When the 5-1 New Orleans Saints host the 3-4 Buffalo Bills, it will be a meeting of two of the better offensive minds in football. Saints coach Sean Payton matches wits with former Saints offensive coordinator, and current Buffalo Bills coach, Doug Marrone—in what will undoubtedly provide a bit of a nostalgic feeling for fans of the Black and Gold.
Marrone studied under Payton from 2006 to 2009, before accepting the head coaching position at Syracuse University, where he remained until accepting Buffalo's offer prior to this season.
The combination of Payton, Marrone and Saints quarterback Drew Brees took the NFL by storm in the trio's inaugural season of 2006. Armed with a penchant for going downfield, while maintaining a semblance of the West Coast offense's horizontal pass structure, the Saints nearly went from worst to first as the offense paced the NFL a season after finishing 20th in total offense.
This will mark the second time this season that a former Saints staff member will match wits with Payton. Aaron Kromer, current Chicago Bears offensive coordinator and former Saints offensive line coach, helped torch the Saints to the tune of 434 total yards.
Don't expect that type of production from Buffalo, although taking these guys lightly could prove to be costly.
Coach Marrone has implemented a West Coast offense with run-and-shoot principles. Expect to see a lot of "11 personnel" groupings centered on a two-headed monster at running back.
Backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller form the most potent one-two punch in the league. Both are equally adept at operating in the pass game, as well as dominating in the run game. At 6'1", 216 pounds, Jackson has an uncanny blend of size, vision and agility.
His running style has the smoothness of a Matt Forte (Chicago Bears) and the grittiness of an Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings). His screen-game prowess is equal to that of Saints back Pierre Thomas. He's simply one of the most versatile football players in the entire league.
Spiller is the most exciting back in the NFL. Every time the Bills call on his services he's a threat to take it the distance. He's stout enough to carry the load (5'11", 200 lbs) and versatile enough to ensure he stays on the field. His 4.38 40-yard speed, according to NFL.com, makes him a blur, and his hands had the Bills' previous regime convinced he could be a receiver.
Marrone, along with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, have seemingly developed 1,000 different ways to get the ball to Spiller and Jackson. Expect a ton of screens, swings, sprints, draws, motions and reverses.
Buffalo is currently the fourth-ranked rushing attack in football, despite both Jackson (knee) and Spiller (ankle) being hobbled.
With Buffalo's offensive staff fresh off a stint in college, expect some college-based flavor in the form of scheme. Quarterback EJ Manuel (6'4", 237 lbs) is the perfect specimen for this type of hybrid offense with his ability to extend plays and break tackles. He's a pocket passer who is more than athletic enough to operate the option-based attack the Bills employ.
Fortunately for Saints fans, Manuel has a knee injury and won't partake in this contest. Unfortunately for Saints fans, backup QB Thad Lewis is a very similar player as far as skill set.
Lewis has proved to be just what the doctor ordered after being promoted from the practice squad. As a four-year starter at Duke University, Lewis was groomed under famed head coach David Cutcliffe, who once had the enviable task of coaching both Peyton Manning (University of Tennessee) and Eli Manning (University of Mississippi) in college.
Lewis is intelligent and accurate, with a strong arm and build. He's a pocket passer who can also operate the option. With the Saints being one of the more aggressive teams in the league, the option may prove to be their Achilles' heel.
Usually the QB is unaccounted for as a weapon in the offense. The Bills will often get defenses in 11-on-11 situations with the QB being a threat to make plays with his legs. If the line is undisciplined, the results could be damning.
The read-option is one of the most simple, yet effective, plays in football. The entire play is derived from how the defensive end initially reacts to the play. If the end crashes down in an attempt to tackle the running back, the QB will keep the ball. If the end stays at home to maintain QB contain, the QB will hand the ball off to the back.
Due to Buffalo's true commitment to the run; nine out of 10 times the end will react to the initial handoff. The last thing a team needs is Spiller or Jackson getting loose to the second level of a defense.
This particular still is no different. The end crashes hard in an attempt to corral Spiller.
If the end doesn't crash down, the back has one less player that has to be accounted for. If the end does crash, the QB gets out on the perimeter with not many tackles to break of their own. It's one of those lose-lose situations.
