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TONY’S TAKE: FIVE THINGS TO KNOW AT NEW ENGLAND

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ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 3: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots and Tre’Davious White #27 of the Buffalo Bills attempt to catch the ball during the fourth quarter on December 3, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Welcome to Week 16 of the NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The Bills’ 15th game of the 2018 season will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts as they face the New England Patriots. Here’s what to watch for:

BILLS’ DEFENSIVE LINE CAN WIN AT LINE OF SCRIMMAGE

Against the Patriots this week, the Bills’ defensive braintrust likely has the right idea in order to try and stop Tom Brady and company. More often than not, the general blueprint league-wide has been to employ an effective four-man pass rush and play stifling coverage behind it – especially in press-man, in order to not allow New England’s wide receivers to use their leverage against them in their vaunted option routes. The best examples of this came in three Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants (2007, ’11) and Philadelphia Eagles (2017), and in the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos.

With the talent on Buffalo’s defensive line – made up of Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, Shaq Lawson, Star Lotulelei, Jordan Phillips and Harrison Phillips – they have more than enough depth to pull off this task. They made Brady’s life miserable for most of their last encounter in October, holding him without a passing touchdown for the first of only two performances this season for the Patriots’ quarterback.

The problem is, beyond Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills don’t have a whole lot of linebackers who can make plays in coverage consistently. With backup Deon Lacey stepping in for the injured Matt Milano and veteran Lorenzo Alexander much more adept at pass-rushing rather than playing out in space, Buffalo’s numbers at linebacker are pretty thin.

Could Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier make up for this lack of depth with more A-gap blitzes and zone coverage on the back end? Time will tell. What is working in Buffalo’s favor though is the presence of former Patriots assistant coach Brian Daboll, who worked for Bill Belichick for 11 years, so he should provide some insight for the Bills’ defensive staff into what Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could try and do.

BILLS OFFENSE FACING A TALL TASK

While Josh Allen has made progress and gotten better throughout his rookie season, he will have a big challenge to tackle on Sunday, as he will face Belichick for the first time in his career. The owner of seven Super Bowl rings (counting his time as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator), Belichick has an outstanding record against first-year signal callers and has never lost to one at home.

Aiding Allen and Daboll will be the presumed return of LeSean McCoy from injury to help boost a running game that has improved to ninth in the NFL. Rookie wideout Robert Foster, who leads all first-year receivers since week 12 in receiving yards per game and has three 100-yard games in his last five outings, has also been stellar.

PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE BILLS IN A MYRIAD OF WAYS

Tom Brady has played in a bunch of different types of offenses in his career. From a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to an offense revolving around tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.

While their passing game is built around concepts and using formations and motioning to create favorable matchups for their inside weapons – check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here (http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/) – recently it has become one that has had a good mix of vertical and horizontal plays. New England’s premier pass-catchers are slot receiver extraordinaire Julian Edelman, who is still as quick and shifty as ever, and running back James White, who also excels in the screen game.

Cordarrelle Patterson and former Bill Chris Hogan are decent in the intermediate and deep parts of the passing game. Josh Gordon, one of the NFL’s most talented players, has been suspended for the fifth time in his career and his playing days are likely over.

Gronkowski – by all accounts the league’s best at his position – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can run almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him – resulting in 12 touchdowns in 14 games against his hometown team. However, the wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries (notably a back issue that has dogged him throughout his career) has slowed him down this year.

The good news for Buffalo is that both of the Patriots’ offensive tackles – Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon – have been in and out of their lineup throughout the season with a myriad of ailments, so perhaps the Bills can find a way to exploit that.

NEW ENGLAND’S DEFENSE NO LONGER MULTIFACETED

Early in Belichick’s tenure in New England, his defenses were versatile and unpredictable, with intelligent veterans carrying out his voluminous schemes. But it has done a complete about-face over the past decade.

According to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, “(Belichick’s) Patriots were known for being a certain defense one week and a totally different defense the next. They could run any coverage, play out of any structure – be it 4-3, 3-4 or a blend – and disguise pressures and post-snap rotations like none other.

“Belichick’s defense is, and has been for roughly 10 years, a simple bend-but-don’t-break unit….. They play a lot of straight man coverage, often with one safety deep and the other robbing over the middle. They blitz rarely….. Their defensive line does little stunting and slanting after the snap, and even presnap disguises can be few and far between. When the Patriots do get aggressive is usually when the offense approaches scoring range. That’s the ‘don’t break’ part.”

Heady veterans Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Devin and Jason McCourty and former Bill Stephon Gilmore hold down the fort on the back end, while Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are their starting linebackers. Trey Flowers is New England’s only proven pass rusher, and Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise make up the rest of their front four.

With such an inept pass rush, the Patriots counter this weakness by using six and seven defensive backs on the field more than any other team in the NFL. According to Football Outsiders, last season New England dropped at least eight men into coverage a league-high 23.7 percent of the time.

THIS AND THAT

  • Belichick’s career record against the Buffalo Bills as the Patriots’ coach is 32-5 – with two of those losses being in Orchard Park (2003, ’11).
  • Gillette Stadium has been a house of horrors for Buffalo, as the Bills have won just twice there since it opened in 2002 (2014, ’16).
  • If LeSean McCoy is able to go, he needs just 73 yards to move past Thomas Jones, Jamal Lewis and Ricky Watters into 23rd place on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. With 71 yards, he would surpass Travis Henry for fifth in Bills history. Henry is behind Thurman Thomas, O.J. Simpson, Fred Jackson and Joe Cribbs.
  • The Patriots haven’t lost three in a row since 2002 and haven’t missed a first-round playoff bye in nine years. They also have never advanced to a Super Bowl from the wild-card round.
  • A New England win would net them their 10th straight division title – an NFL record.

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