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Patriots vs. Bills: Three to Watch on Offense Against Buffalo on Wild Card Weekend

As the New England Patriots prepare to take on the Buffalo Bills in the opening round of the 2021 NFL Playoffs, Patriot Maven highlights three offensive players on whom Pats fans might want to keep watch.

The New England Patriots are in frigid Western New York for a Saturday night date with quarterback Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. This Wild Card Weekend showdown will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York at 8:15pm ET.

Though many Patriots players are expected to garner some attention during Saturday’s matchup, here are three players on offense that might raise an eyebrow when the Pats take the field against the Bills.

Mac Jones

All eyes will be on Jones as he makes his pro-level postseason debut on Saturday night. Bills’ fans are licking their chops (perhaps literally, as well as figuratively) at making the rookie’s night in Orchard Park a miserable one. However, it would be wise for them to tread lightly. The armchair scouting report on the Patriots young quarterback is to prevent him from utilizing play action to facilitate the short, intermediate passing game. In Week Sixteen, the Bills did this quite effectively, using a combination of safety blitzes with stout front-seven pressures. Therefore, they will likely attempt to do the same on Saturday.

While solid at all three levels, the Bills’ defensive brain trust is likely to attempt to confuse the Pats’ rookie by deploying strategically placed blitzes from the second and third level of the defense. Buffalo’s secondary ranked first in the league this year, allowing just 163 yards per game through the air and first with 5.2 yards per pass. Despite the loss of star cornerback Tre’Davious White to injured reserve, Buffalo still possesses the ability to take the ball away, logging 19 interceptions on the season. Their prolific safety tandem of Jordan Poyer (5 INTs) and Micah Hyde (5 INTs) are more than capable of making life difficult for Jones in the passing game. Despite his recent struggles, Jones has shown flashes of brilliance during his rookie campaign. However, he will need his best game of the season to conquer a daunting Bills’ defense.

How might he do this?

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In the immortal tenets of Cobra Kai, Jones must ‘strike first’ and ‘strike hard.’ Though avoiding an early deficit is as much on the defense as it is on the offense, Jones can help to mitigate the pressure of New England’s preventive unit by taking some early shots down field on vertical routes. Ironically, Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins may have laid the foundation for the Pats’ potential game plan on the offensive side of the ball. When adding a deeper ball to his repertoire, Jones completed five of his eight passes beyond 20 yards in the air. He will not only need to replicate that performance on Saturday, but also to build upon it.

Damien Harris

Harris rushed for over 100 yards in both netting with the Bills this season. As a result, he will be called upon once again to get the offense in gear. If there is an area in Buffalo’s defense which can be exploited, it is against the run. The Bills finished 13th in the league, allowing an average of 109.8 yards per game and 11th with 4.2 yards per rush. Still, the Bills have tightened their defense against the run in the recent weeks heading into the postseason. Buffalo’s run-stoppage unit is anchored by defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, their premier run-stuffer in the middle. He is joined by a stout unit including Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips and Vernon Butler on the inside. The Bills also rely heavily on linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to assist in run coverage. With fellow linebacker Matt Milano alongside him in the middle, Harris will have his share of difficulty attempting to find his footing on the ground in Orchard Park on Saturday night. The Patriots need the ground game to be productive, particularly early, in order to move the ball and avoid falling behind. While rookie Rhamondre Stevenson is expected to get his share of touches, Harris will rightfully continue to be New England’s feature back on Saturday night.

Justin Herron

With Wynn officially out of the lineup on Saturday, the duties of left tackle will likely be left to reserve lineman Justin Herron. Though he has his share of detractors within the fan base, the Patriots will miss Wynn in this matchup. Despite the occasional breakdown in protection, Wynn largely performed well in 2021. He made 15 starts during the regular season, finishing fifth on the team’s offensive unit in logging 916 snaps. Pro Football Focus charted him for six sacks and five quarterback hits allowed. Prior to this week, Wynn had also been one of the most durable Patriots in 2021. The former Georgia Bulldog missed only one contest, New England’s Week Five victory over the Houston Texans, while on COVID-19/Reserve.

Wynn left Sunday’s season-finale between the Patriots and the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter with said ankle injury and did not return. Herron served as Wynn’s replacement, playing on 52 offensive snaps.

Given the circumstances, it appears that Herron will be called upon to sub for Wynn once again.

Despite his struggles, Herron has been a solid depth piece along the Patriots offensive line in 2021. There are positive components to his work in pass protection in terms of how he frames rushers and keeps them at the end of his reach. He is a patient lineman that works to stay square on the perimeter while displaying decent quickness in his feet. Herron’s lack of functional strength and body control in the run game are restrictive to creating vertical push. However, it should be noted that the Pats’ 2020 sixth-round draft choice will now be assigned primary protection duty for quarterback Mac Jones in his postseason debut. It will also be Herron’s first playoff game as a pro. The lights will be bright amid the frigid temperatures in Orchard Park, but hopefully not too bright for Herron.