Welcome to Week 12 of the 2021 NFL season. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The Bills’ 11th game of 2021 will take place at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana as they face the New Orleans Saints. Here’s what you should know:

PHILADELPHIA, PA – NOVEMBER 21: DeVonta Smith #6 of the Philadelphia Eagles lines up against Marshon Lattimore #23 of the New Orleans Saints at Lincoln Financial Field on November 21, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

SAINTS’ DEFENSE HAS REBUILT INTO A LEAGUE-LEADING UNIT

Ever since their Super Bowl win in 2009 the Saints’ defense had been in a perpetual rebuilding mode. Save for one season in 2013, New Orleans ranked at or near the bottom in many categories virtually every season.

That is no longer the case. In 2019 the Saints’ defense began to ascend, finishing 11th overall, fourth against the run and third in the league in sacks. Last year New Orleans took the next step by ending 2020 with 45 sacks (eighth-best in the NFL), 3,472 yards yielded through the air (fifth-best) and 1,502 yards given up on the ground (fourth-best). Now are third against the run, 10th in points allowed per game and second in red zone defense in 2021. The Saints were tops in the NFL against the run going into last week but allowed 242 yards on 50 carries to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Dennis Allen, the Saints’ defensive coordinator and former Raiders coach, has a multiple defensive scheme. He uses a lot of personnel groupings and front-seven alignments, but nowhere is he more versatile than in his post-snap coverage rotations and usage of both man and zone (although they love to zone blitz on third down). This fits perfectly with someone like cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has become one of the NFL’s best shutdown defenders and can execute his many coverages. Malcolm Jenkins, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Ken Crawley, Bradley Roby, Paulson Adebo, P.J. Williams and Marcus Williams make up the rest of their secondary (Gardner-Johnson is out for Thursday night with a foot ailment).

Savvy veteran Cameron Jordan and fourth-year defensive end Marcus Davenport are the main contributors to New Orleans’ upper-echelon pass rush and both anchor well against the run (Davenport is also out for Thursday’s game with a shoulder injury. Linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander are tackling machines and can defend sideline-to-sideline with great speed.

NEW ORLEANS, LA – NOVEMBER 07: New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) cuts back to the middle during first half action during the football game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints at Caesar’s Superdome on November 7, 2021 in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

MISSING BREES AND COMPANY, BIG EASY UNDERGOING BIG CHANGES

Drew Brees played at an elite level for the Saints for 15 years. His footwork and pocket presence were impeccable, his accuracy deadly (as evidenced by his holding the NFL record for completion percentage four different times), his experience gave him a leg up against most coverages and he was great at influencing pass defenders with his eyes, pump fakes and shoulder rolls.

Now Brees is retired and on a one-way ticket to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Head coach Sean Payton initially attempted to replace him with former backup and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jameis Winton, who despite boasting a strong arm was betrayed by sloppy mechanics and a penchant for turning the ball over. In seven games in 2021 Winston showed improved decision making with a touchdown to interception ratio of 14 to three but is now out for the season with a torn knee ligament.

His understudy, former Denver Bronco Trevor Siemien, has since taken the reigns. Siemien has bounced around the NFL the last few years and is a pocket quarterback and a ball distributor who can execute an offense, but doesn’t have any elite physical traits. He also isn’t very mobile and can be sacked often when an opposing defense uses stunts and twists on their defensive line – something the Buffalo Bills do quite often (and because of the downgrade at quarterback New Orleans is just 5-5, owning the seventh-best record in the NFC and have lost three games in a row for the first time in five years).

For the most part the Saints’ passing game has been built through having big, physical targets who can get open over the middle of the field, especially on deep in, or “dig” routes. Payton has employed such players before like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, and he has another such specimen in Michael Thomas. Thomas, the record-setting nephew of former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, is athletically gifted and possesses strong hands and the knowledge of how to find holes against multiple coverages. Yet Thomas hasn’t played this year after dealing with ankle problems dating back to the start of 2020.

Payton does have weapons to use beyond Thomas. Tre’Quan Smith and Kenny Stills are vertical threats, Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway have shown potential and Ty Montgomery has some positional versatility. Adam Trautman and Juwan Johnson are normally their tight ends but Trautman’s out with a sprained knee.

The Saints like to line up in base personnel with a fullback and tight end split out wide with their top two wideouts in the slot to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties. New Orleans will also use post-wheel route combinations (or any type of vertical routes) to clear out zone defenders deep while Alvin Kamara picks apart linebackers underneath on option routes.

New Orleans isn’t averse to running the ball though. The Saints love using Kamara on inside runs, misdirection plays, screens and draws, and lining him up at wide receiver – both out wide and in the slot. His speed, route-running ability and reliable hands make him a threat no matter where he aligns, backup Mark Ingram is a short-yardage maven and backup quarterback Taysom Hill is reminiscent of Kordell Stewart – athletic enough to make a play at any position. Yet like so many of his teammates, Kamara is also out for Thursday’s game because of injury.

The Saints’ offensive line is made up of the talented Terron Armstead, run-blocking extraordinaire Andrus Peat, maulers Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz and the ascending Ryan Ramczyk. They are one of the best units in football, but Armstead, Ramczyk and Peat have all dealt with injuries this year – Ramczyk and Peat are out for their contest against the Bills and Armstead is questionable with knee and shoulder issues.

Another tactic the Saints are fond of is throwing out of run-heavy personnel. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “No NFC coach uses formations with six offensive linemen more than Sean Payton, who loves to throw from that grouping. Also, its tight ends and running backs often help with chip blocks. This slows those players as they’re getting into their routes, but that’s fine because they can serve as check-down options.”

