Biggest Questions Facing New England Patriots in Week 1 Bout with Buffalo Bills
They underwent astonishing roster turnover during the offseason, losing most of their receiving corps and loading up on rookies to take up the slack. Their vaunted two-tight end attack is in shambles.
They managed to re-sign top cornerback Aqib Talib, but the secondary has been their Achilles’ heel in recent years, and they haven’t made any significant personnel moves to make it any better. They took a chance on former All-Pro safety Adrian Wilson, but he’s out for the season after being placed on injured reserve.
Purely from a personnel standpoint, it’s almost impossible to argue that the Patriots are better than they were in 2012.
That doesn’t mean they can’t be a better team, or that those rookies can’t make an immediate impact, or that the holdovers from last season can’t improve their level of play in 2013. It just means questions abound, and the Patriots need to find answers.
Some of those answers will evolve over the course of a long season, but others are more pressing and must materialize right out of the gate. Here are the biggest questions the Patriots must answer when they travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills.
Is the Secondary Finally Ready to Step Up?
2013 is a brand-new season, but the Patriots enter Week 1 trying to answer the same old questions defensively. Of chief import is whether their secondary can raise its level of play, despite returning most of the same players from last season.
Starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard struggled with injuries throughout the preseason, so his availability remains in question. In his stead, Kyle Arrington will likely start alongside Talib.
Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory return on the back end, giving the Patriots essentially an identical starting secondary to last season, depending on how Bill Belichick uses Dennard and Arrington. Free agent Adrian Wilson joined the Patriots amidst considerable fanfare but underwhelmed during the preseason and ultimately landed on injured reserve, ending his season and depriving the team of a much-needed personnel upgrade.
The other Wilson—Tavon—looked so discombobulated during the preseason, there was widespread speculation that he might be on the roster bubble. He showed well as a rookie last season but clearly isn’t a finished product. Don’t look for him to spend much time on the field until he proves more consistently to be trustworthy as a safety.
The Bills don’t pose much of an aerial threat since they’ll be starting undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel at quarterback. To put that into perspective, Tuel will be the first undrafted rookie in the NFL’s modern era (since 1960) to start at quarterback in Week 1 without having any professional experience in another league.
Week 1 might not be the sternest test for the secondary, but facing the Bills will be a nice measuring stick regardless. If the defensive backfield is truly ready to step up its game, Tuel will be welcomed rather rudely to the NFL.
Last season, this unit yielded 687 yards passing and six touchdowns in two meetings with the Bills. That can’t happen again.
If the rookie is able to exploit the defense, it would be a vivid indication that seasons change in New England, but the Patriots’ beleaguered secondary doesn’t.
*Update: It looks like first-round pick E.J. Manuel has recovered from his recent knee surgery enough to earn the start. Not much changes from a coverage standpoint. Whether the Bills start an undrafted rookie or a highly drafted one fresh off knee surgery, the Patriots still should put the clamps down.
Will Alfonzo Dennard Be in Uniform or in Jail?
Speaking of Dennard’s availability for the season opener, his status is in question for more than simple health reasons. Already on parole after he assaulted a police officer prior to the 2012 NFL draft, the presumed starter opposite Talib was arrested on suspicion of DUI this offseason.
Dennard must appear in court on Friday to determine whether he’ll serve any jail time.
The courts were lenient on Dennard the first time around, but he may not be so fortunate this time. If he is indeed found to be in violation of his parole, he’ll be listed with Sunday’s inactives as “incarcerated.”
The NFL hasn’t levied any discipline on Dennard, either, but that could certainly change based on the outcome of Friday’s hearing. If the charges are dropped, he’ll be back in the lineup as soon as his health allows. If not, he will undoubtedly face a suspension upon his release from jail, casting doubt on the remainder of his season.
Can Overhauled Receiving Corps Build on Promising Preseason?
