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Saints vs. Chiefs Preview: Balance and Checks

HAND him the ball, multiple times.
HAND him the ball, multiple times.

The last time any teams started the season 0-3 and made the playoffs was in 1998, when the Bills turned the trick. Starting 0-3 leaves you a 2.7% chance of making the play-offs. Since the merger, 0-2 teams have a 12% chance of turning it around. Starting 0-3 is a death wish as far as the postseason are concerned.

Sunday's contest between 0-2 New Orleans and 0-2 Kansas City has become an elimination match: lose, and you don't go to the big dance. If New Orleans loses, as a Saints fan hoping against hope, you might have to just save yourself the massive heart attack stress levels and admit Roger Goodell f***** us and that this will just be a lost year in Drew Brees' prime. It doesn't mean giving up; instead, it will be more like having less of an emotional investment by lowering your expectations. If they do the near impossible, it will be that much more joyful because it will be unexpected if you've already accepted the opposite.

Now that the words of caution are out of the way, I will tell you why I believe they won't be necessary. Despite the woeful play of the defense, the Saints still are a very talented team. Unlike the Dream Team Eagles from last year, this team has been together and knows how to win together. The first win without Sean Payton will be the hardest, but once it comes, it will have the force of a breached dam.

Why the slow start? They are feeling their way through this. With no Sean Payton, the coordinators and Brees lack the mechanism that ensured balance and checks. Or to put it another way- quality control. Sean is the guy with the feel for what works, what doesn't, when to be aggressive, when to "rope-a-dope". Sean is the guy who is keeping the coordinators in check, giving the constructive criticism when putting together a game plan during the week. Sean is the guy who knows how to push each player's buttons during the game. Sean is the guy who knows what the right adjustment is at halftime. Sean is the guy that scripted those first 15 plays each half (remember when the Saints scored on the first drives of each half more than any other team?).

Instead of having THE one guy whose instincts and insights refined and tempered the plans and decisions of the coordinators and Drew, we are left with a handful of guys trying to do it in a collaborative manner. Yet who tells Carmichael or Brees or Spags "That won't work against these guys, change it and put this in because I know this will work in that down and distance, or against that personnel alignment/package"? Who is managing and holding accountable and keeping in check and contributing the guiding perspective Sean provided?

The Saints are in uncharted waters. Losing Payton for the year is something no person could quantify because it never happened in the history of the NFL (f*** you , Roger Goodell). They are learning their way on the fly; and I tell you, they're not that far off.

Starting the season against the unconventional Robert Griffin and Cam Newton turned out to be too much "outside the box" to handle. The Chiefs will be just what the doctor ordered come Sunday. Matt Cassel is a more traditional, drop back passer. He might run as often as Drew did a few years ago. You know what to expect, and you know how to defend him. Steve Spagnuolo's defense might actually give the appearance of progress in this game, because the offense they will face is the offense his scheme was built to stop.

The Chiefs may be 0-2, but they're definitely not a "gimme". They're as desperate as the Saints. They have a top-five offense (who could have guessed that one?), and although it is struggling early (ranked 21st in the league), the defense is pretty much the same defense that stymied an undefeated Green Bay team late last year. In other words, the Saints have their work cut out for them. Dwayne Bowe poses match-up questions: questions that should be countered and one-upped with the combination of Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Opposite of Bowe, WR Steve Breaston is dependable, playing the role of Lance Moore or Wes Welker in the slot. Second-year wideout Jonathan Baldwin has loads of potential that I hope doesn't get realized until next week (he's waited this long, he can wait till he's back in Arrowhead to become the player they drafted him to be). I'll take the Saints passing game over that of the Chiefs, assuming Drew stops throwing the ball 50 times and gives 10 of those attempts to the rushing game.

Last year, Drew averaged just over 40 pass attempts per game. We all know he had a record breaking season, having the best passing offense in the history of the NFL. However, the offense was so dangerous because the Saints also had the sixth-ranked rushing attack to provide BALANCE and pose a viable threat to the defense. Drew Brees threw for more yards than anyone in history, yet the opposing defenses couldn't just play the pass and pin their ears back and rush Drew BECAUSE the Saints had AND USED their stable of RB's at will. The other teams had to play the Saints more honestly because New Orleans had the ability to break off an explosive run or throw a 20+ yard pass out of the same formation, USING THE SAME PERSONNEL.

Let me clarify the significance. If the Saints SHOW that they can run or pass with EQUAL success, without subbing players in or out, they become unpredictable. They have less tendencies or "tells" for the defense to diagnose the play pre-snap. Conversely, sending a guy in motion may force the defense to show its coverage, allowing Drew to know where he is going to throw the ball or audible to a run play because the defense just told him they were set up to defend the pass, or vice-versa.

