Saints Defense vs. Lions Offense Preview

Bob Rose

The New Orleans Saints trek north to play the Detroit Lions this Sunday for their second road game of the year. New Orleans enters with a 1-2 record and losers of their last two games. After an impressive opening day outing against Tampa Bay, the Saints defense has struggled in each of the last two losses. 

New Orleans is 10th in total defense, but just 27th in points allowed after the first three games. Their defense has not been able to get off the field on 3rd downs, allowing opponents to convert 49% of their opportunities. The Saints also rank an abysmal 30th in red zone defense, giving up 10 touchdowns to opponents in 12 trips inside their 20-yard line.

The 1-2 Lions are coming off their first victory of the year, a 26-23 win at Arizona. Detroit ranks 19th in total offense and has averaged 23 points per game. Their 40% 3rd down conversion rate on ranks 20th in the league. Red zone failures cost the Lions a Week 1 victory against Chicago, and they have scored touchdowns on just six out of thirteen trips inside an opponent's 20-Yd line. 

Detroit has a productive quarterback in Matthew Stafford and several offensive weapons that will still challenge the slumping New Orleans defense. Here is how those two units match up against one another.

THE PASSING GAME

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Oct 15, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Lions 52-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

The Saints 20th ranked pass defense has allowed an average of 252 yards through the air in three games, and only three teams have given up more than the eight passing touchdowns that the Saints have surrendered. New Orleans has 7 sacks this year, led by 2 each from LB Demario Davis and DE Trey Hendrickson. 

The defense has gotten some nice inside pressure at times from their talented interior rotation of David Onyemata, Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, Shy Tuttle, and undrafted rookie Malcolm Roach. However, Onyemata missed last week's game with a calf injury.

New Orleans has also gotten nice play from second-year DE Carl Granderson, but their best two pass rushers have been missing in action. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, typically one of the NFL's best defenders, has no sacks and just one QB pressure this season, while DE Marcus Davenport has yet to play a down because of an elbow injury. The Saints have generated little quarterback pressure through the final three quarters in each of the last two games, allowing opposing passers to riddle their beleaguered secondary.

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Oct 15, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) breaks up a pass to Detroit Lions wide receiver T.J. Jones (13) during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

After containing Tampa Bay's talented corps of receivers and tight ends in the season opener, the Saints have been torched down the field and committed several back-breaking penalties against lesser receiving units of both Las Vegas and Green Bay. New Orleans has been especially helpless against opposing tight ends, giving up an eye-popping 23 receptions for 241 yards and 3 scores in the last two weeks against the position. 

Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, one of the league's best CB duos, have proven capable of shutting down elite wideouts and were inconsistent against the Raiders and Packers. Veteran S Malcolm Jenkins and CB P.J. Williams continue to be targeted by opponents with success. The defense needs more big plays from safeties Marcus Williams and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.

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Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford passes against the Bears during the first half at Ford Field on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. © Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Detroit QB Matthew Stafford looks fully recovered from a back injury that ended his 2019 at mid-season, and leads a 16th ranked passing attack. The 32-Yr old Stafford still has the elite arm strength and has completed 62% of his throws so far, for 811 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. 

A Detroit offensive line that has always struggled to protect their quarterback, surrendering an average of 44 sacks over the last three seasons, has allowed Stafford to be sacked eight times in the last two contests. They may also be without starting OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, questionable for this game with a foot injury.

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Sep 27, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson (88) runs against Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Haason Reddick (43) during the second half at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY

After missing the first two games with a hamstring injury, Detroit welcomed back their best offensive weapon last week, WR Kenny Golladay. The 6’4” 214-Lb Golladay had six catches for 57 yards and a score last Sunday after back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns the previous two years and leading the NFL with 11 receiving scores in 2019. 

The Lions also have an emerging star with the 8th overall selection of the 2019 draft, TE T.J. Hockenson, who leads the team with 13 receptions for 171 yards and a score after hauling in 32 passes a year ago. Detroit can threaten defenses with multiple wideouts, as veterans Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Marvin Hall, and rookie Quintez Cephus have combined for 27 catches, 396 yards, and two scores.

THE RUNNING GAME

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Sep 27, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) against the Green Bay Packers during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

New Orleans ranks 6th in the league against the run and has allowed only 3.4 yards per rush attempt. Interestingly enough, they have allowed the opposition to succeed on the ground in the second halves of all three games this season. The Saints defensive tackles have gotten good penetration at the point of attack and have shown great athleticism to get to the edge and cut down a runner before turning the corner. 

Linebackers Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone are devastating run defenders that do an outstanding job of reading blockers to make plays in the backfield and are terrific sideline-to-sideline. The Saints defense has not allowed a 100-Yd rusher in 46 consecutive games and has 16 tackles for loss through three games.

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Oct 15, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) breaks up a pass to Detroit Lions wide receiver T.J. Jones (13) during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit's 22nd ranked running game has averaged 105 yards per contest. Despite the talents of 2nd round pick D'Andre Swift, who has 9 receptions for 94 yards but just 20 yards rushing, the Lions continue to rely on 14-Yr veteran Adrian Peterson on the ground. The 35-Yr old Peterson has 43 carries for 209 yards so far, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. 

 Kerryon Johnson, who has 18 carries for 62 yards and a score, will sometimes spell Peterson in short-yardage situations, while Swift is the team’s 3rd down back. New Orleans should contain the Detroit running game but must remain stout in the second half to prevent the Lions from establishing balance. Most of the key matchups on this side of the ball will be when Stafford drops back to pass.

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Oct 15, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws as New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) pressures during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Lions 52-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Throughout the game, the Saints must pressure Stafford and desperately need a breakout performance from Cam Jordan on the edge, and their defensive tackles to collapse the pocket inside. Their ability to do that will decrease the pressure on their reeling secondary to hold up in coverage for long periods against a dangerous crew of Detroit receivers. 

The embattled secondary must guard against coverage breakdowns and avoid crippling penalties. New Orleans CBs Lattimore and Jenkins will need to return to form while battling Golladay and the Detroit wideouts. The Saints' defense must find a way to contain the tight end Hockenson and force turnovers to seize momentum.

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