After the Bills (barely eked out a home win against the Bengals and) moved to 3-0 on the year last week, Tre’Davious White made it clear that he feels no one in the national media gives the Bills’ defense the credit or attention they deserve. This was immediately reminiscent of Taylor Lewan last year — when the Titans were 3-1 (with strong wins against the Texans, Jags, and Eagles) — lodging the same complaint regarding the Titans team as a whole. Tennessee went on to lose to the Bills that week before dropping their next two games and entering the bye with a 3-4 record.
With that said: White isn’t wrong. Last year, the Bills not only allowed the fewest passing yards in the league, but they did so by allowing 8% fewer than the next-closest team. The Bills had almost as many interceptions (16) as passing touchdowns allowed (21), and only the Ravens allowed fewer yards per game. The Bills’ overall numbers don’t stand out quite as much from last year because they were middle of the pack in points allowed, but much of this can be credited to Josh Allen consistently providing short fields for opponents. The Bills’ defense is absolutely elite.
The Vegas total for this game of 42.5 — while low — appears a bit high in this spot, as three of the last four games between these teams have produced 36 // 31 // 26 points. The Patriots should look to control this game by running the ball and passing between the numbers — hoping to pick up incremental gains, finish drives with points, and capitalize on the certainty that they will play a cleaner overall game than the Bills will on offense.
Across the last two seasons, the Patriots have had only one game against the Bills in which an individual running back did not go for 92 or more rushing yards (and in the game with 92 yards, from Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead chipped in 78 rushing yards of his own). In the one game in which the Pats failed to reach 92 rushing yards from an individual back, James White was operating as the lead back due to injuries, and he picked up 10 catches for 79 yards.
While all of this is great information to have, however, it does not remove the inherent difficulty of predicting the Patriots’ backfield. This is one of the most opponent-specific teams in the NFL, of course, so everything that “has been done” is not necessarily what “will be done.” With that said: Sony Michel played only 17 snaps last week, and new fullback Jakob Johnson played only two snaps (against a Jets defense that is easier to attack through the air…) — while Burkhead operated as the de facto lead back, seeing 17 touches with White inactive for the birth of his child.
This week, White will be active, and we should expect something like this:
Michel leads in carries // Burkhead leads in touches // White soaks up some catches of his own
But honestly, there are a number of ways things could break from there, and it’s not necessarily a poor call to try to guess right on this backfield on some tourney teams, as one of these three should post a solid score.
With Rob Gronkowski retired, Julian Edelman will be the main focus in the pass game against the Bills — and he is the only Patriots wide receiver to top 50 yards against this team across the last two seasons (going 6-70-1 and 9-104-0 last year). Edelman needs a touchdown or a broken play to post a really nice day; but you can lock him into solid involvement this week, giving him a high floor with some paths to ceiling.
On the perimeter, of course, you’re just hoping for something to break your way with Josh Gordon or Phillip Dorsett. Each player has a legitimate role in this offense, so the bet wouldn’t be empty; but the matchup is one of the more difficult they will face this year.
The Patriots are about the worst possible defense for Josh Allen to face, as he will thrive against defenses that can get out of position and/or get over-aggressive, while the veteran, disciplined defense of the Patriots is going to play assignment-sound football throughout. In the middle of his hot streak last year, Allen managed to go only 20 of 41 for 217 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions against the Patriots (adding only 30 yards on the ground). That game was in New England, and Allen has improved, and his cast of weapons is better; but there are no easy matchups against this defense right now. And there are no easy matchups for number one receivers, either — as New England has the pieces in shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore and what is probably the best all-around secondary in the league to slow down just about any top weapon.
With how opponent-specific Brian Daboll has been so far this season — scheming the Bills’ offense each week around the weaknesses of the opponent — it’s difficult to figure what Buffalo might come out with, as the Patriots do not have a major weakness to exploit. It does seem likely, however, that Buffalo will look to keep the ball on the ground early on to both avoid the matchup against the New England secondary and keep Tom Brady off the field — likely mixing in some wide receiver runs with a heavy dose of Frank Gore and hoping to shorten up this game. The problem with trying to use this as actionable information in DFS (besides the simple fact that Gore lacks big-play upside) is the fact that the Patriots are one of the most analytically-savvy teams in the NFL — and from an analytics standpoint, the easiest way to score close to the end zone is on the ground. As such, it should come as no surprise that the Patriots tighten up their entire defense against the run when they get close to the goal line — with this team ranking top three each of the last three seasons in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs. (Three teams allowed more rushing touchdowns to running backs last year alone than the Patriots have allowed the last three years combined. The Broncos’ five rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs through three games this year is one-third of the way to the Patriots’ total number of rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs across the last three years.)
JM’s Interpretation ::
One of the things I like about this week’s slate is that the on-the-surface sexy offenses are, for the most part, not the offenses that set up best this week — which could dilute ownership to an extent as the field pulls toward “safer,” more common names. As such, I expect to mostly leave this game alone (with its safer, more common names — and its low Vegas total, and its excellent defenses).
If going to this game, I would likely leave the Bills alone altogether and let others chase the thin paths to upside that are paired with a fairly low floor — though I do think there is a chance Daboll tries to find ways to get Dawson Knox more involved this week if Tyler Kroft misses once again. Knox would be a large-field-only play for me, but he has enough on-his-own upside to be considered in that format. (You could also take a shot on John Brown, because: upside. But again, the matchup does not play in his favor.)
On the Patriots’ side, it’s viable to try to guess at running back, as you will likely find a good score from one of these players. Edelman is also in a really solid spot — and while he’s priced up for the offense, he also has a locked-in floor that is difficult to find in other spots, especially with this matchup likely to filter extra targets his way over the middle of the field. This is the sort of spot where Edelman could come out of the first one or two drives with three catches for 45 yards already — and if he adds an early touchdown, there wouldn’t be much he would have to do the rest of the way to keep you happy at his price.