Saints vs. Cardinals 2013 Preview

Quietly, the Saints are 2-0 without its usual spark on offense. - Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

This Sunday's NFC matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals may show us more of who the Saints really are.

It has not been pretty and it has not been easy. But after two extremely competitive battles in the NFC South, the Saints managed to squeak by the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving the Saints 2-0 and adding a couple of new grey hairs to the beard. Both games came down to the final seconds, which is not a way that Saints fans are used to winning games.

Divisional matchups are always tough. When a team opens up the season with two critical divisional matchups and opens the season 2-0, the fan base has to feel great about a start like that. Concerns about the offense has seemed to bring a downer to the 2-0 party, but let's not forget that the Saints have beat a Super Bowl contender and a team with one of the most talented defenses in football. And oh yeah, those guys are in our division.

Two other teams have opened the season with the first two games versus division opponents. The Patriots have started the season 2-0 as well, but faced two straight rookie QBs on teams in rebuild mode. The Vikings have started 0-2 against the Lions and Bears, mainly due to the defense giving up 30+ points to both teams.

Maybe I am placing too much weight into what divisional matchups mean to football teams in the NFL, but I believe that the Saints have been tested big time by their first two opponents. Not to take anything away from the Arizona Cardinals, but I feel that the Saints will get the offense back on track in Sunday's home matchup.

In what may be a closer game than many may think, the Arizona Cardinals (1-1) come to the Dome hoping to keep momentum going after a hard fought 25-21 victory at home over the Detroit Lions.

Before getting into the Saints offense, let's talk about the Saints defense. Is it hard to believe that the Saints are sixth in the NFL in points allowed, 11th in total yards allowed, and 8th in passing yards allowed? Sure, the Saints are 27th against the run so far, but we are talking about a defense coming off of historically bad rankings in virtually every category. Considering all of the injuries and the defensive scheme changes with many of the same personnel, these statistics seems way better than expected. Rob Ryan deserves praise, kudos, boudin, a few Hurricanes, whatever he wants for getting the production that he has out of his defensive unit. With so many injuries to players who were expected to contribute in 2013, Ryan is putting all of the pieces together and is giving Saints fans a reason to finally be excited about the defense.

The Cardinals will come into the Superdome on Sunday with their best player battling a nagging left hamstring injury. Larry Fitzgerald is difficult for any defense to stop, but if he is limited in this game like he was against the Lions in Week 2, this could turn out to be an advantage for the Saints defense. The Cardinals offensive line is average at best, allowing 5 sacks in 2 games to the virtually immobile Carson Palmer. Look for the Saints pass rush to look even better this week, possibly meeting their season total of 4 sacks in Week 3.

The Saints have had trouble containing the run, allowing an average of 124 rushing yards per game (27th in NFL). Rashard Mendenhall is no Steven Jackson or Doug Martin, so I am anxious to see if the run defense steps up against a lesser talented back. If Mendenhall breaks 100 rushing yards in this one, I think it is time to be concerned about our rush defense moving forward.

While Saints fans are excited by the fact that the defense has only given up 3 touchdowns in 2 games, the offense has only produced 3 touchdowns themselves. When you consider that Drew Brees had eleven games with 3 or more passing touchdowns in 2012 without Sean Payton on the sidelines, I can't help but to wonder if we have a big problem here or if the first two weeks is an apparition of the Saints offense, caused by facing division rivals.

In my opinion, this will be the game where I will either feel better about the Saints offense or hit the panic button. Despite being talented in the secondary, the Cardinals have been generous in the passing game allowing 68.9% of passes to be completed and ranking 21st in passing yards allowed (286). In two weeks, the Cardinals have only 1 sack, so a lack of a pass rush may be part to blame for the disappointing start.

The Saints have an opportunity to establish the pass early and gain momentum by getting Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles involved as much as possible. In week 1, Rams TE Jared Cook blew the doors off of the Arizona defense, delivering a 7 catch, 141 yard, 2 TD performance while RB Daryl Richardson had 5 catches of his own. Second TE Lance Kendricks also had 3 receptions in the Rams win.

In week 2, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell combined for 8 catches for 85 yards, while underachieving TE Brandon Pettigrew had 3 receptions. Of the 51 total receptions allowed by Arizona, only 25 of them have been made by wide receivers (49%). This is not surprising, considering that the Cardinals usually have CB Patrick Peterson manning up against the opposing team's top target. I expect a nice bounce back game for Drew in this one, if the Saints offensive line steps it up in pass protection.

Then, there's the Saint's rushing attack, currently ranked 24th in the league at 76.5 yards per game. There has been plenty said the past two weeks about Mark Ingram and the offensive line. (Perhaps Ingram's "toe injury" will limit his carries this week?) Sunday's challenge against a good Arizona rushing defense will be a difficult one, as the Cardinals are allowing an average of only 2.63 yards per carry (4th in NFL). If the Saints are looking to get out of their current rushing slump, this week may not be the one to do it. The Saints shouldn't totally abandon the run, but may need to decrease the rushing attempts for this week. While Coach Payton has promised more emphasis on running the football, the Saints have been less effective after the first two weeks this season than they were the first two weeks of last season.

Year Attempts Rushing Yards Yards Per Carry
2012 37 195 5.27
2013 49 153 3.12

After two tough division games, the Saints will be at home facing a team that is no pushover. I don't think we can truly say what the identity of this team will be in 2013, but we may learn more on Sunday. I must say, I miss that consistent high percentage passing attack that rolls 30+ points a week on the scoreboard. I miss the highly efficient red zone team that had a nose for the end zone. I didn't mind that being our identity. Let's go ahead and bring that back this week and hope the running game falls into place.

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