- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.