Saints Offense vs. Packers Defense Preview
With questions swirling around their legendary quarterback, the New Orleans Saints return to the field this Sunday night, hosting the Green Bay Packers in front of a prime-time audience. The Saints lost their last game, a 34-24 defeat to the Las Vegas Raiders on the road last Monday night.
After starting that game strong, the New Orleans offense sputtered through the middle part of the contest. Especially their once-vaunted passing attack, which struggled for the second week in a row. Quarterback Drew Brees has received the brunt of the criticism, with several circles speculating that the 41-Yr old icon is amid a steep decline. New Orleans ranks 21st in total yardage after the first two games and has looked like a shadow of what this feared unit had been over the previous 14 years.
The Saints offense now goes at a Green Bay defense that ranked middle of the pack in most defensive categories in 2019, keeping about that same pace after two games this year. The 2-0 Packers have won each of their games handily, allowing their defense to play softer late in games. Here's how the New Orleans offense matches up against that Green Bay defense.
THE PASSING GAME
Brees completed 26 of his 38 throws for 312 yards against the Raiders. Most of the yardage came late in the game against looser defensive coverage. He has completed 64.7% of his passes for 472 yards with 3 touchdowns and an interception for the year.
Brees has not been able to get the ball down the field, allowing defenses to clamp down on shorter routes and leaving little room for receivers underneath. All-Pro WR Michael Thomas will probably miss his second straight game with an ankle injury, leaving Brees without the league's most productive receiver.
Without Thomas, the other New Orleans targets must step up and be productive for their reeling quarterback. Two-time Pro Bowler Emmanuel Sanders, and key offseason addition, has not yet been an effective threat for the offense. They have targeted Sanders just eight times, catching four for only 33 yards and a touchdown. He must be a bigger part of the offense, especially without Thomas, for the Saints to be effective in the passing game.
Third-year WR Tre'Quan Smith had five receptions for 85 yards against the Raiders, but only one catch in the second half. Deonte Harris and Ty Montgomery combined to catch five balls for 48 yards last week and could be targeted even more because of their open-field running ability. Running back Alvin Kamara, who led the Saints with 9 receptions for 95 yards against the Raiders, will continue to see many passes thrown his way.
The Saints also need a bounce-back game from TE Jared Cook, who, after pulling in five catches for 80 yards in the opener, had only 2 receptions against Las Vegas. Fellow tight ends Josh Hill and rookie Adam Trautman could also see more action as receivers if the New Orleans wideouts remain ineffective.
Brees has been sacked only once this season but has been under consistent inside pressure from defenses, partially contributing to his inability to push the ball downfield and also causing some uncharacteristic inaccuracy at times. The line has also been responsible for several penalties that have left their offense in difficult down and distance situations.
Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead continue to shut out opposing edge rushers. Furthermore, C Erik McCoy and guards Andrus Peat, Nick Easton, and rookie first-round choice Cesar Ruiz have to give Brees a cleaner pocket inside for the passing game to be more effective.
Green Bay's pass defense has intercepted a pass in each game but has also allowed opposing passers to complete 67% of their attempts for 466 yards and four scores. The Packers have six sacks, and 11 QB hits so far after collecting 41 sacks last season.
Most of their pressure comes from the edge from Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, who each had double-digit sack totals last year (a combined 23.5) and have teamed up for 3 takedowns so far in 2020. Rashan Gary, their 1st round pick last season, already has 1.5 sacks and a team-high 4 QB hits from the edge after just two sacks as a rookie.
Pro Bowl NT Kenny Clark is one of the league's best inside pass rushers and had 6 sacks in 2019, but could miss this game with a groin injury sustained last week.
Green Bay's Jaire Alexander is one of the NFL's best cornerbacks and capable of shadowing an opponent's top wideout. At the same time, fellow CB Kevin King is a physically imposing defender who led the team in interceptions last year.
Will Redmond and Chandon Sullivan provide depth at the cornerback position, but the Packers have had trouble against teams with deep receiving corps. Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos are terrific athletes and dangerous playmakers that form one of the league's better tandems at safety.
Christian Kirksey and Krys Barnes are each athletic inside linebackers who can stay with most tight ends in coverage down the field.
THE RUNNING GAME
The Saints ran the ball much more effectively against Las Vegas than they did in Week One, picking up 112 yards on the ground. Alvin Kamara led the way with 79 yards after leading the team in rushing each of the last two seasons.
Veteran Latavius Murray has also proven he can take on the brunt of the rushing duties if asked and provides a bigger option between the short-yardage tackles. Taysom Hill, Deonte Harris, and Ty Montgomery can each threaten defenses with their running abilities, allowing the Saints to spread defenses from sideline-to-sideline.
New Orleans has averaged only 3.7 yards per rush this season. The interior offensive line did a better job against the Raiders at getting a push at the line of scrimmage but must establish better control at the point of attack for successful balance. Kamara, Murray, and Hill are all proven playmakers in the open field but must be given the running lanes to make plays.
After allowing 134 yards rushing in an opening day win over Minnesota, the Packers allowed just 89 yards on the ground in their victory over Detroit last week. Green Bay's run defense ranked 23rd last season, and only two teams are worse than the 5.2 yards per rush they've allowed so far this year. Za'Darius and Preston Smith are better pass rushers than run defenders.
Kirksey and Barnes are good run defenders but are a little undersized and need the linemen in front of them to tie up blockers. Linemen Kingsley Keke, Dean Lowry, and Tyler Lancaster will look to establish control of the line of scrimmage, especially if the injured Kenny Clark sits out again.
Green Bay has had problems handling teams with strong rushing games over the last two seasons. San Francisco, Seattle, and Minnesota have been able to gash the Packers’ run defense, something that the Saints should take advantage of to take some pressure off their passing game.
I expect New Orleans to test Green Bay's run defense early with both Kamara and Latavius Murray, as they try to set the physical tone with their offensive line.
Even if the Saints play well defensively, Brees and the passing game will have to make plays to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. With Michael Thomas expected to miss his second straight game and Kamara likely to be used mostly out of the backfield, the New Orleans receivers and tight ends are going to have to make an impact.
By his admission, Brees has played poorly. He hasn't been able to throw down the field, he’s made poor decisions with the football, and even his legendary accuracy has been off target. However, he also hasn't gotten great protection up front, and his receivers have also not gotten separation and have struggled with drops.
The team's passing game struggles have caused several to wonder if Brees hasn't declined to where he is no longer capable of being an effective starter. While it is too soon for that speculation after just two games, the New Orleans passing game will be under an intense microscope to rebound in this crucial conference showdown.