Saints defense keeps Bills at bay until offense able to crank up
Nobody confuses Thad Lewis for Tom Brady. Or the Buffalo Bills for the New England Patriots.
So when David Hawthorne’s blow to the Buffalo quarterback’s ribs on the game’s first play Sunday both caused a fumble and left Lewis lying on the field for an extended time, it looked like the Bills might be having to bring Frank Reich out of retirement before the day was over, making it an easy day for the Saints’ defense.
But in the NFL, things seldom come easy.
With the Saints offense struggling early against an aggressive Buffalo defensive front and Garrett Hartley missing a pair of field-goal attempts, the resilient Lewis and his teammates made the Saints defense work harder than might have been expected for a 35-17 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“That wasn’t a winless football team we were playing today,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said “They’ve beaten Baltimore, and they’ve beaten Miami. “We saw that in the game plan and we saw that on the field. We hit the quarterback a lot, and he’d still get up and make good throws.”
Jordan wasn’t alone in his praise of Lewis, who began the season on the Bills’ practice squad and was making his fourth career start thanks only to injuries that had sidelined E.J. Manuel, Kevin Kolb and Jeff Tuel.
“He may be inexperienced,” cornerback Chris Carr said of Lewis. “But he was tough to take a shot like that.
“We assumed he wasn’t coming back. He did and still made some good plays today.”
But it was Carr, himself resigned after failing to make the final cut, who made the game-changer.
With the game tied at 7 late in the first half and the Bills facing third down at the Saints 19, Lewis went into the end zone for tight end Scott Chandler, who already had catches of 22 and 15 yards on the play.
Giving away nine inches and 81 pounds, the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Carr battled Chandler for the ball seemingly through the length of the end zone before finally knocking it away.
“If the ball had been right, it would have been hard for me to make a play,” Carr said. “But it was a perfect pass.
“I knocked it away, he got it back, and I finally got out of there. It would have been amazing if he had held on to it, but I was still fortunate.”
Buffalo settled for a field goal to take the lead.
But being behind seemingly awoke the Saints offense, which struck back on Brees’ 69-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills and added two more touchdowns before the Bills got another first down.
“Any time you can hold the other team to three points instead of seven after they’re in your red zone, it’s got to be a huge lift,” said Carr, a third-down specialist who had only one pass defended before Sunday. “Buffalo’s well-coached and is a lot mentally tougher than some teams with a lot more talent.
“Sometimes it takes a play like that to get everybody going.”
And Lewis’ resiliency not withstanding, the Saints defense did its job, as it has all season, save perhaps for the final two minutes against Brady and the Patriots.
Buffalo’s 17 points matched the Saints’ average allowed for the year, which is No. 4 in the league.
The Bills’ 299 total yards was 39 below the norm allowed by the Saints in their first six games, No. 11 going into Sunday. When you were No. 31 and No. 32 in both categories last season, that’s a vast improvement.
Lewis’ rib injury probably prevented the Bills from running the read option as much as they intended, but the Saints also came up with an interception, forced four fumbles with two recovered, had four sacks and eight tackles for loss, the latter helping to keep the league’s No. 5 rushing offense to 88 yards, 52 below its norm.
“We played complementary football today,” cornerback Jabari Greer said. “We all hold ourselves accountable and when some other aspect of the game isn’t clicking, as a team you pick each other up and fight through it.”
But linebacker Junior Galette pointed out there’s always room for improvement.
“It’s nice to be No. 4 in scoring defense,” he said. “But our goal is to be No. 1.
“A lot of things we did today won’t win you football games down the line. We’ve got to keep working to get better.”