New Orleans Saints: fred jackson

W2W4: Bills at Saints

October, 26, 2013
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints’ defense has been outstanding this season. But they’re about to start getting tested in some different ways. The visiting Buffalo Bills (3-4) are by far the most run-heavy team the Saints (5-1) will have faced. And with a mobile quarterback in Thad Lewis, Buffalo will also throw more read-option looks at the Saints than they’ve seen all year.

These two new wrinkles lead off this week’s installment of What 2 Watch 4:

Stopping the run: The Saints look like they’re going to catch a break Sunday, since dynamic Buffalo tailback C.J. Spiller is listed as doubtful with an ankle injury. But that won’t stop Buffalo from running. Even with Spiller limited by injury for most of the season, the Bills have simply leaned more on underrated veteran Fred Jackson.

The Bills lead the NFL in rushing attempts per game this year (34.3) and rank fifth in rushing yards per game (140.4). The Saints haven’t faced a team ranked in the top 12 in either category.

“I believe that’s their m.o. They’re gonna run and then ask questions later,” Saints rookie nose tackle John Jenkins said. “So it is gonna be interesting, but that’s what I like to say: I’m good at is being able to stop the run.”

The Saints' defense has been just so-so against the run, ranking 22nd in the league in allowing 114 yards per game. But defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has admitted that he’s been willing to live with some of those rushing yards while focusing more on preventing the big plays.

This game will be different. The Bills will stubbornly try to move the chains and control possession with the run game. So stopping the run has to be the top priority. And the Saints certainly won’t sleep on Jackson, who has run for 380 yards and five touchdowns this season despite battling through his own knee injury. Ryan raved about him Friday – and no doubt has been warning his players about him all week.

“I’m like one of the biggest Jackson fans around,” Ryan said. “This guys has been a great player for a long time. … If [Spiller] doesn’t play, they’ve got an All-Pro right there behind him. That’s my opinion. Jackson does everything well. He runs, he catches, he blocks. He’s tough.”

Stopping the read-option: Lewis hasn’t been a huge rushing threat from the quarterback position, especially since he was hampered by his own foot injury last week. But the Bills will definitely mix in more read-option plays than the Saints have seen so far. It will be a good warm-up test for them, since they still have mobile quarterbacks such as Geno Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice) ahead on the schedule.

The Saints spent a lot of time this offseason preparing to defend the read-option. But those plans have been on the back burner so far.

“I think that was one of the hot-button topics for every defense this offseason. We were no exception,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But how teams run the football from those looks and play-action passes from those looks can vary, so it still becomes opponent-specific.”

Buying time for Brees: When Saints quarterback Drew Brees was asked what stands out about the Bills, he answered instantly: “They are getting all kinds of pressure on the quarterback.”

Buffalo’s dynamic pass-rusher Mario Williams, who has 10 sacks already, isn't the only one wreaking havoc up front. The Bills are tied for fourth in the NFL with 23 sacks. And they lead the league with 12 interceptions – thanks in large part to that pass rush.

The Saints’ pass protection has been much more solid in recent weeks after an uncharacteristically shaky start. But this may be their toughest test to date in that department, as well.

Sproles vs. Alonso: If tight end Jimmy Graham is out or limited Sunday, the Saints' go-to weapon will probably be running back Darren Sproles. He leads all NFL running backs with 366 receiving yards on 32 catches.

It will be interesting to see how often Sproles gets matched up against rookie Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has been one of the league’s biggest breakout surprises this season. Alonso ranks third in the league with 70 tackles and is tied for the lead with four interceptions.

Get to know the Buffalo Bills

October, 21, 2013
A home date with the Buffalo Bills (3-4) certainly seems like a favorable matchup for the New Orleans Saints (5-1). But the Bills have proven to be a tough out this year -- even while dealing with a barrage of injuries at key positions like quarterback, running back and in the secondary. All but one of their games has been decided by seven points or less.

The Bills just pulled out a come-from-behind 23-21 victory at Miami this past Sunday. Fittingly, the turning point came when defensive end Mario Williams sacked Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and forced a fumble. Williams has been the Bills’ best player with 10 sacks this year, and Buffalo’s pass rush has been the strength of the team.

The Bills’ offense has been more hit or miss. But fourth-year journeyman quarterback Thad Lewis has done an admirable job keeping the team competitive the past two weeks after rookie starter EJ Manuel suffered a knee injury. Lewis will likely start again Sunday, but recently-signed veteran Matt Flynn is also a possibility.

Here are a few more details on the Bills:

This week’s game: Bills (3-4) at Saints (5-1), 1 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Series history: The Saints lead the all-time series 5-4, and they haven't lost to Buffalo since 1998. The Saints have won three straight, including their last meeting in Buffalo in 2009, 27-7. ... This will actually be the first time they've played in the Superdome since that 1998 game. The last "home game" for the Saints in the series was in San Antonio's Alamodome in 2005, where the Saints had evacuated after Hurricane Katrina.

Worth noting: First-year Bills coach Doug Marrone spent three seasons as the Saints’ offensive coordinator/offensive line coach from 2006-08 before going back to college to become Syracuse’s head coach. Marrone was part of Sean Payton’s first staff in New Orleans in ’06 and helped build the foundation for their Super Bowl squad.

Three players to know on offense:

QB Thad Lewis: A former undrafted free agent from Duke, Lewis spent time with the St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions before being traded to Buffalo in late August. He took over as the Bills’ starter in Week 6 and kept them close in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals with two touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a touchdown run.

Lewis suffered a foot injury in that game, and he wasn’t quite as effective in the win over Miami, with no touchdowns and one interception. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder is known as a mobile quarterback with a strong arm. He has thrown for 418 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions and run for 30 yards with one TD this season.

RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson: Spiller is a dynamic athlete who was expected to be the Bills’ featured weapon this year as a runner and receiver. But a nagging ankle injury has limited him to 362 rushing yards, 36 receiving yards and one total touchdown. Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Jackson has found the fountain of youth -- even while dealing with a nagging knee injury of his own that was aggravated during the win over the Dolphins. Jackson has run for 380 yards and five touchdowns, while catching 25 passes for 215 yards.

New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich recently used the duo as a comparison for the Saints’ versatile tailbacks, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. However, the Bills are more of a run-first team. They rank fifth in the NFL with 140.4 rushing yards per game.

Three players to know on defense:

DE Mario Williams: The former No. 1 pick in the NFL draft by the Houston Texans is off to the best start of his eight-year career. His 10 sacks are the most in Bills history through seven games -- one better than Hall of Famer Bruce Smith’s best start. And his sack-fumble in the final minutes Sunday at Miami led directly to a victory. The 6-foot-6, 292-pound athlete had a decent season last year (10.5 sacks) after signing a blockbuster free-agent deal with the Bills that was reportedly worth up to $100 million. But this year, he’s really starting to pay dividends.

LB Kiko Alonso: The second-round draft pick out of Oregon is making a strong case for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year honor. The 6-3, 238-pounder is tied for the league lead with four interceptions and ranks third with 70 tackles. He also has a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

S Jim Leonhard: The ninth-year veteran wasn’t able to crack the Saints roster at a deep position this summer. But it’s no surprise he quickly found a home. The active 5-8, 188-pounder has three interceptions this season, all in the past five games. He has started three of the past four games. He has also been a part-time punt returner.