With several weeks of practice under his belt since being activated from the physically unable to perform list, White finally made his season debut on Thanksgiving in Detroit, one year to the day when he suffered his serious knee injury on Thanksgiving in New Orleans.
However, White played only the first two series of the game - which Sean McDermott confirmed was the plan - before sitting out the rest of the way, even though the Buffalo secondary played poorly after his exit and very nearly cost the Bills the game.
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Enough with the baby steps. The Bills need White more than ever right now, especially with a three-game gantlet against their AFC East rivals commencing Thursday night in New England.
“Whether it was a division opponent or not, we’d be trying to increase Tre’s rep count so we’ll see where that goes as we move forward here,” McDermott said Tuesday. “Now that he’s been out there, I thought he did a good job the other day and I know he wants to be out there even more and we look forward to that as well.”
OK, then get him out there. Now.
With rookie cornerback Christian Benford now on injured reserve, that leaves White, Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elam and Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes, who was just signed to the 53-man roster, has played only one game (25 snaps against the Browns) since joining the team. Elam just returned to action in Detroit (21 snaps) after missing two games with a knee injury. And Jackson has played terribly the last few weeks and probably needs to come out of the starting lineup.
“They definitely went after him often and early and there were some times where he stood up and made some plays and there were some times the opponent made some plays as well,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of Jackson. “That’s gonna happen at that corner spot. You just got to make enough plays to get them off of you.”
That simply hasn’t happened, though. In the last four games according to Pro Football Focus, Jackson has been targeted 28 times and given up 19 receptions for 267 yards (14.0 yards per catch) and three TDs while making one interception.
It’s time for White to play full time and for Elam to be the other starter because long-term, that’s what the Bills envisioned back when they selected Elam in the first round of the 2022 draft. Rhodes and Jackson can be rotated in, but White and Elam need to start shouldering the bulk of the load at the position starting with the Patriots.
Here’s my preview of the game:
Buffalo Bills on offense: Toughest challenge yet
You may not want to hear this, but the Patriots defense is very good. True, their 6-5 record paints them as a mediocre team but that’s due to their inconsistent offense. This defense is the best the Bills have faced this season and when McDermott was asked about that, he said, “Could be. It’s been put together the right way and they do a great job.”
The Patriots rank No. 1 in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per drive, just 26.74. By comparison, the Bills defense ranks 19th at 33.54 yards with the league average at 32.46. Not surprisingly, the Patriots also lead in fewest points allowed per drive (1.43). They are No. 6 in total points allowed, No. 5 in yards, No. 2 in first downs, and they have the second-most sacks in the league (37). They also rank seventh in red zone defense, allowing a TD just 51.5% of the time.
The Patriots’ secondary - led by CBs Jack Jones, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones, and safeties Devin McCourty and Kyle Dugger - has been particularly outstanding. Opposing QBs are completing just 58.4% of their passes, the lowest figure in the NFL, and the cumulative 78.8 passer rating is third-lowest. If ever there was a game where Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie and Dawson Knox need to rise up and help Stefon Diggs, this is it.
Then you couple great coverage with a pass rush that has been relentless led by NFL sack leader Matthew Judon (13) and Deatrich Wise Jr. (6.5), it further illuminates the need for the Bills to be at their very best.
This is not the same defense that Josh Allen and company eviscerated the last two times they played New England last year when they didn’t punt in either game. And what’s worrisome for the Bills is this is not a great time to be playing the Patriots because while their offensive numbers still look great, it has been obvious that they are not functioning like they were earlier in the season.
Buffalo Bills on defense: Mac Jones is improving
I have never quite understood why Jones, the Patriots second-year QB, takes the bashing that he does. He may not be elite in the category of Allen, Patrick Mahomes and a few others, but Jones has functioned pretty well on a team that hasn’t had great receiving weapons since he entered the league in 2021.
In 25 career games, Jones has completed 68.1% of his passes with 28 TDs and averages 222.8 yards per game. The knocks on him focus on three areas: His interception total is elevated at 20, and there have been times when he just hasn’t made plays that were available, particularly on third down (the Patriots rank 25th at 37.1%) and in the red zone (they rank 31st with a 38.7% TD rate).
