The New England Patriots are enduring a difficult week leading up to their first divisional game of the 2012 NFL Regular Season. The Patriots travel to Buffalo this week to face off against the upstart Bills. Despite starting off with an emphatic loss to the New York Jets, the Bills enter the game with a 2-1 record while the Patriots themselves are 1-2.
Injuries are beginning to take a toll on the Patriots roster. This week Kellen Winslow, the tight end signed to ease the loss of Aaron Hernandez, was released for reasons unknown. Along with Winslow's departure, Julian Edelman has missed substantial practice time while Hernandez, despite walking comfortably, still remains sidelined by an ankle injury.
Most significantly however, Logan Mankins has missed practice all this week with a hip injury. Considering that Mankins played through last season with a torn ACL, he is very unlikely to miss time this weekend but that may not actually be a good thing.
The Patriots entered the season with many question marks over their offensive line. With players like Brian Waters, Matt Light and Dan Koppen moving on, the Patriots were eager to get Mankins back on the field as the veteran leader of the group. While Mankins did return in time for Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans, he hasn't played to his own standards.
Surprisingly for the Patriots, it has been Mankins and Dan Connolly who have caused the most problems for the team in the trenches. Neither player is overly impressing in pass protection while both are failing to impose themselves in the running game. Connolly also has his own injury issues as he missed the team's second game, a home loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
While the Patriots' guards are both struggling, new center Ryan Wendell and left tackle Nate Solder, along with incumbent young right tackle Sebastien Vollmer, have all been impressive. Nonetheless, Tom Brady is used to having the best pass protection in the whole league. This season's group is not living up to those lofty standards and it is having a major impact on the offense's production as a whole.
Football is all about matchups and gaining advantages in key areas of the field. Against the Buffalo Bills, the game will likely be won and lost in the trenches. That puts the focus on the Patriots' offensive and defensive lines.
The defensive line will feature a rookie matchup between two phenomenally talented young players. Right defensive end Chandler Jones made a big impression on his debut with a strip sack of Jake Locker that resulted in a touchdown to seal the game. However since then Jones couldn't get the better of D'Anthony Batiste, a below par offensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals, or Michael Oher, the Baltimore Ravens left tackle.
Jones will be going against the Bills' second round pick, Cordy Glenn. Glenn has been excellent during his start to his career as part of a very talented group of offensive linemen in Buffalo. Jones will be up against it because he needs to fight past the imposing Glenn, while closing on Ryan Fitzpatrick in an instant because the Bills don't expose him with deep drops or slow developing route combinations.
On the interior of the trenches, the Bills have found a group of linemen who offer a unique combination of aggression in the running game and composure as pass protectors. Eric Wood, Kraig Urbik, Andy Levitre and even Chad Rinehart can all be considered amongst the best players in the league at their respective positions. The Patriots will hope to gain an advantage over left guard Levitre who has underperformed so far this season.
If the Patriots can get Vince Wilfork in a one-on-one matchup with Levitre, they will expect to be able to disrupt the Bills' passing and rushing attack. A rushing attack that may potentially be without both of its top rushers. Wilfork will likely be the key to the game for the Patriots defensively because the Patriots will need to push the pocket opposed to come from the outside against this style of offense.
Nonetheless, it will be the Patriots offensive line who needs to show up. The Patriots will feel capable of containing the Bills' offense even if they don't dominate in the trenches, however if the Bills are able to hit Brady and disrupt his timing, he has proven in the past that he will struggle. That was no more epitomized than last season in Buffalo when Brady threw four interceptions.
Forcing Brady into committing turnovers is pivotal for the outcome of this game. The Bills are 2-1 in games against Brady when he has two interceptions and 0-17 with one or less. In order to create these interceptions the Bills will be looking for their secondary to take advantage of pressure. That pressure of course being created by the defensive line.
The Bills will likely not blitz Brady too often, which means that their newly reinforced defensive line will need to win the matchup in the trenches. Nate Solder and Sebastien Vollmer will feel confident of containing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson on the edges, but they must show good continuity with the interior offensive linemen to track the Bills' different stunts and switches.
With the linemen looking for stunts and different movements, they also cannot afford to hesitate at the snap because Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will be able to beat them in one-on-one matchups. Williams in particular is a superstar pass rusher who will benefit massively from moving into the Bills' new 4-3 scheme. He will likely spend a lot of time lining up over Mankins on the right side of the defense.
A fully healthy Mankins would be confident of winning a tough battle with Williams, but Mankins in his current form could be calling for help pretty quickly. Mankins prides himself on being tough, but sometimes it's tougher to admit that someone else would be better in your place opposed to fighting on regardless and hurting your team.
Not only will the Patriots' offensive line be in greater focus than any other point of this season this weekend, their performance will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the football game. At 1-3 it would be a long way back for the Boston based franchise. Especially with the Bills stretching to 3-1 at their expense.Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral, Footballguys.com and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf