Preparation week for Bledsoe Bowl I logically consisted of many Drew Bledsoe questions on Wednesday. There were plenty more on Thursday, but Bill Belichick's focus turned to the Bills defense and finding a way to improve his team's production against it.
New England's offense suffered through perhaps its two most difficult performances against the Bills last season. Buffalo was just 1-6 when it entered Foxboro Stadium for a Week Nine matchup with the Patriots but the Bills hounded Tom Brady by sacking him seven times. He threw for only 107 yards in the Patriots 21-11 victory that wasn't decided until Antowain Smith's 42-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes to go. New England had just 205 yards of total offense in the game.
In the second meeting in Buffalo, Brady's numbers improved and the Patriots picked up 335 total yards, but the lowly Bills kept them out of the end zone. Brady threw for 237 yards but no touchdowns in the Patriots 12-9 overtime victory.
So how did a team that allowed 420 points (only two teams allowed more) manage to hold the Patriots to such modest totals twice?
"They're a little unique," Belichick said of Buffalo's makeshift 46 defense reminiscent of Buddy Ryan's old Chicago Bears scheme. "They kind of use two systems in one and they complement each other well. Up front they play an over defense with all three defensive linemen on the tight end side of the formation, plus a linebacker outside of the tight end on the line of scrimmage.
"They tie it all together really well and their corners are very good and play well in their defense."
Belichick pointed out that the Bills do a good job of keeping opponents out of manageable third-down situations. He reported that Buffalo's defense on third down when the opponent needs between 3-6 yards to convert is the best in the league.
Especially in the last three weeks, when Buffalo's defensive performances began to improve, the Bills defense is gaining confidence. The unit struggled in the first month before Head Coach Gregg Williams decided to simplify things for his young group during the half of a 31-24 win at Houston on Oct. 13.
Since then, the Bills allowed just seven second-half points against the Texans (after a turnover), shut down a depleted Dolphins offense in a 23-10 win at Miami and then saved last week's 24-17 win over Detroit by coming up with a key stand on fourth-and-inches from the Buffalo 20 with less than two minutes left.
"They have a lot of young guys in that group and they're in the second year of the system," Belichick said of Buffalo's improvement. "They brought in some more experienced guys and they're also gaining more experience in the system. The last three weeks they've been coming on."
The Patriots could catch a break if starting cornerback Antoine Winfield is forced to miss his third straight game. Winfield is one of the league's best young corners and plays well alongside former Ohio State teammate Nate Clements, but he injured his knee during a practice before the Miami game and hasn't played since. He's listed as questionable on the Bills injury report.
If he can't go, Chris Watson will replace him in the starting lineup. Watson played a pair of strong games against New England last season and he's stepped in for Winfield nicely the last two weeks.
The Patriots might have to deal with an injured cornerback of their own if Otis Smith can't recover from an arm injury in time for Sunday. Smith did not practice on Wednesday and Belichick said his status remains questionable.
If Smith can't play, Belichick listed a group of potential replacements including Terrell Buckley, Ben Kelly, Jimmy Hitchcock, Antwan Harris and possibly Leonard Myers. Myers continues to practice while waiting to see if he'll be activated from the physically unable to perform list after undergoing double hernia surgery during the summer. …
Belichick did little to hide his displeasure with the performances of receivers David Patten and Deion Branch last week. The Patriots coach was asked what he attributed to both being held without a catch in the 24-16 loss to Denver and wasted little time searching for an answer. "Dropped balls," he said flatly. …
One Buffalo writer asked Belichick if he felt going against an offense as potent as Buffalo's was fun for a defensive-minded coach. With a smile on his face he shook his head saying, "no, it's not fun at all. Buffalo has as good an offense as there is in the league right now."…
There were no changes on either team's injury list from Wednesday. Smith, Larry Izzo, Grey Ruegamer, Daniel Graham and Anthony Pleasant remain questionable as are Buffalo's Mike Williams, Tony Driver, Keith Newman and Winfield.