a fifth round pick of the Dolphins in 2013, but hooked up with the Bills prior to the start of the 2015 season. His career game came in last year's regular season finale against the Jets when he had 24 carries for 98 yards in a 22-17 win over New York. The last two games, Gillislee has rushed for 81 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown, mostly in relief of McCoy. When it comes to moving the ball on the ground Sunday, it's going to be on him. QUOTE OF NOTE: "One more, and I've got 69 touchdowns. If you know what I mean." — Gronkowski on scoring his 68th career touchdown last week against the Steelers. His next touchdown will move him past Stanley Morgan for the most touchdowns in franchise history. PREDICTION: New England has not been swept by AFC East opponent in 15 seasons, the longest streak since 1970 merger, and if McCoy was playing, the Bills would have a legit chance at pulling it off. (For its part, Buffalo is looking to sweep the Patriots for the first time since 1999.) With no McCoy — or if he's even severely limited — It's not going to happen. The Bills are going to make it interesting; these games in Orchard Park almost always are, even for a half. But a New England team that's still little pissed about Buffalo's attempt to try and shake Jacoby Brissett and Malcolm Mitchell in the first game won't let it get too out go hand. (Wouldn't be a shock to see Brady try and get Mitchell a touchdown at Buffalo's expense.) As long as the New England offensive line is capable of giving Brady enough time, Blount runs like he has for much of the first seven games and the defense gets two or three early stops, this one should be out of reach by the two-minute warning. My take? Gronk gets to 69, Blount tops 100 and the defense continues an upward trend when it comes to red-zone and third-down defense. I'm going to say Patriots 35, Bills 21.