Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The third week of the NFL is when a team really starts to establish trends.
Sean Payton has the reputation of a coach who practices what is known as "self scouting." In preparation for the next opponent, a coaching staff will break down the last 3 to 4 weeks of game tape. The breakdown will include (but not be limited to) all the numerous personnel packages, formations, alignments and tendencies (run or pass) out of each, based on down and distance. A team who self scouts not only critiques the opponent's tendencies within those parameters, but their own tendencies as well.
The object of self-scouting is to break the trends an opponent may see (from your last month of game tape) and become more unpredictable. For example, if the Saints run 90% of the time on 2nd and short out of the "12" personnel package (two tight ends, one running back), throwing in that circumstance would go against what the defense is betting on and lining up to defend.
Facing Houston, the Saints need to break a few trends. Like the majority of the NFL, the Saints have struggled to establish their rushing attack. It seems that before a trend has begun, Sean Payton has tried to break it.
The play calling thus far in critical situations has been bass ackwards. The Saints have used the undersized running back up the gut on obvious run downs, and used the bigger backs on toss and sweeps outside the tackles when a play action or bootleg would seem more appropriate. They've used misdirection and long developing screens when "down your throat" was the remedy, and vice versa. In essence, they've employed complexity when simplicity is needed.
It is time to get back to the basics. Drew Brees and the passing attack will always be there. What is lacking and what the Saints need in order to become dominant and consistently convert on 3rd and short, especially in the red zone, is that interior running game. They have the interior offensive line and big bodied/physical running backs to pull it off, but for some reason Payton's done the opposite in almost every critical situation fitting the description. The Saints have given up on the run before really giving an honest effort at establishing it. They'll need to break this trend in order to keep Houston off the field and not play catch-up on Sunday.
The Texans have averaged over 35 rushing attempts per game through two weeks. Matt Schaub has finished with over 4,400 passing yards each of the last two years, yet Gary Kubiak has called a balanced game thus far, despite the fact Arian Foster has been a non-factor with a bum hamstring.
We all know Drew can throw for 5,000 yards without a rushing attack. We also know that results in missing the playoffs with a .500 record. The Saints are most dangerous when they pose the viable threat of balance. It is time to establish that threat. If the Saints fail to run the ball with success, Sunday will look very much like Week 3 of the preseason.
Sure, Gregg Williams' defense appears to have done a 180 from Week 1 to Week 2. Before you get excited about the six sacks and multiple pressures on Jay Cutler, however, consider that no team gave up more sacks than Chicago last year, and the only addition Chicago made to its offensive line (Gabe Carimi) was knocked out of the game early. The Bears also lost Olin Kreutz , who in the past made all protection calls. I thought the Saints would get much more pressure on Cutler due to their horrid offensive line and the fact that Mike Martz is stubborn, not calling quick passing plays over his long developing seven step drops when his QB is under duress. It's no surprise Martz is under scrutiny for this very reason after the last two weeks.
The point is that while the Saints defense is not as horrible as we saw against Green Bay, they aren't near as good as what we saw against Chicago. Just as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers wide receiver's are an anomaly, Chicago's offensive line, poor WR's and stubborn offensive coordinator are an aberration. Do not expect the same kind of play witnessed against the Bears on Sunday. The Texans have the two worst things the Saints defense can face in an opponent: balance and a decisive QB with a quick release.
Long story short, the Saints need to have a commitment to the running game on Sunday in order to come away with a win, and they need to utilize the correct RB for the play called. Matching the Texans tit for tat won't be enough; the Saints offense will need to have long sustained drives, keeping Houston's offense off the field and giving GW's group a good rest.
Yes, Houston's secondary still has a few question marks and the front is still making the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but this game is about time of possession, and the Saints need to dictate the pace. If they have to play catch-up, they'll fall short as was witnessed against Green Bay. Houston has the ability to run that "four minute offense" and the Saints have not shown the ability to stop the run (or pass) when playing from behind.
