New England Patriots 2012: Keys to Week 4 Victory over Buffalo Bills
With a losing record for the first time since 2003, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots turn their attention to AFC East foes, the Buffalo Bills. That 2003 season began with a memorable 31-0 embarrassment at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.
However, those Patriots responded emphatically with a 14-2 campaign and brought home the Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots enter their first divisional matchup this week hoping to rekindle that same old Belichick-Brady magic.
The Bills have not fared well against Bill Belichick's team since that famous shutout victory. In fact, New England has defeated the Bills 16 times in their last 17 tries. But recall, an upstart Bills team shocked the heavily favored Patriots last September, winning 34-31.
The 2012 Patriots came flying out of the gates, winning easily against Mike Munchak's rebuilding Tennessee Titans, before regressing against Arizona and Baltimore. Week 2 and Week 3 both ended in heartbreaking fashion with the Patriots losing both games by a combined total of three points. With key receivers Aaron Hernandez (ankle) and Julian Edelman (hand) likely to be unavailable, the Patriots face an unfamiliar challenge in Week 4.
The following are a few keys necessary to the Patriots hitting their usual stride:
Establish the Ground Game with Stevan Ridley
After an outstanding start against the Titans, which amounted to 122 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, Stevan Ridley's role in the Patriots offense has dwindled. The Patriots showed an uncharacteristic balance in their one victory this season, with a run-to-pass ratio of 35/31.
The two losses since exhibit an unhealthy reliance on the passing game. In the two losses, Tom Brady threw the ball a total of 87 times, as opposed to just 62 team carries. The teams return to a pass-first style does not tell the whole story.
Ridley has seen his role puzzlingly reduced, as the Patriots opt to give Danny Woodhead more carries. Woodhead is undoubtedly a better pass catcher out of the backfield and is therefore preferred in the Patriots hurry up offense. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Woodhead averages 2 fewer yards per carry than the powerful Ridley.
As ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reports, Ridley's disappearance from the field runs hand in hand with the Patriots' increasing addiction to running their entire offense out of the shotgun. Brady lined up in the gun more than 40 times in each of his teams two losses, as opposed to just 13 times in their one victory.
The shotgun formation may encourage Brady to put up huge numbers, but it also broadcasts to defenses that the Patriots have no intention of running the ball. It also rapidly increases the pace of offensive drives. With a weak defense vulnerable to quick scores, Belichick must force the run in order to keep his offense on the field.
If the defense cannot stop Ryan Fitzpatrick, maybe Ridley can. The Patriots' refusal to let Ridley grind the clock down against Baltimore last Sunday night resulted in a late-game Raven's possession which ended with Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal.
Ridley has proven to be a strong and reliable runner, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on the season. A steady diet of carries for No. 22 could reap big dividends come Sunday.
Protect Tom Brady
Perhaps the only way to slow down Tom Brady is to hit him relentlessly. Brady has consistently victimized the Bills for over a decade. As a result, the Buffalo Bills made an enormous offseason investment in their pass rush.
Although Patriots fans dreamed of welcoming the former first overall pick to Foxborough, Mario Williams opted for a huge payday in Buffalo. Besides the tenacious and nearly unstoppable Super Mario, the Bills also picked up a familiar face in Mark Anderson, who led the Patriots in sacks a year ago.
Suddenly the Bills present an elite threat to the Patriots' pocket, having sacked opposing quarterbacks a total of nine times in three games. Keeping the quarterback upright will be top priority on Sunday afternoon.
The Patriots' O-line has struggled in two consecutive losses allowing Brady to be sacked six times. The Arizona Cardinals wreaked havoc in the Patriots backfield with four sacks in Week 2. Chan Gailey knows that the success of his pass rush will make or break a defense that otherwise presents little challenge to Brady.
The pressure will be on second-year left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to bear the brunt of the Bills' onslaught. If they successfully give Brady time to stand in the pocket, he can be expected to shred the Bills secondary and walk away victorious.
Penetrate the Backfield
The inconsistent Pats' defense will need to find its own pass rush to succeed on Sunday. The Patriots secondary was a major disappointment against Baltimore in Week 3, allowing Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to keep up with New England's high-powered offense.
New England's weak secondary was in no way aided by the failure of the pass rush. In Baltimore, the Patriots failed to sack Joe Flacco and recorded only one tackle for loss. A return to form must be led by highly touted rookie Chandler Jones.
The defensive end out of Syracuse needs to perform up to the standard he set in his first career game, where he strip-sacked QB Jake Locker resulting in a Patriots touchdown. Causing trouble in the Bills' backfield has a good track record of forcing erratic throws from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
In five career games against New England, the Harvard graduate has thrown 12 interceptions. Another two picks would leave the Patriots sitting pretty, en route to their second victory of the year.
Make the Most out of Wes Welker
Last September, Wes Welker exploded in Buffalo for 217 yards and two touchdowns. He caught a total of 16 passes on 20 targets. Rumors of Welker's imminent exit from New England should not get in the way of another huge day for the superstar slot receiver.
He will once again be among Tom Brady's favorite targets in the wake of Aaron Hernandez's absence due to injury. He will be especially necessary as a safety valve if Mario Williams and Mark Anderson are breathing down Brady's neck.
Welker will need to return to his tried and true style to achieve the success he has consistently produced. He must begin to run shorter routes than we have seen from him this year. For his career, Welker has averaged 11.2 yards per catch.
This season he has been pushing deeper down field and as result averaging a significantly higher 15.7 yards per catch. This number is deceiving. Although it implies more success, it actually reveals the deeper problem in Welker's low reception count.
He has left his traditional short gain role. Quick passes have been Welker's bread and butter for years. His unique ability to expose holes in the defense and exploit screens and short dump-offs has been more or less abandoned this season.
Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels must deploy Welker in this more reliable fashion to maximize the receiver's ability. If Wes returns to form, it will give his team an enormous advantage.