NEW ORLEANS -- What has been a tough October schedule for the Buffalo Bills will soon be over, but not before a trip to the Superdome to take on the New Orleans Saints.
On the road against a 5-1 team, this might be the Bills' greatest challenge this season. At 3-4, a win would push Buffalo to an even record through the first half of the season, keeping them in the hunt in a tight AFC East.
This game also serves as a reunion for Doug Marrone, who served as offensive coordinator of the Saints from 2006-2008. Marrone worked under current Saints coach Sean Payton and coached quarterback Drew Brees, so the familiarity between the opposing coaches runs deep.
Here's what to watch for:
1. Can Jackson shoulder load? The strongest indication that running back C.J. Spiller won't play Sunday came on Friday, when he was officially declared doubtful for the game. Spiller has played under 25 percent of offensive snaps in each of the past three games, as he's been dealing with a "nagging" ankle injury, so while he's been able to contribute for a few plays a game, his potential absence won't significantly alter the Bills' game plan. But with Fred Jackson's knee taking another hit last Sunday, this is probably the thinnest the Bills have been at running back. It's unlikely Jackson can play a full workload, so expect more of Tashard Choice (or even Ronnie Wingo, elevated from the practice squad Friday) than in past games.
2. How does Pettine scheme against Brees? Other than the ongoing health concerns at running back, the biggest consideration for the Bills in this game is stopping Drew Brees and the Saints' potent offense. It's a challenge any week, but as Tim Graham of the Buffalo News pointed out Friday, the Saints are averaging 41.5 points the past four seasons in the game after their bye week. The Bills allow 25.4 points on defense, 22nd in the NFL, so unless Thad Lewis can go toe-to-toe with Brees in a shoot-out, the Bills will need to play nearly flawless defense, generating turnovers in key situations. The Bills and Saints have both excelled in that area this season; they are tied for sixth in the NFL with a plus-5 turnover differential.
3. Special teams spark? If the Bills want to pull out a win in the Superdome, they'll most likely need scoring from more than just their offense. If they can't get it from their defense, perhaps they'll get it from special teams. The Saints rank 27th in the NFL in kickoff coverage, allowing opposing returners to gain 26.2 yards per return. We all saw the explosive potential of receiver Marquise Goodwin in the preseason. Now that he's back from a hand injury, the Bills would get a big boost if he can rip off a touchdown return on Sunday.
4. Stopping Sproles: All eyes may be on Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and his availability for Sunday, but he isn't the only offensive weapon in New Orleans. Running back Darren Sproles is averaging 11.4 yards per reception, his highest average since his career in San Diego. The Bills have been inconsistent tackling in recent weeks, especially in their Week 6 loss to the Bengals, so corralling Sproles will be among their defensive priorities on Sunday. Mike Pettine's defensive packages typically use only one or two linebackers on most plays, but he might consider leaning towards using another linebacker or a safety to shadow Sproles in this game.