The problem compounds when a pass is added into the option. The Bills don't go to this set often, but when they do, it's extremely effective.
The Bills offensive line is athletic, but it really struggles in pass protection. It's a bit like the Saints in that it is a much better unit moving forward to run block rather than the opposite. If the Saints jump out to a lead, and render the Bills' attack one-dimensional, the Saints defensive line will have a feeding frenzy on Lewis.
If the line is able to hold up, the Bills have a bevy of threats as far as pass-catchers. Receiver Steve Johnson is indefensible in man-to-man coverage. His route-running capabilities are second-to-none, and his size (6'2", 207 lbs) allows him to break tackles at an exorbitant clip.
Hackett has moved Johnson to the slot, where he has even more room to operate and should be a thorn in the side of the Saints defense. Nickel defenders Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro will undoubtedly have their hands full if called upon.
Cornerback Corey White may be a better matchup for Johnson.
In addition, Bills receivers Robert Woods, Brad Smith and T.J. Graham are all talented players in their own right. Tight end Scott Chandler (6'7", 260 lbs) is a huge security blanket, who's targeted quite often. Vaccaro and Lewis will also draw that assignment.
The Bills offense is a work in progress, but there's nothing better to work with than a roster that's plentiful in talent. Marrone and Hackett are building something special in Buffalo. It's too bad that they will run into the buzz saw that is the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine spent the past four years on the New York Jets' staff where he served in the same capacity. Pettine coached under Jets head coach Rex Ryan, brother of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, for 10 seasons dating back to their days as Baltimore Ravens.
Needless to say, the Saints and Bills share similar defensive philosophies undoubtedly drummed up by the Ryan brothers over the years. Both the Saints and the Bills are trying to implement an odd-front scheme with even-front personnel.
The strength of both teams is derived from the inside out. Bills defensive end Mario Williams is the best player on either defense, and he is off to a red-hot start with 10 sacks (tied for second in the league).
Pettine is doing a great job of isolating Williams and scheming up ways to get him one-on-one with tackles. There's not a tackle in the league who can compete with Williams on a down-to-down basis. At 6'6", 292 pounds, Williams might be the best athlete in the entire league.
How many nearly 300-pound linemen are walking around with 4.66 40-yard speed, according to ESPN? When the Bills switch to their odd-front alignment, Williams plays outside linebacker and has little trouble operating in space. He's truly a unique talent.
Here, Williams is lined up at said outside linebacker spot. Look at the leverage which with he plays from. When you have a guy who's that athletic, with that type of strength, you can see why he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft.
Williams is the wild card for the Bills, similar to how Saints safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro are. Here, he's lined up at the 9-technique, which gives him the proper amount of space not to be double-teamed.
The movement of Williams is made possible by the best interior line duo in the NFL, in defensive tackles Kyle Williams (2.5 sacks) and Marcell Dareus (four sacks). Either of the two, or both, requires special attention on any given play.
Lining up Dareus at the 1-technique, as he is in the above diagram, ensures he occupies two blockers. This leaves Williams on an island with a tackle. Saints left tackle Charles Brown better bring his big boy pants on Sunday.
The Bills may have drafted the defensive rookie of the year. Linebacker Kiko Alonso is currently fourth in the NFL in tackles (70), while being tied for first in the NFL in interceptions (four). He's also forced a fumble and notched a sack.
Playing behind a stout offensive line allows Alonso to use his uncanny athleticism and instincts to make plays all over the field. When paired with fellow speedy linebacker Manny Lawson, you have the type of sideline-to-sideline coverage you want in a multiple-scheme outfit.
The Bills' front seven are susceptible to screens and draws due to their aggressiveness. Expect a big day from Saints running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas because of it. The Bills are also one of the worst run defenses as they are slotted as the 28th-ranked unit headed into this tilt.
This may be a game where Saints running back Khiry Robinson makes a name for himself.
The Bills secondary is full of speed. Corner Stephon Gilmore is a talent, but he is dealing with a hand injury that has rendered him less effective. Safety Jairus Byrd is a turnover machine (18 interceptions in four years), but he too is working his way back from injury.
We all know the Saints will air it out; expect success on the ground, as well as through the air...if they can keep Brees upright.
The schedule only gets more difficult from here for the Black and Gold. They can't afford a slip up.
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