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5 things to watch for in Bills at Patriots | Week 7

Ed Oliver (91). Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, December 26, 2021. Photo by Bill Wippert
Ed Oliver (91). Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, December 26, 2021. Photo by Bill Wippert

1. Buffalo's premier pass rush

Buffalo's defense has been bringing the heat all season long thus far. Already with 24 sacks on the season, the Bills are tied for the league lead in quarterback takedowns with Baltimore. Those 24 sacks are the third most in team history through the first six games of a season.

Add in the fact that Von Miller isn't even up to speed yet having played just 47 snaps over the past two games in his return from ACL surgery and the possibilities are downright frightening.

The sack production has also been balanced across the front for Buffalo. Leonard Floyd leads the team with 6.5, but A.J. Epenesa and Ed Oliver have each logged four, with Greg Rousseau right behind them with three. Seeing three up and coming players factoring into the sack total heavily has head coach Sean McDermott encouraged about what's to come as the team approaches midseason.

"Ed has (been consistent)," said McDermott. "And again, similar to AJ Epenesa and a few others up front, it's been fun to watch their growth and just different process during the week. I think it's development, maturation, focusing on that process and I think that's why you're seeing the results we're seeing."

All the pressure generated by Buffalo's defensive front has largely come without blitzing. The Bills blitz at a rate of just over 21 percent, which ranks 29th in the league, yet their overall pressure rate of 41.5 percent is fourth best in the NFL.

"They have great players at each spot," said Patriots QB Mac Jones. "In some teams, there might be a really good edge rusher or a really good inside person. But they've got everybody. So, definitely a good group and going to be a big challenge for the offensive line. Obviously, just operating within the system of our offense."

New England's offense has strangely struggled more when facing four-man rushes. Patriots QB Mac Jones has thrown all seven of his interceptions this season against four-man rushes, which is tops among starting quarterbacks. His passer rating (71.8) ranks 31st and his completion percentage (63.2%) ranks 28th.

Buffalo utilizes a four-man rush on just over 78 percent of opponent drop backs (78.1%).

2. New England's turnover trouble

If there's one element of New England's long history of success in this century it's been their ability to protect the football, and force turnovers. But their play through the first six weeks has run counter to that foundational tenet.

Not only is New England last in the league when it comes to taking the ball away with just three turnovers forced, they also have the third-most giveaways through six games this season with 11.

"There are multiple issues, but the first thing to talk about are the turnovers," said Patriots Report podcast host and former Bills and Patriots receiver, Chris Hogan on the ‘Bills by the Numbers’ podcast. "That's what's killing this football team. Too many mistakes, too many mental errors, fumbles, throwing interceptions.

"Turning the football over is a recipe for disaster in this league. They've done that pretty consistently for the first part of the season and it's put their defense in bad spots, and they're really not built to come from behind."

Patriots QB Mac Jones is responsible for nine of the team's 11 turnovers, the most by one player in the NFL this season. Over the last three games alone he has five interceptions, and zero touchdown passes.

Meanwhile Buffalo is tied for second in the league in takeaways with 13 thus far this season.

3. Impact of the injury bug on Patriots and Bills

While the Bills have had their share of major injuries to All-Pro players losing DT DaQuan Jones (pec), LB Matt Milano (knee) and Tre'Davious White (Achilles) over the past three weeks, the Patriots have been shorthanded as well.

Buffalo's roster has proven capable in sustaining those losses with great defensive line depth, and young promising cornerback and linebacker depth.

New England, however, is without their best pass rusher in Matt Judon, and their best cover cornerback in top draft choice, Christian Gonzalez. Both players went on injured reserve earlier this month leaving them unavailable for Sunday's division game.

"Tough losses," said Hogan. "Christian Gonzalez was having an outstanding rookie season. Definitely a very gifted player. Matthew was the leader on the defense and can disrupt an offense and make plays in the opponent's backfield. To mitigate the loss on the back end, the Patriots traded for J.C. Jackson to get him back in a trade with the Chargers. He's been there. He knows Bill (Belichick). He knows the system. He has the ability to be that guy and lock down receivers."

