Buffalo Bills: drew brees

W2W4: Bills at Saints

October, 25, 2013
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.

Marrone-Payton connection still strong

October, 24, 2013
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It's been five years since Doug Marrone served as the offensive coordinator in New Orleans, but when he heard the familiar voice of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton on a conference call with Buffalo Bills reporters Wednesday, he couldn't resist the chance to poke fun at his former boss.

"This is Doug Marrone from the Bronx Times," the now-Bills head coach said, leaning into the speakerphone.

"I recognize that voice," Payton responded. "They just let anybody in there, don't they?"

Earlier in the call, Payton noted that Marrone -- along with Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen -- were among coaches who helped get the "program" off the ground in New Orleans. The Saints wound up winning a Super Bowl the year after Marrone departed for Syracuse in 2009, but the two maintain close ties.

"Sean and [general manager] Mickey [Loomis] and the guys there made me feel more a part of [the Super Bowl win] than I probably was," Marrone said. "They called me, invited me, come to the Super Bowl. Asked me if I needed anything. ‘Miss you, you’re a big part of this, we want you to know.’ I think that’s the type of people they are. They’re just good people. They didn’t have to call; they didn’t have to say anything. They didn’t have to make me feel that way. Those are the types of people they are and I have a great appreciation for that."

Marrone said he couldn't make the trip for the Saints' win over the Indianapolis Colts because he was on the recruiting trail, but had he had time, he would have joined Payton in Miami.

Shortly after Payton and Marrone joined the Saints in 2006, they invested heavily in Drew Brees, who arrived via a free-agent deal from San Diego. Brees has gone to six Pro Bowls since and is held in highest regard by his former coach, Marrone.

"[The success of the Saints offense] starts with Drew. I think he’s an outstanding competitor. I was very fortunate to be around him," Marrone said. "Many people don’t know that he defeated Andy Roddick in tennis when he was in high school. That’s the type of athlete and competitor that he is."

Now running the show in Buffalo, Marrone has taken on the challenge of developing a rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel. In doing so, he hopes to draw the experience of coaching Brees from 2006-2008.

"When you think about it, people like Drew, and I can’t speak for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning because I haven’t been around them in that type of setting, but when you look at what does a quarterback need to do to get himself ready, how does he handle his business off the field as well as on the field, how about his leadership?" Marrone said. "I always feel fortunate to be with someone like that because at least you know how it should be done."

With an injury sidelining Manuel for the next several weeks, Marrone must prepare Thad Lewis, in just his fourth career start, to go head-to-head with Brees in the Superdome.

It's not an easy task, but for Marrone, whatever success he achieves as a head coach he will one day trace back, in part, to his days in New Orleans.

"I always appreciated, one Mr. Benson and I were kind of back to back, I always appreciated what he did for me," he said. "Sean and I, we had a working relationship and we had a close friendship. To be close to him and see what he went through as a head coach was obviously very helpful. ... I was very fortunate to have that and it’s been a big part of who I am today and what I’ve learned."