The 3-2 New Orleans Saints, winners of three in a row, trek north this weekend to take on a preseason Super Bowl favorite of many, the Green Bay Packers. The Packers will be without their All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who broke his right collarbone in last week's loss to Minnesota. The Saints, meanwhile, have arguably been playing their best defensive football in years, with last week's victory propelling them to over .500 for the first time since the 2013 season.
Today, Canal Street Chronicles looks over some of the key matchups to watch when the New Orleans defense is on the field. We start with a matchup that looked like a gross mismatch less than a month ago....
Saints pass defense vs. Packers pass offense
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, consistently among the league's favorites for MVP, may miss the rest of the season after suffering a broken collarbone in his throwing shoulder against the Vikings. Rodgers missed seven games in 2013 with an injury to his left collarbone, and the Packers had a 2-4-1 record without him that season.
Enter Brett Hundley, a 5th round draft pick by Green Bay out of UCLA in 2015, the same year that New Orleans spent a 3rd round pick on Garrett Grayson. Hundley has had very little regular season action, completing just 2 of 10 passes for 17 yards and an interception before this year, and one pass attempt in mop-up duty earlier this season. His preseason numbers have been serviceable, with 66% completion percentage along with 10 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Hundley struggled against a very good Vikings defense after replacing Rodgers last week, completing 19 of 33 passes, but for just 157 yards with 3 interceptions and a touchdown. Minnesota sacked Hundley 4 times, an ongoing issue with Green Bay in recent seasons. Rodgers had been sacked 19 times in five games, and the Packers continue to struggle with injuries and consistency along their offensive line.
Green Bay does have a talented group of receivers that will test the New Orleans secondary. Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb are downfield threats that each have at least 25 receptions, and have combined for 12 of the Packers' 14 scores through the air. Tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Ty Montgomery have 22 and 19 receptions, respectively, and can not only challenge an opponent's intermediate coverage, but create big plays down the field.
The Saints pass defense has evolved into an aggressive, playmaking group. Over the last three games, New Orleans has 13 sacks, 7 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and has scored 3 touchdowns. New Orleans still ranks just 28th in passing yards allowed, but has reduced opponent completion percentage to under 57% during their 3 victories.
Coordinator Dennis Allen leads a heavy blitz scheme that has enabled ends Cam Jordan, Alex Okafor, Hau'oli Kikaha and rookie Trey Hendrickson to flourish, combining for 10 of the team's 16 total sacks, led by Jordan's five. The aggressive game plan has caused the Saints defensive backs to often be left in one on one coverage, and the group has responded strongly. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore is not only becoming a favorite for defensive rookie of the year, but is already becoming one of the better all-around corners in the league. Ken Crawley struggled a bit at times last week against Detroit, but has been a far better player than he was as a rookie, supplanting P.J. Williams as starter, despite solid coverage from Williams in the season's first three weeks.
Safeties Marcus Williams, Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell and Rafael Bush have allowed the defense versatility to run multiple fronts and looks while maintaining its aggressive style. Vaccaro has bounced back after an early season benching and leads the Saints secondary in tackles, has added 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery for a touchdown, while Williams is blossoming into a solid playmaker at free safety, despite some inconsistencies against Detroit. Linebackers Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein are a strong tandem capable of attacking an offensive backfield or solidifying short zone coverages.
Saints run defense vs. Packers run offense
New Orleans has not allowed any opposing rusher to surpass 70 yards on the ground since Week 1 at Minnesota, and have allowed just one rushing touchdown to a running back all season. The Saints currently rank 11th in rush defense, giving up less than 94 yards per game in the last four contests.
Although New Orleans defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata have struggled to consistently rush the passer, they have been very stout against the run, stuffing the middle and allowing other Saints defenders to support. Okafor has consistently graded highly as a run defender, and Jordan continues to be one of the better all-around defensive ends in the league.
Lattimore's coverage abilities have garnered much attention, but he has been outstanding in run support, and safeties Vaccaro and Bell play extremely well within the tackle box. The New Orleans linebackers have been much better in run pursuit than pass coverage, often making plays at the line of scrimmage for limited gains. Green Bay hopes to get some production from their 26th ranked rushing attack to reduce the pressure on Hundley. Ty Montgomery, a converted wideout, was the team's leading rusher a year ago but has been limited by a rib injury. Rookie 5th round pick Aaron Jones has stepped in to lead the Packers in rushing and yards per carry
What to Look For
Green Bay will almost certainly run the ball more often than usual, but the Packers are still a pass oriented team. Expect coach Mike McCarthy to utilize a very quick rhythm short passing attack to get the ball out of Hundley's hands quickly to mask their pass protection woes and get the ball into the hands of their playmakers. New Orleans cannot be complacent in downfield coverage, the Packers do have some dangerous weapons and Hundley has the arm to get them the ball.
Saints corners Lattimore and Ken Crawley have played tight coverage and been able to successfully jump the quick passes in recent weeks. Expect Dennis Allen to continue the blitz heavy scheme that the Saints have been using, probably even moreso against such an inexperienced quarterback and a Packers team that has struggled on the offensive line.
Which Saints duo of defenders is more important to the team's success against Green Bay?
This poll is closed
Cam Jordan/Alex Okafor
Sheldon Rankins/David Onyemata
Craig Robertson/A.J. Klein
Marshon Lattimore/Ken Crawley
Marcus Williams/Kenny Vaccaro