The New Orleans Saints fell to 2-2 with a head-scratching loss at home to the New York Giants last week. They now return to the road with a trip to face 2-2 Washington. Partly because of Hurricane Ida, the Saints will play just one of their first five games inside the Superdome.
New Orleans has struggled offensively in a way we've never seen in the fifteen year tenure of head coach Sean Payton.
The Saints rank just 28th in total offense and 31st in passing yardage. The passing game had its best outing of the year last week, but this team has been reliant on their rushing attack to move the ball.
New Orleans faces a Washington defense that was ranked among the league's best in 2020 but has struggled this year. They rank just 29th in total defense after four games, including 29th against the pass.
Washington has fared slightly better against the run, but still more vulnerable in that area than last season. The strengths of both these units are up front. Success on this side of the ball will be decided in the trenches.
SAINTS RUSHING ATTACK VS. WASHINGTON RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans Running Game
The Saints have averaged 133 rushing yards over the first four games, ranking 7th in the NFL. They've averaged four yards per carry and have the third most rushing attempts in the league.
Pro Bowl RB Alvin Kamara leads the team in rushing with 297 yards, but has only averaged 3.8/carry and hasn't scored a rushing touchdown. Kamara is the league's most dynamic back but has had difficulty getting into open space this season. He's seen a larger workload as a runner, getting a career-high 24 carries against New England then topping that with 26 rushes last week.
Kamara's rushing attempts should continue to be high going forward, especially with an injury to back up Tony Jones that will sideline him for several weeks. The Saints added RB Devine Ozigbo to the active roster this week. Ozigbo was an undrafted rookie with the Saints in 2019 before being released in preseason.
One of the team’s best special teams players, RB Dwayne Washington, figures to see more offensive snaps. Veteran WR/RB Ty Montgomery will also see more time out of the backfield. Montgomery has played mostly at wideout this year, but has proven production at running back. He rushed for over 100 yards for New Orleans in the 2020 regular season finale.
Utility player Taysom Hill will certainly be an even bigger part of the running game. Hill has 77 yards rushing and three touchdowns this season, including 28 yards and 2 impressive scores against the Giants. Hill is a bruising inside runner capable of breaking multiple tackles to get into open space.
Kamara and Hill are both deadly in the open field, but their ability to get there depends on the blocking up front. New Orleans will again be without two of the league's better offensive linemen for this game because of injuries, LT Terron Armstead and C Erik McCoy.
Cesar Ruiz, the usual right guard, takes McCoy's place at center. Calvin Throckmorton fills Ruiz's spot at guard, while veteran James Hurst fills in for Armstead at tackle. Pro Bowl RT Ryan Ramczyk looked back to his elite form last week after early-season struggles, and LG Andrus Peat is a mauler as a run blocker.
Reserve lineman Will Clapp is brought in on jumbo packages, a role usually filled by Hurst. The Saints need much better run blocking from their tight ends, especially Adam Trautman, to seal the edge for Kamara to get outside.
Washington Run Defense
Washington has surrendered 119 yards per game on the ground, ranking 17th in the league, and four yards per rush. None of their last nine opponents gained less than 90 yards rushing against them.
To make matters worse, Washington lost their leading tackler, LB Jon Bostic, with a season-ending pectoral injury. Second-year LB Khaleke Hudson will take his place in the lineup. The team will also need much bigger production from rookie LB Jamin Davis, the number 19 selection in this springs draft.
Despite defensive struggles, LB Cole Holcomb is quietly having a solid year and leads the unit in tackles. SS Landon Collins is one of the league's highest-paid defensive backs and has had issues in pass coverage, but is a terrific run defender at the line of scrimmage.
The Washington defensive line, one of the NFL's most formidable, is capable of covering up for a thin and inexperienced linebacking corps. Ends Chase Young, Montez Sweat, and tackles Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Tim Settle, and Matt Ioannidis consistently blow up opposing blocking schemes.
More recognized as disruptive pass rushers, this defensive line has the physicality to take over a game. Young and Allen are the stars, but Payne, Settle, Sweat, and Ioannidis are next to impossible to contain one-on-one.
What to Watch
Evidenced by his play-calling down the stretch of last week's loss, Sean Payton still doesn't appear to have faith in the passing attack. The Saints will need an effective running game to move the ball, but also to stave off a fearsome Washington pass rush.
Washington has good interior depth up front, but New Orleans can wear them down if Kamara and Hill are both consistently productive. The individual battles along the offensive line will be the biggest key to the entire game.
Even with Armstead and McCoy out, the Saints have enough talent up front to be successful. Kamara has a big advantage against the Washington defense if he gets to the second level. Look for New Orleans to finally get Kamara more involved in the passing game to complement the running attack to keep Washington from stacking extra defenders in the box.
The Saints' offense depends on Kamara's productivity as both a runner and receiver. However, the success of the offensive line will determine the performance of the New Orleans offense even more than usual.