New Orleans Saints vs. Buffalo Bills: Crucial Matchups to Watch
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For the Saints defense, the most important of these one-on-one battles will pit cornerback Keenan Lewis against Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson.
Lewis plays a key role in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's aggressive, blitz-happy system. New Orleans relies heavily upon Lewis' man-to-man cover skills, and if he falters in single coverage against Johnson, then the Saints will have to provide him with safety help. This, in turn, will limit Ryan's ability to unleash his seemingly endless array of exotic blitzes.
Johnson is just a week removed from a solid outing against the Miami Dolphins, when he reeled in six catches for 61 yards. Lewis, meanwhile, endured an exhausting battle with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots two weeks ago.
Buffalo quarterback Thad Lewis, however, is no Brady. In fact, he's only making his third start for the Bills on Sunday.
If Keenan Lewis is able to neutralize the Bills' top receiving threat in Johnson, the results should pay big dividends for the Saints. The Bills would thus be forced to turn to their running game, which should play right into the hands of the New Orleans defense.
While defense will be a key factor for the Saints on Sunday, it won't be the primary focus of head coach Sean Payton. The bread of every Payton-coached team is buttered by a downfield passing attack.
With the Saints lacking a consistent rushing attack this season, an effective passing game is crucial against the Bills. In order for New Orleans to be successful through the air, quarterback Drew Brees must be allowed adequate time to throw the football.
Therein lies the difficulty this week.
On the other side of ball lurks Bills defensive end Mario Williams, who is enjoying a fantastic season in 2013. With 10 sacks already this year, he's on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season record.
Williams sacked Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill with less than three minutes left last Sunday, which helped set up the game-winning field goal for Buffalo.
New Orleans left tackle Charles Brown will need to perform at a high level this Sunday or Williams will disrupt the Saints' entire offensive rhythm.
Brown will likely draw the assignment on the majority of snaps, but the Bills prefer to move Williams around. He'll sometimes line up as the left end, where he'll be matched up against either Zach Strief or Bryce Harris.
Strief is the regular starter, but was inactive for the Saints last game at New England. His status for Sunday’s game is still unclear.
Whether it’s Strief or Harris, the starter may not be ready to take on such a daunting challenge without help. The Saints will likely use their running backs to assist with pass protection and they must be aware of where Williams is lined up at all times.
Here, we see Williams lined up at left end and quickly getting to the quarterback on two separate occasions.
It's no secret that Payton thoroughly enjoys moving the chains with a potent passing attack. Contrary to widespread opinion, however, he also likes to run the football. The Saints are still waiting on their running game to emerge this season, although the game at New England provided a glimmer of hope that wasn't there in previous contests.
Rookie Khiry Robinson burst onto the scene with 53 rushing yards and a touchdown on just seven carries against the Patriots. He won't supplant Pierre Thomas as the starter, but with Mark Ingram still injured, Robinson will get opportunities in short-yardage situations.
Awaiting in the middle of the Buffalo defense is linebacker Kiko Alonso. The talented rookie out of Oregon ranks third in the NFL with 70 tackles this season. Alonso possesses a strong nose for the football and will be keyed in on stopping the Saints' rushing attack.
Alonso's ability to cover Thomas as a receiver out of the backfield will also be crucial, as the Saints often utilize Thomas on swing passes and screens.
If the Saints' running backs can win some of these battles and penetrate the Bills' secondary with regularity, the visitors will likely return to Buffalo with a loss.
After a heartbreaking loss to the Patriots followed by a bye, the Saints are sure to come out swinging on Sunday afternoon against the Bills. After all, they will be back on their home turf and playing in front of their home crowd.
In order to pull out a win over a solid Buffalo squad, they'll have to win these crucial individual matchups more often than not.
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