Week 1 of the NFL season is always a tenuous time. Despite the plethora of ink and bandwidth spent on preseason prognostications, no one truly knows anything about anyone until they begin to prove themselves with tangible evidence in the games that count.
With 10 consecutive seasons of double-digit victories, the New England Patriots are generally less vulnerable than most teams in that regard. The excellence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick usually ensures enough stability to thrive each year, no matter what offseason changes occur.
The 2013 campaign might be the toughest challenge yet to that long-standing doctrine. And in spite of relatively impressive preseason results, most Patriots fans have to feel at least some anxiety this season. Some might dub opening day against the Bills as an extended preseason game, but truthfully, the Pats have too many question marks to simply dismiss Buffalo as a sacrificial lamb.
Make no mistake, New England should absolutely come out victorious Week 1. But in order to start the season off right, the Patriots must do a reasonable job of containing the following four players.
Few players have terrorized the Patriots as much in recent seasons as C.J. Spiller. Since his debut in 2010, Spiller has compiled the fourth-most yards from scrimmage of all New England opponents, and the second-most all-purpose yards, per Pro Football Reference.
While Spiller is one of the most explosive rushers in the game, perhaps more concerning for the Pats is his ability to create deadly mismatches in the passing game.
Spiller, a prototype of the dangerous open-field back, finished as the second-highest rated running back in the passing game last season. More than any other back the Patriots faced in 2012, Spiller highlighted the glaring deficiency of New England linebackers in pass coverage.
Though the current personnel is different, this play from the 2011 season finale embodies those issues. The Bills were in an empty set, with Spiller aligned out wide to the left. The Patriots appeared to counter with a fairly vanilla Cover 2, as evidenced by the two-deep shell of the safeties:
Spiller ran a fairly simple slant route, which linebacker Dane Fletcher (who might play a key role in sub packages this year, by the way) seemed to have covered:
Unfortunately, as is the case with Patriots linebackers in recent seasons, Fletcher did a poor job of containing Spiller. He lunged far too early, allowing the agile back to make a simple cut to sidestep him. When someone like Spiller has an alley like this, the play is essentially over:
Again, though that play was from two years ago, much of the same issues still exist today. In a Week 10 matchup between the two teams last year—a 37-31 nail-biter—Spiller had his most explosive game of the year, accounting for over 10 yards per touch.
From that same game, the Patriots two primary coverage linebackers, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, combined for a ghastly minus-3.7 grade in pass coverage.
The Pats have more options this season—like Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins—but it appears that the 2012 starters are the best sub-package options for Week 1. But it almost goes without saying that they need to do a significantly better job on Spiller this Sunday.
With a rookie quarterback starting for Buffalo, the Patriots might be wise to have either Hightower or Mayo act as a spy on Spiller at all times. He is indisputably the Bills' most dangerous weapon, and he is one of the few players who could steal a win away from the Pats this week.
Chandler's inclusion on the list might seem a bit odd, especially since the Pats apparently have no chance of stopping top target Stevie Johnson, as proclaimed by Johnson himself on Monday (h/t Mike Rodak of ESPN.com).
Johnson's clowning aside, Chandler was actually by far the toughest cover for the Patriots' secondary last season. Despite a relatively pedestrian season, Chandler turned in his two best games of the year against New England in Weeks 4 and 10, respectively:
With three touchdowns in those two contests, Chandler's 6'7" and 270-pound frame was a handful for the Patriots' secondary to cover. This touchdown in the Week 4 game embodied that mismatch, as Chandler simply used his size to out-muscle Patrick Chung and snatch the ball at its highest point:
Chung is gone, but with the Lilliputian tandem of Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety, the Patriots have similar size issues again. In fairness, the Pats likely intended for Adrian Wilson to take on the "money" role in sub packages and cover bigger tight ends and possession receivers, but the veteran is on injured reserve after a disappointing preseason.
If the Patriots decide to stick a linebacker on Chandler instead, this is where the rookie Collins might be a better fit. It might seem puzzling at first, since Collins' athleticism in the open field seems like a better fit to contain Spiller.
But according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Collins has rated as the Pats second-best linebacker in coverage this preseason, and he has done most of his work covering tight ends. His best game came against Tampa Bay, when he covered Tom Crabtree, whose 6'5" height gives him a similar catch radius to Chandler. Collins graded out at plus-1.9 in pass coverage that day, and had some nice tackles and pass breakups in the red zone.
Theoretically, the Patriots defense will probably be a lot more concerned about the Buffalo running game, especially with rookie EJ Manuel starting at quarterback. But in the red zone, where passing lanes are generally much tighter, it would behoove the Pats to mark Chandler with a linebacker and perhaps even safety help over the top.
With safety Jairus Byrd being hobbled by a plantar faciitis injury, defensive tackle Kyle Williams is probably the most dangerous threat on the Bills defense. The Patriots dominated the line of scrimmage against Buffalo last year—most notably in their Week 4 win, when the Pats rushed for 247 yards.
