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Analysis: Patriots Rule Out WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, List Nine Players as Questionable for Sunday's Game vs. Bills

The Patriots could get two key starters back when they travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills on Sunday. 

Patriots linebacker Jabrill Peppers (5).
Patriots linebacker Jabrill Peppers (5).

The Patriots are finalizing preparations for a New Year's Eve trip to Buffalo for a divisional matchup with the Bills at Highmark Stadium on Sunday. 

On the team's final injury report this week, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle) is the lone player ruled out for New England. The Patriots listed nine players as questionable for Sunday's tilt: DL Christian Barmore (knee), DB Myles Bryant (chest), S Kyle Dugger (illness), TE Hunter Henry (knee), LB Anfernee Jennings (knee), CB Jonathan Jones (knee), S Jabrill Peppers (hamstring), ST Matthew Slater (hamstring), and CB Shaun Wade (hip). 

The good news on the injury front is that LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (knee), OT Trent Brown (illness), RB Ezekiel Elliott (illness), and S Jalen Mills (concussion) have been removed from the injury report - they're good to go. 

Starting with the defense against Bills star quarterback Josh Allen, the Patriots could be short-handed in the secondary with Peppers's status up in the air. Although he returned to practice in a limited capacity on Friday, Peppers missed last week's win over the Broncos due to a hamstring injury he suffered in Week 15. Without Peppers in the lineup, Mills played a season-high 62 snaps (89.9%) in Denver the following week.

With the veteran defensive back essentially taking Peppers's spot vs. the Broncos, Mills could be in for a large role again this week. Plus, starting safety Kyle Dugger missed Friday's practice with an illness. The thinned-out safety room would leave the Patriots with Dugger, who will likely play under the weather if necessary, Mills, veteran safety Adrian Phillips, and rookie S/LB Marte Mapu.

Earlier this week, the Patriots also claimed cornerback Marco Wilson off waivers from the Cardinals. Wilson has primarily played outside corner in his three-year career but has some experience playing in the slot and the box. New England also has do-it-all DB Myles Bryant. Bryant blurs the lines as a nickel corner and safety in different defensive packages. 

After some up-and-down film in recent weeks, Wilson could push for playing time on the outside over Alex Austin and Shaun Wade. Austin and Wade have combined to play most of the outside corner snaps, with Jonathan Jones being limited by a knee injury. When healthy, Jones is the Patriots top field corner, while Bryant plays the slot in nickel and safety in dime. But there's a need for a third corner to play significant snaps, which is where Wilson could factor in as a potential upgrade over Austin and Wade, who have struggled recently. 

New England's secondary projection would be CB Jonathan Jones, DB Myles Bryant, S Kyle Dugger, S Marte Mapu, S Jalen Mills, and Austin, Wade, or Wilson at the other cornerback spot. Remember, the Pats played a season-high 34.8% of their defensive snaps in a dime package against the spread-heavy Bills offense in Week 7, so it could be another six-defensive back plan. Regardless of how the Patriots configure their secondary, having so many unknowns and injuries while facing the fourth-ranked passing attack in expected points added isn't ideal.

Moving over to the offense, the two biggest question marks are tight end Hunter Henry (knee, questionable) and starting left tackle Trent Brown (illness). Henry sat out last week's win after sustaining a knee injury in the fourth quarter the week before against Kansas City, while Brown (21 snaps) was active but remained in a rotation with OT Vederian Lowe in Denver. 

At times, Brown's effectiveness and effort on film were in question. He allowed a quarterback hit and a hurry on 12 pass-blocking snaps and whiffed on two other blocks in the run/jet sweep game. Brown's talent has never been questioned, but his motor runs hot and cold. Lowe, who had issues as a starting right tackle earlier this season, has put out decent tape at left tackle, allowing two hurries in 25 pass-blocking snaps in Week 16. Lowe told that his experience playing on the left side in college makes him more comfortable at left tackle. It's more second nature for Lowe in his natural spot, making it easier to trust his technique, which has shown in recent weeks. 

Brown has been removed from the injury report and is expected to be active on Sunday. However, the Patriots will probably lean heavily on Lowe. If active, it'll be interesting to see if Brown gets his typical rotational snaps or if it's Lowe the entire way. The Patriots projected starting offensive line is LT Vederian Lowe, LG Atonio Mafi, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Michael Onwenu. 

As for Henry, the Pats got good contributions from Mike Gesicki (11-yard TD) and Pharaoh Brown (two catches, 25 yards) without Henry last week. Still, Henry has good chemistry with QB Bailey Zappe. The veteran tight end caught three touchdown passes in his last two games with Zappe at quarterback. Henry was upgraded to a limited participant in practice this week, so he's trending in the right direction.

Zappe's projected pass-catchers are DeVante Parker, DeMario Douglas, Kayshon Boutte, Jalen Reagor, Mike Gesicki, Pharaoh Brown, and potentially Henry. The Patriots are also expected to have lead-back Ezekiel Elliott available. Overall, the Pats offense is looking to put together a four-quarter performance in Buffalo.

Lastly, special teams captain Matthew Slater's status remains uncertain after he missed his first game in nearly seven seasons due to a hamstring injury last week. Without Slater, the Patriots allowed a 52-yard punt return, and Slater's replacement at gunner, Chris Board, was called for a penalty. The team would benefit from having Slater back this week. 

The final step for the Patriots is downgrades en route to Buffalo and practice squad elevations by Saturday's 4 p.m. ET deadline. We'll keep a close eye on Henry and Peppers as potential downgrades. 

The Patriots will try to play spoiler when they visit the Bills at Highmark Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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