When the Patriots open the regular season in Buffalo, quarterback Tom Brady will take the field without any of his top-five pass-catchers from last season.
Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead sought the greener pastures of free agency, Brandon Lloyd got the axe and Rob Gronkowski went under the knife, having just resumed practicing this past weekend. Of course, the player who must not be named was released for his alleged role in nefarious acts that don’t bear thinking about.
So where does this leave Brady and the Patriots offense?
Basically starting from scratch with all new ingredients.
Marquee free-agent wide receiver Danny Amendola looked right at home during the preseason, showing impressive chemistry with Brady. Undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld were preseason revelations at receiver and tight end, respectively. Fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce had their moments, too.
None of them have caught a regular-season pass from Brady, though. In fact, most of them haven’t caught a regular-season pass from any NFL quarterback.
The Patriots' success, not just against the Bills but for the entire season, will hinge largely on how well they can continue assimilating into one of the league’s most prolific offenses.
The other X-factor will be running back Shane Vereen. If he builds on his previous success catching the ball, he will be a major weapon for Brady out of the backfield.
Workhorse back Stevan Ridley remains a stabilizing presence behind one of the NFL’s most consistent offensive lines, so he’ll take some of the pressure off of Brady and the passing game. At the end of the day, though, the Patriots will live and die with Brady and the aerial attack.
The Patriots’ new weapons must continue to assert themselves, beginning against the Bills this weekend and building from there.
Who Will Return Kicks?
The Patriots signed Pro Bowl return man Leon Washington to handle punts and kickoffs. Period. End of story. Right?
Washington couldn’t hack it this preseason. He flashed some skill and had a nice return against the Giants, but he also lost a fumble and looked like he’d lost a step. Instead of fielding punts in New England, he’ll be fielding phone calls from home, trying to land a job with another team.
In his wake, the Patriots have a few options to consider. Julian Edelman has looked great, in spurts, during previous seasons but looked incredibly indecisive as a returner this preseason. Running back LeGarrette Blount earned a few looks from the coaching staff, but he’s never done it at the professional level. As a slow-footed, 6’0”, 250-pound power runner, he’s certainly not the norm for the position.
Rookie Josh Boyce could be asked to put his electrifying speed to use, and special teams ace Matthew Slater could warrant consideration as well. Even safety Devin McCourty has experience in the role.
Knowing Belichick, it wouldn’t be surprising to see any of these guys, or even somebody like Shane Vereen return kicks in Week 1. Whoever lands the gig, it obviously won’t be Washington—who most fans considered a lock for the role when he first signed.
Can the Patriots Contain C.J. Spiller?
As important as New England’s secondary will be in determining its long-term success this season, containing the explosive C.J. Spiller is the most critical aspect of this weekend’s defensive game plan.
Spiller tied the superhuman Adrian Peterson for the NFL lead in yards per carry with a six-yard rushing average. Despite amassing a paltry 207 carries in 2012, Spiller finished second in the league with 12 rushes of 20 or more yards.
He also chipped in with 43 receptions, nine of which went for 20 or more yards. No running back in the NFL was as dangerous catching the ball as Spiller was last season. Only Peterson was a more explosive runner.
Spiller’s spellbinding big-play ability and dual-threat playmaking skills are unmatched in today’s NFL. He and Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin were the only players in the league to register a 60-yard reception and a 60-yard run.
In short, every time he touches the ball, it's a touchdown waiting to happen.
The Patriots' best bet is probably to just stack the line of scrimmage and disrupt Spiller in the backfield. The defensive front seven must stay disciplined in their gap responsibilities and take away Spiller’s cutback lanes. All he needs is a tiny sliver of daylight to break a long run, so any mistakes on the defensive line or blown coverage assignments in the flat could prove fatal.
Like any great player, he will inevitably make his share of plays, but if the Patriots can limit his big plays to the inconvenient variety rather than the devastating, game-changing plays he creates so well, they should beat the Bills handily.
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