The final game of the 2021 Thanksgiving Day slate pits the Buffalo Bills against the New Orleans Saints. Both teams have been up and down of late, and for different reasons. They are each still in playoff position heading into Thursday’s games, but only barely.
This is a matchup of two teams at different points in their respective contender life cycles, with the Bills entering the physical prime of their star quarterback and the Saints having just moved on from a future Hall of Famer. They’re both well-coached, though, albeit by coaches who specialize on different sides of the ball. That should all make this matchup a fascinating one, so let’s break it down.
But first, here’s how you can watch the game this evening.
How to watch
When the Bills have the ball
The Bills have been frustratingly inconsistent on offense all season. From play to play, drive to drive, and game to game. The highs have been very high, and the lows have been awfully low. Their week-by-week averages in yards per play, EPA per play, and points per drive tell the story quite well.
Much like they have with the Chiefs, opponents have been daring Buffalo to move the ball downfield by either running it or consistently completing short passes underneath.
The Bills have seen zone coverage on 69% of passing plays this season, per TruMedia. That’s up from just 55% last year. Josh Allen is not really one of those quarterbacks that throws his receivers open. He needs to see the guy break into space, and he can then count on his arm strength to get the ball where it needs to go. But that’s more difficult when defenses are keeping more players in coverage, and using those players in zones where they can break on the ball, as opposed to having it be thrown away from them and to a receiver in stride. (He’s at 0.08 EPA per dropback against zone and 0.17 per play on all other plays, so he has been nearly twice as good when defenses play another coverage. He had a similar split last year: 0.15 EPA per play against zone and 0.32 per play otherwise.)
One thing that might help is turning to Stefon Diggs more often. Diggs brings the route-running skill of Cole Beasley on underneath routes with an ability to get open further down the field, and he has arguably been under-utilized in Buffalo’s offense this season. Diggs last year was targeted on 27.2% of his routes run; this year that figure is down to 25.1%, but his snap rate is down from 89% to 80%. Perhaps going back to treating him as a true, alpha No. 1 receiver would be good for the Bills, as it would give their offense a bit more focus than it currently has.
This week, Diggs will likely see a lot of Marshon Lattimore, who is having a better season than he did a year ago but can be inconsistent. Lattimore does tend to get up for big games, though, and a Thanksgiving night game against one of the NFL’s best wideouts would seemingly qualify on that score. If Lattimore is both shadowing Diggs and on his game, that will again push the Bills to run their offense through Beasley, tight end Dawson Knox, and their running backs. That’s not necessarily the way they want to do things.
The Bills’ offensive line has also occasionally been an issue this season, which could cause some problems against a Saints defensive front that is playing quite well. This is probably not the week for the Bills to get their run game back on track, for instance, considering New Orleans ranks first in rush defense DVOA at Football Outsiders. Instead, it’s more likely the Bills will have to count on Allen to rediscover last season’s accuracy and matriculate the ball downfield through the underneath coverage.
When the Saints have the ball
A lot about what will happen on this side of the ball is up in the air at the moment. We know Alvin Kamara and Ryan Ramczyk are out for the Saints, depriving them of their best offensive weapon and one of the key pieces of the best overall unit on their team. In addition, Mark Ingram and Terron Armstead are each listed as questionable.
Ingram had a midweek practice downgrade from limited to DNP, which is never a good sign. He was back to limited on Wednesday, but it’s tough to envision him being 100% healthy for this contest. Armstead has missed each of the Saints’ last two games, and was limited in practice all week. The Saints don’t get the usual 10-day break following a Thursday game; they welcome the Cowboys to New Orleans next Thursday night. So, Armstead won’t have quite as long to rest and recover as he might if this were a regular Thursday contest.
If Ingram is able to play, he should be expected to operate as the lead back and be heavily involved in the offense. In the two games Kamara has misses, Ingram has played 104 of 132 snaps, and touched the ball 40 times on those plays. (30 carries and 10 receptions.) If Ingram can’t go, we could see some sort of time share between Tony Jones, Dwayne Washington, and/or Ty Montgomery. None of them will be in a particularly good situation against a Buffalo defense that is tops in the NFL in both yards and EPA allowed per play.
It’s looking like Trevor Siemian will remain under center for the Saints, though it’s possible Sean Payton could turn to Taysom Hill at any time. Siemian at least has not buried the Saints with turnovers, having thrown just two interceptions in his four appearances; but he’s also not created many explosive plays (6.4 yards per attempt) or done a particularly good job extending drives (14 first downs on 42 third-down pass attempts).
Buffalo’s pass defense leads the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, further clouding the outlook for Siemian, who also does not have the benefit of working with top-flight weapons. The Bills have shut down much better quarterbacks than Siemian so far, and there are not many passers who have gone off against them. Instead, it’s been power runners like Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor who have given them trouble. The Saints don’t appear to have one of those guys at their disposal.
New Orleans Saints
Prediction: Bills 24, Saints 17