After an extended amount of time in between the games, the Buffalo Bills will get back on the field Sunday to take on one of the hottest teams in the National Football League. The New Orleans Saints will put their six-game win streak on the line against the Bills at New Era Field.
The last time we saw the Bills, it wasn’t pretty. They were just outplayed on both sides of the ball by an inferior New York Jets team, and it brought their record for the season down to 5-3. Do they have what it takes to knock off a bonafide Super Bowl contender from the NFC?
Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Saints:
1) The screen game reigns supreme
- While it’s still a part of the New Orleans Saints passing game in spots, the days of the deep down the field targets on a consistent basis have passed. As quarterback Drew Brees has gotten older, they’ve tactically morphed their offense into one that features getting their best playmakers in space in the short and intermediate areas of the field. This year, that has been the real focal point of this offense, and there’s no better way to illustrate that than with this chart from ESPN’s Bill Barnwell:
Interesting Drew Brees stat about how his air yards per pass and YAC are essentially identical this season, which hasn’t been true of his time in New Orleans pic.twitter.com/oaQidhwut2
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) November 8, 2017
The air yards dipped below seven yards for the first time since 2007, and are their lowest since he joined the Saints. The yards after catch per pass are over six yards for the first time since his time in New Orleans started — by far the highest total in his 12 seasons. The Saints are gaining almost as many yards after the catch than they are through the air from Brees for the first time… and there’s a reason for it. While yes, Brees is getting up there in age is a contributing factor, the bigger factor here is rookie running back Alvin Kamara. He has turned into a weapon for the Saints on a weekly basis, having been targeted in the passing game five or more times in six out of their eight games. He’s gone over 50 yards receiving in half of their games and came incredibly close (48 yards) for the fifth time. What makes him so special is his the combination of his speed, route running, and contact balance to shake off would-be tacklers. The Bills were uncharacteristically bad with missed tackles against the Jets, and they have a completely different monster they have to deal with in Kamara. They have to have a plan for him specifically because if they can shut him down, it can go miles toward helping them collect a victory Sunday.
2) How much Benjamin?
- The Buffalo Bills surprisingly traded for Kelvin Benjamin last week just moments before the trade deadline on Halloween, but they couldn’t get him up to speed enough in time for their Thursday night game against the New York Jets. Instead, Benjamin will make his Bills debut in front of the home fans against the New Orleans Saints — and they’re going to need him. Rookie Zay Jones won’t play due to an ankle injury, which means Benjamin is likely to get as much as he can handle in the Bills offense. How much can we expect him to be out there? I’d think with now four practices, and a full week-and-a-half of hitting the playbook, it would be realistic for him to play in the 50-to-65 percent range of offensive snaps. Deonte Thompson walked in after being with the team for only four days to play 31-percent of offensive snaps in his first week. Expect Benjamin to be in on any and all red zone opportunities, and then on key third down situations. It will also be a good litmus test for Tyrod Taylor to see if he can push himself out of his comfort zone and to attempt more tight window throws — which is where Benjamin shines. As the Bills have been trying to establish themselves through the air all season long to help the running game, Benjamin could help them infinitely with clutch catches on third downs and in the end zone if given the opportunities. It will truly be fascinating to track his usage on Sunday.
3) Clay in, Cordy out
- The Bills were greeted with great news a couple of weeks ahead of this game: starting tight end Charles Clay — and their most productive pass catcher through the first five games — started to practice for the first time since his knee injury. He’s been doing so every day since, and the Bills believe that Clay will be ready to go against the New Orleans Saints — giving them a huge piece of the offense back. However, it might not be fair to expect Clay to have as big of a role as he did before the injury — at least not in his first week back. The Bills recognize how important he is to the operation and they’re going to need him for the entirety of the second half of the season, which might mean they ease him back into action against the Saints. He’ll still have a notable presence in the lineup and will likely get the official start, but don’t be surprised to see Nick O’Leary as the lone tight end more than you’re used to when Clay is available. On the downside, the Bills will be without left tackle Cordy Glenn once again due to the ever-lingering ankle and foot soreness that he’s been dealing with. In his first two starts after the injury, Glenn was one of the best players on the field for the Bills — but took a definitive step back in the shortened week versus the Jets. That means rookie Dion Dawkins will make his fourth start of the season at left tackle, and I don’t think it’s going to make too much of a difference in this game — at least not in pass blocking. The Saints don’t exactly boast an overbearing pass rush for opposing teams, and Dawkins will mostly be lined up against Alex Okafor. While it won’t be a complete walk in the park and he’ll have his hands full in run blocking against Okafor, Dawkins should be able to keep a mostly clean pocket for Tyrod Taylor on Sunday.
