The 5-3 New Orleans Saints travel to take on the 7-2 Tennessee Titans this Sunday in an out of conference showdown. New Orleans had a three-game winning streak snapped in a home loss to the Atlanta Falcons last week.
The most surprising thing about the loss to Atlanta were several breakdowns in the Saints pass defense. New Orleans comes into this game with the league's 11th ranked defense. They surrender an average of 347 yards per game and allow less than 20 points per outing, fifth best in the league.
Tennessee has won five straight games entering this weekend. They average 28.3 points/game, sixth highest in the league, and have eclipsed 30 points in three of their last five outings. The Titans rank 15th in total offense with an average of 356.8 yards per game.
Much of Tennessee's offensive success has been because of the powerful production of RB Derrick Henry and a fourth ranked rushing attack. Henry was placed on injured reserve two weeks ago with a foot injury, meaning the Titans will have to spread the ball around more for offensive production.
Without Henry, Tennessee might have a difficult time on the ground against the Saints top-ranked run defense. New Orleans is also in the league's top ten in turnovers forced, third down percentage, and red-zone defense.
In all three of their losses this season, the Saints have had breakdowns in a pass defense that ranked fifth in the league last year. Will they be able to right themselves against an underrated Tennessee offense?
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE VS. TITANS PASSING ATTACK
New Orleans Pass Defense
The Saints give up an average of 273 yards/game through the air, ranking 27th in the league. They've allowed 300-yard outings to Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, but also to mediocre quarterbacks like Daniel Jones of the Giants and Carolina's Sam Darnold.
Opposing quarterbacks are completing under 63% of their throws against New Orleans coverage and the Saints have recorded 11 interceptions, among the highest in the league. Coordinator Dennis Allen runs an aggressive scheme predicated on man coverage and heavy pressure on the quarterback.
The Saints had recorded 145 sacks over the previous three years, but struggled to generate consistent pressure early this season. The return of DT David Onyemata (suspension) and DE Marcus Davenport (injury) over the last few weeks.
New Orleans has 18 sacks and 56 QB hits, with 10 sacks coming in the last three contests. Offseason free-agent addition DE Tanoh Kpassagnon leads the team with 4 takedowns and is quietly having an outstanding year.
Pro Bowl DE Cam Jordan has 3 sacks and a team-high 11 QB hits. Davenport has 2 sacks, 6 pressures, and has been a disruptive force since his return. Onyemata has been quiet statistically, but adds a valuable interior pass rushing presence to the defensive line.
All-Pro LB Demario Davis is the focal point of Allen's aggressive attack. He’s a devastating blitzer, evidenced by his 3 sacks and 7 pressures. Davis is just as terrific in coverage, where he locks onto opposing tight ends or backs anywhere on the field.
Complementing Davis at linebacker is athletic veteran Kwon Alexander and promising rookie Pete Werner. Both players have been outstanding in coverage duties, giving the Saints a versatile and lethal trio of linebackers.
Cornerback Marshon Lattimore leads a talented secondary and is in the middle of perhaps his best season. Lattimore locks onto the opponent's best receiver and often takes him out of the game. He's among the league leaders with 10 passes broken up and has allowed less than 51% completion percentage when targeted.
Rookie CB Paulson Adebo starts opposite Lattimore and is having an impressive inaugural season. The third-round pick gets targeted often and has had some growing pains, but has responded with 2 interceptions and 3 passes broken up.
Veteran CB Bradley Roby, versatile defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and S/CB P.J. Williams man the slot and gives the defense strong coverage depth. Gardner-Johnson is dealing with a foot injury and looks doubtful for this game. Expect even more snaps from Roby and Williams, who leads the team with 3 interceptions.
One of the reasons that the corners can play so aggressively underneath is because of a strong tandem of safeties to give them deep support.
FS Marcus Williams has elite range and is a ball-hawk in deep coverage. Veteran SS Malcolm Jenkins is a force near the line of scrimmage, but is also savvy in off-ball coverage.
Tennessee Passing Game
Titans QB Ryan Tannehill has completed 66% of his attempts with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions for his team's 26th ranked passing attack, which averages 218 yards/game. Tannehill is a mobile quarterback with a big arm capable of hitting big plays down the field.
The team's leading receiver is third-year wideout A.J. Brown, who has 40 receptions for 551 yards and 3 scores. Brown is a physical wideout with good size and the speed to make plays deep. He has at least 90 yards receiving in three of the last four games.
Thirty-two-year-old WR Julio Jones came to Tennessee in an offseason trade with Atlanta. Jones has been banged up this year, but still has 21 catches for 336 yards in six contests. He’s lost a step, but at 6’3” and 220-Lbs. still has a size advantage over most corners.
Young wideouts Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Chester Rogers give the Titans underrated depth at the position. They've combined for 29 receptions, 341 yards, and three scores.
Backup RB Jeremy McNichols will see more rushing attempts in the absence of Henry, but is also an accomplished receiver. He’s second on the team with 24 receptions, resulting in 214 yards and a score.
Tannehill also has three quality tight ends to target in MyCole Pruitt, Geoff Swaim and Anthony Firkser. They aren't household names, but have produced a combined 38 catches for 342 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The Titans have a banged up offensive line better suited to Henry's physical running style than pass protection.
Tannehill has been sacked 27 times this season, including six in the last two games. Starting LT Taylor Lewan, their best lineman, has missed the last two weeks with a knee injury that has him questionable this week.
What to Watch
Even without Derrick Henry, the Saints must focus on shutting down Tennessee's running game to prevent them from establishing balance. Tannehill is one of the league's most dangerous play-action passers.
The Saints defensive backs need to bounce back from a down performance against the Falcons. Lattimore, Adebo, and Roby must be up to the physical challenge from Brown and former Atlanta rival Jones.
In all three of their losses, New Orleans has given up an alarming number of big plays through the air. Safeties Williams and Jenkins must maintain proper positioning and make Tannehill pay for downfield throws.
Pressure on the Titans backfield is critical for success. Tannehill has been sacked 13 times in Tennessee's two losses and was hit 9 times in last weeks win at the Rams. The Saints have the personnel to disrupt any quarterback, but weren't able to pressure Atlanta QB Matt Ryan in crucial moments last Sunday.