By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub

BOSTON (CBS) – When New England’s Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen finally stopped running late Sunday night vs. Cincinnati, the Patriots’ backfield duo had covered more than 200 yards.

Theirs was the team’s most productive rushing performance since the rain-soaked 2013 regular-season finale. That’s when LeGarrette Blount dashed and splashed for 189 of New England’s 267 yards on the soggy ground against the Buffalo Bills.

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Coupled with their first meeting on a sunny Kickoff Weekend, when Vereen gained 101 yards in Buffalo, the Patriots totaled 425 yards rushing in the 2013 season series. They merely exploited the deficiency of a Bills defense that led the AFC in sacks and interceptions, but ranked 14th (of 16 teams) opposite the run.

On the eve of their next encounter, with each at 3-2 and tied atop the AFC East, the Pats are about to run into a much stouter — at least statistically — Buffalo unit.

Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Former Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz now oversees the Bills defense, succeeding Mike Pettine, who left Buffalo to take over the Cleveland Browns. And while much of Buffalo’s personnel, especially up front, are unchanged, their getting different results defending the run.

The Bills allow a conference-low 71.0 yards a game and 3.0 yards a carry. Meanwhile, they’re tied for the AFC lead in sacks (17.0) and interceptions (six). Prior strong suits remain so, and a past weakness is now a strength.

Schematically, Buffalo is different than a year ago. Most noticeably, Schwartz aligns the defensive ends in a wide set, outside both the tight end and the opposite offensive tackle. But what stands out the most is what the Patriots have always recognized. The Bills are loaded on the line with good players.

“They have a lot of guys that are hard to block,” New England head coach Bill Belichick said before rattling off the roll call of ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes and tackles Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus. “We all know they play the ends wide. It’s hard to get outside so you have to deal with the linebackers and the inside defensive linemen. They do a good job with that; tackle well.”

“Schwartz is doing a lot of similar things that he was doing in Detroit,” adds Ryan Wendell, the Patriots starting center in 2012-13 who shifted to guard for last week’s win over Cincinnati. “But he’s just letting his guys play. I think they’ve obviously embraced what he’s brought in there and they’re playing well. Their defensive line, their whole defensive front is doing a great job of getting after the quarterback and eating up the run.

“I think a lot of what Coach Schwartz does is put his guys in good position to make plays, and so it depends on which guys are in there.”

Buffalo also benefits from the run-stopping presence of ex-Patriot Brandon Spikes, a linebacker signed as a free agent in the offseason. Spikes earned the nickname ‘Pow!’ after back-to-back 100-tackle seasons in New England.

“Spikes is a great downhill player,” Wendell said. “He sees the run real well. He understands blocking and knows how to get downhill, how to hit offensive lineman, how to hit backs. You always have to be aware of when he’s in the game, because he’s going to be aware of you.”

As if trying to block the Bills isn’t difficult enough, the Pats may have to do it without rookie center Bryan Stork. He started the last two games, including the rout of the Bengals, which was by far the best performance of the young season by New England’s offensive line.

Stork was limited in practice on Thursday before sitting out Friday altogether with what the team reports is a head injury. If he’s a no-go Sunday in Buffalo, either Wendell or Dan Connolly will play center.

Either way, according to Wendell, either one will be ready.

“We practice at different spots to be ready,” he said. “Football is a game where guys go down and get hurt all the time, so guys have to be ready to play other spots. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of preparing.”

Patriots special teamer Nate Ebner. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Patriots special teamer Nate Ebner. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

PERSONAL PROTECTION

Though his is the first name listed, Nate Ebner’s inclusion on Friday’s practice report for the New England Patriots can be easily overlooked.

Not because his presence on the form, announcing his absence from Sunday’s game at Buffalo, isn’t noteworthy. It’s just that upon first — and even second or third — glance, the words spelled out in boldface type several lines below are likely to capture and continue to hold your attention.

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“Brady, Tom…Ankle…Limited Participation…Questionable.”

When the all-timer at quarterback for the Patriots is listed as “questionable,” it’s worthy of a banner headline, above the fold of your morning daily. Or if you get your a.m. news from a tablet or smart phone, let’s just say it won’t take long to find a link to read all about it.

Coming as it does, on the eve of a first-place showdown in the AFC East and in the context of the recent public conversation about Brady’s future, that’s a big deal around here.

At the same time, as insignificant as it might seem when compared to word of Brady’s health, Ebner’s status is still very important. Like offensive lineman Cameron Fleming, he’ll miss his second straight game due to a finger injury.

As one of the so-called core special teamers, Ebner appears on four units in the kicking game, including the vital role of ‘personal protector’ for punter Ryan Allen.

“That’s the quarterback for that (punt unit),” Belichick says. “It’s a really important position. There are so many different looks as a punt team that you have to deal with: how many guys they have in the box, the potential of the corners coming in off the gunners, getting the protection right. Then there’s the whole coverage aspect of it as well.”

Standing in Ebner’s stead is Patrick Chung. He’s no stranger to the role, having occupied it during an earlier stint in New England.

“Pat’s done a good job and he’s very good in coverage,” Belichick says. “So, he gives us not only a good protector and a smart guy who can handle all that, but also gives us a good coverage player…you can never have too many of those on the punt team.”

Chung’s managed a lot of responsibilities on special teams, dating back to his college career at Oregon.

“They put me in a lot of different situations,” he says of his 51-game career with the Ducks. “I honestly believe that helped me now with the NFL, because you have to do a lot of things in the NFL.

“You can’t be one dimensional. You’ve got to be able to cover kicks, you’ve got to be able to maybe return kicks..At Oregon all the defensive backs did that so it helped me out. It helped me out a lot.”

Fred Jackson of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball against Detroit.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Fred Jackson of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball against Detroit. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

RESPECT FOR HIS ELDERS

Coming off his second 100-yard performance of the year and less than a week removed from his AFC-high 21st touchdown since 2012, Ridley spent time Thursday singing the praises of his Buffalo counterparts C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.

Ridley, 25, in his fourth pro season, was particularly effusive regarding the 33-year-old Jackson.

“He’s a beast, he really is a beast,” Ridley explained. “And I didn’t know too much about Fred Jackson until I got in the league four years ago. But the four years that I’ve been here he’s been a strong runner. That’s somebody (Belichick) always highlights on the film when we play Buffalo, (as) someone we’re going to have to stop.

“Hopefully I can have a career like him and still be running the ball like he is at 30 years old.”

Ridley’s admiration extends to other veterans around the league like San Francisco’s Frank Gore and, as a student of his craft, increases when he sees them on video.

“Most times when I’m watching the defense and I’m breaking down the opponent we’re playing for the week, I just watch all the runs and all the plays from those (opposing) backs,” Ridley said. “I kind of watch what they do, how they’re running, how they’re going against the opposing defense and I take my tips and my pointers on what I can do well.

“I learn from other guys around the league. I’ve watched Fred (Jackson) a little bit this year. I watched a little bit of, like I said, Frank Gore. I’ve watched a little bit of everybody. Young, old, everywhere in between. When you’re breaking down film and you’re really studying film as a runner, you have to watch other runners if you want to critique your game.”

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