Patriots must win mental battle vs. Bills
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is of Sunday's game (1 p.m. ET) against the Bills at Gillette Stadium:
Mike: Tedy, the first thought that comes to mind this week is that the Patriots have to win the mental battle. Human nature could have some players letting their guard down, because the Patriots have owned the Bills with 13 straight wins and 18 of the past 20. The Bills look like one of the NFL's worst teams, and it would be easy to think that by just showing up, the Patriots will win.
Tedy: Bill Belichick won't allow that to happen. He'll be talking up the Bills this week, getting the players to realize that anything can happen in this league. When you look at it, the Bills played the Patriots tough last season, so that should help him get his message across.
Mike: This has been a tough week for the Patriots, as running back Kevin Faulk was lost for the season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. You were his teammate for 10 seasons, so you can speak from an inside perspective on what he is all about?
Tedy: When I look at this offense, I'd put the go-to guys as Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Then after that, it's Faulk. Last season, fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis, they threw it to Faulk because that's how much faith they have in him. There is a feeling that when a play is needed, he'll get it done. This is a huge loss for the team. I especially feel for Kevin because an ACL for a running back in your 12th year, you don't know if it's over now. I'm sure in Kevin's mind, it's not over, but this is going to be difficult for him. He has so much drive and determination that a comeback is possible. I'd call him one of the greatest go-to guys in the history of the organization.
Mike: On the flip side, another interesting personnel-related note is with safety Brandon Meriweather. He was in the Pro Bowl last season, but in 2010 he isn't starting in the base 3-4 defense. I charted him as being on the field for just 27 plays last week.
Tedy: I think it started in training camp. Meriweather said on the radio that he was trying things in training camp, they weren't working and the coaches told him to fix them. But he still decided to try it more. I was shocked by those comments. It sounded like, based on those comments, he has been trying to do things his own way. That's not a way to play Patriots defense, especially in that structured format they play, where you have your job and you have to complete it. The other 10 players on the field, you're all working in cohesion. It basically sounds like he's freelancing. I still think his making the Pro Bowl last season was well deserved, but maybe it put some ideas in his head that he is farther along than he is, and he took some liberties within the defense, doing his own thing. You can't do that in this defense. There are opportunities that come along to do that, but they have to be within the confines of the defense. When you're out there trying to do it your own way, that's when you find yourself on the bench. They need him to turn it around, and that comes from a mental perspective first.
Patriots defense vs. Bills offense
Mike: The Bills made some news this week by naming Ryan Fitzpatrick their starting quarterback over Trent Edwards. I was a little surprised that the Bills tipped their hand so early in the week. Fitzpatrick looks like a better deep-ball thrower than Edwards and is more athletic. So those are areas to watch out for from a defensive perspective.
Tedy: He's a scrambler. If things break down around him in the pocket -- and they probably will, because the Bills' line has been struggling -- he has the athletic ability to get out. The Patriots will have to focus on rush-lane discipline, rush-lane integrity, and keeping him in the pocket and making him beat you there. Fitzpatrick isn't a big-time threat as a scrambler like Vince Young, but he can escape to extend the play. When that happens, there can be defensive breakdowns on broken plays.
Mike: Listening to Belichick news conferences over the years, it seems he has great respect for Bills receiver Lee Evans. A player like Evans would have more buzz around him from a national perspective if he had better quarterbacks throwing him the ball. He now is in his seventh season, all spent with the Bills, and has never played in a playoff game.
Tedy: Evans was always a player who was talked about a lot among players and the coaching staff. He is a professional and was looked at as a player who could break the game open. The Patriots will look at him as the player in the passing game who needs to be stopped. When it comes to his career, he could have made a lot of excuses given the quarterbacks throwing him the ball, but he hasn't done that. He has said he doesn't care who is throwing him the ball -- "I have to do my job better." I respect that about Lee Evans.
Mike: Patriots players talked this week about the Bills' "three-headed monster" at running back with Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. So there is some talent on this Bills roster at the skill positions.
Tedy: I really like Jackson. He led the league last year in combined net yards from scrimmage with 2,516 total yards. He produces at a high level, so he's a threat to be concerned with. I always looked at Lynch as one of the tougher tackles in the AFC East, right there with Ronnie Brown in terms of being difficult to bring down. He runs hard; he runs with somewhat of a vengeance. His lower-body strength is spectacular. I remember being under a pile and wrapping him up, and his legs, I'm squeezing and he's still churning the legs. You really have to bring it to tackle him. Chan Gailey is a running coach, so you will see all three of the running backs Sunday.
