The Patriots host the season opener against Buffalo on Sunday. The Bills have been largely revamped under new Head CoachDick Jauron, but a few things remain unchanged. They replaced about 20 players, but kept a cadre of dangerous individuals on both sides of the ball. Here is what the Patriots need to do in order to defeat the reconditioned Bills.
1. Shut down Willis McGahee
This is basically the entire gameplan for the Patriots defense. There is a direct correlation between McGahee's performance and his team's success. In 26 starts, McGahee has rushed for over a hundred yards 11 times, with 9 of those games being wins. He had solid totals in 2005 with 325 carries for 1,247 yards. He only had five touchdowns last season, but McGahee was utilized infrequently on third downs and in the red zone. Now under a new coaching staff, McGahee hopes to make a bigger impact than ever before. The Bills didn't have the worst passing offense in 2005. It was the fourth-worst. Obviously passing will play a role in the game, but shutting down McGahee is key to stopping the Bills offense and keeping Brady and the Pats offense on the field.
2. Keep J.P. Losman in the pocket
If the Patriots do stop McGahee, that will force Losman to try and beat them through the air. Losman beat out Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall for the starting spot, so he'll want to prove he's the right man for the job by improving on his overall completion average of 37 percent against the Patriots defense. He's played in nine Sunday games and has been sacked 26 times in those games. In their first meeting last year, the Patriots defense played aggressively against Holcomb, which paid off. Lossman throws well on the run and will be trying to move out of the pocket when his line starts to collapse. If the Pats defense can keep pressure on him and keep him from swinging out of the pocket, they should be able to shut the passing game down. He'll be throwing to Lee Evans, who replaces Eric Moulds as the Bills No. 1 pass catcher. Evans led the Bills with 193 yards in the preseason, and had a 58-yard reception from Losman against the Patriots in their last meeting. The duo also connected for two 40-plus yard completions in the preseason. If the Patriots can pressure Losman before Evans has time to turn on the burners and get down field, they should be able to control the game.
3. Punch it down the field
There's been lots of talk about the Patriots one-two punch in Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon. With new wideouts Doug Gabriel and Johnathan Smith still fresh in the system and rookie Chad Jackson still unproven, the Patriots should be able to control the clock and maintain possession by letting the well-outfitted backfield run. Maroney had 106 yards on 19 carries during the preseason and Dillon had 77 yards on 24 carries. Heath Evans had 90 yards on 31 carries in the preseason and scored a touchdown in each of the pats four preseason games. The Patriots had twice as many rushing touchdowns in the preseason as they did in the air (8-4) and the formula should continue to work despite the return of Bill's linebacker Takeo Spikes.
4. Protect Tom Brady
It's widely known that Brady's favorite receiver to throw to is the one that's open. He doesn't get bogged down waiting for a specific guy to get open. All he needs is time to scan the field for the open receiver and release the ball. Brady threw touchdown passes to 12 different guys in 2005, tying Brad Johnson's NFL record (2003) for best single-season touchdown distribution. Brady's 26 touchdown passes ranked third in the AFC last year. The offensive line is very deep and even if Nick Kaczur isn't ready to start on Sunday, his backupRyan O'Callaghan looks ready to step in and get the job done. Matt Light returns to the field after being out in the end of last season as does Dan Koppen. If these guys can provide the pass protection Brady needs, especially against monsters Aaron Schobel and Larry Tripplett, he should be able to connect with Ben Watson, Troy Brown and Reche Caldwell frequently and effectively.
5. Be special on special teams
Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski beat outMartin Gramatica for the roster spot by not missing a kick in the preseason. He's done nothing to raise suspicions about his reliability, but he's got big shoes to fill with Adam Vinatieri gone and this is where his numbers will start to count. Punter Josh Miller is in his 11th NFL season and finished fourth in the NFL last season with a 45.1 punt average. The coverage units will have their work cut out for them against the Bills outstanding special teams unit. Terrence McGee, Nate Clements and Roscoe Parrish are all dangerous returners and Josh Stamer and Mario Haggan are serious return stoppers. This is where the Bills shine and preventing them from scoring on special teams will be crucial.
Dillon goes down hill
Corey Dillon addressed the media in the locker room today.
"You know me. I'm down hill. I'm down hill like a hill in San Francisco with oil on it. We just bring different aspects to the game. I'm power. You got Kevin [Faulk]. He's versatile and can do many things. You got Maroney – speed, shifty. You got P. Pass – same type of guy. He's got many roles and can do a lot of things well. Then you got my bully-brother over there, Heath Evans. We get down hill. He's just like me, so we bring a lot of different dynamics to this offense."
Obviously, Dillon was talking about his running style and not his ability to contribute to the team. However, Dillon also said that he's not taking anything personally.
"It's not about me," Dillon said. "It's about winning. Period. And however we're going to win, I'm for it. So you can take myself out of the equation a thousand times. If we're winning football games, I'm just as happy as can be."
Smooth transition for Smith
After being released by the Bills, Smith said he was surprised to get picked up by another team in the AFC East division. He said he didn't know how much he'd play this weekend, nor where he'd be used.
"That ain't up to me. That's up to the coaches," said Smith. "All I've been doing and all they want me to is try to learn the plays and do whatever I can to help this team."
Asked how difficult the system was to learn and whether he thought he'd be able to contribute if he does play on Sunday, Smith showed a quiet confidence.
"They broke it down to me. They gave me a week. They stick around, anytime I have questions I can ask anybody in here on offense and they'll give me advice and let me know. They've been real slow, which I'm thankful for. You make it as hard as it is. If you get in your playbook and study and you want to play. You'll get it and you'll learn those plays," Smith said.
"I know what I'm supposed to know. I know this game. I've been in there studying. I'm going to go back over and study tonight, tomorrow, even before the game – just in case I am used. I'll be ready if my time's called."
Although he came from Buffalo, he said he doesn't think he's been able to give the Patriots much insight into what the Bills will do on Sunday.
"I'm sure they'll switch a lot of stuff up, knowing that I'm up here," said Smith. "I told them (the Patriots) not to expect a lot of stuff that I knew."
Dillon spoke of his long-standing friendship with Bills LB Spikes. Smith said he knew Kelvin Kight and Benjamin Watson before joining the team. He and Kight played in the Georgia-Florida All-Star game in college. He and Watson met while Watson was at Georgia. They played each other while Smith was at Georgia Tech. … Randall Gay and Eric Alexander both have the same LSU mini-helmet in their lockers. The two both attended LSU as did Kevin Faulk, Jarvis Green and Marquise Hill. … Willie Andrews had a wrap on his left shoulder in the locker room after practice with what appeared to be an ice pack underneath it. He was also wearing green sweats that said 'Baylor track and field' on them. Andrews has said before that some of Baylor's track team members approached him to run, though he never joined. … There were no changes to the injury report today and everyone was present at practice.