Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Bills' Spiller must be stopped
As today's opener at Orchard Park has approached, the Patriots have watched from afar as the Bills have endeavored to answer a rather pertinent and pressing question: Who would play quarterback for Buffalo?
At various points in the preseason the possibilities included Kevin Kolb and Matt Leinart, and even undrafted rookie Kevin Tuel, before finally settling on 2013 first-round pick E.J. Manuel, who may have been the choice all along but was limited by an ailing knee midway through camp.
Either way, it was an uncertain mess full of injuries, inexperience and ineptitude - which is not a good way to begin the year at the game's most important position, and which has prompted many to believe the Patriots will start their season with an easy win.
And they will. As long as they can do one thing.
As long as they don't allow C.J. Spiller to dominate and dictate the game.
"They made it clear that's their guy," New England defensive lineman Vince Wilfork told reporters Friday, acknowledging that while most teams in today's NFL are built around their quarterback, the Bills at this point are centered on Spiller, the explosive back who ranked sixth league-wide in yards from scrimmage last season.
He can run, he can catch, and he can make big plays no matter how the ball gets in hands, which is why he should be such a focus for the Patriots today. If they allow him to hit for one or two of those game-changers, it'll make things all the easier for Manuel. It'll alleviate pressure, it'll prevent him from having to match an all-timer like Tom Brady, it'll create opportunities for the athletic quarterback to make plays with his own legs.
It'll make things suddenly difficult for New England if they let Spiller get loose. And it's already going to be difficult enough to contain him.
"They're going to try to get the ball to him in the run game, in the pass game, and why wouldn't you? He's an explosive guy," Wilfork said. "He can hurt you anywhere on the field. We have to do a really good job up front, just being responsible for our gaps, understand where he can hurt us - and that's everywhere."
Spiller touched the ball 250 times a year ago, snatching 43 passes in addition to ranking second in the league with an average gain of 6.0 yards per rush. He had 32 runs of at least 10 yards, and a dozen of those went for at least 20, which trailed only Adrian Peterson.
"He's one of the most explosive players in the league," said Pats Coach Bill Belichick. "He's a combination of a back and a receiver. He's a hard guy to tackle, a hard guy to cover; a versatile player who has a lot of skill. He's one of the toughest players in the league to match up against."
It'll make an interesting initial challenge, then, for a defensive line that has undergone an overhaul since last season, and that Belichick doesn't appear content with from a depth perspective. The four starters - Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich - are solid, but the Patriots have made 25 transactions involving defensive linemen since the end of last season.
That suggests Belichick is still not satisfied. And if Spiller can exploit the backups for a couple bit plays today, it could be trouble for New England - though if he can't, of course, the Patriots shouldn't have much of a problem winning a game where the Bills count primarily on their quarterback. Then it should be an easy win.
As long as they can keep Spiller in check.
"Trust me, our hands are full," Wilfork said. "I'm pretty sure they're going to give us everything we can handle."
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UNDERRATED: The Bills recent history against the Patriots. It's an oft-cited fact that the Patriots have lost to the Bills just once since the 2003 season opener, though that record has no real impact on today's game - and it ignores just how tough Buffalo has been for New England the past couple years.
The Bills' lone win of the last decade came in September 2011, then later that season they had a 21-0 lead before the Pats ran off 49 straight points. Last season the first meeting was tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter, then New England needed a Devin McCourty interception in the end zone with 28 seconds left to pull out a 37-31 win.
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OVERRATED: Mario Williams. He finished the first year of his enormous free-agent contract with 10.5 sacks, which was the most he'd had since 2008, and which would suggest he had a pretty good season. However, he had only one sack in six division games, and five of his total was accumulated in two games against Arizona and Indianapolis - teams that ranked among the top 10 in most sacks allowed last season. He hasn't made the impact the Bills had hoped for.
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KEEP AN EYE ON: The New England receivers. That fresh-faced group would be a focal point anyway, as everybody - the Patriots included - looks to see how Danny Amendola and the rookies work with Brady when the games count for real, but it'll be even intriguing to watch today because with Buffalo's two best players in the secondary (cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd) expected to sit with injuries, there are likely to be opportunities for the youngsters to make plays.
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KEY MATCHUP: Patriots running game vs. Bills defense. In Buffalo last year the Patriots had two backs surpass the 100-yard plateau, with Brandon Bolden (137) joining Stevan Ridley. Then, in the rematch, Ridley nearly hit the mark again (98). The Bills allowed the second-most rushing yards in football a year ago, surrendering 5.0 per carry, so expect New England to keep ramming it down their collective throat until they prove capable of stopping it.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: Rob Gronkowski has scored in every game he's played against his hometown Bills, averaging six catches, 91 yards, and 1 1/2 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He's doubtful today, but look for Zach Sudfeld to fill his role at tight end - perhaps with similar production.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.