Each team starts the season anew with varying degrees of continuity among their staff and players. Many "football people" - players, coaches, and front office types (past and present) - all agree on the axiom that by the end of the first month of regular season play, a team begins to find its identity.
The process isn't as simple as continuing from the previous year's stopping point. Every team is trying to improve and every team undergoes a shuffle of the roster, taking time for all moving parts and schematic changes to "gel." Players get older and digress, younger players further establish themselves (or not), and the opponent has had a full year to digest and dissect everything a team has done the past year. Teams either evolve and adapt, or get left behind.
The fourth week is when it all starts to come together. We have a good feel of how the new components mesh together; they've had time to work through the kinks, get comfortable and establish trust by gaining experience playing together during those "in game" situations like red-zone, third down or two minute drill, to name a few.
Some teams take a little longer to get their ducks in a row and this unique off-season has added stress to those who run more complicated schemes. Teams now have a few weeks of film on their opponents "new" look and vice versa. Yet when we take a close look at Sunday's matchup between the Jaguars and the Saints, one cliché seems to hold true: a leopard can't change its spots.
What do we know about Jacksonville through the years under the tutelage of Jack Del Rio? They look like Tarzan coming off the bus, but sometimes play like Jane. They've been wildly inconsistent from week to week.
They've not had a go-to wide receiver since Jimmy Smith retired. Their defense plays tough, taking on Jack's competitive persona, yet too much is asked of them from time to time. I can't say they've had a good QB ever since Mark Brunell left. If I could point to one bright spot, it would be one of my all-time favorites: MJD - Maurice Jones-Drew. If the Saints want to win, all they really need to do is stop (or limit) that guy.
It's really that simple. Should the Saints be concerned with Mercedes Lewis? With Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, I'm not so sure. Take nothing away from Blaine, but Lewis has been battling through injury and hasn't found his groove yet. I question how much time he and Gabbert have had to get in sync with each other.
Jacksonville's offensive line is halfway decent, otherwise MJD wouldn't be averaging over 100 yards rushing per game when practically everyone knows he's getting the ball. Look out for the 4th and 5th WR's, because they're who Blaine has been throwing to while running the scout team all through training camp and the first two weeks of regular season.
Jacksonville runs a simple offense and a simple defense. The lockout has helped them be more competitive than you would think because it took less time to install and become adept at running an offense or defense that only relies on doing a few things well. It's especially more surprising how close a few of their games have been considering they cut their starting QB a few days before the first game.
However, nothing they do on either side of the ball will scare, confuse or wow you, and maybe that's the real problem. I can't say I feel bad for Del Rio; he's a likable guy, but sooner or later player evaluations and development has to point directly at the head coach and staff he put together.
By contrast, both Sean Payton and Gregg Williams employ complicated schemes with many intricacies. The offense has been more about timing and precision easily established through repetition against air - so they've been able to get up to speed in quick fashion. The defense is playing catch-up because it is important their reps come against live competition due to the fact they have to react more than anything else (lack of an off-season and new CBA restrictions limited those reps).
Only through repetition in those live situations does the entire defense build trust with each other and turn a thinking reaction into something instinctual. Though it has taken most of the month, the defense is getting there. Where the offense is now and where the defense is heading, the Saints have the clear ability to come into Florida and cause Jaguar fans to cry.
The last time the Saints played the Jags, they had started the season 0-4. Jacksonville was the win that brought the Saints back to .500, and the Saints dropped over 500 yards of offense on the Jags by spreading them out and dissecting a defense that was playing pretty stubborn up to that point. This week should be no different. The Saints should easily build a multi score lead in quick fashion, and in the process nullify the threat Maurice Jones Drew will pose. Like Jay Cutler, Blaine Gabbert will be forced to throw and contend with a giddy Gregg Williams and all the blitzes he'll surely have coming.
Just as a leopard can't change its spots, Sean Payton and Gregg Williams can't help themselves when it comes to taking advantage of a one dimensional opponent. Right now, Drew Brees is spot on, in the zone, or whatever you want to call it. If it weren't for Tom Brady's play, Drew might very well be the front runner for MVP through the first three weeks.
We all want to see the Saints take on more of a running mentality and establish that consistent interior rushing attack, but the plan this week will be to build that lead as fast as possible and then run the "four minute" offense on cruise control for the entire fourth quarter. Ingram will have a big second half and our thirst for ground and pound will be satisfied while we watch Drew Brees revert back to 2009 and basically handoff for much of the last 20 minutes in order to milk the clock with an absurd lead.
