Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's back to the AFC East as the Patriots visit the Bills in Orchard Park, New York (Fox, 1 p.m. ET).
Mike: A few of the buzzwords of the past two weeks have been "energy" and "emotion." Let's start there, as the Patriots didn't have an abundance of it against Kansas City and then it was almost over the top against the Bengals. Looking ahead to Buffalo, two people they could often count on for energy and emotion -- linebacker Brandon Spikes and assistant coach Pepper Johnson -- are on the Bills' side now.
Tedy: These weren't just your average players and coaches when it came to that. Pepper Johnson was a coach emotionally attached to the front seven on defense, and Spikes was a player who often set the tone on the field. Pepper has some knowledge on how to attack these offensive linemen -- what works, what doesn't, and maybe how to get in their heads a little bit. So he has some valuable information to share.
Mike: What are you seeing from Spikes?
Tedy: The first thing is that he was voted a captain, so it shows how he's viewed by his teammates. Spikes has been playing on all three downs a little bit lately. On third down, when they will sometimes show a three-man rush, they use him a little bit as a zone player in the short middle of the field and he can disrupt the shallow crossing routes, or sometimes rush the quarterback late. I'd say this if I'm Tom Brady: I'm getting down as soon as I can if I see him coming because this guy has been knocking people out ever since he came into the league. He's one of the hardest hitters in the game. It's big collisions and he attacks the line of scrimmage, almost recklessly at times but always violently. He'll hit linemen. He'll hit running backs. He'll hit receivers -- just ask Houston's Andre Johnson (forced fumble, second quarter). The Patriots know him well, and he can sometimes get caught by hitting the wrong gap in the running game and it's a 10-to-15-yard gain.
Mike: Spikes always wanted to prove he was a three-down player, so this will be fun to watch Sunday. He wears No. 51 now after wearing No. 55 in New England. The No. 51 is what his older cousin, Takeo Spikes, wore in Buffalo.
Tedy: They blitz him up the middle and outside. Turn on the Chicago tape from Week 1 and you see him blitzing off the defensive left side (second quarter, 3:21) and sacking Jay Cutler by running right over the tight end. He's still very big and powerful straight ahead and looks for the knockout shot. In the fourth quarter against the Bears (3:27), you see him attacking the line of scrimmage downhill and making the tackle for a loss. I don't think it's a stretch to call him the most dominant first- and second-down run-stuffing linebacker in the NFL.
Mike: I know you're high on not just Spikes, but this overall Bills defense.
Tedy: This is a very good defense that not a lot of people talk about. In my weekly defensive index, they are one of the best teams in the NFL -- ranked No. 3 overall. The index takes into account turnovers created (No. 7), third-down performance (No. 1), red zone efficiency (No. 15), and points per game (No. 5). It's a 4-3 defense under first-year coordinator Jim Schwartz, they play a mixture of man and zone, and it's not a lot of pressure. Similar to Schwartz's defenses in Detroit, he'll rely on his front four to get pressure.
Tedy: Yes, and I think it's a greater challenge for the Patriots' offensive line than we saw last week against the Bengals. The Patriots did a nice job last week of cleaning the pocket. When I say that, it's the concept of once you've executed your blocking assignment of looking around and finding someone else to help block; Sebastian Vollmer did that well, Bryan Stork did that well, Ryan Wendell did that well. It's going to be harder to do that this week. The Bills already have 17 sacks as a team, with Dareus (5), Mario Williams (3.5) and Hughes (3) leading the way. On top of that, Stefan Charles -- who entered the NFL in 2013 as an undrafted rookie out of Regina in Canada -- showed up against the Lions. This is more of a penetrating defensive line that can give the Patriots some problems -- a lot of suddenness and explosion off the ball, with the ability to disrupt the spot in which Tom Brady likes to set up and throw. Dareus does a great job; he won't just try to lean on you like the Bengals defensive tackles Domata Peko and Devon Still, as he has get-off and a powerful club-and-rip move (versus Detroit, Week 5, first quarter, 7:00). And if Kyle Williams is back, that makes them even tougher. This is a big test for the interior of the line.
