After a pair of disappointing losses to the Arizona Cardinals and the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots will be back on the football field this Sunday in Buffalo against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills. For the first time in years, the Patriots are under .500 with a current record of 1-2. If the Pats cannot win up at Ralph Wilson Stadium this week, they will find themselves in a heap of trouble.
Here are five things to watch for in Sunday afternoon's game in Buffalo.
1) Does Stevan Ridley regain the role of featured running back?
Last Sunday in Baltimore, Danny Woodhead was used as the number one running back in the Patriots offense. On fifteen carries, Woodhead was able to amass a whopping total of 34 rushing yards, good for a 2.3 yards per carry average. This comes on the heels of second-year tailback Stevan Ridley's accumulating of nearly 200 yards on the ground in the first two weeks.
Woodhead is a superb third down running back and certainly has a place in this offense situationally. However, the Patriots should absolutely not be handing him the ball up the middle. He simply isn't that type of player. The bigger, stronger player in Ridley should be given the ball in all of those scenarios. It will be interesting to see which of the two is given the bulk of the carries in Buffalo.
2) Will Chandler Jones have a bounce back performance?
Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones looked phenomenal during the first two games, often disrupting opposing quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield. However, against the Ravens, Jones had his lunch handed to him by pro-bowl guard Michael Oher. Jones didn't get to Joe Flacco and only registered two tackles. In just his third career game, that is completely acceptable, and by no means is this a referendum on the player. This week in Buffalo, the Pats will need Jones to return to form and help to cause problems in Ryan Fitzpatrick's pocket. Without an effective pass rush, Fitzpatrick has all the tools to decimate New England's much maligned secondary.
3) Will Devin McCourty continue his Earthwind Moreland impression?
Devin McCourty's poor performance in Baltimore really spoke for itself. Multiple dropped interceptions, poor tackling fundamentals that lead to a Dennis Pitta touchdown, ill-advised penalties in the most crucial of situations and being burned twice for scores by one-dimensional wide out Torrey Smith.
This type of showing from No. 32 is what Patriots fans have come to expect over the past year and a quarter. This week, he will be matched up against enigmatic Buffalo wide out Stevie Johnson. I'm not sure there is any way fans can have faith in McCourty's ability to shut down Johnson this Sunday, but if the Patriots hope to avoid falling to 1-3, they'll need a much better effort from their 2010 first round draft choice.
4) Will Rob Gronkowski see an expanded role in the offense?
While all the attention has been centered around Wes Welker being "phased out" of the Patriots offense, folks have forgotten about Rob Gronkowski. In three games, the NFL's best tight end has only been targeted on 18 occasions. Gronk has caught 14 of those passes for a total of 156 yards and two scores.
It seems the Patriots have been making young receiver Julian Edelman their first option in the passing game. To me, this strategy has been confusing at best. Gronkowski is one of the most difficult, if not the hardest, offensive players to cover in all of football. He should be the man you try to feed the ball to the most and be targeted at least ten or twelve times per game, no matter the opponent. Buffalo does have the benefit of ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd, but, like most teams, don't have anyone on defense who can match up against Gronkowski.
5) What does a potential win in Buffalo mean for the Patriots?
Yes, every win in the NFL is of utmost importance. However, the answer to the above question is simply "not much". If the Patriots come out and smash the Bills 35-10 it will certainly feel good, but it won't prove much of anything.
Last Sunday, the Patriots had the chance to show off their perceived improvements on defense to a nationally televised audience against one of the best teams in football, the Baltimore Ravens. Unfortunately, they would fall flat on their face, allowing 31 points, including two scoring drives in the final five minutes of the game. It won't be until Week 5 when the Pats welcome in Peyton Manning and the Broncos to Gillette Stadium that we will see the defense truly tested against another prolific offense.
Prediction: Patriots get back on track with a 31-24 win over the Bills.