The 2013 Buffalo Bills are a hard team to figure out. They're wonderfully competent in some areas, featuring one of the NFL's best rushing offenses, a defense that makes a lot of plays, and a fairly consistent competitive streak on a weekly basis - even while playing with a backup quarterback under center. They're also just 3-4, on the fringes of the AFC playoff picture despite their strengths, with clear areas of weakness - chief among them youth. One gets the feeling, when watching them, that they're better than their record indicates, but also not quite ready for prime time.
Buffalo hasn't been to the playoffs since 1999; over the last 13-plus seasons, we have become intimately familiar with what a bad football team looks like here in Western New York. After seven games, we can reasonably come to the conclusion that, despite having faced a large amount of adversity so far this year, these Bills are not a bad football team. What remains to be seen is exactly how good they are, and the 5-1 New Orleans Saints - hosting the Bills this weekend, and considered a legitimate contender for a Super Bowl appearance in a loaded NFC - should provide a good launching point to that discussion.
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Marrone returns to New Orleans
Prior to becoming the head coach in Buffalo, Doug Marrone's big break at the NFL level came as the chief offensive understudy to Sean Payton in New Orleans, where he served as the coordinator and line coach between 2006-08. From there, Marrone left to become the head coach at Syracuse for four seasons, and he'll return to Louisiana with his Bills to take on his former boss this weekend.
Not a whole lot has been made of Marrone's return to New Orleans this week; it's been a half-decade since Marrone coached under Payton, and the two coaches have spoken in platitudes about their time spent together. Far more compelling than the people involved in the reunion is the type of teams we'll see on the field; the Saints are very similar schematically to what the Bills aspire to be, with the obvious advantage of having seven-plus seasons under their belts on offense.
The similarities are more recent on defense, where Rob Ryan installed his system just this past off-season - to great immediate success, by the way - but it's on offense where the true similarities lie. Marrone learned at the right hand of Payton for three seasons, borrowing an offense with West Coast principles with a dash of vertical concepts, then marrying that system with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's up-tempo and read-option approach for his own twist on the scheme. If you watch the Bills and the Saints on tape, you'll note a ton of similarities in route combinations play-calling. That all stems from Marrone's time in New Orleans.
Buffalo may aspire to be New Orleans, and that's not a bad thing - the Saints have been among the NFL's best franchises since Payton took over in 2006, winning a championship along the way. How far the Bills have to go before they're at that level remains the big question.
Saints offense vs. Bills defense
The Saints' wealth of offensive skill talent presents defenses with a lot of problems, but the offense starts, of course, with quarterback Drew Brees. He and Payton have become an institution in New Orleans; they're currently ranked No. 6 in the NFL in total offense, haven't been ranked lower than sixth since Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, and have been the top-ranked offense in the NFL four times in that eight-year window.
Brees has emerged as one of the NFL's best signal-callers under Payton, making six Pro Bowls and throwing for 258 touchdowns and counting since leaving San Diego after the 2005 season. He's the proverbial point guard for one of the league's most diverse and well-stocked skill talent pools; the Saints feature dynamic talent (tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles), complementing it with consistent and heady stick-movers with a flair for the dramatic (Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas, and too many more names to count over the years).
New Orleans is a bit more pass-happy under Payton than the Bills are under Marrone - wouldn't you be, too, if you had Brees under center? - but their offensive concepts are the same. They run to maintain balance, doing so with a good deal of efficiency, and are tremendously difficult to cover in the passing game. Buffalo's job will become easier if Graham, injured two weeks ago in a tight road loss to New England, can't play through a foot injury - but that doesn't mean the job will be easy at all. Coston is a matchup problem working out of the slot, and Sproles moves all over the formation himself.
The Bills finally have a defensive identity under new coordinator Mike Pettine: they'll mix coverages and disguise pressures to try to confuse offenses into mistakes. Against elite quarterbacks, the goal is to harass and create a dip in efficiency. It worked against Tom Brady in Week 1, when he threw 23 incomplete passes and turned the ball over twice, and the Bills will try to expand on that success against Brees. Where Brady has a shortage of skill talent this year, however, Brees has it in excess - so if Mario Williams and company can't hit Brees, they had better tackle much better on the back end than they have in recent weeks. If the Bills continue to miss tackles as they did against Cincinnati and especially Miami, they are in for a world of hurt against the Saints.
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Bills offense vs. Saints defense
If the Bills are going to compete against the Saints, who feature by far the most dynamic offense that the team has faced this season, then they're going to have to get a high degree of competence and efficiency out of their offense, led by quarterback Thad Lewis. The Bills have had major consistency problems on that side of the ball all season - quarterback changes and general youth will do that to you - and asking the team to slow down the pace a bit and chew away clock against an exotic defense like Ryan's is a tough assignment, indeed.
