Considering they play twice each season, it’s rare for the New England Patriots to see an unfamiliar Buffalo Bills team.
That will be the case this Sunday at Gillette Stadium, however, as the Bills have made some significant changes since losing to the Patriots 25-6 in Week 8.
Case in point: Buffalo’s starting quarterback (Josh Allen), leading rusher (Keith Ford) and leading receiver (Robert Foster) from Sunday’s win over the Detroit Lions all did not play in that first Patriots matchup, and Ford and Foster weren’t even on the 53-man roster at the time.
Ahead of this AFC East rematch, let’s take a moment to get acquainted with some of these new Bills.
Allen, the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, sat out in Week 8 as he recovered from an elbow injury. The Patriots instead saw the electric combo of Derek Anderson and Nathan Peterman, who combined to throw more touchdown passes to New England defenders (Devin McCourty’s pick-six) than to Bills receivers.
Allen still isn’t particularly close to being even an average NFL quarterback, but he’s been undeniably entertaining to watch since returning to the lineup earlier this month, thanks in large part to his previously underrated scrambling ability.
From Week 12 to Week 14, the 6-foot-5 Wyoming product ranked second in the NFL (not among QBs — in the entire NFL) with 335 rushing yards on 31 carries. Only Saquon Barkley had more. Allen’s 10.8 yards per carry during that span also led all players with at least 10 rushing attempts.
The rookie took a sizable step back in that regard last week (just 16 yards on nine carries) but notched his third rushing touchdown in four games to help guide Buffalo to a 14-13 home win over Detroit.
The Patriots always seem to have difficulty defending mobile quarterbacks (see: Mitchell Trubisky’s 81 rushing yards in Week 9), but expect them to do everything they can to keep Allen in the pocket and make him beat them with his arm.
Allen ranks dead last among qualified QBs this season in completion percentage and passer rating and second-to-last in yards per attempt.
Veterans LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory still are on Buffalo’s roster, but both missed the Lions game with injuries, and it remains to be seen whether either will be healthy enough to play against the Patriots.
With third-stringer Marcus Murphy also going down with an injury Sunday — and subsequently landing on injured reserve — the Bills were forced to roll with Ford, an undrafted rookie out who’d been promoted from the practice squad just days earlier. The Texas A&M product finished with 46 yards on 14 carries in his NFL debut.
In theory, a game against this banged-up backfield should help the Patriots’ run defense, which has been historically porous over the last three weeks. New England did just allow 142 yards to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-string running back, though, so who knows?
The name to know here is Foster, who, like Ford, sounds very much like one of the computer-generated players who start popping up when you simulate too many “Madden” seasons. But if the last few weeks are any indication, this kid can really play.
Foster, who caught just 14 passes for a stacked Alabama team last season and was waived by the Bills in October, has flourished since returning to Buffalo’s active roster in November, catching 17 passes on 23 targets for 438 yards and four touchdowns in the last five games. His yards-per-catch average during that span is a whopping 25.8, the best mark among all NFL pass-catchers with at least five targets.
What’s more, since Allen returned in Week 12, he’s completed 73.7 percent of his passes when targeting Foster and just 45.3 percent when targeting anyone else. The two hooked up for a 42-yard touchdown against Detroit that proved to be the game-winner.
A few weeks into Foster’s tear, the Bills opted to waive veterans Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes and roll with a younger receiving corps for the remainder of the season. That group now consists of Foster, Zay Jones, Isaiah McKenzie, Deonte Thompson and Ray-Ray McCloud.
The defense the Patriots saw in their visit to Buffalo remains largely intact, with one notable exception: linebacker Matt Milano, who was enjoying a breakout year in his second pro season, broke his fibula two weeks ago and was placed on IR.
First-round draft pick Tremaine Edmunds — the brother of Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds, who the Patriots faced on Sunday — now is the man to watch at the second level of Buffalo’s defense, which has allowed the second-fewest yards in the league this season.
Also, don’t expect to see punter Corey Bojorquez, who spent training camp with the Patriots. Bojorquez was placed on IR just days after facing his old team. The Bills now are on their third punter of the season, having signed Matt Darr in late November to replace the ineffective Colton Schmidt.
Thumbnail photo via Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports Images