BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The Buffalo Bills travel to their Week 8 game versus the New Orleans Saints with a 3-4 record, having secured a big win last week against the Miami Dolphins. While the Dolphins are not championship contenders, the Bills had been unable to win many games on the road over the past couple of seasons, especially within the division, so while it might be a small step for the Bills, it is a significant one in terms of providing their fan base with some needed confidence.
Sunday’s game, however, will be a bigger test. With a prolific offense and a rapidly improving defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints are one of the better teams in the NFC. If the Bills could pull out a win against New Orleans and get back to .500, it could be a turning point for the franchise.
Injuries to Key Players
Injuries have been a story for the Bills all season, and Week 8 is no exception.
Running back C.J. Spiller is not expected to suit up for the Bills this week. He is listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report and sat out practice all week, and the team signed Ronnie Wingo off the practice squad, presumably to take Spiller’s place on the active gameday roster.
If Spiller sits out, it would be a good decision for the long term, giving him time to rest his injured ankle and hopefully come back as explosive as he was last season. On Sunday, however, it leaves the Bills with only Tashard Choice, Fred Jackson, who is listed as probable with a knee injury, and Wingo to carry the load. Those running backs need to be effective for the Bills to win, as the Saints are most vulnerable on the ground, allowing 5.1 yards per carry, the second-highest average against any NFL run defense.
Starting outside linebacker Manny Lawson is also listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game, while quarterback EJ Manuel remains out.
On the other end, the Saints might also be without one of their key offensive players, tight end Jimmy Graham, for the weekend. Coming off of a bye week after suffering a foot injury versus the New England Patriots, Graham participated in a limited practice on Friday, and is listed as questionable. Even if Graham were to suit up, he is unlikely to be at 100 percent, which could be a big advantage for the Bills since he is easily the Saints’ most dynamic playmaker on offense.
Can Bills Secondary Contain Drew Brees?
Regardless of who has been catching passes, quarterback Drew Brees has always been successful in New Orleans. In Saints coach Sean Payton’s open offensive attack, Brees has thrown more than 4,000 yards in each of his first seven seasons in New Orleans. For a Bills team that has been banged up and taken advantage of in the secondary, this could pose a big problem.
The good news for the Bills is that their injured defensive backs (Jairus Byrd, Stephon Gilmore, Ron Brooks) all came back from injury in the last two weeks. This Sunday would be a great time for them to find their groove and get back to game speed. If they can prevent deep passes and force the Saints to sustain long drives, they can force the Saints to depend more on their running game, which has never been the strength of Payton’s teams.
Continued success of Thad Lewis
When EJ Manuel went down against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5, many Bills fans thought any chances the team had of contending had ended. Fellow rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel barely looked passable as the Bills blew a 24-17 lead to lose 37-24 to the Browns. But since Thad Lewis has been elevated from the practice squad to start at quarterback, the Bills offense has been surprisingly OK.
Lewis showed grit and some real passing accuracy against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6, and then showed the same amount of confidence in making key plays late against the Dolphins in Week 7. He does not single-handedly take over games like Brees, but he has kept the Bills competitive because he limits his mistakes.
According to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, Lewis watched extra film this week with Stevie Johnson, the Bills’ No. 1 wide receiver, in an effort to build up more of a rapport with an important target on his offense. If Lewis can show improved chemistry with Johnson and the rest of his wide receivers, and continue to limit his mistakes, the Bills should be able to hang in most games.
Marques Colston vs. Stephon Gilmore
Playing with a club on his injured wrist in his first two games back after missing the Bills’ first five games of the season, cornerback Stephon Gilmore has struggled.
As a physical cornerback, Gilmore needs his hands to be able to contain opposing wide receivers’ routes and to make plays on the ball. With only one hand at his disposal last week, Gilmore was beaten on multiple occasions by Dolphins wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, as Gilmore’s inability to feel the receiver seemed to have him off balance at times.
If Graham is out, or limited, Brees will be looking the way of wide receiver Marques Colston often. A physical receiver, Colston is unlikely to leave Gilmore in the dust with his speed, but if he can use his physical strength and Gilmore can’t, it might prove to be a disadvantage for the Bills. If Gilmore can keep him closer and make Brees look to receivers Kenny Stills and Lance Moore more often, the Bills defense will be in better shape.
Mario Williams vs. Saints offensive line
Mario Williams has been on a tear. The eighth-year player is on pace for a career season; his 10 sacks in seven games are not only four short of his season-high total of 14 sacks (2007), but on pace to break the NFL’s single-season sack record.
Williams abused Dolphins right tackle Tyson Clabo last week; he sacked Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill twice and on the second, he forced a fumble that led to the Bills victory. In part due to Mike Pettine’s aggressive scheme, in which the Bills line Williams up in a wide variety of spots, he has proven to be a match-up nightmare.
If the Bills have any shot of beating the Saints, they need to hurry Brees and make him feel uncomfortable in the pocket. That all starts with Super Mario.
The Buffalo Bills defense is better than many people believe, and the Bills offense is the only unit in the league besides the No. 1-ranked Denver Broncos offense that has put up 20 points in every game it has played thus far this season.
Going into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, however, is a tall task. In his third start with the Bills, it will easily be the most hostile environment Thad Lewis has had to play in thus far. The likely absence of Spiller, even if just for the illusion of his speed, will also be tough for the offense to overcome. The Bills are going to need to score points in bunches to keep up with New Orleans, and they are likely to have to do that without Spiller, their best home run hitter.
I think the game will be closer than many expect, but I do not think the Bills have played well enough in the secondary, or are healthy enough on offense, to pull out a win.
Saints 27, Bills 20