4th and Geaux: Saints at Ravens Edition

Last week, the Saints partied like it was 2009, jumping to an early lead on offense, creating turnovers on defense, and coming away with a win in a game that never really felt close. The performance wasn’t perfect, as the offense cooled down pretty quickly after a hot start, and some of the receivers apparently forgot how to, you know, receive. Still, this was a rare Saints game this year that didn’t leave my hair looking like Roman Harper’s by the end, so I’ll take it.

 

This week, the Saints travel to a colder place to take on a much better team in the Baltimore Ravens. Will the Saints be able to move the ball against the Ravens’ strong-but-aging defense? Will the Saints defense be able to hold off the Ravens’ corps of aging receivers? Is any unit on the Ravens not aging? 

It’s time for 4th and Geaux.

Note: This is an abbreviated 4th and Geaux, thanks to the holidays, impending deadlines in the job that actually pays me, and a couple of other issues. Don’t worry: I’ll be back in full inanity soon.

The power of positive thinking!

Last week, I spilled gallons of virtual ink writing about how I was going to end all negative thoughts about the Saints. I went out of my way to show that this is the golden age of Saints teams, and that we should quit griping. I channeled Hamlet, sort of: "Oh, from this time forth, my thoughts be positive, or be nothing worth!".

So, lots of positive blah blah blah last week. And guess what: it worked! The Saints had an easy victory (though one that should have been a lot easier…wait, that’s kind of negative…never mind) against the Rams. Sure, the Rams stink, but still. We haven’t had many easy victories this year, so I’ll take what I can get.

It appears that when I am in a positive mood, the Saints win. That’s much better than the week before, when I was in a negative mood and the Saints…won. Or, the week before that, when I was feeling rather dour and the Saints…won. It’s a whole lot better than the week before that, even, when I was feeling a little gassy and the Saints…won.

Hmm…seems like no matter what I do, the Saints win. Sweet!

Despite the lack of readily apparent correlation between my mood and the outcome of Saints games, I’m choosing to remain positive again this week. I am positively sure that, should the Saints offense play like they did in the second half of last week, they’ll have trouble winning the game. I am also positively sure that, if the Saints offense plays like they did in the first quarter of last week, they’ll leave Baltimore on a 7-game winning streak. The question is, which will it be? Let’s look ahead to this week to try to figure it out.

Last Week in Review

The Saints had a weird game plan last week. According to the NFL Game Book, Drew Brees threw 15 passes in the first quarter, the first 14 of which were short passes. The 15th pass was the deep touchdown to Marques Colston.

While the "swarming gnats" offense is not unusual for the Saints, I’m surprised that it took Brees so long to look downfield, especially against the Rams’ banged up secondary. Perhaps no one was open deep (wouldn’t be the first time this year), or maybe they were working the short passes to open things up downfield. Regardless, it was an interesting thing to see.

The strategy worked pretty well for the Saints, at least at first. But a funny thing happened on the way to the blowout: the Saints receivers stopped catching passes, and Drew Brees started throwing interceptions.

Coming into the Rams game, Robert Meachem led the league by catching 74% of the balls thrown his way. Lance Moore, Marques Colston, and Devery Henderson weren’t far behind. In fact, the Saints were the only team with 4 receivers catching over 60% of the balls thrown toward them.

Last week: not so much. Meachem missed all 3 of the balls thrown his way. Colston caught 5 of the 13 passes targeted for him, and NeverSee Henderson missed the single pass thrown to him. Only Lance Moore was his usual self, catching 5 of the 6 passes thrown to him.

Now, missed passes aren’t necessarily drops. They also can be the result of a crappy job by the QB. However, they are a sign of an offense that is out of sync. And it showed: last week, the Saints offense had one of their worst performances of the year according to the adjusted yards per attempt statistic: the Saints offense averaged only 2.27 aYPA. That’s not an efficient performance.

The lack of efficiency showed on the scoreboard. The Saints’ offense scored 24 points against a banged-up and crappy Rams’ defense; not a particularly great performance. If they’d been playing the Ravens’ defense, things might have gotten ugly.

But the outcome wasn’t ugly, thanks to the Saints’ defense. The defense intercepted Sam Bradford twice (including Malcolm Jenkins’ interception return for a touchdown) and sacked him 3 times, costing the Rams 49 yards. That’s a lot of yards to lose on sacks. In fact, Bradford only passed for 231 yards, so those extra yards would’ve been nice to have. Sorry ‘bout that, Sam.

In all, the Rams game reminded me a lot of last season: the offense got a lead, then sputtered a bit, only to be saved by the defense. Let’s hope the Saints continue their impression of 2009 for the next, say, 8 weeks or so.

Sizing up the Opponent

Things will be tougher for the Saints this week, as Baltimore is a significantly better team than the Rams. In fact, Baltimore is probably a better team than the Saints, especially when they’re playing in Baltimore and it’s 30 degrees outside. The Ravens’ defense is clearly better than the Saints’, even though most of the Ravens’ star players might qualify for AARP cards. The Ravens’ offense isn’t as good as the Saints’, but it’s still probably in the upper half of the league. The Ravens’ special teams has been excellent this year, one of the best 2 or 3 in the league, which is a big advantage over the Saints’ pathetic unit, especially if this game is closely contested.

Let’s go into more detail in Statpoints.

Saints Statpoints

Saints offense vs. Ravens defense

This is the key matchup in the game. The Ravens defense is predicated on a couple of things: huge d-linemen taking up space; Ray Lewis running around like a mad man, unblocked thanks to the fat boys up front; and Ed Reed making up for a suspect secondary with unparalleled ball hawking skills. This game will likely turn on how well the Saints’ can use their passing game to thwart the middle of the Ravens’ defense. It would also be nice if the Saints could get a few deep passes of against the aforementioned secondary.

