Patriots pass-rush looking for more against Buffalo

Patriots pass-rush looking for more against Buffalo
September 28, 2012, 12:14 am
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FOXBORO -- They finally had gotten to Joe Flacco. With just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter on Sunday night, the Patriots defense sacked the Ravens quarterback for the first time. Chandler Jones wrapped up Flacco's feet while Kyle Love finished him off, and the Ravens lost 12 yards on the play.

Then, in an instant, the play was erased, as if it never happened. A defensive holding penalty was whistled on Brandon Spikes and the Ravens advanced five yards to the Patriots five yard line. Flacco threw a touchdown pass to Torrey Smith on the next play, putting them within a field goal of a win.

It was fitting that the New England's lone sack from that game was wiped clean. The Patriots pass-rush generated very little pressure all game, and the zeros in the box score under the sack column served as proof.

Against the Bills, the Patriots defense hopes to make the opposing quarterback's life a little more difficult.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is coming off of a down season for Buffalo in 2011, but he has looked solid so far this year -- especially in the last two weeks. After throwing three touchdowns and three interceptions in a season-opening 48-28 loss to the Jets, he's thrown five straight touchdown passes without a pick in wins over the Chiefs and Browns.

"The biggest thing is when he's playing really good, he's playing really good," said Patriots defensive end Trevor Scott. "We can't let him get confidence going early on in the game. We just gotta do our job to make sure he can't get going."

Easier said than done, it appears. In Buffalo's spread formations, it's difficult to determine whether the Bills will turn to the run or the pass. Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich noted that the Bills' "11 personnel" -- one running back, one tight end, three receivers -- allows them to do both. They like to use their varied offensive weapons in the passing game and then use change-of-pace run plays to keep defenses off-balance.

Through three weeks, it's worked. Fitzpatrick's eight passing touchdowns are tied for the league lead, and the Bills running game has the third most yards in the NFL (534).

Running backs Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller are both dynamic runners and capable receivers when healthy. (They have been dealing with injuries this week, but both practiced Thursday.) Receiver Steve Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler are also capable of taking quick-hitting passes and turning them into big gains.

Fitzpatrick spreads the ball around and is completing almost 60 percent of his throws this season. Plus, he's only been sacked once.

"He gets the ball out quick," Ninkovich said of Fitzpatrick. "I think they don't get sacked a lot because he's not holding the ball very long. We gotta do a good job of making sure their receivers run a little slant, don't catch it and take it 20 yards. We gotta make sure we have a an all-around good tackling game on Sunday."

A pass-rush would help, too. After two weeks of facing mediocre offenses in Arizona and Tennessee, the Patriots barely touched Flacco.

Ninkovich had trouble getting around Ravens tackle Kelechi Osemele, while Jones was handled by Ravens left tackle Michael Oher. Even Vince Wilfork had a rare down game as the Ravens interior line focused on stopping him.

The Patriots are hoping for something different this week. Even if they don't sack Fitzpatrick, they have to disrupt him more often than they did Flacco.

"Timing is a big deal with the receivers and the quarterbacks, especially with their style of offense," Ninkovich said of the Bills. "The best we can do to affect Fitzpatrick in the pocket, get our hands up in the throwing lanes, is really going to affect his game."

The biggest ally for the Patriots defense this week could be its offense. By getting out to a lead and making Buffalo more one-dimensional, it would allow Ninkovich, Jones, Love and Wilfork to read pass plays quickly and rush more aggressively.

The Patriots have bothered Fitzpatrick before. The Harvard-educated quarterback has thrown 12 picks in five career games against New England.

Though a 13-0 lead over the Ravens last Sunday wasn't enough, the Patriots defense is hoping an early lead will help jump-start the defense.

"I think the best thing we can do is get out there and start fast like we did last week," Ninkovich said. "Get 'em into a one-dimensional style of game. In the fourth quarter against the Ravens we were rushing a lot different than we were in the second and third quarters if you watch the tape. Once you get them into passing situations you can pin your ears back and just go."

The Patriots are hoping that the difference this week is when they go, they end up where they want to be.