Here's why: where Reggie Bush thinks "40 and gets 4," Darren Sproles thinks "4 and gets 40" in the rushing and return game. This difference in personal expectations and philosophy is why the Saints offense is once again on the verge of becoming unstoppable. Sproles is an example of realized potential because his focus is on being decisive and doing what the scheme asks of him. And, by golly, we have a coach who has had five years learning how to use him. It has to be gratifying for Sean Payton to not have to explain, "if you just do what is drawn up, the big play will happen naturally due to your abilities; stop pressing and trying to force it."
If Sproles gives New Orleans a consistent Reggie, then what Jimmy Graham gives is a more dangerous (and healthier) Jeremy Shockey. The matchup problems these two will cause the opponent only benefit the rushing attack and defense as the game - and season - progress, due to the lead the Saints offense will surely build.
My only personal concern is with the unknown. We can't really evaluate Gabbert based on his play in a torrential downpour last week. Unlike Cutler, Gabbert isn't looking over his shoulder and playing scared. Maybe he doesn't know he isn't supposed to be good right away and that he doesn't have a true complement of receivers. Maybe he comes out of the gate throwing the ball like Slingin' Sammy simply because he doesn't have the bad habits and bad experiences that hinder (and often ruin) a young QB's development. Yet.
This is where Gregg Williams comes in and gets to dance his "get right boogie." Jacksonville has no "freak of nature" man child like Andre Johnson or a diverse group of wideouts witnessed in Green Bay. Forget zone coverage - man-up, send Roman Harper and a linebacker on the blitz and make this kid's second game a living hell. It's time to get this secondary with supposed "man coverage skills" some skins on the wall. Jacksonville is fighting and scratching to play tough, competitive football. It's time to take the fight out of the dog, or big cat as the case may be.
There are many similarities between Jacksonville and Week 2's matchup against Chicago. The Jags defense is comparable to the Bears, as are their wide receivers and bell cow running back. The Jags have a better tight end and offensive line, while Chicago has a better quarterback. Taking everything into account, this game should play to the same script, only the Saints should build their lead quicker. This is the game Drew Brees and the offense start fast, and by doing so, gives the edge that the defense has lacked all year: an early lead to defend.
I'd predict a higher score but Sean Payton is a good sport and doesn't rub it in. Who else was hoping for another TD last week when Houston turned it over on downs inside the red zone with just a few minutes left? In the end, it's about matchups. I think the offense is beginning to fire on all cylinders and this week will be a coming out party for offensive diversity, balanced playcalling and a turnover causing defense playing with the lead.
Saints 48, Jacksonville 10.
2. Saints - 34.7 points per game, 438 yards per game, 6.3 yards per play, 57% on 3rd down conversions, 31:05 time of possession, -2 turnover margin
28. Jaguars - 9.7 ppg, 261 ypg, 4.3 ypp, 34% on 3rd down, 32:14 TOP, -3 TO margin
2. Saints - 338 ypg, 8.1 yards per attempt, 68.5% completion, 9 td, 2 int, (12) 20+ yard pass plays, 6 sacks given up, 109.7 qb rating
32. Jaguars (out of 32 J ) - 127 ypg, 6.1 ypa, 57.1% completion, 1 td, 5 int, (5) 20+ yard passes, 6 sacks given up, 50.0 qb rating (wow)
6. Jaguars - 134 ypg, 3.7 yards per carry, 1 td, 5 fumbles, (3) 20+ yard runs
14. Saints - 100 ypg, 4.2 ypc, 2 td, 1 fumble, (2) 20+ yard runs
4. Jaguars - 20.7 ppg, 280 ypg, 5.0 ypp, 33% 3rd down conversions allowed, 0 fumble recoveries
21. Saints - 29.3 ppg, 373 ypg, 5.8 ypp, 42% 3rd down conversions allowed, 1 fumble recovery
7. Jaguars - 196 ypg, 6.6 ypa, 60.9% completion, 5 td, 3 int, (6) 20+ yard pass plays allowed, 3 sacks, 84.6 qb rating
27. Saints - 282 ypg, 7.8 ypa, 57.1% completion, 7 td, 1 int, (12) 20+ yard passes, 10 sacks, 98.3 qb rating
5. Jaguars - 83.7 ypg, 3.4 ypc, 1 td, 0 fumbles recovered, (1) 20+ yard runs allowed
9. Saints - 90.7 ypg, 4.3 ypc, 2 td, 0 fumbles recovered, (1) 20+ yard runs allowed
Overall Statistical Analysis:
In no way should this game be close beyond the first quarter. I know Jacksonville is an NFL team and the phrase "any given Sunday" comes to mind, but when you average 127 passing yards per game, I just don't see a drastic enough improvement to compete with Drew Brees. Plain and simple: put the game out of reach quickly and revert back to the running game while Triple G pins his ears back and abuses Gabbert.