The defense may have faltered at times, but New Orleans’ offense remains potent

By Matthew Postins

Dallas Cowboys logoThe Dallas Cowboys (8-6) will face the New Orleans Saints (6-8) this Sunday. Here’s a look at the Saints entering the contest.

On Offense: Any conversation about New Orleans starts with Drew Brees. The former Super Bowl MVP is the triggerman for one of the league’s most lethal offenses. Despite all the tumult in New Orleans this year, the Saints are still in the league’s Top 5 in points, total yards and passing yards. Without head coach Sean Payton, Brees has been a coach on the field like never before. The offense really hasn’t changed and it’s built to Brees’ specific ability to recognize coverages, exploit mismatches and audible in and out of plays. But perhaps Brees also feels a bit more burdened this year. He could end up with more than 40 touchdown catches for the second straight year, but he’ll likely be sacked more this year than any time in his seven years with the Saints, and his completion percentage of 62 percent is the lowest since his second season in 2003. Still, he’s lethal when it comes to hot reads because his receivers – tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles – know his tendencies well. All have at least 60 receptions and wide receiver Lance Moore, who has 57 entering this game, should have at least 60 by the end of the season. The fact that the Saints’ three leading receivers are a tight end, wide receiver and running back shouldn’t be dismissed. Brees knows how to spread things out. Graham is a huge target inside and is dangerous up the seam. Colston is more of a possession receiver now and lets Moore and his pure speed stretch the field. Sproles is a scat-back who can turn short screens into big gains. Three of the Saints’ starting five up front – left tackle Jermon Bushrod, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief – were part of New Orleans’ Super Bowl run and understand how to block for Brees. Left guard Ben Grubbs, signed from Baltimore in the offseason, has been a nice addition. Running the ball isn’t necessarily an afterthought in New Orleans, but they gain barely 100 yards per game. They rely on Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram to split carries, but none is a dominant back.

On Defense: This unit has leaked all year and it bore the brunt of the “Bountygate” suspensions. The unit missed linebacker Jonathan Vilma for half the season, and in many ways he sets the pace for the entire unit. With or without him, this is a unit that has ranked 27th or worse in every major defensive category. What’s actually difficult to figure out is why, especially when you consider the Saints are coming off a 41-0 shutout of Tampa Bay. The Saints are decent at forcing turnovers with 24 this season. They’re also allowing third-down conversions just 37.3 percent of the time, good for 13th in the NFL. But the Saints are buried under the sheer tonnage of other numbers. They give up way too many yards on the ground – more than 146 yards per game – and that creates problems for the unit overall, because the opponent can control the clock and keep the Saints’ offense off the field. The Saints also give up more than 27 points per game. New Orleans is also having difficulty getting to the quarterback with just 27 sacks this year, good for only 26th in the NFL. Saints opponents also score more than 54 percent of the time when they enter the red zone. This is a below-average defensive team that is prone to breakdowns and giving up big plays. There is still good veteran talent on this team, including cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper and defensive end Will Smith. But one has to wonder if the talent is a good fit for first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his system, which is based on the system of late Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. It’s a 4-3 base that uses traditional looks to create mismatches and disguise zone blitzes. Recently, when the Saints and Giants played, players from both teams – which have played under Spagnuolo – admitted that the system is hard to pick up the first year.

On Special Teams: Garrett Hartley has settled in as a steady kicker with 50-plus range. Punter Thomas Morstead is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, as he is second in the league in gross average and second in net average. Sproles, who missed part of the season due to injury, has not been himself on punt returns and the entire return unit ranks in the bottom half in return yardage. It’s a different story on kickoff returns, where Travaris Cadet and Sproles combine to make this a Top 10 unit. But neither unit has returned one for a touchdown.

Overall: Most teams know that the best defense against New Orleans is a good offense. Keeping the Saints’ offense off the field is a key to winning any game against Brees. Opponents are keeping the ball for more than 32 minutes against New Orleans, and the Saints offense is ranked No. 27 in time of possession. Of course, the flip side is that it doesn’t take the Saints’ high-powered offense long to score. But opponents also have to score. The Saints have failed to score at least 20 points just twice this season. Defensively you have to keep Brees off-balance and minimize the mismatches that he loves to exploit by maintaining defensive assignments. Offensively you have to take advantage of red zone opportunities against a defense that isn’t that effective inside its own 20.