For the fourth consecutive year, the New Orleans Saints play in a Thanksgiving or Christmas Day game. This time they host the 6-4 Buffalo Bills to cap off a Thanksgiving triple-header of NFL action.
The Saints come into the game with a 5-5 record and looking to snap a three-game losing streak to stay in the thick of the NFC playoff race.
An unbelievable amount of injuries on the offensive side, combined with breakdowns in all phases of the game, has caused a tumble in the conference standings. New Orleans already had to deal with inconsistencies in the passing game even before injuries depleted the unit.
All-Pro WR Michael Thomas and K Wil Lutz will not play a down this season. Starting QB Jameis Winston and LG Andrus Peat were lost for the year. Elite RB Alvin Kamara and LT Terron Armstead have missed the last two games with injuries, while RT Ryan Ramczyk and RB/WR Ty Montgomery were sidelined last week.
Kamara and Ramczyk have been ruled out again this week. Armstead and RB Mark Ingram returned to practice on Wednesday and are questionable for Thursday. Starting TE Adam Trautman was placed on injured reserve and will miss at least four games with his own knee injury.
A short-handed New Orleans offense will be challenged to match an explosive Bills offense point for point. They'll have to do it against a Buffalo defense that ranks among the best in the NFL.
SAINTS OFFENSE VS. BILLS DEFENSE
New Orleans Offensive Rankings
- Total Yards - 24th (321.3 yards/game)
- Scoring - 14th (25.1 points/game)
- Passing Yards - 26th (203.4 yards/game)
- Rushing Yards - 13th (117.9 yards/game)
- 3rd Down% - 21st (38.3%)
- Red-zone% - 3rd (70.3%)
- Turnovers - 9th (11)
The Saints have put up better passing numbers over the last three weeks. However, they were behind by at least two scores in the fourth quarter of all three games and faced softer coverage. QB Trevor Siemian has mostly played pretty well since replacing the injured Winston, but had a lousy first half against the Eagles last week.
Siemian has averaged nearly 254 yards in his three starts, completing 57% of his passes with 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He has a good enough arm to make most throws, adequate mobility, and has shown great poise while leading the team from behind.
The wide receivers and tight ends have done little to help either Winston or Siemian. As a group, they've handcuffed the offense with drops, poor routes, and lack of separation.
Third-year WR Deonte Harris has been the group’s most reliable pass catcher. Harris has 26 receptions for a team-high 418 yards and two scores. He’s a sharp route runner with blazing speed to beat defenses deep.
Second-year WR Marquez Callaway, like Harris, has had some moments but hasn't shown the ability to be a number one wideout. Callaway leads the team with six touchdown catches, but has just 25 receptions for 372 yards.
Veteran WR Tre'Quan Smith, who has 16 catches for 205 yards and two scores, is a decent red-zone target but nothing more than a number four receiver. Wideouts Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Kenny Stills, and Kevin White have been little more than a blip on the stat sheet.
With Trautman hurt, the Saints will turn starting duties over to veteran TE Nick Vannett, a solid blocker with average receiving skills. Converted wideout Juwan Johnson, inactive for the last two games, may see more snaps against the Bills.
Despite missing the last two games, RB Alvin Kamara leads the team in receptions, catching 32 passes for 310 yards and 4 touchdowns. Kamara, who also leads the team with 530 yards rushing and 3 scores, is the key to the offense. He’s the most versatile offensive weapon in the league and can threaten defenses from anywhere along the formation.
Kamara is out again this week, and Ingram is a game-time decision with a knee injury. The 31-year-old Ingram has shown he’s still a rugged runner between the tackles with the speed to get to the edge. He has 337 all-purpose yards in the last four games.
Second-year RB Tony Jones Jr. will get the backfield start if neither Kamara nor Ingram can play. Jones had an impressive preseason, but missed five games with an ankle injury before returning last week. He has good feel for blocks in front of him, but not a great burst.
Versatile offensive weapon Taysom Hill is another player who's been limited by injuries in 2021. After returning from two missed games with a concussion against Tennessee, he suffered a foot injury that relegated him to back up quarterback duties against the Eagles.
Hill, who might see snaps at quarterback if Siemian struggles, adds a dynamic rushing element to the offense if healthy. He’s a bulldozer between the tackles with sprinters speed in the open field. Hill is also a decent pass catcher when lining up in the tight end position.
