Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Which improved D is more legit, Bills or Saints? - The Buffalo News

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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Which improved D is more legit, Bills or Saints?

The New Orleans Saints finally look like they have solved their defensive problems.

Offense never is a worry in New Orleans. The Saints have ranked in the top six in the NFL in yardage all 11 years quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton have been together, and they've been No. 1 six of those seasons.

The defense has been ranked in the bottom five in points allowed three years in a row – 31st in 2016, 32nd in 2015 and 28th in 2014.

The Saints tried throwing money at the problem. They signed ex-Bill Jairus Byrd to a $56 million deal in 2014 and gave veteran cornerback Brandon Browner a $15 million deal in 2015. Neither worked out.

So the Saints have spent 14 of 21 picks on defensive players the past three years. The results are showing. Solid drafting cures most ills in pro football.

New Orleans enters Sunday's game against the Bills tied for ninth in points allowed and 15th in yards allowed. Ten of their top 15 defensive players are in their first three years in the league.

“We started out being one of the youngest defenses in the league," said veteran Saints defensive end Cam Jordan after Sunday's win over Tampa. "I could not be prouder of our defense and the way that they are playing. We are attacking offenses. We are trying to assert our identity in the football world.”

The Bills' defense also unquestionably is improved. Buffalo stands tied for fifth in points allowed. It's 22nd in yards allowed but has created the most turnovers in the NFL.

Which defense is more legitimate? It's one of the storylines of Sunday's game at New Era Field.

New Orleans' six-game winning streak has come against mostly suspect offenses: Carolina, Miami, Green Bay with Brett Hundley at QB, Chicago with Mitch Trubisky at QB, a Tampa team in disarray. The best offense the Saints have beaten is Detroit with Matthew Stafford. The score was 52-38, and New Orleans got three defensive touchdowns.

The string of limited offensive foes continues for the Saints. Buffalo's attack ranks 26th.

Bringing the blitz: Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen tutored under Gregg Williams in 2009 and 2010 and brings the same attack mentality. The Saints led the NFL in blitz percentage last year, sending five rushers or more on 40.2 percent of pass plays, according to Football Outsiders. The Saints were No. 3 in blitzing defensive backs (14 percent).

The Bills can expect some exotic looks when they get in third-and-long situations against the Saints. Safety Von Bell and slot cornerback Kenny Vaccaro are among the league leaders in number of blitzes off the edges. New Orleans ranks ninth in sacks.

“I think we’ve done a good job of contesting throws," said Payton, "and I think that we’ve done a good job of disrupting the timing, whether it been the quarterback or the routes."

The addition of cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the 11th overall pick out of Ohio State, has been the biggest boost to Allen's attack scheme. He has been sensational, often matching up with the opponent's top receiver. He has yet to give up a TD pass. Lattimore, the first cornerback taken in the draft, is an elite athlete. He ran a 4.36 time in the 40-yard dash and had a 38.5-inch vertical jump. The Bills' Tre'Davious White ran 4.47 and had a 32-inch vertical jump.

The 30,000-foot view: With Brees at the helm, the Saints defense doesn't need to be top-10, just decent. New Orleans won the Super Bowl in 2009 with a defense that ranked 25th in yards allowed, second worst ever for a Super Bowl winner. (The Giants were 27th in 2011.) However, the Saints ranked third in takeaways that season and got better down the stretch. Brees turns 39 in January. He said this summer he's taking it one year at a time but feels like he can play to 45.

Game-breaker: Ted Ginn Jr., 32, is the Saints' best deep threat. He ran a 4.28 40 coming out of Ohio State. He has 28 catches, a 17.1-yard average and three TDs.

Weak link: The Saints are playing without injured No. 2 corner Delvin Breaux. Undrafted second-year man Ken Crawley has played well in his place. Vaccaro is a safety playing the slot corner position but also has fared well. An elite passing team might be able to exploit those two.

Four-down territory: Payton likes to go for it on fourth down. Over the past four years, the Saints are 26 of 34 when going for it on fourth-and-1-or-2. Baltimore's John Harbaugh is the only coach over that span to go for it more. His Ravens are 23 of 35 on fourth-and-1-or-2. Carolina's Ron Rivera is next at 21 of 28. Of course, their number of fourth-down attempts is random to a degree, since one team simply may get more opportunities than another. But a Football Outsiders study in 2015 on the game situations of fourth-down attempts showed Payton to be most willing to go for it of any NFL coach. The Bills are 11 of 19 on fourth-and-1-or-2 over the past four years.

Stat for the road: Brees has 108 300-yard passing games in his 17-year career. The Bills have 27 300-yard passing games in The Drought over the past 18 seasons. Brees' teams are 69-39 when he throws for 300 yards. The Bills are 12-15. The Bills' 300-yard passing games by QB (with record): Doug Flutie (1-0), Rob Johnson (1-1), Alex Van Pelt (0-2), Drew Bledsoe (5-3), Kelly Holcomb (1-0), J.P. Losman (1-1), Ryan Fitzpatrick (2-5), Kyle Orton (1-2) and Tyrod Taylor (0-1).

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