Mike: The edges, too, as I noticed Hughes often rushes off the defensive right side (putting him against Nate Solder) and Mario Williams is on the defensive left side (against Sebastian Vollmer).
Tedy: One thing I'd say about Williams is that he's a little bit of an error repeater. Look at the Bills' Week 1 game against the Bears and there was a 10-yard run by Matt Forte (second quarter, 14:13) where the right tackle lets Williams go where he wants inside and punches him by before climbing up to the linebacker. You see Williams clapping after the play because he knew he was duped. Then in the third quarter (13:41), it happens again. So he shows up, but will also disappear at times, whereas a defensive end like Miami's Cameron Wake is going to be there every snap. Williams is the type of player you might try to attack with screens and draws. These ends take the cheese at times; you also saw it with Hughes (third quarter, 12:07) in that Bears game when he flies up the field with no awareness of Forte. Then later (fourth quarter, 4:01), Forte is offset and Hughes still can't figure it out, and it's a screen pass for 10 yards.
Mike: So we've established the defensive line as the Bills' strength on defense. In the secondary, the top cornerbacks are Leodis McKelvin (2008, first round) and Stephon Gilmore (2012, first round), with Buffalo native Corey Graham of the University of New Hampshire mixing in as the third option as part of a rotation. In the nickel, the aptly-named Nickell Robey is the fifth defensive back. Offensively, what is standing out to you?
Tedy: This past week against the Lions, the Bills looked totally different from what you saw earlier in the season, when there was more spread and cross-action in the backfield, a lot of play fakes with EJ Manuel. Now with Kyle Orton at quarterback, all of that was gone. He's more of a traditional quarterback and the Bills ran more I-formation in the Lions game than I can remember them doing previously. It looked like old-school football, very traditional.
Mike: What does Orton give them that Manuel didn't?
Tedy: I'd say Orton has more confidence as a passer than Manuel. You saw a little rustiness at the beginning of the game against the Lions, but I think that's something time remedies. The first thing you see with Orton is that he wants to drop back and throw the ball on schedule. If the play is extended in any way, it's pretty much over and the chances of him having success as a quarterback are slim to none. He doesn't have the athletic ability to elude the rush, and will jump into survival mode and just get rid of the ball and live to fight another day. The Bills really only took one deep shot down the field against the Lions -- it was later in the game -- and it was a double-move to Marquise Goodwin for a 42-yard gain to set up their game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion. So I think about it from a Patriots defensive perspective, this might be the type of game to send pressure and man up on the receivers and be aggressive. Orton is the type of guy -- you look at the pick-six he threw against the Lions, he didn't care what defense it was; it was a curl route to Watkins, he got the ball out of the shotgun, and was throwing it regardless. Cornerback Rashean Mathis was just there waiting for it, looking at the quarterback, and he broke on it.
Tedy: And now you have to throw fullback Frank Summers in there, too, based on all the I-formation they ran last week. So it's a little bit of a mystery of what they'll be this week. One thing is for certain: This is a heavy "backs-to-the-flat" team. You see swing passes to Spiller and Jackson and they want to attack that area; it's an easy on-schedule throw for Orton. So the Patriots will have to tackle. The Bills might look at the Patriots-Dolphins season opener and see defensive end Rob Ninkovich struggling to keep up with Dolphins running back Lamar Miller in the flat, and think they can exploit that. In the run game, it's a mystery what they'll do. With so little tape featuring Orton in this offense, you may have to adjust as you go. Spiller is more of a get-outside-the-tackle runner. I see a player who trusts his speed -- maybe too much at times -- in terms of attacking the line of scrimmage and then trying to bounce out. That might have been easier to do in college, but in the NFL against defenders who play with good leverage and have speed, it's harder to play that way. He's also not a very good pass protector, which we saw last week against the Lions when Orton was sacked on play-action (versus Lions, first quarter, 9:09). I know Spiller was a first-round draft pick, but I feel like Fred Jackson is still a better back.
