COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots will kick off the 2013 regular season against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. ET. But for head coach Bill Belichick and Co., the opener will be about more than containing a division rival on the road.
It will be about containing C.J. Spiller.
Buffalo's star running back is fresh off a Pro Bowl season in which he amassed 1,244 rushing yards, 459 receiving yards and eight total touchdowns. The 5'11", 200-pound Clemson product averaged six yards per carry and 10 yards per catch in 2012. In the process, he validated himself as one of the most dynamic ball-carriers in the NFL.
With that efficiency on tap -- and a rookie quarterback in EJ Manuel behind center -- it should come as no surprise that new Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett wants to get the ball in No. 28's hands a lot this season. If and when that plan comes to fruition Sunday afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it will be up the Patriots defense to stop it.
The last two times Spiller faced New England, he combined for 103 rushing yards and 66 receiving yards on just 23 touches. Although he wasn't a "bell-cow" back versus the Patriots' sixth-ranked run defense and 26th-ranked pass defense in 2012, Spiller gained an average of seven yards each time he harnessed the football.
The 26-year-old's success last season is not breaking news to the Patriots, however. Even though nearly 10 months have passed since New England and Buffalo last squared off, game film -- both new and old -- has provided Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the defense a chance to reacquaint with Spiller's versatility.
Here's a look at how the Patriots could game plan to stop him:
Set Edge with Rob Ninkovich
Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich is in the mold of an outside linebacker, seeing how that is his natural position. But when it comes to enclosing the run as a stand-up end in a four-man front, few are better. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6'2", 260-pounder graded out as the eighth-most effective 4-3 D-end in 2012, registering 24 tackles in 281 run snaps.
The 29-year-old has carved his niche as a seven-technique, draped outside opposing right tackles. He can act as a spy from that spot, forging to keep an explosive back like Spiller enclosed between the tackles while setting the edge in case the rusher bounces outside.
That's precisely what he'll need to do against Buffalo. As PFF notes, Spiller was held to 59 yards when running behind his right tackle last season. Yet when he was able to break outside the defense's left ends last season, he ended up tallying 171 yards.
Implement Jamie Collins on Passing Downs
Spiller caught 43 passes in 2012, and his impact in screen game is particularly dangerous. His ability to stay in to block before slipping out to the flats is unpreventable with just any base defense. If the down linemen are caught up in blocks, and the linebackers are helping out in the middle of the field, then that leaves the shifty Spiller with expansive real estate outside. The Patriots want to avoid that scenario as much as possible.
Enter Jamie Collins.
Now New England's top pick in April's draft may be an outside linebacker in title, but his history as a "Bandit" and safety at Southern Mississippi suggest that he has a diversified skillset. The 6'3", 250-pound rookie's physical measureables suggest so, too. Collins ran a 4.64 40-yard dash time, leaped for a 41.5-inch vertical and broad jumped for a whopping 139 inches at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Keep an eye on Collins when he enters the game against Buffalo. He could very well be used to cover tight ends, as well as Spiller in the flats -- from either off the line or at the nine-technique outside the tight end. And after revisiting the numbers, a coverage role seems like a real possibility for the second-rounder. Per Pro Football Focus, Collins played 68 passing snaps this preseason but only rushed the passer on 19 of them.
Clog A-Gap, B-Gap with Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly
While Spiller may be a weapon outside the hashes, it would be shortsighted to say he can't run hard between the tackles. And two gaps especially see their share of pickups from Spiller: the left B-gap and the right A-gap.
As PFF documents, Spiller ran for nine yards a pop between the left tackle and left guard -- otherwise known as the left B-gap -- last year. Between the center and the right guard -- otherwise known as the right A-gap -- Spiller ran for over eight yards per handoff. Needless to say, the Patriots will have to get the best out of the defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly to disrupt the interior.
Wilfork's 6'2", 325-pound frame is built to man the one-technique, shaded outside the center. Conversely, the 6'6", 310-pound body is in ideal for shooting the gap as a three-technique, shaded outside the guard. So when the two are in the huddle against Buffalo, it will be important for them to assume the gaps best suited for their strengths.
If Wilfork and Kelly can work in tandem to redirect Spiller, then it will go a long way towards the Patriots redirecting the Bills.
Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for NEPatriotsDraft.com. His work has been featured on BleacherReport.com, USAToday.com, Patriots.com, Boston.com and NESN.com.You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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