FOXBORO, Mass. — Stefon Diggs is an elite wide receiver. Gabriel Davis is one of the NFL’s top No. 2 options. Those two deservedly receive the most attention in discussions about the Bills’ formidable receiving corps.
But Buffalo’s third receiver is more than capable of tormenting a defense, as the New England Patriots painfully discovered last season.
The Bills’ Week 16 visit to Gillette Stadium last season was the best game of Isaiah McKenzie’s career to date. The short, speedy slot receiver caught 11 of his 12 targets from quarterback Josh Allen for 125 yards and a touchdown, helping power a Buffalo offense that scored found the end zone four times and never punted in a 33-21 win.
McKenzie was not as productive when the Bills and Patriots met in the postseason, but he still contributed three catches for 45 yards and three rushes for 29 yards in a 47-17 victory that again featured zero Buffalo punts. The 27-year-old has taken on a much larger offensive role this season following the departure of Cole Beasley, and while the Patriots surely will devote most of their resources to stopping Diggs and Davis, they know McKenzie can’t be overlooked, either.
“He’s explosive,” cornerback Jonathan Jones said Tuesday. “Anytime you’re covering a guy for the whole entire field, it makes it hard.”
As New England’s longtime slot corner, Jones likely would have been primarily responsible for McKenzie during the receiver’s breakout game, which came while Davis and Beasley were inactive. But with Jones on injured reserve, the bulk of those duties fell to slot fill-in Myles Bryant.
Bryant is a versatile and well-liked member of New England’s secondary, but he does not boast Jones’ top-tier speed. The Bills exploited that mismatch, frequently forcing Bryant to track McKenzie on crossers, dig routes and deep overs. Allen was 5-for-6 when targeting McKenzie with Bryant in coverage. All five completions resulted in first downs, including three third-down conversions.
Three months later, the Patriots made an unsuccessful push to sign McKenzie in free agency, according to the wideout.
“I think it’s just his speed and the way they use him (that makes McKenzie a tough cover),” Bryant said. “They find ways to move him around and then allow him to break people’s leverage. I think if you watch the film, especially the last couple weeks, they’ve used him a lot on overs, outs, whatever it may be. So I think for us, it’s just playing good leverage, just understanding what they’re trying to do offensively and then just going out there and executing.”
With Jones transitioning to outside cornerback this season, Bryant has become New England’s primary option in the slot, meaning he’ll likely see a lot of McKenzie again when the Bills visit Gillette this week for “Thursday Night Football.” McKenzie, whose offensive snap rate has jumped from 24% to 55% this season, is coming off his most productive outing of 2022, catching six passes for 96 yards and a touchdown in a Thanksgiving win over Detroit. He has 30 catches for 315 yards and four scores this season.
If the Bryant-McKenzie matchup again proves problematic for the Patriots, they could shift Jones back into the slot and deploy rookie Jack Jones outside, as they did on some plays in last Thursday’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
In addition to Buffalo’s wideouts, the Patriots also must do a better job against tight end Dawson Knox, who caught three touchdown passes over the teams’ last two meetings. New England’s pass defense leads the NFL in expected points added per dropback and ranks third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, but this will be its toughest challenge of the season thus far.