In validating the ability of being able to run effectively with the same players they use to pass effectively, the Saints force a defense to have to defend ALL of the field: long and short, sideline to sideline. It forces the defense to pick its poison. Going to no-huddle or "two-minute offense" with this ability really stresses a defense because they are not allowed to sub players in or out (assuming the offense doesn't change personnel). It makes them more susceptible to the run if they were fielding a pass defense before the no-huddle, and vice-versa.

For example, the opponent may sub in a few extra defensive backs and take out a few line-backers, and/or they may take out a few of the bigger defensive linemen (run stuffers) and put in the leaner ones (pass rushers). If they get caught with that personnel group in no huddle, the Saints can run the ball with great success out of a passing formation with Daren Sproles or any other RB because those smaller defensive linemen and defensive backs (who replaced a few linebackers and early-down "big men" ) have a hard time tackling Mark Ingram or Chris Ivory running with a load of steam. A Darren Sproles draw or HB sprint is tough to defend when they're spread out and expecting a pass.

Likewise, if the defense has their "heavy" unit in on third and short, and the Saints convert for a first down and immediately jump to a no-huddle, hurry-up offense, those big linemen and linebackers will get gassed quickly running up and down the field with no breaks between plays. They have to go from stopping a known run to trying to defend a spread-out passing attack from the Saints who are utilizing the same personnel that picked up the first down against the equivalent of a "goal-line" defense. Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, with their ability to create mismatches no matter how the defense is set up, allow the Saints to become more versatile and effectively run out of passing formations and throw out of running formations. They are the wild cards who'll challenge the defense and allow the Saints to seamlessly switch to a no-huddle pass from a known run or vice-versa.

The Saints still have this ability. These two losses coming when Brees/Carmichael tried to force the issue will serve as a reminder of what happens when they do it their way instead of Sean's. Brees has targeted Graham too much, many times locking in on him and missing the wide open guy right in front of him (like Pierre Thomas in the end zone on third and goal against Carolina). While he's thrown it to Sproles, Darren has a total of ZERO rushing attempts. Bless his soul, but Drew has tried to do it all by himself, and Carmichael didn't reign him in.

That's why Aaron Kromer came upon a stroke of genius and installed mirrors all throughout the Saints practice facility. It's one thing for Drew to hear he's trying to do too much and partially agree, but it really sinks in when there are two weeks of tape, two weeks of around 50% completion, two weeks of two interceptions-especially one Drew would normally have never thrown. Add a mirror to go with the game tape, and Drew can really get the point. That mirror is a Sean Payton-type tactic that should hit home for all players and coaches.

The Saints gave more attention to the run game in Week Two, but the deficit really made the Saints become more one-dimensional than they intended. I look for the Saints to have an extra emphasis on running the ball this week. Not just the runs out of run formations we saw last week with Pierre and Mark Ingram, but the draws out of the shotgun with Sproles when the defense is spread out expecting a pass, and more runs out of the no-huddle offense on first down. In short, I look for the Saints offense to look more like it did last year.

Kansas City should look much better than they did last year. Although they lost their top CB to the Cowboys in the offseason (Brandon Carr), they have a healthy Eric Berry back at safety, and star LB Tamba Hali returns from suspension this week. Their pass rush has been nonexistent, but the potential is still there. Where it once looked like the team wasn't even trying, it could lead them to be more dangerously desperate this week. If their pass rush gets going, I don't think it will be enough to stop Drew and a more balanced and unpredictable Saints offense.

On offense, aside from the 3 WRs we already discussed, the Chiefs haven't had much success running the ball. Jamaal Charles just hasn't looked explosive, or at least doesn't look like he trusts his reconstructed knee. TE Kevin Boss hasn't had much of an impact, and neither has Peyton Hillis. They might get on track and have some success against the Saints defense, but only if the Saints don't get a quick lead and force them to become one dimensional.

Speaking of the Saints defense, I believe they will have a very solid performance because unlike the Redskins and Panthers, there won't be nearly as much guesswork when it comes to diagnosing run/pass. There won't be that second of interpretation and delayed reaction. They don't have to worry so much about containing Cassel, as he poses virtually no threat running the ball. You won't see an option, and the bootleg won't be nearly as effective as it was with Newton/Griffin.

Heading into Week 3, six teams were 0-2, another six sat at 2-0, and the other 20 were 1-1. The Thursday night game was good news for the Saints who could find themselves just one game behind Atlanta come Monday morning. A Saints win on Sunday will validate their beliefs in self, add confidence, remove doubts, and lift an 800-lb gorilla off their backs (specifically Drew's). Better yet, a win on Sunday allows the Saints to go to Lambeau Field and give their best effort, because their focus shifts from "getting a win" to "executing our game plan and beating the Packers". See the difference? It allows them to move on and focus on the next week instead of trying to erase the past few.

Saints 31, Chiefs 20