While this game may seem daunting to most, I look forward to it. Sean Payton has the unique ability to confront adversity head on and admit his glaring faults directly. The horrible preseason outing against Houston not a month ago was probably the best teaching moment this staff could have asked for, specifically because it allowed them to learn from it. I think this game will be very close and come down to the last possession. I think Jimmy Graham and the Saints three-headed rushing attack will be the key to controlling this game; I think it comes down to a John Kasay field goal as time expires - Saints 34, Houston 31.
5. Saints - 32 points per game, 430 yards per game, 6.1 yards per play, 55% 3rd down conversion, 31:40 time of possession, -1 turnover ratio
14. Texans - 28.5 ppg, 365 ypg, 5.4 ypp, 38% 3rd down, 35:25 TOP, +1 T:O
5. Saints - 330 ypg, 8.0 yards per attempt, 67.4% completion, 6 TD's, 0 Int's, (8) 20+ yard plays, 4 sacks given up, 114.9 qb rating
23. Texans - 212 ypg, 8.5 ypa, 71.7% completion, 3 td's, 2 int's, (8) 20+ yard plays, 4 sacks, 100.4 qb rating
5. Texans - 153 ypg, 4.0 yards per carry, 2 td's, 1 fumble lost, (0) 20+ yard runs
17. Saints - 100 ypg, 4.0 ypc, 0 td's, 1 fumble lost, (1) 20+ yard runs
1.Texans - 10 ppg, 271 ypg, 4.9 ypp, 24% 3rd down, 3 fumble recoveries
12. Saints - 27.5 ppg, 322 ypg, 5.1 ypp, 42% 3rd down, 1 fumble recovery
1.Texans - 163 ypg, 6.0 ypa, 45.9 % completion, 2 td's, 1 int, (5) 20+ yard passes, 5 sacks, 69.5 qb rating
18. Saints - 241 ypg, 7.0 ypa, 57.5% completion, 4 td's, 0 int, (6) 20+ yard passes, 8 sacks, 95.6 qb rating
7. Saints - 81.5 ypg, 4.2 ypc, 2 tds, 0 fumble recovery, (1) 20+ yard runs
17. Texans - 108.5 ypg, 4.9 ypc, 0 tds, 2 fumble recoveries, (1) 20+ yard runs
Overall Statistical Summary:
The Texans have played two of the worst teams in the NFL. They've had the superior quarterback and overall offense in both games. So why hasn't the Texans offense looked as advertised? Their defense is keeping the other team off the field and out of the endzone, yet their offense has not had many long, sustaining drives.
Despite not having a great 3rd down conversion % on offense, the Texans manage to eat up clock by running the ball almost 40 times per game. While he hasn't thrown often against the Colts and Dolphins (I can't guess why), Matt Schaub has been very accurate. The Texans will be hard to defend because they are committed to running the ball. Schaub throwing 40+ times a game usually resulted in a mediocre season because the Texans defense (especially their secondary) had been suspect in years past. Wade Phillips seems to have stopped the bleeding.
On the other hand, perhaps the Saints defense would benefit if their offense took a page out of Houston's playbook and decided to slow the pace down by running the ball between the tackles with bigger running backs suited for that role. My fear is that while the game is close, Houston will be able to run or pass at will because they have done a good job of breaking past tendencies.
After Tom Brady put up 500+ yards on Miami's secondary, you'd expect Houston to attack it; they did the opposite. Houston does not have that dominant 3-4 NT, and the Saints must take advantage of that. If this game remains close and resembles a shoot-out, the Saints are in trouble because unless they break their own trends, Houston's defense knows Brees will be throwing it.
The Saints defense looks great when they have a double digit lead to defend. Why? Because they know the pass is coming. Houston's defense has that luxury against the Saints going into the game with no lead. Hopefully that changes on Sunday.