BY DAN BEGNOCHE
The Buffalo Bills (3-4) are catching a second straight team coming off a bye, and they may catch a New Orleans Saints team (5-1) without its top offensive weapon.
Tight end Jimmy Graham's possible absence would put a dent in the Saints' second-ranked passing game, as he's accounted for nearly 30 percent of the the team's offensive yards this year. New Orleans has plenty of other weapons, though, opposite an electric defense that loves to force turnovers.
Buffalo is finally getting its pieces back into place in the secondary, while the offense will likely be without one its top performers, as well, in running back C.J. Spiller. Quarterback Thad Lewis seemed to take a few baby steps toward control of the passing game in last week's win over the Miami Dolphins, but he'll have his work cut out for him against a defense allowing just 17 points per game.
When the Bills have the ball:
Running back Tashard Choice may have a busy day, as the third-stringer will likely get fair share carries with Spiller out and Fred Jackson sill on the mend. Buffalo promoted Ronnie Wingo to the active roster Friday, who could also see time depending on Jackson's availability. Expect Lewis' passes to be conservative against a turnover-hungry Saints defense, which is currently touting a plus-five turnover rate. With a Saints defense surrendering 5.1 yards a touch on the ground, coupled with a running game averaging 140 yards a game, Buffalo's deep passes will likely be few and far between.
When the Saints have the ball:
The keys to quashing a Saints passing game may come on first down. The team has thrown the ball three times more often than it's run it on first down, and some early pressure by Mike Pettine could result in some three-and-outs and some punts, which New Orleans isn't too accustomed to. The likely loss of Manny Lawson could be huge for the Bills' pass coverage, particularly with running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles running routes out of the backfield so often. Expect a decent amount of press coverage from Buffalo's healing secondary and for the linebacking corps — Kiko Alonzo in particular — to have a very busy day.
"Super" Mario Williams. The eight-year vet has lived up to the nickname thus far, currently second in the league in sacks and on pace to break the current record held by Michael Strahan. He'll be up against tackle Zach Strief, who's put together a pretty solid year himself so far. Strief is currently ranked seventh among tackles in pass coverage, according to ProFootballFocus, and has given up only one sack and one QB hit all season. If Williams starts to get the best of Strief, some extra attention may be necessary from the tight end or the running backs, which could alter the Saints' passing game. If Strief can hold his own against the former Pro Bowler, it's going to be a long day for the Bills' secondary.
The Saints currently hold a 5-4 record over the Bills in nine regular season games, and Buffalo will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak against New Orleans at the Superdome Sunday. The Bills are 3-2 in games at the dome but have not played there since 2005, which ended in a 19-7 loss. Buffalo stifled Brees and the passing game in their last meeting in 2009, though the Saints went on to win both the game and the Super Bowl that year, the year after then-offensive coordinator Doug Marrone left the organization.