Since Sean Payton replaced Jim Haslett as head coach after the 2005 season, the Saints have consistently had one of the best offenses in the league. If they ever figure out how to put an adequate defense on the field, look out.
OFFENSE (#1 total yardage, #8 rushing, #2 passing, #1 scoring):
The last time Drew Brees set foot in Ralph Wilson Stadium, he was a shaky first-year starter for San Diego. After a mediocre 13-for-24 performance, he was benched for Doug Flutie in the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ December 2002 loss to the Bills.
Don’t count on that type of performance tomorrow; since that inauspicious start, Brees has transformed himself into one of the best quarterbacks in the league. This time, when he steps off the bus in Orchard Park, he’ll do so as the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year – and after coming within 15 yards of breaking Dan Marino’s single-season yardage record, both that mark and Tom Brady’s 50-touchdown season appear well within reach. He shredded the Lions for six TDs in the season opener, tying Billy Kilmer’s 40-year-old club record, and is currently completing 75 percent of his passes for an otherwordly 132.9 passer rating.
The Saints will be without Brees’ favorite target from last season, Lance Moore (hamstring), but his absence is more than offset by the return of Marques Colston from a thumb injury that limited him for most of 2008. The 6-4, 225-pound Hofstra alumnus is proof that even seventh-round picks can become impact players, and he’ll be a tough matchup for Buffalo’s sub-6-foot starting corners. On the other side, Devery Henderson has speed to burn, relegating former first-round pick Robert Meachem to the No. 3 role. Tight end Jeremey Shockey is also healthy for the first time in a while, giving Brees yet another quality receiving option.
Running back Mike Bell (knee) will also miss this game, but Pierre Thomas, the team’s leading rusher in 2008 (129 carries – 625 yards, 9 TDs) should be back to split time with multipurpose threat Reggie Bush. Fullback Heath Evans, who Bills fans should remember from his stint in New England, already has two touchdown catches.
The Bills also catch an apparent break because Pro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown is still out following hip surgery, but then again, New Orleans hasn’t seemed to miss him too much. Due partly to his quick release, Brees has only been sacked twice this year.
DEFENSE (#21 total yardage, #4 rushing, #29 passing, #22 scoring):
While the Saints offense was rolling up points at a record-setting pace, the defense was giving them up almost as fast, finishing in the bottom 10 for the second consecutive year. A familiar face will be trying to fix that problem this season, as former Bills head coach Gregg Williams brings his attacking 4-3 to the Big Easy. They’re still giving up yards, but after forcing just 22 turnovers all of last season, the team already has seven after the first two games.
Charles Grant and Will Smith should send a thank-you card to Kevin and Pat Williams; when the two Vikings linemen won an appellate-court decision against their steroid suspensions, it also cleared the way for both of the Saints’ starting ends to keep playing. Bobby McCray, the third end in the rotation, led the team with six sacks last year. Tackle Kendrick Clancy (knee) is out, so Remi Ayodele and old friend Anthony Hargrove will both see some snaps next to Sedrick Ellis.
Jonathan Vilma was miscast when Eric Mangini switched the New York Jets over to a 3-4 defense, but instead of planning to his players’ strengths, Vilma’s former coach decided to overhaul the roster instead. Good news for the Saints, who got a sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker who racked up the most tackles by a New Orleans defender in 10 years. He’s flanked by Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita.
The secondary was the unit’s weak spot last season, allowing over 3,700 yards and 21 touchdown passes. Former Bills cornerback Jabari Greer was signed as a free agent, and the team also used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins (Ohio State) to work with Tracy Porter, last year’s second-rounder. Free safety Darren Sharper, the league’s career interception leader among active players, has already made an impact in his first season in the Gulf South, picking off an NFL-best three passes (and returning one 97 yards for a touchdown) in the first two games. Roman Harper enters his fourth season at strong safety, and Usama Young is being groomed to eventually take over for Sharper.
John Carney turned 45 in April, but the 21-year veteran is still kicking well. In fact, the league’s fourth all-time leading scorer converted 35 of 38 field goal attempts in a Pro Bowl season for the Giants last year, and his only miss in four tries this season was blocked.
His counterpart in the kicking game, rookie punter Thomas Morstead (SMU), was born the spring before Carney’s senior season at Notre Dame. So far, the fifth-round pick has justified the team’s draft-day move, pounding the ball for a 50.4-yard gross average and also getting great distance on his kickoffs.
The coverage teams are in rough shape, ranking 29th (punts) and 30th (kickoffs) despite not allowing a return touchdown. Backup wide receiver Courtney Roby took over kick-return duties to free up Thomas; Bush is an ever-present threat on punts, but has yet to break one this season.
The Saints come into the “Ralph” having scored more points in their first two games than any team since the NFL-AFL merger. The law of averages suggests that they can’t possibly keep up that torrid pace, but Brees may have more weapons at his disposal than the Bills have healthy defensive backs. That’s not good. On the other hand, with Terrell Owens, Lee Evans, and Fred Jackson on his side, Trent Edwards should present a stiffer challenge than either of the first-time starting quarterbacks faced by the New Orleans defense so far.
Barring the effects of inclement weather, it should be an entertaining game. But while I think the Bills will put up some points of their own, I’m not sure they can outscore an offense that has been held under 20 points exactly once since the beginning of last season.
Hope I’m wrong. See you in Lot 1.
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