Patriots

Patriots vs. Bills: What to watch for tonight

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Patriots vs. Bills: What to watch for tonight

What to watch for tonight in the Monday night showdown between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium:

1) Without Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis, what does this Pats offense look like? Heard a lot of chatter about taking more deep shots, or leaning on the run game a little more. The latter makes some sense because the Bills are average at best at the linebacker level and Mario Williams has a suspect motor. But pushing the ball downfield makes limited sense to me. It exposes Tom Brady to a pretty good pass rush, especially from Jerry Hughes on the edge and Marcell Dareus up the gut. Yes, the Pats should have all their offensive linemen in place tonight but these guys have struggled with the Bills rush before. Why risk Brady to that? I still think the Pats can operate their short, controlled passing attack with precision, using Rob Gronkowski -- Gronk, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell in that 0-to-10 yard range. Force the Bills to creep forward, then maybe take that shot. Ronald Darby has been excellent as a rookie, but the Bills like him to play off man coverage. Stephon Gilmore has been more of their in-your-face corner. Not remotely impressed by the Bills safeties, and Leodis McKelvin has been getting run there of late. A former first-round pick at corner, McKelvin wasn't great as an outside cover guy. Can he transition to dealing with the third wideout or someone like Gronk? If I'm the Pats, I'd take that matchup 100 times out of 100.

2) Is Tyrod Taylor any good? Watching him on the All-22s all week, and I can't answer the question. Maybe he is. Maybe he's not. Taylor has nice, easy mechanics and there are times he looks so calm in the pocket. But that's usually on the short stuff, where it looks at times as if it's predetermined as to where the ball's going to go. It's the moment he senses pressure -- or that clock in his head hits around two seconds -- that everything changes. That's when you see the flight instinct take over. And look, when you have the wheels that Taylor does, it's easy to see why he would want to go, however that puts the Bills signal caller in harm's way (he's already missed a couple of games because of his desire to run). It also tells me his eyes aren't remaining downfield, which has to be frustrating for what is a pretty solid receiving crew. Taylor can make all the throws, but there's a fair amount of times when he just won't let himself be in position to make those throws. We saw that way back in Week 2 and I don't think all that much has changed in that regard for Taylor.

3) The right side of the Bills offensive line hasn't been good pass protecting this year. At all. Tackle Seantrel Henderson and rookie RG John Miller have allowed a ton of pressures, hits and sacks. They're better at the run game, but some of that is because LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams are just so damn good.

4) That leads me to McCoy. He looked like his old self in that Thursday nighter versus the Jets. Quicks and cuts for days. He and Taylor pose quite a threat when the Bills go with the read option, although McCoy doesn't like blocking. Not one bit. Either guy can crease the defense. Williams provides more of that nastiness between the tackles, but I won't sell him short in the open field. He's fast and powerful. Think the Bills need to run effectively tonight to have a chance.

5) The Pats miss Jamie Collins when he's not playing because, well, the dude is a freak, capable of being a game-changer defensively. But they got by versus the Redskins and Giants because neither one of those teams had what the Bills do, in Taylor, McCoy and Williams. I think the Bills can take advantage of his absence, as Collins is probably the only guy at the linebacker level with the speed to stay in the ballpark with the aforementioned trio. Jon Freeny is not the answer. Not sure Jerod Mayo is in this kind of game, either. Wonder if we'll see more of those three-safety alignments the Pats have employed this year, with Pat Chung down in the box essentially acting as a linebacker. It's the route I would go.

6) X Factor. Rex Ryan has had and extra four days to cook up something special for Brady. His players have been talking about how they can fool Brady, that they're in a much better place than they were in week 2. Watching them, I'd agree. So what will Rex do? He knows he can't use the same plan as last time, even without Edelman and Lewis. But he trusts his corners, and usually that allows him to fool around with the other nine players on defense. Can't. Wait.

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.