By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Patriots vs Bills on Monday Night Football. Not exactly the most compelling matchup of the season. Buffalo sits at 2-5 with either Derek Anderson or Nathan Peterman taking the field at quarterback. So it’s hard to find any possible reason to believe this won’t be a laugher of a win for the surging 5-2 Patriots.
But if you want to be sold on the Bills, if you want an avenue for them to make this a competitive game, you’ll have to point to their defense.
There’s little reason for Bills observers to be optimistic about the offense doing anything major against the Patriots defense, as shaky and inconsistent as they’ve been. If the Bills want to have any prayer of pulling off the upset, they’ll need their sneaky-talented defense to put up a superlative effort.
Key to that will be impressive rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Built like a defensive end at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, the 16th overall pick in the 2018 draft is the only Bills defender who’s played literally every snap so far. He’s had the typical ups and downs of a rookie with a high snap count, but Edmunds leads the Bills in tackles (54), and also passes defensed with six.
There’s always the chance that Tom Brady and the Patriots find a way to exploit Edmunds, but either way they’re dealing with a big, athletic kid in the short-middle areas of the field where they usually like to operate.
“He ran like 4.4 at the combine, so I mean he flies around, you can tell he’s very active on defense and definitely a guy you have to pay attention to,” running back James White said of Edmunds on Wednesday. “You can tell he’s going to be pretty good for years to come.”
How do you prepare for a player like this when all you have is a few games of tape and no tangible experience against him?
“Like I said, he jumps out on the film,” said White. “You can see every single play. The guy’s running sideline to sideline making plenty of tackles. So, I mean, he’s probably going to be like a bell cow for that defense for the next few years. So, definitely a guy you’ve got to pay attention to.”
Another Bills defender who should command attention is second-year cornerback Tre’Davious White, who is quickly developing into the team’s shutdown corner against No. 1 receivers. White has the skills and versatility to play inside, so there’s a chance the 5-foot-11 corner shadows Julian Edelman. But it’s also likely he draws plenty of Josh Gordon on Monday night. Bill Belichick noted in his Wednesday press conference that the Bills often deploy Taron Johnson against inside receivers, so White vs. Gordon could turn out to be one of the game’s marquee matchups.
Match these promising youngsters with a veteran group on the defensive line, and you’ve got a pretty tough defense. Edge rusher Jerry Hughes continues to play at a high level at age 30, leading the team with 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Hughes, Kyle Williams, Trent Murphy, will linebacker Matt Milano, and even 35-year-old Lorenzo Alexander can be a handful up front.
Not to mention, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer do a good job locking things down in the deep areas of the field. As a result, the Bills tend to force offenses to complete long drives down the field, similar to the Patriots. Brady is certainly capable of engineering such drives. He’s just going to have to earn it against this group.
The Bills rank third in the NFL with 5.8 net yards allowed per pass attempt, and fourth with 5.1 yards per play. Football Outsiders ranks them sixth in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), and fourth in passing DVOA. They’re also ninth with 12 takeaways, so the Patriots are certainly going to have to take better care of the football on offense than they have so far this season.
Buffalo ranks 17th in the league with 25.0 points allowed per game. That number could be better, because their anemic, turnover-prone offense (third-most total giveaways with 16) has made life difficult on them. The Bills rank 31st in the league in average drive start for opposing offenses, who on average start at their own 32.
They’ve also allowed 57 points off turnovers and blocked kicks (8.1 per game), with those drives on average starting at the Buffalo 35. Of the 19 touchdowns allowed by the defense, the average drive start for opponents has been at their own 38.
All you need to know about this sudden avalanche of numbers is that field position could play a big role in Monday’s game. What the Bills have done this season has been pretty much the opposite of complementary football. Assuming the turnover woes continue for the Bills, it’s going to be as tough as it’s been all season for the Buffalo defense to limit the points. Then again, the Bills have made plenty of takeaways of their own, so they have a chance to keep doing to the Patriots what the Patriots have done to themselves.
Buffalo has to hope that the defense can muddy it up for Brady, because it’s likely their only hope.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.