The Buffalo Bills' offense will try to maintain some balance between the run and the pass Sunday against a New England defense that is looking improved against the run.
New England will be out to show it has shored up glaring deficiencies in its pass defense.
Those are two subplots to watch as Bills coach Chan Gailey tries to have another productive offensive day against Pats defensive mastermind Bill Belichick.
The Bills rolled up 448 yards on the Pats in scoring a 34-31 win in the first meeting last year. In the second meeting, Buffalo amassed 295 yards of offense in just 30 minutes in building a 21-14 lead before getting routed in the second half.
New England's top six draft picks in April all went for defense, and the Pats look like they have made quality upgrades with defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, both first-round picks who are starting.
"They're playing the run really well," Bills guard Kraig Urbik said. "They've got two really big D-tackles who stuff the run. Their two D-ends are really quick and keep containment, and they have physical linebackers."
The Patriots rank seventh in rushing yards allowed this year. They held Tennessee star Chris Johnson to just 4 yards in the opener but yielded 101 yards on 20 carries to Baltimore star Ray Rice last week.
"They have been very stout in the run game," Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "A lot of times they have two safeties deep and they are still able to stop stuff with the running game."
The Bills run the ball 51.3 percent of the time, fourth most in the NFL. The physical play of the offensive line has been a Bills strength so far.
But the Bills probably will need to get in a rhythm throwing the ball in order to run well on the Pats. The Bills attacked the Pats via the air last year. Buffalo had 40 pass plays and 16 run calls in the win over New England. The Bills had 34 pass calls and eight run calls in the first half of the second meeting. (Buffalo fell behind and had to pass out of necessity in the second half.)
Of course, everybody passed on the Pats last year. New England made the Super Bowl despite allowing the second most passing yards of any team in league history – 295 a game.
The Bills will face a different – if not exactly proven – secondary corps on Sunday. Both starting safeties (Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett) and one starting cornerback (Leigh Bodden) from the game in Buffalo last September no longer are on the Pats' roster.
Devin McCourty, a 2010 first-round pick, has played reasonably well at one cornerback spot. Unheralded Kyle Arrington, the other starter, will spend much of his time covering the Bills' slot receivers. The next two Pats corners, former street free agent Sterling Moore and second-year man Ras-I Dowling, are less proven, as is rookie safety Tavon Wilson, who sees time in underneath coverage in the dime package.
As bad as the Pats were last year against the pass, they still ranked 15th in points allowed.
"You rarely ever see them give up that many yards, but it goes to show they're smart and they kind of bend but don't break," Bills utility man Brad Smith said. "They want you to have to put drives together – 10-, 12-play drives. Keep everything in front of them, tackle and make you execute. I think that's kind of their philosophy."
Indeed, the Pats rushed five men at the quarterback just 16 percent last year (the sixth-lowest rate in the league), according to FootballOutsiders.com. They blitzed only twice at Baltimore last week. Baltimore's Joe Flacco was 28 of 39 for 382 yards and three touchdowns.
"They have done some good things in terms of matching up with guys, and in terms of keeping the two deep guys back there and not letting you get the deep plays," Fitzpatrick said. "Baltimore hit them on a couple, which were really nice throws by Flacco."