By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are better than most, if not all, teams in the NFL at finding mismatches and exploiting them. Tom Brady is one of the best at surveying defenses and attacking its weak points, just like Bill Belichick is a master at eliminating an opponent’s strengths. That will be no different when the Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, even with Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.
Although the offense may be simplified with Brissett under center and Garoppolo could be limited if he plays with his shoulder injury, Belichick will still find holes in the Bills’ personnel and figure out the best way to attack them on both sides of the ball. I’m going to do my best to take some guesses as to what will happen – and then you can circle back on Monday and find out how awesomely right or horribly wrong I was.
My weekly matchup previews typically rely heavily upon Pro Football Focus grades, which I happen to think are generally accurate as to a player’s performance, despite their flaws. Their grades are sort of like the WAR stat in baseball: they’re easy to dismiss as arbitrary numbers but when you see the best players at the top, like the Rams’ Aaron Donald graded the top “interior defender” and the Broncos’ Von Miller graded the top “edge defender,” to name just two notable examples, PFF is doing something right.
Anyway, here is who I believe the Patriots will eliminate – and exploit – in their Week 4 matchup with the Bills.
ELIMINATE: Running Back LeSean McCoy
The Bills do have other weapons on offense like dynamic receiver threat Sammy Watkins, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor is always a threat for either throwing the deep ball or taking off for runs. The Patriots may employ a similar defense that they used against the Houston Texans and use against many other young quarterbacks: take away the big plays, keep the ball in front of you, and force the opponent to beat you by marching down the field on long drives.
It’s highly likely the Patriots will make Taylor throw the ball to beat them, and that strategy begins with taking away McCoy, who is coming off a 110-yard performance on just 17 carries in Week 2 against the Arizona Cardinals. Ben Volin of the Boston Globe posted some handy GIFs to show how the Bills use pre-snap trickeration and creative blocking schemes, especially with left guard Richie Incognito, to open up lanes for McCoy. Diagnosing those blocks will be key for the Patriots up front, but ultimately it’s McCoy himself who needs to be stifled.
“Shady” still has some of the best open-field quickness in the league. If the Patriots can’t bottle him up at the point of attack or limit him when he gets into open space, it could be a long day for the defense. Jamie Collins (and, if he returns, Dont’a Hightower) will need to be all over McCoy to keep his production down and force the Bills to air it out.
EXPLOIT: The Bills’ Left Tackles
Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn returned to Bills practice on Wednesday but was a limited participant. His backup, Cyrus Kouandjio, did not practice at all. The Bills’ LT situation is questionable at best, with a worst-case scenario of turning to a third-stringer or playing someone out of position. The Patriots front-seven should attack this point of the line, and they have a good chance of succeeding there with Chris Long.
One of the better free-agent additions in the league through the first three weeks, Long has made an impact on defense in all three Patriots wins so far and ranks as the 11th-highest graded edge defender in the NFL on PFF. He has been a major factor as a pass-rusher and if the Patriots are able to shut down the Bills’ running game and make Taylor stand back in the pocket … Long’s presence will be felt.
A healthy Glenn would be a boon for the left side of the Bills’ offensive line, but he doesn’t sound like a safe bet to play more than a limited number of snaps Sunday. Kouandjio, meanwhile, has been dreadful in 145 snaps filling in for Glenn, registering a dismal 46.8 grade as a pass blocker. If he has to line up against Long, the Bills are going to have a bad time.
ELIMINATE: The Bills’ Jerry Hughes
For all intents and purposes, Bills pass rusher Jerry Hughes is the J.J. Watt of the Bills for this week. The Patriots should, and will, dedicate extra blockers to containing him in the passing game. As the No. 5 edge defender on PFF, Hughes has been lights out getting to the quarterback with an 85.8 grade, nearing “elite” status in that respect. He’s registered three sacks and 10 tackles in the first three games of the season.
That being said … Hughes is not a large man by defensive end standards, standing at just 6-foot-2. That may actually give him an advantage against the 6-foot-8 Nate Solder, but he will almost certainly be double-teamed. That, and he could also be exploited in the running game; Hughes has registered a horrendous 43.1 grade in 80 snaps as a run defender. Not only will the Patriots do their best to wipe out Hughes on passing downs, they may run LeGarrette Blount right down his gullet on a number of plays.
That back-side double-team that Belichick told Blount to power through against the Texans? There could be a similar strategy (and result) against Hughes and the Bills. Whatever ends up happening, Hughes vs. Solder is unquestionably one of the biggest one-on-one matchups of the game.
EXPLOIT: Bills’ Defensive Line, Depending On Personnel
Piggybacking off the possibility of running on Hughes, the Bills have another potential liability in the run game in Lorenzo Alexander. The 10-year veteran has been a solid pass-rusher with three sacks but grades out with a heinous 46.1 against the run, according to PFF. If he and Hughes are tasked with defending the edge against Blount, the Patriots could certainly exploit them to their advantage.
The interesting thing about the Bills’ defensive front is that it is mostly filled with one-dimensional talents. The aforementioned Hughes and Alexander are good pass-rushers but can be vulnerable against the run, while veteran interior defenders like Kyle Williams and Corbin Bryant have defended well against the run but haven’t gotten pressure on the quarterback.
Like most plays, the Patriots’ decision to run or throw will depend on the personnel in front of them, but in this game it will largely depend on the Bills’ defensive line, rather than the second and third levels. If Josh McDaniels can properly diagnose the best plays to run based on the Bills’ front, Buffalo could have trouble slowing the Patriots offense down.
This game, like many others, will be decided in the trenches. Both the linebackers and secondary of the Bills have played well this year, but so have the Patriots receivers when called upon, giving each side a significant test in that regard. The game will ultimately come down to how the Patriots can exploit the Bills’ weaknesses up front and minimize Buffalo’s strengths, as Belichick almost always does well.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.