The Saints should have a chance to do just that: the Ravens’ defense is in the bottom third of the league in creating sacks, which means Brees will likely have time to throw the ball. What concerns me is this: the Ravens play kind of an amorphous defense, using a hybrid scheme with a lot of zone blitzes. Since Brees has been turning the ball over like it’s pancakes this year (his last interception-free game was week 4!), the Ravens defense could have a field day if he and the receivers aren’t sharp.

Overall, though, I think you’ll see the Saints spread the ball around early, trying to take advantage of the Ravens’ secondary while keeping Ray Lewis et al. guessing and running around on ancient legs. Hopefully, this will open up the deeper passes as the game progresses.

The Saints’ offense will be able to score on almost any defense if Drew Brees has time. They’re simply too good and too deep to be held completely in check. However, the Ravens’ defense is still a solid group, anchored by several future Hall-of-Famers. Not only that, but I suspect that those future Hall-of-Famers will be extra-hyped this week, facing the Super Bowl champs in a game with playoff implications. The Ravens will come to play this week.

I don’t think the Saints will put up a ton of points unless they’re really playing well. They’ll probably need to score in the mid 20s to win this game, which could be tough.

Saints defense vs. Ravens offense

The Ravens run a pretty conservative scheme, even as they’re trying to become more of a passing offense. Their bevy of once-great receivers is headed by Anquan Boldin, who might be the toughest man in the NFL, and includes former Saint Donte Stallworth. This is a potentially dangerous group: Boldin and Derrick Mason are having great years (both ranked in the top 25 in Football Outsiders’ receiver stats), and Stallworth is still one of the faster receivers in the league. If offensive coordinator Cam Cameron opens up the offense a bit, and Joe Flacco has a good game, the Ravens could put some points up against the Saints defense.

So, the Saints defense would do well to get to Flacco early and often and not give him time to pass (no kidding). The Ravens’ offensive line has been rather permissive this year (ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of giving up sacks), but I don’t have a lot of confidence that the Saints’ will be able to generate pass rush without blitzing. The key, then, will be to blitz successfully (brilliant analysis, I know), and use the havoc to create turnovers.

I haven’t mentioned the Ravens’ running game. Ray Rice, their primary runner, is a solid running back having a solid year behind a good run-blocking line. The line is particularly good at two things: (1) not letting Rice get stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage (almost every run is a positive run), and (2) opening holes for Rice on the right side of the line. Rice is also a receiving threat, so the Saints need to watch out for that.

Since points will likely be scarce for the Saints’ offense, the Saints’ defense could really do the team a favor by holding the Ravens below 20 points. I think they can do it.

Beer of the Week: Because sober analysis requires good beer

While Maryland has a couple of nice craft breweries, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to look a bit north to Milton, Delaware, home of Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the most adventurous and famous craft breweries in the country. Dogfish Head is mainly known for it’s 90-minute IPA, which is usually quite highly rated (though not my favorite). They also make a bunch of other beers, none of which I’d had before, so I thought it’d be fun to pick up a few and see how they were. So, this week, a 2-pack of reviews, and I’ll have a couple more in the can for when we meet the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

First up is Raison D’Etre, a Belgian-style ale brewed with raisins, among other things.

Raison pours a deep, dark amber-red, with a nice, whitish head that dissipates a bit too quickly. The nose is sweet and slightly alcoholic (but not too much), with dark fruits (a little raisin, but not a ton) and candied sugar. The taste is more raisin-y, and really too sweet for me, but the complexity of the taste prevents it from being cloying. The beer might benefit from being a bit more carbonated. This is a pretty heavy beer (good with strong cheeses and steak), so I could probably only drink 2 of these in a session. Overall, quite interesting, but not something I’ll stock a lot of.

Next, we have Midas Touch, which is based on the oldest known fermented beverage in the world, using a recipe allegedly found in Midas’ tomb. This isn’t a classic "beer"…in fact it’s closer to a wine. So, if you don’t like beer, but do like wine, maybe you should try this brew.  

Midas pours a beautiful golden color with a white, thin head. The aroma has a strong grape juice component, enough that I was worried at first. There’s just a little grain on the smell, and a bit of honey as well. While the beer smelled like grape juice, it certainly didn’t taste that way. The taste is very un beer-like, and much closer to a wine. There are grapes and honey on the taste, with the honey really driving home on the finish. A little biscuit at the end, too, which really saves the drink for me. This is definitely not a session beer, but it’s pleasant enough, and surprisingly complex for something so sweet. 

Overall, a couple of fun brews from Dogfish Head. Neither of these are going to be regulars in the Carlton household, but I’ll probably keep them on my list for occasional revisiting.

That was way too long...could you just give me a one-paragraph summary and prediction?

Sure. This will be a tough game for the Saints, because the Ravens’ defense is good despite their advancing age. The Saints will get full effort from the Ravens, who are battling the Steelers for playoff position. The Ravens’ defense does have some holes, though: they don’t generate a strong pass rush and aren’t great in the secondary (beyond Ed Reed), which means the swarming gnats offense my do us well. If this game is close, the Ravens’ superior special teams could be a problem for the Saints. Hopefully it won’t be close, but I’m afraid that it will be. So, while I’m not sure the Saints will win, I do believe they can win, especially if they play more like they did against the Steelers and less like they did against the Browns.

 

You can listen to Stuart each week on The Who Dat Report and the NFC South Report, or follow him on Twitter.

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