Bills vs. Patriots: 3 questions hanging over Buffalo ahead of crucial divisional game

ORCHARD PARK - When the 2023 NFL schedule was released, it was pretty clear that it would be imperative for the Buffalo Bills to get off to a good start in the first two months because the second two months were going to be a gantlet filled with extremely difficult challenges.

The Bills have done a decent enough job to date at 4-2, but that Week 1 loss to the Jets on a night when Aaron Rodgers went down on the fourth play of the game remains a blight on the start of this season. Even the loss in London to Jacksonville is one the Bills are kicking themselves for because just like the New York game, Josh Allen and the offense functioned well below expectations and let a game that was certainly winnable get away.

We’ll see how much those defeats — one in the AFC East, both in the AFC — impact Buffalo’s playoff standing later in the year, but suffice it to say, the Bills can’t afford a slip-up in their next two games where they’ll be heavily favored against the Patriots and Buccaneers.

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This three-game stretch the Bills entered last week looked like it would be the softest part of the schedule, but there was nothing soft about Buffalo’s ugly 14-9 victory over the Giants, a game they were perilously close to losing.

Now they travel to New England on Sunday and for as poorly as Bill Belichick’s 1-5 team has played — particularly on offense — the Bills probably won’t get away with a Giants-like performance on the road, against a division opponent that still has a solid defense.

Here are three questions I have as the Bills start preparing for the Patriots:

1. How concerning is Josh Allen's sore shoulder?

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) flips the ball while being chased by New York Giants linebacker Bobby Okereke (58). The pass fell incomplete.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) flips the ball while being chased by New York Giants linebacker Bobby Okereke (58). The pass fell incomplete.

Sean McDermott did his very best to downplay the shoulder pain that led quarterback Josh Allen to undergoing post-game X-rays Sunday night following the narrow escape against the Giants. On Monday when he met reporters via Zoom, McDermott said of Allen, “He’s certainly sore, but he’s going to be all right.”

Pressed further based on a report by Ian Rappaport of NFL Network that Allen underwent further testing Monday — which in all likelihood came straight from Allen’s agent — McDermott smiled and said, “I don’t get my information from Rappaport; I get my information from Nate Breske, our head trainer. He’s day to day. He’s sore, but he’s going to be all right. And that’s the information that I have.”

Allen had already proclaimed himself fine immediately after the game, but Allen could break both of his legs and his throwing arm and he would say that he’d be ready to go for the next game.

However, it’s hard not to think back to mid-November 2022 when Allen hurt his elbow in the loss to the Jets and while he never missed time the rest of the year, that injury did seem to impact him perhaps more than he ever let on.

A throwing shoulder injury of any severity is a potentially troubling situation for a quarterback and it will be very interesting to see what Allen’s practice time looks like this week as the Bills begin preparing for their game at New England.

The good news is that he hurt the shoulder in the second quarter against the Giants yet played on and completed 11 of 12 passes in the second half including a laser beam to tightly covered Quintin Morris for the winning touchdown.

So, maybe everything is fine and if so, that’s great news for the Bills because while they may be able to overcome the season-ending injuries to Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano and DaQuan Jones, it’s highly unlikely that they could lose Allen for any length of time and keep winning.

2. Does Josh Allen trust anyone besides Stefon Diggs?

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Gabe Davis (13) fumbles the ball as he is tackled by New York Giants linebacker Bobby Okereke (58).
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Gabe Davis (13) fumbles the ball as he is tackled by New York Giants linebacker Bobby Okereke (58).

Diggs is one of the best receivers in the NFL and that’s a pretty good reason for Allen targeting him as often as he does. Since Diggs came to Buffalo in 2020, he has been targeted 550 times, second-most in the league in that span behind Davante Adams. More importantly, Diggs’ 387 catches are No. 1. The Allen-to-Diggs connection is elite.

But for the second year in a row, Buffalo’s secondary passing game targets are underwhelming and Allen’s reliance on Diggs could become a problem against a quality defense that can neutralize Diggs and force Allen to go somewhere else with the ball.

“I think that’s really some of the deep dive we’re digging through now is, ‘Hey, where’s the second target? Where’s the third targeted player? Who is it and how can we get them more touches or how can we get them open more?” McDermott said. “Stef is off to a good start. Now it’s who’s resource two, who’s resource three? And we’ve got to continue to evolve offensively with that.”

It is supposed to be Gabe Davis, but not much has changed in his fourth season with the Bills. He remains maddeningly inconsistent, a player who at times struggles to get open and does not get many yards after catch (his average this season is 3.1 per reception). Through six games he has two drops and a lost fumble.

And then there’s Dawson Knox who, just like Davis, is perpetually inconsistent. He already has three drops, he averages just 3.9 yards after catch and on all four of his contested catch opportunities this year, he has failed to come down with the ball.

Rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid, who missed the Giants’ game, has 17 catches for 118 yards but everything thrown to him has been short and easy and the down-the-field threat he was advertised to be has not emerged.

As for Deonte Harty, Trent Sherfield, and Khalil Shakir, they’ve essentially been ghosts due mostly to the Bills’ heavy usage — at least in the first five games — of two tight end formations.

The speedy but diminutive Harty was supposed to be an upgrade over Isaiah McKenzie as a diverse and dynamic weapon but he has just 12 catches for 103 yards on 68 snaps. Sherfield has been on the field for just 64 snaps and has five catches for 39 yards. And Shakir has played a mere 34 snaps with four catches for 40 yards.

3. Can the Bills run defense hold up?

Poona Ford needs to step in the middle of the defensive line as the Bills deal with the loss of DaQuan Jones.
Poona Ford needs to step in the middle of the defensive line as the Bills deal with the loss of DaQuan Jones.

Not having Jones and Milano in the middle of the defense wasn’t all that noticeable against the woeful Giants’ offense, but there were two plays in the third quarter where it definitely was. Saquon Barkley ripped off a pair of 19- and 34-yard runs straight up the gut, a place where Jones would have been, and Milano would eventually have been when Barkley broke through the line.

Jones is the classic one-technique DT who takes on double teams and clogs the middle. On those two plays, that is not what Poona Ford was. Ford, who has been a disappointing free agent signing and was a healthy scratch the previous three games, was nowhere to be found on either play, nor was Ed Oliver who was also on the field. The Giants’ line — playing mostly with backups — blew open two huge holes.

The Bills do not have a replacement on the roster for Jones. Ford doesn’t seem to be it, and Jordan Phillips and Tim Settle — both of whom have been below average as run defenders so far according to Pro Football Focus — aren’t either.

And what could potentially complicate matters against teams with viable running attacks and offensive lines is that at the linebacker level, the Bills have two players — Terrel Bernard and Dorian Williams — who weigh 223 and 228 pounds respectively and their ability to get off blocks will come into sharper focus now that Jones isn’t helping to shield them. True, Milano weighs only 223, but Milano is an All-Pro player and seven-year veteran.

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This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: 3 questions hanging over Buffalo Bills as they get ready for Patriots