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 21: Matt Milano #58 of the Buffalo Bills during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Highmark Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN BUT STRUGGLED LAST WEEK

After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Jerry Hughes – is off to a strong start and closely resembles the defenses from 2018-19 that were considered elite.

In 2021 the Bills decided to heavily invest in upgrading their pass rush. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, along with second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa and free agent signing Efe Obada have injected a shot of youth behind the aging Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is back to clog gaps against the run after opting out of 2020. These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo currently ranked first in pro football in total yards and passing yards allowed and second in in points allowed and takeaways.

Buffalo’s success in creating turnovers was burnished by each of the Bills’ five starting defensive backs (White, Hyde, Poyer, Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson) recording one two weeks ago against the New York Jets. In fact, their 24 takeaways in 10 games are the most they’ve had since notching 29 through nine contests in 1993 and should that number plus their success in allowing passing touchdowns (first in the league) continue to improve, the Bills could become the first team since the 2003 New England Patriots and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both Super Bowl champions – to lead the league in both categories.

Unfortunately for Buffalo their Achilles’ heel last week against the Indianapolis Colts was stopping the run. After entering Week 11 as the third-best run defense in the NFL, they fell to ninth after running back Jonathan Taylor gashed them for 185 yards and five total touchdowns (four of them rushing). In fact Taylor’s rushing yardage outgained quarterback Carson Wentz’s passing output by a two-to-one margin.

Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s calling cards (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks). The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and are also in blitz rate. They mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays in 2020, the most in the league.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 21: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills throws a pass during the second half against the Indianapolis Colts at Highmark Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images)

BILLS’ OFFENSE ELITE BUT NOT TAKING CARE OF THE BALL

Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of talented wide receivers, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s elite offenses for the first time since the K-Gun was running roughshod over the league 30 years ago.

Allen – last season’s runner-up for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player – set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become one of the most feared attacks in pro football, and that success has continued into 2021 as the Bills have averaged nearly 30 points a game, the second-best best mark in the NFL.

His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs is an exceptional route runner (much like the rest of his teammates), excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Emmanuel Sanders and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season.

The Bills’ offensive line is composed of Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams, Jon Feliciano (who is on injured reserve with a back injury) and rookie Spencer Brown. This unit has held their own in pass protection in the past and mainly execute outside zone runs along with zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts, draw plays and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and Matt Breida (Feliciano and Brown are both out for Thursday’s game).

But the story has been different for the Bills’ starting five in 2021, as they have been iffy in providing push in the running game and in pass protection. Against Jacksonville in Week Nine the Jaguars sacked Allen four times, hit him eight times and pressured him 17 times, tying his season high from Week One against Pittsburgh while Buffalo called for just 14 running plays. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set out to change that two weeks ago against New York, and it worked – Allen lined up under center more with fullback Reggie Gilliam on the field for 15 offensive snaps and tight ends Knox and Tommy Sweeney saw more action too, which resulted in more play-action used and running plays.

Those issues, however, reared their ugly heads again against the Colts last week. Facing much pressure, Allen and the Bills turned the ball over four times (they’ve had nine in their last three games – six interceptions and three lost fumbles) and five of Allen’s eight picks this season have come in his last three outings. Turnovers have been a constant since their Monday night game against Tennessee – only once since then have they had a contest in which they didn’t cough the football up (against Miami on Halloween).

Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).

In fact, the Bills used multi-receiver sets so often last year that they lined up in “11” personnel on 71 percent of their offensive snaps and “10” personnel on 14 percent of their plays in the regular season. In 2020 they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL at the time – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Daboll also called for a passing play on 64 percent of their first downs, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more often than Buffalo (so far that number is close to 60 percent in 2021).

The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced in their four losses – has been to rarely blitz, lean on zone coverage with a lot of stunts from defensive lines with mixed fronts and late movement in secondaries before the snap. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Saints attempt a similar gameplan? And could Daboll continue to use less shotgun and more offensive snaps under center with play-action and bootlegs to help both Allen and his beleaguered line? This bears watching.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 21: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills scores a touchdown during the second quarter in the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Highmark Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

STATS AND MUSINGS

  • Allen has compiled 23 career games with a passer rating of 100 or better and has reached that mark in six of his last eight outings. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 21-2.
  • Buffalo’s quarterback has also had the third-longest streak without throwing an interception in the red zone since 1991 (only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning had longer stretches of play with 242 and 217, respectively).
  • Since 2017 the Bills are 35-4 when leading at halftime.
  • Hughes can move past Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
  • The Bills have posted 300 yards of total offense for the 20th straight game – a franchise record and the longest active streak in the NFL.
  • The Bills’ six-game home winning streak in November going back to Week 12 of 2018 (a 24-21 victory over Jacksonville) was snapped last week against the Colts.
  • Buffalo has won six games by 15 points or more this year, tying the 1966, 1990 and 2004 teams for the most in franchise history.
  • Each of the Bills’ last 13 victories have been by 10 points or more – the longest streak in the NFL since the 1998-99 Rams.
  • Buffalo’s record following a loss since 2019 is 9-2. The resulting winning percentage (.818) is second in the NFL in that span to only the Green Bay Packers (8-0).
  • The Bills – like the Saints – have won just twice in their last five games and are currently seventh in their conference standings. Unlike most of their AFC counterparts, however, Buffalo has just three games remaining against conference opponents while others like Kansas City and Cleveland have seven and five such contests to go.
  • McDermott and company haven’t lost back-to-back games this year but haven’t won two in a row since Weeks Four and Five.
  • Buffalo is aiming for their first win over the Saints since 1998 – they’ve lost their last five matchups to New Orleans.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics and From the 300 Level. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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