A normally dominant New Orleans offensive line has had pass protection issues at times and been battered by injuries all year. Center Erik McCoy is back after missing four games and has been the team's most consistent blocker. Veteran G/T James Hurst and Calvin Throckmorton have been invaluable, filling in at several different spots as starters.
Second-year G Cesar Ruiz has been the healthiest lineman, but also one of the team’s most disappointing players this season. Armstead will be a game-time decision, but Ramczyk has been ruled out. Hurst will start at right tackle in his place.
Buffalo Defensive Rankings
- Total Yards - 1st (283.7 yards/game)
- Scoring - 2nd (17.6 points/game)
- Passing Yards - 2nd (181.8 yards/game)
- Rushing Yards - 9th (101.9 yards/game)
- 3rd Down% - 4th
- Red Zone% - 5th
- Turnovers - 1st (24)
Buffalo hasn't exactly faced a tough schedule. They've run up gaudy numbers against inept offenses like Miami (twice), Houston, Jacksonville, and the Jets. Still, the Bills have had one of the better defenses statistically over the last four years, especially against the pass.
Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 57.7% of their attempts against Buffalo coverage. The Bills have intercepted 15 passes, second highest in the league, and have allowed a league-low 7 touchdown passes.
Buffalo CB Tre'Davious White might be one of the few NFL corners as good as the Saints Marshon Lattimore. White, like Lattimore, often shadows the opponent's top receiver, allowing his defense to be more creative and aggressive. He has one interception and five passes broken up this year while giving up just 52.4% completion rate when targeted.
Cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson, who have a combined 3 interceptions and 14 passes broken up, give the Bills a strong coverage trio at the position. Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, and former Saint A.J. Klein aren't particularly athletic, except for Edmunds, but are solid in open space and in coverage responsibilities.
The Bills have arguably the league's most underrated pair of playmaking safeties in Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. Poyer leads the team with 4 interceptions and 56 tackles, along with a sack and 7 passes broken up. Hyde has 3 interceptions, 7 passes broken up, a sack, and 3 fumbles forced or recovered.
Poyer and Hyde can each step up into the slot and help with man coverage, but are also instrumental in run support. LB Matt Milano has a team-high 10 of Buffalo's 48 tackles for loss on a defense that swarms to the ball and is rarely out of position.
On paper, the Bills have a talented defensive front that appears capable of creating chaos. Buffalo has seven 1st or 2nd round draft picks along their defensive line, including DT Star Lotulelei, who is out for this game because of COVID-19 protocols.
Buffalo's defensive line does a solid job against the run, but hasn't created consistent disruption as pass rushers. They have just 19 sacks and 53 QB hits this season, including three takedowns in the last three contests.
The Bills defensive tackles are responsible for just 3 sacks, two of them from the sidelined Lotulelei. Former first-round choice Ed Oliver is an outstanding run stopper and has five tackles for loss. Oliver has six pressures, but no sacks this year and isn't a consistent factor against the pass. Former Panthers DT Vernon Butler is another big body in the middle, but depth here is thin.
Promising rookie first-round DE Greg Rousseau (3 sacks, 15 pressures) joins productive veteran DE Jerry Hughes (1.5 sacks, 20 pressures) and a deep crew of Buffalo edge rushers. A.J Epenesa, Carlos Basham, Efe Obada, and veteran Mario Addison are all capable of causing disruption.
What to Watch
Recent opponents have had zero respect for the Saints receivers and passing game. As a result, they've played one-on-one coverage on the outside, stacked extra defenders against the run, and heavily blitzed the New Orleans line.
Making matters worse, the Saints have shot themselves in the foot with penalties, miscues, and negative plays on early downs, especially when crossing into opposing territory. This offense simply isn't good enough to consistently convert third and long situations.
Expect the Bills to attack the Saints with this exact approach this evening. New Orleans can beat it with well-executed screens, but Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway must beat Buffalo coverage off the line of scrimmage to avoid those screens being predictable.
Teams have been able to successfully run the ball against the Bills. Buffalo has built staunch numbers against run because opponents have had to throw more to keep up with their explosive offense.
Saints coach Sean Payton has stayed patient with his running attack this season. However, the Saints must put points on the board early in this game, something they've failed to do in the last three contests.
It's vital that the New Orleans defense get stops and turnovers against the explosive Buffalo offense. If they can, the Saints should be able to wear down the Bills interior with Ingram, Hill, and Jones and loosen up coverage as the game progresses.
New Orleans doesn't have the personnel to win a shootout. They could still come away with a Thanksgiving upset with early execution, dominating the trenches, and ball control on the offensive side.