Since trading running back Marshawn Lynch in Week 5, the Bills have found some solidarity on the ground game, rather than trying to spread the ball around among three running backs. Fred Jackson is again closing in on 1,000 yards despite being curiously left out of the loop in the first month of the season, and Jackson has eclipsed 100 yards in three of the Bills’ last four victories.
While Jackson can run through the tackles, he is unquestionably at his best when he’s in space and can get to the edge, so it’s going to be vitally important for outside linebackers Jermaine Cunningham, Tully Banta-Cain and Rob Ninkovich to contain the edge and keep Jackson from breaking out a big run. If Jackson can get to the edge, the Patriots will again need solid tacking performances from a pair of cornerbacks who specialize in that area, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington.
Jackson hasn’t been a huge receiving threat in recent weeks, catching just two passes for nine yards in Buffalo’s last three games, but when he struggles in the running game — like he did against Pittsburgh — the Bills will use dump-offs and screens for the simple purpose of getting him the ball in space.
Steve Johnson has been a surprising star at wide receiver, and he has easily emerged as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s go-to target. Johnson has 72 receptions for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he caught a touchdown pass in Week 3 against the Patriots. Johnson is still immature, though, and he can be frustrated by New England’s complex coverage schemes, if the Patriots decide to go that route on him.
Fitzpatrick has been a surprise for the Bills, completing 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,749 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and he’s also second on the team with 255 rushing yards. The Harvard grad will play with some passion, take his chances and do the things necessary to win, and he threw with surprising accuracy in Week 3 at Gillette Stadium. He might be similar in a way to Packers quarterback Matt Flynn, who can manage the game but will also make some mistakes against an opportunistic defense, and it’s important for the Patriots to finish their tackles if they get near Fitzpatrick.
The Bills’ defense is completely schizophrenic. It’s pretty strong against the pass but ranked dead-last against the run, which is mildly surprising considering the Bills are strong up the middle with defensive tackle Kyle Williams, linebacker Paul Posluszny and safeties Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd.
The Bills don’t have a very effective pass rush, either, and they’re not a heavy blitzing team, preferring to win one-on-one battles to get to the quarterback. Therefore, Tom Brady shouldn’t come under much fire if the offensive line takes care of its responsibilities.
Either way, expect the Patriots to try to establish some quick momentum before giving way to the ground game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. It’s not a wildly different concept for New England, but Brady should be able to attack the Bills’ secondary before letting his running backs finish the job.
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