Mike: Nose tackle Vince Wilfork made the point that the Patriots have had some trouble with sub runs over the past year, and they cropped up again in the Jets game last week. The Patriots' base 3-4 defense had held the Jets to 36 yards on 12 carries when LaDainian Tomlinson ripped up 25 yards on two third-quarter runs against the nickel defense. That's an area I will be watching in the game. I'm also expecting to see more of rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham in that base 3-4 alignment, as I thought he played well, and it looks like second-year defensive end Ron Brace is settling in as a starter on the left side. On the Bills' side, we made it to this point without mentioning the offensive line and tight ends. Those look to be areas of weakness.
Patriots offense vs. Bills defense
Mike: Over the past nine years, this is the time we normally would be mentioning defensive end Aaron Schobel, who has recorded more sacks against Tom Brady than any other defender. But Schobel is no longer with the Bills; he's retired. Brady and left tackle Matt Light can breathe a bit easier because of that. This is a defense that has a new look under coordinator George Edwards. Gone is the 4-3 alignment, and in its place is the 3-4.
Tedy: The Bills have had some injuries, too. Kawika Mitchell is on injured reserve, while Paul Posluszny also has been banged up. Those are two of your best linebackers. I've always liked Andra Davis at that inside linebacker spot. He's a fundamentally sound player who takes on blocks and is a good run-stopper.
Mike: Elsewhere, nose tackle Kyle Williams will be a challenging matchup for Dan Koppen. He's not one of those big, burly types, at 6-foot-1 and 306 pounds, but if we were putting together a list of underrated players in the NFL, he could find his way onto it. The Bills also made former Ravens defensive end Dwan Edwards one of their big signings in the offseason, and that ties into their shift to the 3-4 and getting a bit bigger on defense. Veteran Marcus Stroud plays end, so they have some power at the line.
Tedy: When I look at the strength of the defense, I think it's in the secondary. Safety Jairus Byrd can track down the ball, as we saw last season, when he had nine picks. I think that ties into the overall idea that the Bills have talent at the skill positions. I would imagine that's a message Belichick has stressed to the team this week, whether it's Byrd, safety Donte Whitner or someone else.
Mike: You play the Bills and you have to be sharp on special teams. They have been good in that area in recent years.
Tedy: When you have an offense that struggles, a quarterback making his first start this season and an offense with just two passes longer than 20 yards this season, you look to other ways that you can win football games. That's special teams. Roscoe Parrish, the Bills' punt returner, is like a human joystick out there. They want the ball in his hands in the return game. He's very quick and elusive. You also have Spiller back there on kickoff returns, so that might be the one area in which the Bills can come into this game and say, "We have an edge."
Mike: For the Patriots, I'm curious about your thoughts on Tom Brady. He looked like he was forcing the ball into Randy Moss last week, targeting him 10 times and completing just two passes.
Tedy: The numbers for Brady in the second half, 7-for-16, that's not Brady-esque. I think you saw the disappointment and the anger in that postgame news conference. He wanted that game badly, and you could see how upset he was. He's possibly a little enamored of Moss, trying to get him the ball to prove a point. Antonio Cromartie might have been a better option to cover Moss because of his size and length. He covered him up well. What worked for Brady in the first half, he went away from that in the second half. That's not Tom. He usually makes the correct decisions out there and takes what the defense gives him. He rarely forces it. Sometimes he might force it to get Moss involved, but, overall, making good decisions is his forte. He made some bad ones last week.
Mike: The other area we'll be watching is how the Patriots fill the Kevin Faulk void. I think it will be a combination -- some Sammy Morris, some Aaron Hernandez, maybe even some Julian Edelman. I'm interested to see whether the Patriots limit their use of shotgun snaps, which is a big part of their offense. The initial forecast indicates rain could be coming Sunday, so this might be a day to get that running game going. I like the Patriots 30-13.
Tedy: I look at Buffalo as a perfect back-on-track team, which is exactly the medicine the Patriots need. A win over the Bills would give them a little momentum going on the road to Miami. I like the Patriots to win by three touchdowns. Even though I have Fred Jackson as a running back on my fantasy team, I think I'm going to bench him this week.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.
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