3TFO: Bills @ Saints, Week 8
Two weeks removed from their first loss of the season, the New Orleans Saints continue their tour of the AFC East — after a bye to mull over their heartbreaking loss to the Patriots. With injury questions at several key positions, a game the Saints may normally look to win fairly comfortably looks to be a more evenly matched contest. New Orleans does stand two games above any of its division rivals, though playoff seeding has to start creeping into players’ minds, and a win here will be important before a rough stretch where they must face four teams each with a winning record in a five week span.
Buffalo is still without starting quarterback E.J. Manuel, but respectable performances out of Thaddeus Lewis has alleviated some of the concern. Much like the Saints, the Bills have injury worries of their own, with injuries at the running back position hampering the effectiveness of their ground game. Wins are crucial for Buffalo, as the AFC East is shaping up to be a very competitive division. Here are some keys to the game this Sunday.
Will C.J. Spiller Finally get going?
With the inexperienced Lewis under center, Buffalo must look to establish the running game early in order to alleviate pressure on their young signal caller. Preseason promises were made that C.J. Spiller would see the lion’s share of the workload, but due to injury concerns, Spiller hasn’t seen more than 40% of the team’s offensive snaps since week 2. It’s been Fred Jackson taking these snaps (as was the norm last year), and his performance this year backs it up. His Elusive Rating of 34.3 is nearly double that of his teammate (17.6) and is eighth out of 26 qualifying backs.
Poached from division rival Atlanta in 2012, Curtis Lofton leads the charge at linebacker for the Saints. Manning the middle of the defense, Lofton has tallied 15 stops in run defense, good for a Run Stop Percentage of 11.8, 11th out of 51 qualifying inside linebackers. And while he’s only seen the field on about one quarter of the Saints’ defensive snaps, Parys Haralson has been every bit the run defender he showed he could be in San Francisco, registering a Run Stop Percentage of 10.0, fifth best at the position. If the Bills favor more run-oriented personnel packages this weekend then Haralson could well make his presence felt with increased playing time.
Darren Sproles vs. Kiko Alonso
Drew Brees may be second in the NFL with six touchdowns on deep passes, but it’s often the short passes to running backs that help set up the deep ball. A big part of that is Darren Sproles. Not only does he lead all running backs with a +10.3 receiving grade, he also leads in receiving yards and yards per route run at 366 and 2.93 respectively. For perspective, 2.93 YPRR would put him at second among wide receivers. Adding that Sproles has yet to drop any of the 32 catchable balls thrown his way, and you have possibly the most dangerous receiving back in the game today.
Lucky for the Bills, they have a vibrant young playmaker of their own in Kiko Alonso. Official game time stat tracking may inflate his tackle numbers, but there’s no denying the rookie has made his impact felt on this defense. His four interceptions put him in a two way tie for first among all linebackers, and it hasn’t just been splash plays for Alonso. He’s been one of the best inside linebackers in coverage, allowing a reception just once every 20.8 snaps he’s asked to play in coverage.
Can the Bills Disrupt Brees’ Rhythm?
With one of the best quarterbacks in the league at throwing a receiver open, the best way to clip the wings of New Orleans’ vaunted passing attack may be to prevent him from ever getting that throw off. Buffalo has solid talent among their pass rushers that should make this a distinct possibility, as four defenders have a pass rushing grade above +5.0 so far this year. The prize of the 2012 free agent class, Mario Williams made his presence felt last week with a strip sack to secure the win and his 11 sacks lead all 3-4 outside linebackers on the year. Teammate Jerry Hughes has quietly had himself a good year rushing the passer. He may not have the same sack total as his Williams, but his Pass Rushing Productivity of 14.7 is better than Williams’ PRP. For an interior rush, the Bills look to none other than Kyle Williams, whose PRP of 9.6, while lower than his teammates outside, is still third at his position.
The Saints possess one of the better pass blocking offensive lines in the game, but they may be in trouble if right tackle Zach Strief is unable to play or is hindered by his ankle. In 227 pass blocking snaps, Strief has surrendered just seven total pressures, and while that level of protection has been missed, backup Bryce Harris has filled in respectably. Things aren’t going quite as well across the line, where left tackle Charles Brown has allowed three sacks and 18 further pressures, though it’s worth noting that that’s four fewer pressures than Jermon Bushrod has for the Bears on a few more snaps. Between the tackles, play has been as solid as ever though. Outside of a terrible game by backup guard Tim Lelito¸ the trio in the middle has only caused Brees to hit the deck eight times in all.