But Jones is not someone to sleep on and that was evident last week when he passed for a career-high 382 yards in the loss to the Vikings. He is a smart player who knows the offense and recognizes his own limitations. The biggest problem for him is that he has such mundane WRs. Jakobi Meyers has been productive with 47 catches, but after him it’s Nelson Agholar (23), DeVante Parker (20) and Kendrick Bourne (18), which is why he dinks and dunks so much to his TEs, Hunter Henry (23) and Jonnu Smith (20), and to RB Rhamondre Stevenson who leads the team with 50 catches.
What the Patriots want to do more than anything is pound it on the ground with Stevenson (4.5 yards per carry) and Damien Harris, though it looks like Stevenson will be on his own as Harris isn’t expected to play. “Guys are having a tough time tackling him,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of the 227-pound Stevenson. “We’re gonna have our hands full trying to curtail him.”
The Bills get their first look at life without Von Miller, though it appears that Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Tremaine Edmunds will be back for a defense that certainly missed them. The Bills absolutely have to stifle Stevenson, and if they do, then they may be able to force Jones into costly mistakes.
Sal’s prediction: New England Patriots 23, Buffalo Bills 21
I don’t like this matchup for the Bills for a number of reasons. The Patriots are a desperate team that needs to win to stay in firm playoff contention; they’re playing at home; and they’re facing a Buffalo team that will be playing a third straight game away from Highmark Stadium in the span of 12 days. That’s a recipe for an upset if there ever was one.
I think the Bills defense will be able to keep the Patriots offense in check, but I’m not sure offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey is up to matching wits with this Bill Belichick defense. It’s not a stretch to say that the best unit in this game is not the Bills’ offense but the Patriots defense. If the Bills’ offense was entering this game humming like we know it can, I’d change the pick. But that’s not the case right now.
Bills vs. Patriots: News and notes
▶ Along with Miller, the other big Bills injury is to LT Dion Dawkins who hasn’t practiced and probably won’t play. Judon - who usually lines up on the offensive right - may flip sides more often to go against replacement David Quessenberry, and that could be a big concern for Allen.
▶ Allen and Lamar Jackson of the Ravens are the only two QBs who have two games this season where they passed for at least 250 passing yards and rushed for at least 75.
▶ Parker isn’t having a great season, but the WR who began his career with Miami has always been a Bills killer. In 13 games he has 63 catches for 833 yards, by far his best totals against any opponent.
▶ The Patriots have a dangerous return man in rookie Marcus Jones, the player who returned a punt 84 yards in the final seconds to beat the Jets two weeks ago. He ranks second in the NFL in punt returns at 15.5 yards, and is third in kickoff returns at 25.7. Hang time punts and kickoff touchbacks would be a good idea for the Bills.
▶ LB Ja’Whaun Bentley is the Patriots leading tackler with 70, and CB Jonathan Jones leads the team with three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
▶ The Bills have an all-time record of 4-16 at Gillette Stadium, but they have won the last two by a combined score of 71-30. In those games, Allen threw for 634 yards with seven TDs and no interceptions.
▶ New England’s 77 regular-season victories over the Bills are its most against any opponent, and that’s because it has won 36 of the last 44 games.
Buffalo Bills schedule 2022
Thursday, Sept. 8 at Rams, W 31-10
Monday, Sept. 19 vs. Titans, W 41-7
Sunday, Sept. 25 at Dolphins, L 19-21
Sunday, Oct. 2 at Ravens, W 23-20
Sunday, Oct. 9 vs. Steelers, W 38-3
Sunday, Oct. 16 at Chiefs, W 24-20
Sunday, Oct. 23 Bye week
Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Packers, 8:20 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 6 at Jets, L 17-20
Sunday, Nov. 13 vs. Vikings, L 30-33
Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Browns, W 31-23
Thur. 11/24 at Lions, W 28-25
Thur. 12/1 at Patriots, 8:15 p.m.
Sun. 12/11 vs Jets, 1 p.m.
Sun. 12/18, vs. Dolphins, TBD
Sat. 12/24 at Bears, 1 p.m.
Mon. 1/2 at Bengals, 8:30 p.m.
Sun. 1/8 vs. Patriots, TBD
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.To subscribe to Sal's new twice-a-week newsletter, Bills Blast, please follow this link: https://profile.democratandchronicle.com/newsletters/bills-blast
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bills vs Patriots prediction and keys to Thursday Night Football game