Foxborough, MA — The Patriots have an upset on their mind as they welcome the Buffalo Bills to Gillette Stadium for a pivotal divisional matchup on Sunday.
New England looks to snap its three-game losing streak with a beefy injury report that included a season-high 16 players listed as questionable while ruling three players on Friday. The good news is that most of the lengthy questionable list is active for Sunday's game against Buffalo. The Patriots game-day inactives are OT Calvin Anderson, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (concussion), WR Kayshon Boutte (hamstring), LB Josh Uche (knee/ankle), DE Keion White (concussion), QB Malik Cunningham, and QB Will Grier is the emergency quarterback.
Starting with the offense, the Patriots will return to a traditional quarterback depth charter, with starter Mac Jones being backed up by Bailey Zappe this week. Cunningham, who played six snaps, two at quarterback, is inactive after failing to make much of his opportunities against the Raiders last week.
With Jones continuing as the starter, he will mostly have his complete supporting cast to keep pace with Buffalo's third-ranked offense. However, it'll be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien divvies up the snaps and who is in there along the offensive line.
After missing the last three weeks due to a knee injury, projected starting left guard Cole Strange is active for the first time since Week 3 against the Jets. Strange suffered a knee injury in the first padded practice of the summer in August and has been in and out of the lineup ever since. Starting right guard Mike Onwenu (ankle) is also active after being available only on an emergency basis last week in Las Vegas.
If their starting guards are good to go this week, the Patriots offensive line could look like this: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Mike Onwenu, and RT Vederian Lowe. Although this group is still in prove-it mode, it's an upgrade on paper from when rookies Atonio Mafi (LG) and Sidy Sow (RG) were in the lineup against the Raiders.
As for the Patriots pass-catchers, tight end Hunter Henry (ankle, questionable) is officially active as one of Jones's trusty security blankets. Henry is second on the team with 18 catches and is a go-to target for Mac against zone schemes, where he has 14 receptions, which will come in handy against a Bills defense that plays zone coverage on 80% of their opponent's pass plays. Along with Henry, wide receiver Demario Douglas will return to the lineup after a one-game absence due to a concussion. Douglas is tied for the team lead with three 20-plus yard receptions, and teammates spoke of the rookie's value as a dynamic route-runner.
Although the offense will have Douglas and Henry, veteran receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will miss his second consecutive game with a concussion. Additionally, rookie Kayshon Boutte's chances of being active took a hit when he popped up on the injury report this week. Still, in all likelihood, Boutte would be the odd man out, even if healthy.
That leaves the Patriots with DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Tyquan Thornton, practice squad elevation Jalen Reagor, and Douglas at wide receiver. Last week, Parker's crucial drop and lack of accountability opened questions about his role moving forward. The Pats will likely stick with him, but they have other options if they decide to send a message to Parker.
For example, Reagor seemed like Parker's top backup in the "X" role, playing 14 snaps against the Raiders, where he barely shared the field with Parker. Douglas also projects to pick up where he left off as a slot/schemed touch specialist, Thornton had moments where he was threatening the defense vertically in Vegas, and Bourne leads the team in receptions and yards as the offense's most consistently dynamic pass-catcher every week.
The other angle is that the weaker spot is the Bills run defense. Buffalo is 20th in expected points added (EPA) against the run compared to sixth against the pass and is missing All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano after losing Tremaine Edmunds in free agency. With the Bills depleted depth at the linebacker level, you'd expect the Pats, who have the second-highest rate of multi-tight end sets, to remain tight end heavy to attack Buffalo's backup linebackers.
Still, the Patriots must make plays in the passing game to stay close on the scoreboard with an attack-minded Bills offense. It would be nice to see Douglas and Thornton get opportunities to use their speed to open up Buffalo's defense, which will surely be sitting on the quick-game routes while stacking the box to stop the run. If the Patriots are going to combat the current formula against them, which is to play man coverage with seven or more defenders in the box, they'll need to prove they can win on the outside to soften the underneath coverage.
Moving over to the defense, second-year corner Jack Jones will make his season debut after the team activated the ball-hawking cornerback from injured reserve on Saturday. Jones missed the first six games with a hamstring issue he sustained during practice before Week 1. Playing in over 53% of the snaps as a rookie, Jones allowed a 63.1 passer rating into his coverage with two interceptions and four pass breakups. Jones will join Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Myles Bryant, and Shaun Wade in the Pats secondary.
Although he might need to ease into the action, Jones was earning starter reps at outside corner in the spring before legal troubles off the field derailed his offseason. The 2022 fourth-rounder could take over for Wade as the third outside corner, and if he's a full go, that would allow Jonathan Jones to play more in the slot, giving the Pats their best healthy CB trio on paper of Jackson and the two Joneses.
With the secondary as healthy as it could be, the biggest concern for the Patriots defense is how they'll generate pressure against Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who has a 7-1 record with 18 touchdowns to two interceptions in his last eight games against New England. The Pats are down their two best pass-rushers, Josh Uche and Matthew Judon (IR), while rookie Keion White is also inactive. New England will likely need to find a pass rush with Anfernee Jennings and Jahlani Tavai taking most of the reps as on-the-line edge rushers. Since Judon went down with a long-term elbow injury in Week 4, the Pats only have two sacks with a 25.8% pressure rate.
Jennings and Tavai are mostly sturdy edge-setters rather than disruptive pass-rushers. On the one hand, their stout playing style to post up on the edge could keep Allen, one of the NFL's best off-script artists, in the pocket. Speaking to Pats defenders this week, that seems like the plan. Rather than teeing off on Allen, containing him while still applying pressure is the plan.
Besides when aided by a wind storm in Buffalo, the Patriots defense hasn't been able to solve Allen, star WR Stefon Diggs, and the Bills offense in the past four seasons. New England's offense hasn't fared much better against Sean McDermott's defense, either.
The Patriots will try to snap a three-game losing streak overall and a four-game skid against the Bills when they host Buffalo at Gillette Stadium at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.