Mike: Is Jackson still on your fantasy team?
Tedy: Of course. He's a steal every year; if he didn't play for the Buffalo Bills, I'd probably buy his jersey [laughs]. I can't say enough about this guy -- he's just a flat-out baller, a complete back who runs between the tackles for tough yards and still has the instincts and savvy to threaten the edge. He'll catch the ball out of the backfield, and if there were ever any doubts on his toughness, watch him play against the Texans (second quarter, 11:45) and when JJ Watt is a free runner to the quarterback, Jackson chops him down like a tree. And you saw what Jackson meant to the Bills last week; when they needed a 2-point conversion to tie, they gave it to Freddie up the middle.
Mike: The offensive line might be a weakness.
Tedy: When I watched them early in the year, I came away with the impression that they don't seem to have movement as a goal, or they simply can't get it done. This is more of a unit that relies on the indecision from action in the backfield, which they hope will confuse the defense. There were read-option looks, fake end-arounds -- a lot of window dressing. But that was when EJ Manuel was at quarterback. It's a different-looking offense now, but I'd say this offensive line is more of a unit that will position-block you than overpower you.
Mike: We'll also keep an eye on tight end Scott Chandler, a bigger target in the passing game who Orton found a few times last week on short routes. And at receiver, there's a lot of talk about rookie Sammy Watkins. Bill Belichick said his catch late against the Lions was "Larry Fitzgerald-like."
Tedy: You see the explosiveness and the question is, "Do you put Darrelle Revis on him and just let him handle it?" I don't know about that because this isn't A.J. Green we're talking about here. I think the biggest thing with Watkins is that once he catches the pass, you have to make the tackle because he's a good open-field runner. So you have that and the downfield threat of Marquise Goodwin, who has just as much speed as Watkins, if not more. It's a young group of receivers -- Robert Woods, Mike Williams -- and they'll run quick bubble screens to them, double reverses, fake reverses. There was a lot of that with Manuel at quarterback and will that still be the case with Orton? It's something we have to see.
Mike: On special teams, kicker Dan Carpenter was clutch with a 58-yard game-winning field goal in Detroit with four seconds remaining.
Tedy: Spiller is now on kickoff returns for them. Jackson is returning some punts and muffed one against the Bears. And they blocked a punt against Miami (first quarter, 2:21), with the edge rusher beating the Miami wing player. We know the Patriots have had their own protection issues from Week 2 against Minnesota.
Mike: Meanwhile, the Patriots are 1-2 on the road this year, but it sounds like this is an anti-Bill Parcells situation where you might say "you aren't what your record says you are."
Tedy: The way I see it, the Patriots haven't won a true road game yet. No disrespect intended to the Minnesota Vikings, but they are playing in a college stadium right now and I don't really count that one from a "winning-on-the-road-in-a-hostile-environment" perspective. The Patriots have lost in Miami and Kansas City. I know firsthand what it's like to play in Orchard Park, New York, especially when they think they may have something going, and this is a true road test here.
Mike: It's going to be a close one, Tedy. I think the difference in quarterback play will ultimately decide it. Tom Brady rises up over Kyle Orton. The Patriots are 3-0 this season when running more than one-third of their offensive plays with multiple tight ends, and I think the two-tight end offense is the key, with Tim Wright continuing to become a big part of the attack. Patriots 24, Bills 20.
Tedy: Kyle Orton has pulled some rabbits out of his hat in the past. I acknowledged earlier how solid this Bills defense is. The Patriots' defense is up there, too, and I think this will be a game where they will take advantage of Orton's mistakes and get a satisfying win in a very tough environment to play. Patriots 23, Bills 21.