4) Can the Bills fix their defensive problems up the middle?
- The New York Jets did a great job exploiting an under-the-radar weakness for the Bills on defense last Thursday. The Jets had their most success on the ground when running right up through the middle of the defense — and specifically right at the defensive tackles. The play of that position — even when Marcell Dareus was still with the team — is far below the level that we’ve seen in Buffalo for quite some time. Kyle Williams, over the last five games, has not looked like the dominant player we’ve come to know him as. He’s getting blocked off his spot far more than I’ve ever seen, and that’s helped lead to big gains for the opposition. The same can be said for both Adolphus Washington and Cedric Thornton, who really haven’t provided consistency to hold the point of attack in the middle of that defense. Washington has had more flash plays, but too often disappears when they need him. In relation to the upcoming matchup, the Saints will likely try to make the Bills prove that the defensive tackles have come to play with the impressive downhill running Mark Ingram going straight at them. To help compensate, the Bills instruct their linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage on running plays — which conversely is why the Bills sometimes get caught too far up the field on play action passes. Quietly, defensive tackle has become one of the weaker positions on the roster and likely needs to be addressed in the offseason. However, since they can’t do anything of substance about it now, the current quartet of defensive tackles have to prove Sunday that they can hold up and help their linebackers get the job done, otherwise Mark Ingram might just have himself a day.
5) Where the Bills can win
- Much like the Saints, one area the Bills can really have some success on the offensive side of the ball is running it right up through the middle of the Saints defense. Specifically, behind the trio of Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, and Vladimir Ducasse, the Bills can have some success running at the defensive tackles of the Saints to try and get LeSean McCoy going. However, one area I think they could get themselves into some trouble and lose yardage is if the Bills — or LeSean McCoy — try to force plays to the outside of the defense. Both Okafor and Cameron Jordan are quite good at setting the edge and containing the rusher to the inside of the line, which will limit huge plays from McCoy, but it still shouldn’t thwart his output entirely. The Bills just shouldn’t continue to bash their head against a concrete wall if it’s not there, so attacking the middle is likely their best bet. The Bills will also need some help from the passing offense to get an extra safety away from the line of scrimmage as the eighth man in the box, but with the additions of Benjamin and Clay to the lineup this week, there is likely to be more running room for McCoy up the middle of the field.
OUT: LT Cordy Glenn, WR Zay Jones
QUESTIONABLE: TE Charles Clay, CB E.J. Gaines, T Seantrel Henderson
OUT: S Kenny Vaccaro
QUESTIONABLE: OT Terron Armstead, G Larry Warford
Prediction: Saints over Bills
- I think the Bills will bounce back defensively against the Saints — particularly in the secondary — than from what we’ve seen the past few weeks on those down the field throws. However, against the two-man running back attack of Ingram and Kamara, I don’t know that the Bills have enough talent on the defensive side of the ball to stop that duo. The Saints will try to pound the ball inside with Ingram and make the Bills prove that they can stop it, and the broken tackle machine Kamara must be accounted for anytime he leaves the backfield. The Saints lack of a dependence on deeper throws this season limits the potential for interceptions for the Bills — which is something that they’ll need to come out on top. However, I do think the Bills will have some success on the offensive side of the ball against the Saints, which leads me to believe this is going to be a fairly close game. If they commit to it, McCoy can really have some success in the middle of the field, while both Clay and Benjamin can have a solid impact against some mismatches when they’re on the field. In the end, though, I think the Saints win by a touchdown or maybe a little bit less, mostly due to their highly efficient offense.