Other notable players on I-R for the Patriots include defensive backs Marcus Jones and Jack Jones and rotational defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale. DL Trey Flowers has been on PUP but began practicing two weeks ago and is working his way back from a foot injury. He was limited in practice Wednesday but could be activated this week if deemed fit for play.

DB Jack Jones (hamstring) has also been practicing on a limited basis and is eligible to come off injured reserve if healthy enough to do so having missed the required minimum of four games.

4. Bills offense getting back on track

Entering Week 5 against Jacksonville in London, the Bills had just seven punts in their first four games. Over their last two they've had nine. It's not a disastrous situation by any means, but the players on offense would like to return to the level of efficiency they enjoyed on their three-game winning streak in Weeks 2 through 4.

"Every time we touch the ball we want to score and that hasn't happened the last couple weeks," said Josh Allen after a season-low 14-point performance in Week 6. "We know as an offense we've got to be better. It comes down to the guys on the field, myself included, executing the plays that coach (Ken) Dorsey calls. We're going to have a detailed week and look forward to getting back on the field and try to go out there and put together our best performance yet."

Allen isn't expecting everything to fall into place seamlessly, especially against a division opponent that knows you as well as any opponent.

"It's no easy task going against the Patriots and Bill Belichick," he said. "So, we have to understand that. We're not going to score every time we touch the ball but going out there and just trying to execute every play and taking it one play at a time."

Allen trusts his offensive coordinator "implicitly" to help facilitate a high level of execution in the games ahead including New England on Sunday.

"If you look at statistics over the last couple years, of how much we've scored and how efficient we've been as an offense and how many drives end in points we're at the top or near the top in almost every statistical category," said Allen. "Just because we've hit a lull right now doesn't mean it's the end of the world.

"We're working through some things and this adversity is going to help us moving forward, get to our answers quicker. I think that's something that is necessary, and an offense needs to go through it at times to figure things out when things are going to get tough here later in the season. I'm glad we're going through things now and figuring out what works and what doesn't and getting to our answers faster. That's something we're going to look forward to doing."

Buffalo's quarterback specifically outlined where he has to be better to get the offense humming again.

"Making sure I'm setting the protections the right way and throwing to the open guy," he said. "And then when we're running, making sure it's a good look that we can run into, or if it's pressure running away from it. Whatever is asked for me to execute that certain play."

5. A new QB option for New England?

Mac Jones and the New England offense have struggled to score points as they have managed 20 points in their last three games combined. The anemic output prompted head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator, Bill O'Brien to experiment with dual-threat QB Malik Cunningham. The rookie free agent out of Louisville had almost 10,000 yards passing for the Cardinals and just under 3,200 yards rushing in his college career.

He had only six snaps against the Raiders last week, with just two coming at a quarterback. He was sacked on one of those plays and netted a total of minus four yards. Though it didn't look promising in Week 6, Hogan thinks it's an idea that could have legs if they develop a package of plays for the dynamic athlete.

"I think it's something they need to continue to work on if that's what they want to do," Hogan said. "It seemed like a failed experiment when they threw him into the Raiders game. It was a read option, and it didn't seem like he had the confidence to be the quarterback in that situation.

"I do think it's a good option to have, maybe give him some plays in the red zone to give an opposing defense something it hasn't seen before. But they've got to build that and give him a core set of plays that they know they can run well and succeed with. It's something that teams have to prepare for now, but I don't know if they're ready for that part of the offense to be thrown out there in the game."

A red zone package for Cunningham could prove wise as finding the end zone was never a problem for him at Louisville. He had 120 total touchdowns in his college career with 70 passing and 50 rushing touchdowns.

Scroll to see photos from the Buffalo Bills Week 7 Practice as the team prepares to take on the New England Patriots.

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