The New Orleans Saints travel to western New York this Sunday to take on the Buffalo Bills. The Saints come in with a record of 6-2, winners of six in a row and leading the NFC South. The Bills are a bit of a surprise to some, with a record of 5-3 and undefeated at home.
Let's have a look at some of the keys to watch when the Saints offense lines up against the Buffalo defense.
Saints run offense vs. Bills run defense
The Saints 1-2 punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have propelled the team to 123 yards per game on the ground, ranking 7th in the NFL. Ingram remains the primary ball carrier, rushing 123 times for 541 yards and 4 touchdowns, while the versatile Kamara has carried 52 times for 311 yards and 3 scores. The New Orleans offensive line has not only opened immediate running lanes for it's two talented running backs, but getting into the second level of defenses to help spring Ingram and Kamara for bigger gains.
The Bills run defense is stout, ranking 8th in the league and holding their opponents to under 4 yards per carry and just 94 yards per game. Buffalo traded one of it's better interior run stoppers, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and surrendered 194 yards rushing to the New York Jets in it's first game without Dareus. Veteran tackle Kyle Williams is still a force inside, but can wear down over the course of a game. The Bills defensive ends and linebackers are athletic, but can wear down over the course of a game. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, the team's leading tackler, is a Pro Bowl type of player effective against the run, as well as pass coverage and rushing the quarterback.
Saints passing offense vs. Bills pass defense
Because of the success of it's rushing attack, New Orleans has not had to pass the ball quite as much as we've seen in recent years, currently ranking 16th in the league in pass attempts. The Saints still have the 3rd most productive passing game, however, producing around 270 yards per game. Quarterback Drew Brees has relied on a short, but quick rhythm attack, completing over 71% of his attempts for 2,214 yards with 13 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions.
Brees has benefited from outstanding protection up front, getting sacked just 8 times. His best receiver is Michael Thomas, a second year star on pace for his second 1,000-yard receiving season, with 545 yards on 50 receptions. Thomas is rounding into one of the better short and intermediate targets in the league, and is complimented nicely by the athleticism of Kamara and veteran Ted Ginn Jr.
Kamara's 38 receptions and 341 yards receiving are indicative of the fact that he has become a dangerous all-purpose weapon effective from any spot on the field. He has teamed with Ginn to make up the production expected from Willie Snead, who still hasn't returned to form from an early season suspension and hamstring injury. Brandon Coleman and Coby Fleener are big targets who have shown flashes, but neither have yet to be consistent in their production.
The Bills play a predominantly zone scheme. They've given up 250 yards per game through the air but have intercepted 11 passes and recovered six fumbles, returning two for touchdowns. Their 1st round pick, former LSU. star Tre’Davious White, looks like a future star at cornerback. He joins E.J. Gaines and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer to form a reactive and playmaking secondary. The veteran Hyde leads the team with 5 interceptions, and Poyer has shown the athletic ability to make a quarterback pay for testing him down field, and is also an effective blitzer.
Buffalo's zone has given up some yardage because the team struggles to consistently apply pressure. Defensive ends Jerry Hughes and former 1st round pick Shaq Lawson possess solid pass rush abilities, as does Alexander from the outside, but the three have combined for just six sacks. Buffalo's big bodies in the middle have done well to clog running lanes, but have struggled to push the pass pocket.
What to Look For
The Bills give up passing yardage, but are a ballhawking bunch that stiffens up near the goal line, giving up only 18.6 points per game. Buffalo coach Sean McDermott is quite familiar with the Saints offense, having spent six seasons as a successful defensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers.
The Saints quick passing attack matches up well against a Buffalo coverage scheme that tends to give space to make a play on the ball. The New Orleans line must provide time for Brees to progress through his reads and find his targets in space, and the future Hall of Famer must continue to be precise in his throws to avoid the turnovers that Buffalo depends on.
Michael Thomas holds a distinct size advantage against either of the talented Bills corners, and could have a huge game. Fleener and Coleman should also have some open space in the middle of the Buffalo zone, and could see some opportunity for big plays. Kamara causes mismatches all over the field, but he and Ingram will also need to be productive in the run game to provide a balanced attack for the 2nd ranked Saints offense.
Which offensive position has been most impressive over the first half of the Saints season?
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