New Orleans had a historically awful defense a year ago, giving up over 440 yards per game en route to a 7-9 finish. Their fortunes have changed under Ryan, and despite several key players (namely Kenyon Coleman, Will Smith, Victor Butler, Jonathan Vilma and Patrick Robinson) unavailable due to injury. The Saints are now allowing 338 yards per game to opposing offenses, with players like defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, pass rusher Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro emerging as legitimate difference-makers within Ryan's scheme.
Buffalo will have seen a lot of Ryan's defensive looks, having already played his brother Rex once this season and practicing against a similar defense several days per week. You'll recall the team struggling against the New York Jets in Week 3, and while the Saints' defense is not as talented as the Jets', the scheme creates many of the same problems. Lewis will need to be much more efficient than he has been - and the ball needs to come out of his hands faster, as evidenced by nine sacks taken in two starts - and the running game will need to click to keep Brees and the Saints off the field.
This season, Buffalo's offensive efficiency will always hinge on the run, and they're coming off of a season-low 90-yard effort against Miami. Plus, there's a better than good chance that C.J. Spiller won't be available this weekend with an ankle injury. At best, he'll be severely limited, and Fred Jackson is also playing through a knee sprain. Buffalo will continue to run the football - if Spiller doesn't go, they'll lean on Jackson and their depth players - but if they don't improve in that area from where they were last week, an awful lot of the game plan will fall on Lewis' right arm, and that's exactly where the Saints want it to be.
All-22 film review
Payton excels at creating mismatches offensively; this season specifically, he has been using Graham (who, again, may not play on Sunday) and Sproles to create winnable matchups against any coverage while setting up the screen game. Flip through the gallery above for an intricate look at how Graham, the best tight end in the business, has dictated coverages and opened up big plays for his teammates, and how Payton has riffed off of that to create big plays for his other skill players.
The aforementioned Williams, who is currently tied for second in the NFL with 10 sacks through seven games (he had 10.5 in all of 2012), spearheads a much more productive Bills pass rush that has recorded 23 sacks so far this season. The Bills will likely rush four the majority of the day against New Orleans, keeping as many players in coverage as possible, but if you flip through the gallery above, you can see glimpses of not just how the Bills keep Williams on the move to free him up, but how Williams' presence has made life much easier for his teammates this season.
Two sleeper Saints
WR Kenny Stills. Rookie receivers don't often break into New Orleans' offense right away, but this fifth-round pick has made some waves in his first pro season. He has just 10 receptions so far this season, but has proven himself an explosive vertical threat in his limited action. When we last saw Stills, he was catching a late fourth-quarter touchdown pass in New England on a play that looked like a game-winner. Stills, along with another little-used receiver in Nick Toon, is the type of player, a la Cincinnati's Marvin Jones, that can spring up out of nowhere and hurt a team.
S Rafael Bush. Like the Bills under Pettine, the Saints are known for using multiple-safety looks under Ryan. Veteran defensive back Roman Harper has been out of the lineup for several weeks with a knee injury, and with the first-round pick Vaccaro sliding into the starting lineup next to Malcolm Jenkins, it's been Bush that has seen more reps in the defense as the third safety. The 5'11", 200-pound former undrafted free agent is in his second season with the Saints, but hasn't ever had a role this big before - and if the banged-up Saints are going to give up plays to Buffalo's offense, Bush seems like a prime player for Hackett and Lewis to target.
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Two sleeper Bills
RB Tashard Choice. With Spiller not likely to be a factor and Jackson somewhat hobbled, it'll be up to Choice to keep the Bills productive on the ground. In a limited role this season, Choice has done a nice job keeping the offense regular, showing nice burst on some runs despite averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Spiller is the team's big-play back, and with Jackson likely to be used in the screen game a bunch, Choice may see more carries - and he'll be expected to continue his consistent play and provide balance to an offense that will need all it can get to make plays in the passing game.
LB Nigel Bradham. When outside linebacker Manny Lawson went down with a hamstring injury in Week 6, Bradham's role increased dramatically on defense. Lawson suffered a setback in his rehab of a different hamstring injury this week, and given that Bradham is part of the defense's speed package - they bring him in against certain personnel, and could provide a good foil for some seam work the Saints will try - the chances seem good that we'll see him a lot on Sunday. If that comes to fruition, the Saints will target him, so the team needs a big effort out of No. 53 this week.
Through seven games, the Bills have played six games decided by one score, are one of only two NFL teams to score 20 points in each game this season, and are quickly becoming notorious for playing any and all opponents competitively. That streak will be challenged this week, with the Saints holding a massive advantage over the Bills on the offensive side of the football. Add in one of the league's most dramatic home-field advantages and the fact that the Bills are likely to be playing without their two most important players on offense, and it's tough to envision the Bills hanging with the Saints for long on Sunday. If they do, however, it should be considered another notable step in the development of a young football team - and these Bills have a way of responding when they're underestimated. Saints 34, Bills 17