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Opportunity Knox? Bills’ TE Dawson Knox may present Matchup Challenges for Patriots Defense

The prolific Buffalo Bills’ tight end has compiled 415 receiving yards on 31 receptions with seven touchdowns, thus far, in 2021.

The New England Patriots enter Monday night’s Week Thirteen matchup with the Buffalo Bills with a record of 8-4; a team very much in control of its own fate. The Pats currently sit in first place in the AFC East, holding a one game advantage over Buffalo in the win column, while occupying the second overall spot in the AFC.

Not too bad for a team that started the season 2-4.

Still, the Patriots have the chance to enhance their place in both the divisional and conference standings, should they secure a victory over the Bills’ Monday Night Football. Simply put, it is a great opportunity.

Speaking of opportunities, there is a unique one that might end up paying dividends for the Bills in this contest. Though the Bills have yielded their place atop the Division to the surging Patriots, they are still the reigning AFC East Champions, fundamentally stout in all three phases. From their top-ranked defense, to their multifaceted offense, Buffalo will present New England with its toughest test to date.

A player to watch in that regard is Bills tight end Dawson Knox.

Despite the well-deserved accolades being heaped upon Buffalo’s defense, their offense is also known to make life difficult for its opponents. The Bills are seventh in the league, averaging 271 yards per game through the air, led by quarterback Josh Allen. Allen is completing 67 percent of his throws and has 25 touchdowns against 10 interceptions this season. Not only may he choose from a bevy of offensive weapons at his disposal, Allen is also one of the most capable mobile quarterbacks in the league.

One of Allen’s favorite targets in 2021 has been Dawson Kno at the tight end position. Thus far, the 25-year-old has compiled 415 receiving yards on 31 receptions with seven touchdowns. Knox caught a pair of touchdown passes in the Bills’ 31-6 win over the New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving night. He would have had a third, had it not been called back for a penalty. When the ball is not headed his way, Knox has also stepped up his blocking game on the edge, especially improving upon sealing his blocks. In most circumstances, he is well-positioned to be a problematic player to defend for any team.

On Monday against New England, however, Knox may have the opportunity to become a game changer.

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Earlier in the week, the Patriots placed safety Kyle Dugger on the COVID-19/Reserve list, putting his status for Week Thirteen in serious doubt. The former Division II standout from Lenoir-Rhyne, has not been spotted on the practice fields all week for New England.

Over the past few weeks, Dugger’s versatility has earned him a spot as a mainstay in the Patriots defensive backfield. Through twelve games played this season, the 25-year-old has compiled 62 solo tackles, 4 tackles for loss, four passes-defensed, three interceptions and one fumble recovery. The Pats have heavily used both big nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) defensive packages in 2021. Dugger has seen action alongside safeties Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty when three safeties are deployed in the secondary. Thus far, he has been most effective when used against tight ends and receiving backs out of the backfield. One of his primary responsibilities (in the unlikely event that he is activated for Monday’s game) would be to provide coverage in the middle of the field against slot receiver Cole Beasley, and of course, Dawson Knox.

As a result of Dugger’s potential absence, the Bills offense may have an easier road to utilizing the intermediate area of the field.

It is true that the Patriots employ one of the most formidable defensive units in the NFL, solid in all phases. However, one area in which they have been vulnerable has been defending the intermediate area of the field, particularly slot receivers and tight ends. As such, Knox possesses the ability to be a significant factor in this game. The Mississippi product is at his best when he finds space sitting down in soft zones, as well as utilizing flat combinations. To help neutralize the middle of the field, the Pats’ defense will attempt to take Beasley away underneath. This could leave Knox with some room to operate in some catch-and-run situations over the middle.

With the Patriots having shown favoritism for zone in their recent game planning, they have been quite successful when using their three-safety base in short zone. With star wideout Stefon Diggs likely to draw the attention fromNew England’s corners (high-low in zone; double-team in man), Beasley and Knox will occupy the Pats safeties, where the more physical Dugger would look to contain Knox.

While Knox was already expected to be a notable weapon for Allen in the red zone, Dugger’s absence may enable him to be an even greater threat to the Pats defense, should he be allowed the opportunity to maneuver in the middle of the field. New England will need to step up their coverage in the backfield, should Dugger be sidelined for Monday’s matchup.

On the surface, both McCourty and Phillips will be called upon to be the primary options at the position. However, the Pats could utilize special teams stalwarts Justin Bethel or Cody Davis, who can play safety, if needed. Sean Davis is the lone designated safety available via the practice squad. Though defensive back Myles Bryant has effevely been the team’s fill-in for injured slot corner Jonathan Jones, the 23-year-old could provide some strength at safety, as well.

Whatever options are taken to defend him, the Patriots will have their hands full keeping Knox in check. This is a fact not lost on Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who is keenly aware of the problems his team may have when defending the prolific Bills’ tight end.

“He’s a good player. We’ve certainly had trouble with him before,” Belichick told reporters on Friday. “Very competitive in every phase of the game. Good hands. Good receiver. Can make plays down the field. Converts third downs. Good in the red area. Competitive blocker. Can detach from the line from the formation, sometimes in the backfield, not a lot, but has the versatility to go back there and do things. He's a versatile player that Coach [Brian] Daboll moves around and utilizes in different ways, different matchups, different formations. He's done a good job for them”

The Patriots and Bills are set for an 8:20pm kickoff on Monday night, December 6, from Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.