The 2-2 New Orleans Saints take on the 3-2 Detroit Lions at home this Sunday, returning to action after a bye last week. The Saints have traditionally had one of the NFL's top offenses since the arrival in 2006 of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. New Orleans has gotten off to a bit of a slow start offensively, averaging under 24 points in their first 4 games. The Saints still rank 7th in total offense, and their passing attack ranks 4th in the league, averaging 276.5 yards per game. New Orleans has had numerous offensive line injuries, causing multiple position shuffles, along with missing one of their most important offensive weapons (Willie Snead, suspension/injury) for every game thus far.
Today, Canal Street Chronicles will look over some of the match ups to watch as this New Orleans offense takes the field opposite from the Detroit defense.
Saints pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
Drew Brees has yet to throw an interception in the 2017 season. In fact, the Saints do not have a single turnover yet this season, the only NFL team able to make that boast. Brees has only been sacked 4 times, a surprising statistic considering that starting left tackle Terron Armstead has yet to play a snap because of offseason labrum surgery and starting right tackle Zach Strief went down with injury in the opening week, then was re-injured against Miami and will likely miss the remainder of the season.
The injuries have caused 1st round draft pick Ryan Ramczyk to shuffle between both tackle positions, and Andrus Peat has had to slide outside to left tackle from left guard. Ramczyk has the early look of a perennial Pro Bowler. He has had a few struggles, but has generally held up well against the strong pass rushes of Minnesota, Carolina, and Miami's Cameron Wake. Armstead has been well ahead of schedule in his rehab, and it is possible that he will be in the lineup on Sunday.
Detroit has the outside pass rushers that could cause a long day for Brees, if not held in check. The Lions have 13 sacks on the year, led by 4 each from defensive ends Anthony Zettel and Ezekiel Ansah. Second-year defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson will be counted on to make plays from the middle, particularly with the injury to veteran Haloti Ngata, likely out for the year.
Wide receiver Willie Snead looks to finally return to the Saints lineup, after missing the first four games. Snead, one of the better number 2 receivers in the league, is a favorite target of Brees on 3rd downs and in big situations. Defenses have keyed on 2nd year wideout Michael Thomas in Snead's absence, although he still leads the team with 25 receptions for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns. Thomas looks like he is on the verge of moving into the elite category of NFL wide receivers, but the Saints other targets have struggled with consistent production.
Brandon Coleman and Ted Ginn Jr. each have 11 receptions and 3 combined scores, but Ginn has failed to provide the deep threat he was counted on doing when signed this offseason. Rookie running back Alvin Kamara has been the Saints next most trusted receiver, with 20 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown, and is becoming a more dominant part of the offense. Coby Fleener is also emerging as a bigger part of the offense than he was a season ago. The athletic Fleener has established himself as a threat down the seam of the field, and is a valuable target for Brees in the red zone. Detroit has generally defended opposing tight ends well, but they did give up 5 catches for 175 yards against Carolina's Ed Dickson last week.
The Lions pass defense ranks just 27th in the league, but they have intercepted 7 passes. Cornerback Darius Slay is rarely mentioned as a top defensive back, but he is a consistent playmaker and one of the top cover corners in the league. Detroit's safety trio of Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, and Miles Killebrew make plays all over the field, and are as good as any team has to offer. They have 4 interceptions between them, returning two for touchdowns. The Lions used their first round pick on Florida's Jarrad Davis, and he has paid immediate dividends at middle linebacker. Davis pairs with Tahir Whitehead on the outside to give them two athletic playmakers in pass coverage as well as dangerous blitz threats.
Saints run offense vs. Lions run defense
Mark Ingram had assumed control of the running back position even before Adrian Peterson was traded by the Saints to the Arizona Cardinals earlier this week. Ingram has remained the Saints leading rusher, and has 170 yards on 42 carries so far this season. With the emergence of the rookie Kamara within the offense, Peterson was largely a non-factor in the Saints game planning even in the two weeks prior to being traded.
The injuries at tackle and subsequent player shuffling, along the New Orleans offensive line have seemed to have affected the running game more so than the team's pass protection. The Saints rank 21st in rushing, but Detroit's defense has been stout against the run, ranking 3rd in the league and allowing just 3.3 yards per rush attempt. The loss of Ngata in the middle will likely affect the Lions rush defense more than their pass rush. He was a veteran still capable of taking up multiple blockers, freeing up the linebackers and safeties for containment. Saints guard Larry Warford, a former Lion, is a strong run blocker who should be able to handle Detroit's interior defenders alongside center Max Unger.
What to Look For
It remains to be seen how much Armstead and Snead play for New Orleans on Sunday, if either play at all. The return of both to the lineup will be a huge jolt to an offense that has been a bit less productive than we are accustomed to seeing. Detroit's 7 interceptions are slightly misleading, since 6 of them came in two games against Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Arizona's Carson Palmer.
The matchup between Michael Thomas and Darius Slay should be entertaining to watch, as will Alvin Kamara versus Lions linebackers Whitehead and Davis. New Orleans should be able to roll up nice passing yardage against the Lions, but Ingram must be able to establish a running game to provide balance. Remember just one year ago, the Lions intercepted Brees 3 times while holding him without a touchdown pass and held the Saints running game under 100 yards in a 28-13 victory.
The Lions defense struggled against a pedestrian Panthers passing attack last week. Look for the Saints complimentary targets to play a big role, particularly if Snead plays, and the New Orleans offense to have it's best passing performance of the young season.
Which player will have the bigger impact on Saints success upon their return from injury?
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