The Patriots will look to get back to .500 with a win in Orchard Park, N.Y., this weekend, a venue that has been friendly to the Patriots under Bill Belichick. The Patriots are 9-2 at Buffalo since 2001 and had won seven straight before last season’s 34-31 Week 3 loss.
After the Jets beat Buffalo 48-28 in Week 1, the Bills beat the Chiefs and Browns in back-to-back games behind an improved defense and quality running game. Injuries on the Buffalo offense may alter the Bills’ run-first philosophy on Sunday. The Bills have run the ball on 52.5 percent of plays from scrimmage, third-highest in the league, and in the first three games Ryan Fitzpatrick's performance has been better when Buffalo has established the run.
Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:
1. The running game that has fueled Buffalo’s offense is a major question mark after injuries to C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller (left shoulder injury) is not expected to play Sunday, and his absence may accelerate Jackson’s timetable to return from a sprained right knee. Jackson on Monday cited his chances of playing at “70-75 percent,” and his status bears monitoring. Third-string running back Tashard Choice had 91 yards on 20 rushes against the Browns last week, but Spiller was the league leader in both yards per rush (9.3) and yards after contact per rush (5.8). Jackson has been a thorn in the Patriots’ side as well, with his big game in Week 3 last year resulting in the highest yards per rush average (6.2) and yards per touch (9.5) of any back with 10 rushes against the Patriots since the start of the 2011 season. If the Bills can’t run the ball, the game falls to Fitzpatrick -- a matchup that favors New England on paper.
2. Fitzpatrick has a 53.6 completion percentage against four or fewer pass rushers, fifth worst among qualified quarterbacks. The only quarterbacks worse than Fitzpatrick are Ryan Tannehill, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman and Blaine Gabbert. Seeing as the Patriots’ defense has been the most conservative unit in the league, sending four or fewer pass rushers on 86.8 percent of dropbacks, this is relevant information. Fitzpatrick’s 30.4 first-down percentage against four or fewer rushers ranks 29th among 32 qualified quarterbacks. Buffalo hasn’t exactly relied on the big throw to gain chunks of yardage, either. Although the Bills have four pass plays of at least 30 yards, tied for eighth in the league, Fitzpatrick’s average throw distance on those four plays is 10.5 yards downfield, second-lowest among 32 qualified quarterbacks. Two of the four went to the now-injured Spiller, including the only attempt with a throw distance deeper than 12 yards. Fitzpatrick hasn’t been able to move the chains or generate big plays on his own, and if Spiller and Jackson both can’t go it could be a long day for the Buffalo offense.
3. Buffalo’s defensive makeover was a major storyline in the AFC East last offseason, with Mario Williams and Mark Anderson bolstering the Bills’ pass rush. Their additions have helped, with the Bills’ defense registering a sack every 13.4 dropbacks this year as compared with 19.0 dropbacks per sack a year ago. Buffalo’s defensive play-calling has been conservative, using four or fewer rushers on 80.2 percent of opponents’ dropbacks. The Bills’ defense has allowed a 45.0 Total QBR in those situations, sixth best in the league. However, one troubling aspect of Buffalo’s defensive performance this year given the pass-rushing improvement has been on third down. This season, quarterbacks have converted on 37.5 percent of third-down dropbacks against the Bills, up from 34.5 percent a year ago and ranked 22nd in the NFL. Considering the sizable investment the Bills made in their defense last offseason, drafting cornerback Stephon Gilmore with the 10th overall pick plus signing two established pass rushers, any decrease in third-down efficiency from a year ago should be a disappointment.