The Buffalo Bills on Wednesday named rookie quarterback EJ Manuel their starter, and he won't have to wait long to face his first major test in the NFL. The Bills are hosting the New England Patriots in their opener Sunday, pitting Manuel against one of the league's most accomplished passers, Tom Brady. With Brady adjusting to the absence of last season's top five receivers, there's no shortage of intrigue in this tilt between division rivals.
Let's dive into this one:
Mike Rodak: Mike, we've seen Brady put on some passing clinics against the Bills in his career. In 2007, he threw for five touchdowns and nearly 400 yards at Ralph Wilson Stadium, as one example. Yet his past two trips to Buffalo have been different. In 2011, he threw four interceptions, and the Patriots lost. Brady looked much better in his visit last season, but it was largely the running game that powered the Patriots to a second-half comeback and the win. With so many new faces on offense, what can we expect out of Brady on Sunday?
Mike Reiss: We've seen an invigorated Brady this year, Mike, and it's probably because he knows more is being asked of him. In a way, he's not just the team's quarterback, but also another coach with all the new faces at receiver and tight end. He's 36 years old, but he looks like he's about 26 in terms of the way he's playing. As you know from your time around the Patriots, this is an attack that takes pride in tailoring itself on a week-to-week basis in hopes of exploiting the opponents' weakness. That's why they were so content to run the ball out of their two-TE package last year in Orchard Park when the Bills went to their small nickel defense. Given what you've seen from the Bills' defense, what might be the weaknesses the Patriots will target?
Rodak: A few weeks ago, Mike, my reaction would have been that the Patriots should try to do what they did last season, and test the Bills' run defense. But a few things have changed recently that may have offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pondering more of a passing-based attack. First, the Bills lost their top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, for the first six to eight weeks of the season. That's a huge blow, and the Bills are struggling to find a capable replacement.
Second, safety Jairus Byrd is dealing with plantar fasciitis. His foot injury kept him sidelined even during some light warm-up drills at Monday's practice, and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reports that Byrd's injury could affect his ability to play Sunday and beyond. Without Gilmore and Byrd, the Bills have what could be a porous secondary. There are matchups there the Patriots can take advantage of. Speaking of matchups, Bills receiver Steve Johnson said this week that he believes the Patriots "don't have anybody to stop him." Is he right?
Reiss: Hard not to appreciate Johnson's sense of humor. He was kidding, right? He had me right up until the point that he was listing off Patriots defenders and mentioned safety Patrick Chung, who is now with the Eagles. Johnson had six catches for 86 yards in November 2012; one difference this time around for the Patriots is the presence of top cornerback Aqib Talib, who didn't play in that game and has been a difference-maker since his arrival.
Overall, there hasn't been as much attention placed on the Patriots' defense because so much focus has been on the new faces at receiver and tight end, and maybe there should be. It's hard to tell if this unit will be better than last year's; it's almost the same defense, and they're banking on the development of some younger players, like defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower to elevate them. The main thing that stands out to me in this matchup is that the Bills have impressive speed and playmaking ability with running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and multiple weapons that can hurt a defense in tight end Scott Chandler and receivers Johnson, T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. I want to see if the Patriots can match their speed while in their sub defense. Will we be seeing Spiller throwing up on the sideline by the end of this one because he was used so much?
Rodak: I don't think so, Mike. I think the Bills want to air it out and test the Patriots' defense. The Bills started the preseason by staying conservative with their offensive game plan, but they mixed in a lot more "go" patterns later. One thing is clear: The Bills have the speed at receiver to be a major threat to the Patriots. While Woods and Graham may work more in the short-to-intermediate area, I can see the Bills trying to hit some home runs, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick called them Monday, with Johnson and Goodwin. As we saw last season in Seattle, it's possible to get behind the Patriots' defense, and when an offense can make those big plays in their own stadium, it gets the home crowd going.
I won't go as far as saying the Bills will defeat the Patriots, but the big play is something the Patriots will have to look out for. But beyond that, Mike, I think the Bills' offense may be dangerous for its pace. I know the Patriots are thin at defensive tackle and made some surprising moves at defensive end during final cuts last weekend. When the Bills turn the dial up on offense Sunday, how do the Patriots compensate on defense?
Reiss: Every season, it seems Belichick has a more liberal substitution pattern defensively in the opener because it's the first time all of these players will be going wire-to-wire. So I'd expect some element of that. But if the Bills quicken the pace, the substitutions might have to be more on a series-by-series basis than within a particular series. Overall, this isn't something that will be new to the Patriots' defense; they see it themselves, to a degree, in practice each day while going up against Brady and New England's fast-paced offense. Linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday that Belichick makes sure players are in physical condition to answer such a challenge.
But like you, I do think it's fair to question how they handle the deep ball and some of the other threats the Bills present. Even if it's Jeff Tuel throwing it, we saw in the third preseason game that he can get the ball downfield -- his first pass attempt against the Redskins was a completed long bomb down the left side to Graham (called back because of offensive pass interference). I'd sum up thoughts on the Patriots' defense this way: It's a unit that has thrived off turnovers. But if those aren't there, the question is if it's a unit that still can control a game.
This has been fun; let's wrap it up with a final thought.
Rodak: Mike, I think it’s important not to overlook Mario Williams in this game. Williams was limited by a wrist injury the previous time he played the Patriots, and despite coming into training camp with a sore foot this season, he should be ready to go Sunday. We've seen top-end pass-rushers like Terrell Suggs and Jason Taylor be effective against the Patriots. I think Williams’ presence makes Patriots left tackle Nate Solder a player to watch. If Brady's timing with his new group of receivers is off slightly -- as is to be expected at this point -- then it could give Williams that extra second to beat Solder and get to Brady. Just like the big play on offense, getting sacks and pressures on defense will make the Buffalo crowd a part of this game. What’s your final thought, Mike?
Reiss: The Bills are the Patriots' most frequent season-opening opponent, this being the ninth time. We remember what happened the previous time a Patriots-Bills opener took place in Orchard Park. It was 2003, and the Bills, lifted emotionally with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and just-released Patriot Lawyer Milloy at safety, recorded a rousing 31-0 victory. Ten years later, can the Bills pull the surprise again? The Patriots are heavy favorites, but there’s always an element of the unknown with a season-opening game. Will look forward to seeing you there.