The New Orleans Saints resume their schedule after a bye last week. The Saints entered the bye as winners of their last two games after an 0-2 start, and return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time since a September 17th loss to the New England Patriots. Coming to town are the 3-2 Detroit Lions, who are coming off of a 27-24 loss to Carolina a week ago.
Today, Canal Street Chronicles will take a look at some matchups to watch as the Saints defense lines up across from the Detroit offense.
Saints pass defense vs. Lions pass offense
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown for 1,116 yards, an average of about 223 per game, well below his career average of 275, for a Lions air attack that ranks just 23rd in the league. He has thrown only one interception to go along with his 9 touchdown passes, taking much better care of the ball than he did early in his career.
More concerning for Detroit has been their inability to protect Stafford. He has been sacked 18 times thus far, including six takedowns against Carolina a week ago. Stafford has been hobbled by an ankle injury suffered against the Panthers. He will play against the Saints, but his limited mobility could make him an easier target for a resurgent New Orleans pass rush. The Saints have recorded 4 sacks in each of their last two games, and have pressured the pass pocket better than their opening two losses. Coordinator Dennis Allen tends to blitz frequently, but 8 of the Saints 11 sacks have come from it's defensive line, led by 3 from Cam Jordan.
The probability that Dennis Allen will blitz often against the suspect Lions protection will leave a much-improved Saints secondary on the spot. Wide receiver Golden Tate leads the Lions in receiving, with 29 catches for 267 yards, but has only found the end zone once and is averaging just 9.8 yards per catch. Tate has decimated the Saints defense in each of the last three years, averaging 8 catches for 115 yards and scoring 4 touchdowns. Wideout Marvin Jones (14 catches, 184 yards) and tight end Eric Ebron (10 catches) have both gotten off to slow starts, but were key weapons in the Lions attack a year ago, and remain dangerous threats to a defense.
Running back Theo Riddick is a dangerous target out of the backfield for Stafford, and will certainly test the Saints linebackers with his open field abilities. New Orleans cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams have been a strength of the defense in recent weeks, intercepting 2 passes and containing a talented Dolphins receiving corps along with the big outside wideouts of Carolina.
Safeties Marcus Williams and Kenny Vaccaro each had an interception against the Panthers, and have handled coverage responsibilities better after early struggles. New Orleans has had success with multiple safety sets with Vonn Bell and Rafael Bush applying quarterback pressure on blitz packages. The loss of rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone to season ending shoulder surgery hurts a linebacking corps that still struggles in coverage. Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein will look to help Vaccaro in coverage duties on Ebron and the Lions short passing game.
Saints run defense vs. Lions run offense
New Orleans has shut down Carolina's multidimensional rushing attack, as well as the Dolphins talented Jay Ajayi in their last two victories, raising their run defense ranking to 17th in the league. Saints defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata have struggled to consistently apply interior pass rush, but have done a much better job clogging the inside running game. The improved athleticism of the New Orleans defense has allowed defenders to swarm to the ball carriers, and the Saints have allowed under 100 yards rushing to opposing running backs in each of the last three games. A.J. Klein has led the linebacker charge in rush pursuit, and defensive ends Jordan and Alex Okafor have contained the edge, not allowing plays along the outside.
Detroit's offensive line struggles have limited their rushing attack, along with not being able to protect Stafford. The Lions rank just 26th in the league in rush offense. Their top running back, Ameer Abdullah, has run for less than 4 yards per carry and the Lions have run for just two touchdowns.
What to look for
Despite obvious defensive improvement from New Orleans in the last two games, the team still ranks just 29th in total defense. Improved pass rush and coverage on the back end are both good signs going forward, but the Saints have struggled against Stafford and Golden Tate in each of the last three years. New Orleans should be able to contain the Lion running game, forcing Detroit into a one dimensional attack for a team that has been unable to protect it's quarterback.
Expect the Saints to blitz Stafford heavily, putting pressure on the defensive backfield to show if it is indeed the improved unit that we have seen in recent weeks.