…It's difficult to make a better first impression than Eric Lee has in just two games as a Patriot. First, he manages a sack toward the end of the win over Miami a week ago. Then, he follows that up with a starting gig against the Bills (likely because fellow defensive end Trey Flowers couldn't go due to a rib injury suffered last week) and makes three big plays throughout the afternoon in Orchard Park.
The first of these key plays brought the Bills' opening-game march to an abrupt halt. On 1st-and-goal from the New England 6-yard line, Buffalo lined up in an obvious passing formation: two receivers on either side of the formation, QB Tyrod Taylor in the shotgun, and RB LeSean McCoy emptying the backfield by motioning out of it to his right. The Patriots countered with man-to-man coverage.
At the snap, Lee took an exaggerated step or two forward to trick Taylor into thinking he was rushing, but then Lee backpedaled away from the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, DT Alan Branch bulldozed his way into the backfield by overpowering center Eric Wood. Branch shoved Wood backward into Taylor, who by this point had locked onto McCoy running a shallow post across the goal line.
Apparently, Taylor never noticed Lee dropping into that area because he unloaded the ball as he was falling to the turf and it went directly into Lee's waiting arms. Granted, Lee is familiar with Buffalo, having just been claimed by New England off the Bills' practice squad two weeks ago, but he already seems to be catching on quickly to the Patriots' defensive system.
…After this game, left tackle Nate Solder is now the most penalized Patriot of 2017, along with TE Rob Gronkowski. Both men have been flagged nine times this season. Solder had a pair Sunday in Buffalo. The first was a block in the back that wiped out a nice jet sweep by Brandin Cooks. Someone as experienced as Solder should have been more aware of the situation, but in his zeal to help out Cooks, he lost his concentration and shoved the Bills defender directly from behind as Cooks was headed for him. Solder, incidentally, was lined up on the right side of the formation on this particular play.
…It was a pretty windy day in Orchard Park, yet kicker Stephen Gostkowski managed to drill all three of his field goals and both extra point attempts. His first kick of the day came from 50 yards and, though the wind was at his back, he made it look really easy by sending the ball into the net behind the uprights. He's kicking with a lot of confidence right now.
…Lee's second big play of the day – a sack of Taylor on the first play of the next Bills possession – was a demonstration of Lee's speed and quickness. Responsible for contain on the back side of a play-action to the left side, Lee stayed home as Taylor bootlegged out to Lee's side, the right of Buffalo's formation. Lee made a B-line for the elusive QB (who was dealing with a left knee injury at that point, it should be mentioned, after he was sacked for zero yards on the first play of the game by LB David Harris). Lee got there in a hurry and made a fantastic diving effort to swipe Taylor by the shoe and force him to the ground for a 4-yard loss.
…Tom Brady's first true sack of the day (I'm not counting the zero-yard ruling when he gave himself up in the first quarter) came from pressure on the left side of the line. Solder had difficulty corralling DE Jerry Hughes on this particular play, a 3rd-and-goal from the Buffalo 5, and Hughes worked his way into the backfield behind Brady. The QB saw it coming and tried to duck out of the way, but as he did, DT Kyle Williams swallowed him up after Williams had beaten LG Joe Thuney with a nice move that tossed Thuney to the side. New England was forced to kick its second field goal.
…Thuney was victimized again on Brady's next sack (the final one of the day) when DT Adolphus Washington simply shoved Thuney and he lost his balance tumbling backwards. Washington now had clear path to Brady and brought him down for a 6-yard loss on 2nd-and-7 inside the Bills' red zone.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…The first of Gronkowski's four penalties on the afternoon was, at best, a questionable call by Gene Steratore's officiating crew. Gronk was called for offensive pass interference on the first play of the second half when he and CB Leonard Johnson made contact with one another, essentially running into each other head-on as Gronkowski was completing his pass route. It looked like Johnson was the player initiating the contact, not Gronkowski, yet Gronk was called for the penalty. There shouldn't have been any call against either man on this particular play. This, though, would come back to haunt Gronkowski later in the game.
…Gronk often has great games in Buffalo against the team he grew up rooting for, and Sunday was no exception. Although he didn't find the end zone on this day, he helped set up RB Rex Burkhead's first TD by snaring three catches for 51 yards on the opening drive of the second half.
…RB Dion Lewis also carried three times for 25 yards on that same drive to put Burkhead in position, inside the Bills' 1, to finish the scoring possession.
…A rare Patriots blitz can be credited with the next sack of Taylor, which was split between Harris and LB Kyle Van Noy. New England sent six players after Taylor. Buffalo had six guys stay to block, but they failed miserably, allowing three Patriots to burst through and chase a hobbled Taylor down as he tried twice to spin away from the pursuit.
…Burkhead's second score, on the very next possession, was brilliant to watch live because the blocking was so precise by the o-line, FB James Develin, and the other skill position guys on the field. Burkhead did the rest with his quickness and nifty moves to fight through two Bills defenders as he stretched for the goal line and got across it.
…Lee continued his fantastic performance Sunday by batting a Taylor pass on the first play of the 4th quarter, then pressuring the QB into an incomplete pass on the next play. Amazing productivity from a guy who's so new to this system.
…In his first game back in Buffalo, where he played the past five seasons, CB Stephon Gilmore acquitted himself well, particularly late in the game, when he broke up two passes in the end zone to prevent the Bills from scoring.
…Gronk's holding penalty late in the 4th also was suspect, at best. Didn't look like he did much wrong on a 7-yard Lewis run up the middle.
…His growing frustration was understandable, particularly after re-watching Brady's only INT of the day, which was intended for Gronk. Rookie Bills CB Tre'Davious White was grabbing Gronk throughout his route downfield and pushed Gronk away as the ball came down in their area. No flag was thrown, though, and an incensed Gronk took his emotions out on White by foolishly diving at the defender's head while he was on the ground out of bounds along the Patriots' sideline. He received a deserved personal foul penalty as a result, but was lucky not to be thrown out of the game for the blatant cheap shot. He most likely will be penalized further by the league office in New York this week.
It's incredibly uncharacteristic of Gronk, and unfortunate, because he had such a great day (once again) catching the ball against Buffalo: nine grabs out of 11 targets for 147 yards.
…New England was down to its third right tackle of the season with Cameron Fleming having to start at that spot in place of injured backup LaAdrian Waddle (right ankle), who himself has been subbing for regular starter Marcus Cannon (left ankle) since Cannon left the Week 8 Chargers game. Fleming hasn't started in a while, but performed admirably at RT in this game, a late false start call notwithstanding.
…DT Malcom Brown had a solid game, finishing second on the team in total tackles (seven, four of them solo), and a half-sack. He's played much better football the past couple of weeks since returning from a midseason ankle injury.