After the first three games, the trade looked like, as they say in big business, just a huge win-win for both parties. Bledsoe was totally gnarly, and Brady led his team to a 3-0 mark, looking unstoppable with game passer ratings of 110.0, 100.8 and 110.9.
But then all of a sudden New England had consecutive losses against the Chargers, Dolphins and Packers before heading into its bye Oct. 20. Now its defense doesn’t look as formidable as it did last year – giving up chunks of yardage on the ground – and the offense has had trouble establishing a running game.
Consequently, there has been pressure on Brady, who has admitted that he has tried to do too much.
Coach Bill Belichick, during the bye week, said his team would start its season over again. So to regain that attitude of a champion, the Patriots were more physical in their practices – full-pad sessions no less – and there was an emphasis on film study.
Overall, this is a veteran team that has proven it knows how to win. It just has to capture its focus again.
Buffalo may be running into the Patriots at exactly the wrong time. On top of that, Belichick usually knows how to attack the weaknesses of a quarterback with a variety of fronts and strategies. And he knows Bledsoe as well as any NFL quarterback. Suffice it to say that he’s going to do what he can to make Bledsoe look very bad. Very bad.
But then Bledsoe wants to make Belichick look bad too.
As Michael Jackson would say, “Who’s bad?”
We’re gonna find out.
When Buffalo runs
The Patriots’ run defense was 28th in the NFL, giving up 143.3 yards per game after seven weeks. They had allowed a 100-yard rusher the last four games leading up to their bye.
The front-seven simply isn’t playing to the level that it did last year. Of course, it’s not going to surprise teams after winning the Super Bowl.
Middle linebacker Tedy Bruschi and weakside linebacker Roman Phifer have been banged up and missed a couple of starts. On top of that, defensive tackle Bobby Hamilton, defensive end Anthony Pleasant, cornerback Otis Smith and Phifer are aging players who had career years last season. The sun is setting for them. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour has been a huge disappointment in his second year.
That’s why Ladainian Tomlinson rushed for 180 yards and Priest Holmes 217 vs. New England, despite the team playing strong safety Lawyer Milloy in the box. There’s no push.
In general, New England’s front has to be better at beating their opponents when they’re locked up one on one. They haven’t done that much.
Travis Henry should be able to run on New England. His line is younger and more athletic and it’s getting better every game. Buffalo will use this game against a Bill Belichick defense to establish some more confidence for its ground game.
When Buffalo passes
New England was No. 1 against the pass, but much of that has to do with its inability to stop the run. When a team looks stout in one area, but it’s porous in another, it looks stout because teams are exploiting the porous area.
That means New England’s pass defense is overrated.
Cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith have great credentials, but they’re slowing down. This could be a good day for Eric Moulds and Peerless Price, who will probably see a lot of double coverage from free safety Tebucky Jones floating to one side or the other.
New England’s defense really owes much of its success to its ability to disguise coverages and confuse linemen and quarterbacks. That shouldn’t be a problem for Drew Bledsoe. However, it could be difficult for Jonas Jennings, Marques Sullivan and Mike Williams.
New England will often blitz linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi and safeties Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy. Sometimes Willie McGinest lines up as an outside backer in a 3-4 look and sometimes as an end in the 4-3. Everything Belichick throws at them is designed to cause matchup fits.
But Buffalo should be fine with Bledsoe.
When New England runs
New England had the 20th-ranked rushing game in the league with Antowain Smith. Smith plays in the one-back a lot, but sometimes runs behind fullback Marc Edwards. Smith resurrected his career in New England last year – similar to the way Bledsoe has done so in Buffalo this year – but in 2002, he seems to be hesitating when he makes his runs. He’s not getting the speed behind him to bowl people over.
The other problem is that the team started five different offensive line combinations over the season’s first six games and continuity has been minimal. Right guard Joe Andruzzi has battled a knee injury and Steve Neal and Adrian Klemm have taken turns starting in his place.
Kevin Faulk remains a specialized back on third downs and other long yardage situations, but Brady rarely throws to player out of the backfield. The Patriots tight ends are mostly pass catchers, rather than run blockers. Christian Fauria is the best blocker of the bunch. Rookie Daniel Graham has been battling a shoulder injury but should be available against the Bills.
This matchup is slightly tipped in Buffalo’s favor, particularly because New England’s offensive line is suspect and Smith is experiencing a rough year so far.
When New England passes
Tom Brady has a strong arm and he’s got some weapons in Troy Brown, David Patten and rookie Deion Branch. Brown was the team’s leading pass catcher even though he missed two games with a knee injury. He should be ready for the Bills game.
Even though Brady has a trio of good tight ends with Cam Cleeland, Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham, he rarely throws to them, instead opting to go downfield to his receivers.
Pass blocking has been inconsistent. Left tackle Matt Light had a very good year last season – who on the Patriots didn’t? – but this year, he’s been exploited by speed rushers coming off the edge. He had a tough time against Miami’s Jason Taylor. Bills right end Aaron Schobel should provide some difficulty as well.
Right tackle is also another question mark. Kenyatta Jones or Greg Robinson-Randall may play there. Whomever it is, one thing is for sure – the line shuffling indicates the Patriots are not comfortable with the men they have up front.
New England will look to match the speedy Patten and Branch on any one other than Nate Clements. The Bills defense will probably be missing left corner Antoine Winfield for a second straight game. This could be problematic.
Edge: New England
Patriots kicker and Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri hit 90 percent of his field goals through seven weeks, going nine for 10 with a long of 45 yards. On kickoffs, Vinatieri suffers, usually only kicking it to the 10. But the Patriots coverage was 13th, allowing just 21.7 yards per return. Punter Ken Walter was 26th in the league with a net average of 33.7 yards, which is not very good. On punts, New England gave up 8.7 yards, which was 10th in the NFL – which is pretty good. Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown split the punt return duties and the duo had a 9.8-yard average after seven weeks. There is room for improvement there. Rookie Deion Branch handles most of the kickoff duties and he was averaging an excellent 26.4 yards per return. He could give Buffalo some troubles. Special-teamsly, except for Buffalo’s punting, New England holds the edge in every other special teams category.
Edge: New England