However, Williams was responsible for almost none of that failure, as he still graded out at plus-4.2 that day. That was par for the course in 2012, as Williams graded out as the third-best overall defensive tackle, behind Geno Atkins and Gerald McCoy. In fact, the defensive tackle was an all-around behemoth against New England last season, wreaking havoc in both the running and passing game in two meetings:
On the surface, Williams' traditional stats are not overly impressive. But last year, in defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt's 3-4 scheme, Williams played the 3-technique and was subjected to fewer double teams, allowing his natural playmaking ability to come through. Grantland's Robert Mays recently had a highly informative breakdown of how this change impacted Williams' career:
As both the nose tackle in a 3-4 and the “shade” (1-technique) in a 4-3, Williams took on plenty of double-teams early in his career. In Wannstedt’s defense a year ago, Williams shifted almost exclusively to the 3-technique, a change that Smith says contributed to the best season of Williams’s career and his second Pro Bowl. Williams explains that at either position, a double-team is likely to come, but at the nose, it comes immediately. As a 3-technique, help for the offensive lineman comes later after the snap, and with how quickly Williams often gets into the backfield, that help is often too late. At the 3, Williams is allowed to take advantage of his ability to create big plays in a way that nose tackles are not.
Indeed, even New England's All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins looked shockingly mortal against Williams last year. The Week 10 home game was one of Mankins' worst of the year, as he graded out at minus-1.1 that afternoon, his fourth-lowest mark in 2012.
On this play from the aforementioned contest, the Bills were in an unorthodox front with no down linemen. Williams was actually hovering over the center, though he would soon take on Mankins in a one-on-one situation:
Here is where Williams' athleticism came into play. The 300-pound ballerina performed a solid Dwight Freeney impression, using a nifty spin move that flummoxed the Patriots left guard. The ball was snapped at 11:18 on the game clock—notice the time it takes for Williams to penetrate five yards into the backfield:
Obviously, he was not the only one who contributed to the sack, and the Patriots' protection was clearly out of sync during that play. But watch it all in real time and it really is stunning how badly he beats Mankins.
Dealing with interior pressure is one of Brady's few bugaboos, and controlling Williams will be vital toward keeping the franchise quarterback clean. Double-teaming Williams might limit his individual effectiveness, but that could just open up a one-on-one matchup for another dangerous Bill on the front seven, who goes by the name...
It's hard to truly determine if Mario Williams was a huge bust in the first season of his six-year, $100 million contract. Yes, his game-to-game sack totals fluctuated wildly, but his second-half stat line of six sacks, two forced fumbles and three passes defended might be more indicative of his prospects for 2013.
The reason for that optimism stems from new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who came over from the Jets in the offseason. Pettine's hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 schemes were famous for their byzantine blitz schemes, and someone like Williams figures to benefit from playing a "Jack" position.
Indeed, Williams was inconsistent last year, but some credit is due for playing 85.7 percent of Buffalo's snaps despite a nagging wrist injury. Watching some of his highlights from 2012, it appears his combination of long arms and power still continued to give offensive tackles trouble:
But more impressive is Williams' improvement in run defense. Williams actually graded out at plus-6.8 in the run game for the year, an area where he had always been a liability in Houston. Perhaps tellingly, Williams did not play in the Week 4 game when Buffalo hemorrhaged yards on the ground, and also had a plus-2.4 run defense grade when the Pats compiled a more reasonable 117 yards on 4.0 yards per carry in Week 10.
If Williams plays outside linebacker in the 3-4, as expected, the bulk of blocking duties would probably fall on Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, depending on where the Bills move Williams. That, in itself, would not be a huge problem, as both tackles have proven capable in one-on-one pass protection.
One concern might be on blitzes, where someone like running back Shane Vereen would have to pick up Williams. Many Pats fans are excited about Vereen's potential as a third-down back due to his pass-catching ability, and rightfully so. But part of a third-down back's duty entails pass protection, an area where Vereen lags far behind previous Patriots like Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead.
Vereen did not really compile enough snaps to make a significant dent in that area in 2012, but in a limited sample size, the signs were troubling. This blown assignment against the Jaguars last season was among the most egregious whiffs of the year for the Pats. Sure, it is only one play, but with a minus-0.5 in pass protection this preseason, it is unclear if Vereen has improved in this area or not over the offseason.
The combination of Mario and Kyle Williams gives Patriots fans some reason to feel queasy. The formula for the Bills to win is emblematic of most underdogs: control the clock with a strong rushing attack, convert in the red zone and deliver a consistent pass rush.
At least on paper, Buffalo possesses the ingredients to accomplish all of these things. There is a reason the Patriots are arguably the biggest favorites this week (h/t ESPN.com), and everything must go right for the Bills to pull off the shocker. But Week 1 is always good for a surprise or two, so at least for a bit, Pats fans should not treat this Sunday as an opening day coronation.
*Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section, and all photo stills courtesy NFL.com.