Saints Offense at Raiders Defense Preview
The 1-0 New Orleans Saints travel to face the 1-0 Las Vegas Raiders this week on Monday Night Football. It will be the first road game for New Orleans, who comes off a 34-23 season-opening win at home over Tampa Bay last Sunday. For the Raiders, it will be their first home game in a new city and stadium after a thrilling 34-30 road victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Despite their 34 points, the Saints offense struggled with sloppy play-calling and execution offensively, managing only 271 total yards against the Buccaneers. We should expect a more crisp performance in Week 2 from a New Orleans offense that has typically been among the league's best under coach Sean Payton.
Las Vegas allowed 30 points and 398 total yards against a Carolina team with several new pieces on the offensive side. The Raiders hope for a better defensive performance this season from a unit that ranked 19th overall in 2019 but was 24th in points allowed. The Vegas defense was 31st in turnovers forced (15) last season and did not have a takeaway in Sunday's game.
THE PASS: SAINTS OFFENSE vs. RAIDERS DEFENSE
New Orleans QB Drew Brees completed 18 of his 30 attempts last week against Tampa Bay, resulting in just 160 yards, although he threw 2 touchdown passes. Brees, who has led the NFL in completion percentage each of the last three years, criticized his play on Sunday and vowed to be sharper. He'll have plenty of weapons to distribute the ball to for a Saints passing game that ranked 7th in the league last season.
The most prominent receiving target for Brees is All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, who led the league with 1,725 yards and an NFL-record 149 receptions in 2019. Thomas, whose catch and yardage totals have increased in each of his four seasons, was held to only 3 receptions for 17 yards against the Buccaneers. He suffered a high ankle sprain late in the fourth quarter that could put his status for this game in doubt. A physical wideout who runs precise routes, Thomas is unstoppable through the intermediate and short zones and will be a much bigger part of the game plan against Las Vegas if healthy.
Tight end Jared Cook led the Saints in receiving against Tampa Bay, pulling in five passes for 80 yards. Cook was second on the team in receiving yards in 2019, with 705 yards and nine scores on 43 receptions, providing Brees with a size advantage against defensive backs and an athletic mismatch against most linebackers. Newly extended RB Alvin Kamara pulled in five of his eight targets against the Bucs for 51 yards and a score. He continues to be a huge part of the New Orleans passing game.
Offseason acquisition WR Emmanuel Sanders registered his first touchdown as a Saint, catching 3 passes for 15 yards and drawing a pass interference penalty on a deep throw. Second-year WR Deonte Harris was more involved in the offense than he was as a rookie and saw two touches (1 pass reception) for 26 yards, while Taysom Hill continues to be a versatile offensive chess piece. Complementary targets such as WR Tre'Quan Smith, Ty Montgomery, and rookie TE Adam Trautman must still prove that they can consistently produce if called upon, but all three can threaten defenses.
The Saints OT combination of Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead silenced Tampa Bay edge rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on Sunday, something that they regularly do to the NFL's best defenders. New Orleans had some protection issues early in the game on their interior, even though Brees was sacked just once. They hope to fortify those issues to aid their downfield passing attack, something that should improve with the return of rookie first-round pick G Cesar Ruiz, who missed last Sunday with an ankle injury.
The Raiders were 25th in pass defense in 2019, giving up 257 yards/game through the air and allowing 33 touchdown passes while recording just nine interceptions and 32 sacks. They allowed Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater to throw for 280 yards while sacking him just once and generating little pressure on Sunday.
Vegas hopes to get more pressure from second-year defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Farrell in 2020 after the two combined for 14.5 sacks last season and have good depth at the position with Carl Nassib and Arden Key. Offseason acquisition DT Maliek Collins, who had 14.5 sacks in his first four years with Dallas, is expected to provide interior pressure after returning veterans Johnathan Hankins and Maurice Hurst had just five sacks between them last year.
Las Vegas used a first-round choice, 19th overall, on CB Damon Arnette from Ohio State to upgrade their secondary. He teams with 2019 2nd round pick Trayvon Mullen to give the team a pair of athletic and aggressive corners, with veteran CB Lamarcus Joyner serving as the nickel back. Safety Erik Harris, who led the Raiders with three interceptions in 2019, and second-year Johnathan Abram form a pair of aggressive and hard-hitting safeties.
The offseason addition of LBs Corey Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski upgrades the Vegas linebackers' athleticism and coverage capabilities. Still, they could be without the services of Kwiatkoski, who injured a pectoral muscle against Carolina. Las Vegas has not intercepted an opposing quarterback in six of their last seven games and has not recorded multiple sacks in four of their last six contests.
THE RUN: SAINTS OFFENSE vs. RAIDERS DEFENSE
A New Orleans running attack ranked 16th in the NFL in 2019 could manage only 82 yards on the ground against a formidable Tampa Bay rush defense and averaged just 2.4 yards per carry. Veteran RB Latavius Murray was their most effective rusher against the Bucs, picking up 48 yards on 15 carries, while Alvin Kamara added 16 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Kamara was the team's leading rusher in 2019 with 797 yards and five touchdowns, with Murray adding 637 yards and five scores.
Taysom Hill provides an extra rushing threat when he comes in the game, and the Saints use Deonte Harris and Ty Montgomery to keep defenses off-balance with end-around plays. New Orleans had their best success last Sunday over the right side behind C Erik McCoy, RG Nick Easton, and Ramczyk. Ruiz/Easton, McCoy, and LG Andrus Peat must establish better control in the middle to provide cutback lanes for Kamara and Murray.
Las Vegas ranked 8th at stopping the run a year ago but allowed the Panthers to pick up 126 yards on the ground last Sunday. It was only the second time in their last seven games that the Raiders had allowed an opponent over 100 yards rushing. They have a light but athletic defensive line that holds up well at the point of attack. The Vegas linebackers and safeties are aggressive as run defenders but can be vulnerable to play-action passes behind them.
I expect New Orleans to test the Raiders secondary early with play-action passes and a fast tempo, even if Michael Thomas sits out, hopefully jump-starting their own passing game that could not get on track last week. If Thomas cannot go because of his ankle injury, it will be paramount for the Saints' other receivers to step up and be productive. Look for Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders to be a big part of their game plan, and for Sean Payton to move Kamara around the formation more to take advantage of the probable absence of Raiders LB Nick Kwiatkoski.
If Kamara is used more as a receiver in Thomas' absence, we will again see Murray's usage in the ground game. Expect the Saints to run right at a lighter Las Vegas line, hoping to establish control upfront. If successful, that will also wear down the Raiders pass rush and set the Saints up for big play opportunities as the game progresses.
New Orleans was uncharacteristically sloppy on offense in the season opener against the Buccaneers, something that both Brees and coach Sean Payton acknowledged. We should see a much sharper Saints offense under the prime time spotlight of Monday Night Football, even with the NFL's best receiver's possible absence.