Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium:
1. Find a way to run the ball consistently well. LeSean McCoy’s sore hamstring can’t be an obstacle to the Bills’ vastly improving their performance on the ground. Their running game needs to demonstrate it has worked out the Week One kinks it showed against the Colts. The problems weren’t all simply a case of poor play by the offensive line. There were at least a few instances where McCoy, having been unable to establish a sense of familiarity with his blockers because of the three weeks he missed with his injury, went the wrong way. A concerted effort to straighten out those problems by all parties involved, including fullback Jerome Felton, will likely generate favorable results. Look for greater involvement from the backups, rookie Karlos Williams and veteran Boobie Dixon, as the Bills try to do a better job of what they set out to achieve last week: keep the opposing quarterback on the sidelines as long as possible. The Patriots’ defense is far from stout up front and there are long runs to be had.
2. Get physical with Gronk … even without Kong. Multiple Bills defenders have gone out of their way to let the world – and especially those NFL officials working Sunday’s game – know that the tremendous success Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has catching the ball doesn’t all come from his incredible talent. They openly accuse him of illegally pushing off on defenders on almost all of his routes and getting away with it virtually every time. And if the big guy is going to get physical with them, they absolutely need to do the same with him regardless of whether Rex Ryan can convince King Kong to come out of retirement to cover Gronkowski. The Steelers’ defenders seemed almost afraid to get in his way during last week’s opener, which had plenty to do with allowing him to catch three touchdown passes. That won’t be the case with Buffalo’s defense, whose players pride themselves on playing aggressively and are constantly directed to do so by Ryan and the rest of the defensive coaching staff. Despite Ryan’s suggestions to the contrary, the Bills will look to jam Gronk at the line to change the direction of his patterns and disrupt their timing. Make no mistake, he’s still going to catch passes from Tom Brady. The Bills just can’t allow him to take over the game.
3. Don’t become too familiar with Dion Lewis or LeGarrette Blount for that matter. Earlier in the week, Ryan refused to acknowledge that he even knew Lewis’ name despite the fact he ran for 69 yards on 15 carries and caught four passes for 51 yards against the Steelers. The coach said the only Patriots running back with which the Bills had to concern themselves was Blount, who his returning from a one-game suspension. Blount will go back to his No. 1 role, but that doesn’t mean Lewis will disappear from the Pats’ game plan. His exceptional speed and elusiveness have earned him touches as a runner and receiver. Lewis missed the past two seasons after suffering a broken leg, but I saw plenty of him in practice with the Cleveland Browns and the guy can be downright amazing when it comes to darting through holes, changing directions and seemingly turning what should be a loss or minimal gain into significant yards. Blount is capable of pounding his way into a big game on the ground. But the Bills simply can’t allow either back to flourish because a balanced offense makes Brady almost impossible to stop. The Patriots won’t be so quick to give up on the run as the Colts, with aging Frank Gore unable to find early traction, were last week.
4. Win the coaching battle again. The Bills were clearly the more talented team on the field at The Ralph last week. However, their dominance of the Colts had as much to do with superior strategy as it did with having the better players. Ryan put together a defensive game plan that thoroughly baffled Andrew Luck, one of the smarter quarterbacks in the NFL, and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. He sprang numerous blitzes for which they and especially Indianapolis’ offensive line were clearly ill prepared to handle. Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman repeatedly fooled them with pre-snap looks that created the illusion of a blitz but never actually became one and with frequent variations and disguising of coverages. They’ve had similar success before against Brady and will likely have a new wrinkle or too cooked up to take advantage of his lack of mobility. Look for tackle Marcell Dareus to be the focal point of a scheme that looks to consistently generate middle pressure to break the front of the pocket. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman kept the Colts’ defense guessing with his constant shifting and motions before the snap, and picked his spots for first-time starter Tyrod Taylor to step out of a game plan that called for mostly safe and efficient passing and didn’t attempt to challenge a defense determined to keep him in the pocket. Getting the better of Bill Belichick’s defense will be much harder, of course, but the Patriots’ lack of talent on the back end should encourage Roman to be more aggressive.
5. Taylor has to take another step. Safe and efficient aren’t going to get it done this time around. Although it’s only his second NFL start, Taylor must be a difference-maker and cannot allow himself to be overshadowed by his Hall-of-Fame-bound counterpart. He has to trust his ability to generate big plays with his arm, because that’s what Brady will be doing. Last week, Taylor often chose to avoid the tighter passing windows in front of his most talented playmaker, Sammy Watkins, in favor of the more wide-open ones on the other side of the field. Granted, Percy Harvin is a game-breaker capable of catching many more passes like the 51-yard touchdown bomb that broke open last week’s game. However, Taylor needs to give opposing defenses a reason to shift their attention to other places on the field. He can’t just keep them honest with his constant threat to run. He has to force them to honor his skills as a passer and his ability to challenge their coverage. The Patriots are extremely vulnerable on the perimeter and Taylor can’t hesitate to cash in … because Brady certainly won’t.