I've written "Drew Brees is coming to town" so often (and so ominously) over the past few days that I feel a little bit as if Brees will show up at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday - when his New Orleans Saints take on our Buffalo Bills - donning hood and toting scythe rather than wearing Saints colors. It's true - the Saints' offense, orchestrated by Brees, is excellent, and they present a tremendous challenge for Buffalo's No. 28-ranked defense this week.
Under Dick Jauron, Buffalo has played high-octane offenses at home early in the season before. The most recent example came in Week 7 of 2008, when the 3-3 San Diego Chargers visited a 4-1 Bills team fresh off of its bye week. Though they were struggling as a team at the time, the Chargers' offense had been dominant to that point in the season. Buffalo handled them well in beating the Chargers 23-14 - a win that would be their last for quite some time.
Though the situations aren't precisely the same - this Saints team is a much more dangerous foe than that Chargers team - many of the principles the Bills game planned and employed in victory translate well to a potential victory over New Orleans as well.
Comparing the situations
The 2008 Chargers, entering Week 7, were 3-3 - but their offense was outstanding. The team was putting up 30 points per game. QB Philip Rivers entered the game with a 109.4 quarterback rating, 1,439 yards, 14 TD and just 4 INT. LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles were dangerous, as was Antonio Gates. We fretted for an entire week prior to kickoff about whether or not Buffalo's banged-up secondary (Terrence McGee was inactive and Ashton Youboty did not play) could handle Rivers and the Chargers' passing attack.
Buffalo, at that point, was 4-1, coming off of a bye week preceded by an ugly 41-17 loss to Arizona, and QB Trent Edwards was fresh off of a lovely concussion. Aaron Schobel was out. The Bills entered the game with just three healthy corners - Jabari Greer, Leodis McKelvin (who had not yet made a start), and Reggie Corner (likewise). The Bills, largely on the heels of playing some pretty terrible teams in their first five games, were surrendering 299 yards per game. Hodgepodge secondary and missing their best pass rusher? Rivers was in for a field day!
Yeah, that didn't happen. We'll get to why in a moment. It's important to understand, however, that as it appears right now, this Saints offense is significantly better than that Chargers offense. Their line is better, their quarterback is better, and they've got a wider variety of playmakers. The opportunity still exists to contain this team well enough for a win, and to do so, much of what they did against San Diego will need to be replicated.
Key factors in holding SD in check
Limit possessions. The Chargers had the ball only eight significant times in that game; a kneel-down to end the first half is being discounted. The Bills forced three punts and three turnovers on those drives; on the other two, the Chargers scored touchdowns. Right now, the Saints are averaging 12.5 possessions per game. They'll struggle to drop their average of 46 points on us if they only have the ball eight times, won't they?
Control the ball. Note that that doesn't say control the clock. Just control the ball. Buffalo had the ball for over 35 minutes in their win over San Diego, and they did it by running marginally well (the Bills couldn't run the ball to save their lives at the start of the '08 season) and, more importantly, throwing the ball effectively. Edwards completed 20 of 25 passes and was efficient throughout. The turnovers helped time of possession as well.
Get turnovers or get off the field. San Diego's offense converted 7 of 11 third-down opportunities in that game. How, then, did Buffalo control time of possession? Easy - they forced the Chargers to turn the ball over three times, and they made up for their rather average 6 of 13 mark on third-down conversions themselves by avoiding turnovers (and committing just five penalties). You have to have one or the other - turnovers or solid numbers on third down. If the Bills can't get Brees to make mistakes, they'd better not let him sustain drives on third downs.
We were aggressive. Just as he did last week against Tampa Bay, Perry Fewell gave Rivers and Norv Turner a lot of different looks and plenty of blitzes. Rivers ended up completing 22 of 29 passes for 208 yards, but particularly late in the game, pressure forced him into bad throws and turnovers. More aggression is needed from Fewell's units, particularly in the secondary, if a similar outcome is to occur this weekend.
The usual caveats
Again - these Saints are better than those Chargers, both overall and in several very important areas, the biggest of those being quarterback. The situations aren't exact, either - the Bills had more game tape and more knowledge of their own personnel heading into the game.
But I think it's fair to say that this Bills team is better than last year's version as well - we're still not sure how much better, but they're better. The fact that the Bills of old were able to contain - quite well, actually - an excellent Chargers offense means nothing when guessing if they'll be able to do it again this weekend. But it proves that sound, fundamental football can work. The Bills were not overwhelming in that game, but they forced mistakes, capitalized on them, and didn't make mistakes themselves.
If you feel like I'm beating you over the head preaching fundamentals, it's because I am. I apologize if you have a headache. But creativity and luck, while helpful, won't allow the Bills to beat the Saints. Tried-and-tested methods will. Football is an incredibly complex sport, but emerging victorious is simple - if you follow the fundamentals. Buffalo did against San Diego. If they can replicate that this weekend, they'll have a chance to contain Brees and his offense enough to sneak out a win.