It is often said that to be successful in battle, a great warrior needs to know not only his strengths, but more importantly his weaknesses, in order to better parry his opponents' attacks. When the New Orleans Saints face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, each team will be trying to exploit the other's shortcomings to assure itself of victory.
But what exactly are the Saints most damning flaws? How about those of the Bengals? Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle was kind enough to speak with us about Cincinnati's weakest points both on offense and defense, while I will do the honor when it comes to the Saints most glaring weaknesses.
Why the Bengals Will Lose
The Bengals offense has been Jekyll and Hyde in 2014 and recently, it has been more Hyde. The Bengals are a potent offense (on paper) but are missing some key pieces. AJ Green is not 100% (toe); their number two wide receiver, Marvin Jones (foot), has been on IR all year; their top receiving tight end, Tyler Eifert (elbow), has played all of five minutes in 2014; and Giovani Bernard looks to be out again (hip). As a result of injuries and poor gameplans, the Bengals have put up two offensive showings in the past four games of 165 yards or less. You read that correct. The Colts and Browns held the Bengals to 135 yards and 165 yards respectively and no one has played well. Andy Dalton has been erratic in his last few games. Receivers have been dropping a lot of passes. And all though the Bengals offensive line is tied for third with only 12 sacks allowed, they have been surrendering a lot of pressure on Dalton and he has had very little time in the pocket. If the Saints can put pressure on Dalton, they will get opportunities for turnovers.
Much like the Bengals offense, the Bengals defense has been decimated by injuries as well - especially at the linebacker position. It has been most noticeable in the running game where they have dropped from fifth in 2013 to 31st in 2014. With Vontaze Burfict (knee) out again and Rey Maualuga questionable (hamstring), Mark Ingram should be able to continue his strong 2014 campaign. If the Bengals run defense can hold up, the Saints will find plenty of opportunities with Jimmy Graham. The Bengals have never been able to cover a tight end since the day they joined the NFL in 1968. Last week they struggled with a guy named Gary Barnidge, and last I checked, the Saints have the best tight end in football. Graham should find plenty of space in the Bengals secondary and any fantasy owners of Graham should be very happy this week.
Why the Saints Will Lose
Judging from the reaction of fans and pundits to the New Orleans Saints slow start in the 2014 NFL season, you would think that the Saints offense has been bad. They haven't. The Saints are ranked 4th in weighted offensive efficiency in the NFL according to Football Outsiders, with a 13.5% DVOA. They're also ranked 2nd in rushing efficiency (12.5% DVOA). Moreover, the Saints are 3rd in the entire NFL in yards per play (6.1), 1st in first downs per game (26.7) and 2nd in third down efficiency (50.4%).
Despite having been really good on offense, New Orleans has a 4-5 record through nine games this year because they can't stop turning the ball over. The Saints have given the ball away in eight of their nine games this season. Last Sunday against the 49ers, Brees threw two more interceptions (he now sits at 10 for the season) and fumbled a ball in overtime that for all intents and purposes gave San Francisco their fifth win of the year. Overall, the Saints have a -8 turnover differential (28th in the NFL), which is a sure recipe for failure.
The reason the Saints will lose this game against the Bengals on offense is their tendency this year to make critical mistakes at the worst possible time and at the worst possible field position. Nearly all of Brees' interceptions and fumbles in 2014 have led to scores for Saints opponents.
While the Saints offense is good (minus the turnovers), their defense simply isn't. Despite playing somewhat better as of late, New Orleans' defensive unit is still ranked 24th in weighted total defense by Football Outsiders with a 6.0% DVOA (For defense, a negative value means better defense). They haven't been very good at stopping the run (29th, 1.1% DVOA, allowing 4.2 yards per rush) and they have been well below average against the pass (22nd, 13.9% DVOA, allowing 6.9 yards per pass). In the all-important scoring defense department, the Saints are 28th in the NFL, giving up 24.9 points per game.
If their five losses this year haven't made it clear enough, the main reason New Orleans will lose this game on defense is undoubtedly the weakness in the secondary, save for number one cornerback Keenan Lewis. Neither cornerback Corey White, Patrick Robinson or Brian Dixon have shown that they can be trusted at that position for New Orleans. Safety Rafael Bush has been pretty good, but his counterpart Kenny Vaccaro has been a non-factor, a big disappointment for a player that was expected to build upon a promising rookie campaign in 2013. To make matters worse, Keenan Lewis injured his knee against the 49ers and may not even play in this game. Just like San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick got his "quarterbacking groove" back last week, Andy Dalton has a chance to solve his passing struggles by facing this Saints secondary this week.
Many thanks to Scott for taking the time to speak with us.
For more coverage on the Bengals, please visit Cincy Jungle.