Behind enemy lines: Bills –Patriots Q&A with New England beat reporter Nora Princiotti

ORCHARD PARK – In no surprise, the Buffalo Bills will face the New England Patriots once again when the Pats invade New Era Field on Sunday for a 1 p.m. kick.

In a bit of a surprise, it’s Week 13 and the two AFC East rivals have yet to meet.

Some things are just the same ol’ Pats, namely Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But we’re deep into a new season and for more on the Pats (9-2) we chatted with New England beat reporter from the Boston Globe, Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti):

Q: Here’s a generic Tom Brady question because you can’t ask about the Pats without asking about Brady. But in all seriousness, the numbers say he hasn’t slowed down a bit, does the eye test say the same?

It does. Brady has been fantastic pretty much without any caveats this season. The numbers are the numbers: Brady is completing 68 percent of his passes which would be second only to 2007 for any season in his career and has the lowest interception rate, 0.7 percent, in the league right now even after throwing his third pick of the year against the Dolphins last Sunday. The most impressive thing about that is how he’s been so accurate even while having a lot of more explosive, vertical elements in the passing game with Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan when he was healthy and, occasionally, Philip Dorsett. Brady also leads the league in yards (3,374) and yards gained per passing attempt (8.3). That combination of accuracy and explosiveness is rare.

What the numbers don’t show is how much of a help Brady is to the Patriots offensive line which is relevant, because they’re likely to be without a couple starters on Sunday. When necessary, the Patriots offense can focus more on the running backs and tight ends in the passing game and let Brady get the ball out very quickly. If Brady’s physical qualities don’t help him be elusive in the pocket, his mental abilities do. He seems to know where pressure is coming from and can evade it with just a step or two and still get a throw off. He got hit a lot against the Dolphins, which is obviously a problem, but he’s often still able to complete his throw on those plays.

Q: The Pats were 2-2 after the first four games, that defense hasn’t allowed more than 17-points since. What changed on that side of the ball?

I started covering the team again! Just kidding. That’s not why. The secondary has played a lot better over the last month-plus, with Stephon Gilmore having one of his best, if not his best, games as a Patriot against the Dolphins. They’re still allowing opponents to move the ball between the 20s, but the run defense got a boost getting DT Malcom Brown back in on Sunday, and that had been one of the major areas of weakness. It’s a good sign that they’ve started to get solid-to-great play from their cornerbacks, because they just don’t have the personnel up front to really try to be dominant on the line.

One thing to watch is how aggressive the Patriots are on Sunday. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia blitzed a ton against the Dolphins, albeit with a weak offensive line and a backup quarterback in the game, but that hasn’t been his M.O. for most of the season when the Patriots have played a lot of 2-high safety looks and had been asking more and more of some their linebackers in coverage lately. They practically begged the Raiders to run the ball, one of the facets of that “bend but don’t break” defense we all talk about. I get that strategy – this team is devoting $40 million in salary cap space to the secondary, so they need those guys to help them win games. The Patriots also tend to struggle against mobile QBs, so I see them playing more of a containment game against Tyrod Taylor than dialing up the aggression – but they also had 7 sacks against the Dolphins so it’s possible they try to replicate some of that a little bit more in the future.

Q: Gronk, the Buffalo boy, is healthy this season. How big of a contributor has he been for the Pats?

He’s been critical. I did a story earlier this year comparing Brady’s numbers without Gronkowski to his numbers with him, and made the joke that, without Gronkowski, Brady is like a less-interceptable Blake Bortles. (That might be an oxymoron.) Over the years, though, the Patriots offense has been totally different without Gronkowski. That wasn’t the case last season when Martellus Bennett was here and healthy enough to play – Bennett isn’t Gronkowski but he still could line up all over the place and stretch defenses in a similar way which kept the playbook open – but Gronkowski’s health is pretty important now because Dwayne Allen hasn’t really panned out.

And the Gronkowski family always goes big for a reunion. I remember last year Rob Gronkowski’s little brother Glenn Gronkowski, who was on the Patriots practice squad at the time, was on my flight to Buffalo for the Bills game and the guy in the seat next to him chatted his ear off about his fantasy team. Poor guy.

Q: Update us on our ex-Bills, Hogan’s injured, but from my research, it looks like it’s going two different directions for Stephon Gilmore and Mike Gillislee. Is Gilmore improving & why is Gillislee a scratch?

Gilmore has definitely been improving, he was really solid on Parker last week against Miami and could have had two interceptions (he had one, Duron Harmon sort of stole another one from him near the end of the game). He’s been able to play a little bit more man-to-man lately and he’s shut down some tough assignments. Sometimes there’s an adjustment period to playing for the Patriots. Gillislee is in a tough spot because 1) he lost a fumble against the Jets and 2) doesn’t help on special teams. He’s healthy, but with James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden, who’s a really valuable special teams player, he’s been outside the 46 since the bye week. I can see them wishing they could use him on the goal line, but Burkhead gives them so much more in other areas that, right now, they’d rather use him there and leave Gillislee inactive to make room for players in the kicking game.

Q: Finally, what’s your score prediction for this one?
31-20 Patriots.

Nora Princiotti is a New England Patriots beat reporter for the Boston Globe. For more from Princiotti leading up to Sunday’s game, follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.

NFL: Houston Texans at New England Patriots

New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore — USA Today photo


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