The New Orleans Saints take the field this Sunday for the first time in 10 days, when they take on the New York Jets in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This is an important game for the Saints (9-4), who have lost two of their last 3 games, but still sit atop the NFC South division and are looking for their first playoff berth since 2013.
The Saints now face a Jets team that ranks 23rd in total offense, averages less than 21 points per game, and lost their starting quarterback for the season last week. Let's have a look at how well the New Orleans defense matches up against the Jets, and if they will be able to take advantage of a potential mismatch.
Saints pass defense vs. Jets pass offense
The Saints pass defense ranks 10th in the league, allowing just 217 yards per game. A primary reason for this remarkable turnaround from recent seasons is the play of the New Orleans cornerbacks, led by this spring's 11th overall draft pick, Marshon Lattimore. One of the leading candidates for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is tied for the team lead in interceptions (3), returning one of them for a touchdown, and second on the team in pass breakups.
Lattimore has matched up against some of the best receivers in the league, and managed to take them completely out of the game. Last week's showdown against Julio Jones of Atlanta was Lattimore's worst statistical outing of the season, and Jones was still held to under 100 yards receiving, catching five passes on 11 targets. This even though Lattimore was still slowed by an ankle injury, and also intercepting a Matt Ryan pass.
Ken Crawley has also had an outstanding season at the cornerback spot opposite Lattimore, leading the team in passes defensed and providing blanket coverage as well. P.J. Williams has been a bit inconsistent at times, but has played well when having to step in for Lattimore or Crawley, intercepting two passes, and giving the Saints a trio of corners to rival the skill level of anyone in the league.
New Orleans has a trio of active and athletic safeties in Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell, and rookie Marcus Williams who can play close to the line of scrimmage, as well as providing solid coverage down the field. Vaccaro is tied with Lattimore for the team lead in interceptions, while Williams has added two picks, along with giving the Saints defense a centerfield presence that improves with each week.
Saints coordinator Dennis Allen prefers an aggressive scheme, and the New Orleans defense has been able to pressure the passer better this year than recent seasons. Defensive end Cam Jordan is having the best year of his career. One of the league's better all-around defensive linemen, Jordan has 10 of the Saints’ 34 sacks, third most in the NFC. Vonn Bell and Craig Robertson are effective blitzers for the team, and Hau'oli Kikaha (4 sacks) will be expected to fill the end spot thinned by injuries to Alex Okafor and Trey Hendrickson.
New Orleans will face a Jets passing attack that averages only 208 yards per game, ranking just 20th in the league. Worse yet for New York, they lost starting quarterback Josh McCown for the season, meaning they will line up with unproven Bryce Petty behind center. Petty, a 3rd round pick in 2015, went 2-9 for only 14 yards after coming on in relief of McCown last week in New York's 23-0 loss to Denver last week. He has a 1-3 career record as a starter, averaging 54% completion percentage, 823 yards with 3 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
The Jets offensive line has not protected well, allowing 39 sacks and almost constant pressure on their quarterback. The tight end can be a young quarterback's best friend, some say, and Petty has a good one in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The 4th year tight end has 44 catches, and is a big target in the red zone. The Jets get wide receiver Jeremy Kerley back into the lineup after a four game league suspension. He joins Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse in hopes of giving Petty reliable playmaking options down the field. Anderson (848 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Kearse (681, 5) each have 52 catches, may not have the name recognition, but have been a surpisingly productive duo. Running back Matt Forte is no longer the receiving threat he once was, but still leads the Jets backs with 34 receptions, and could give Petty a reliable checkdown option.
Saints run defense vs. Jets run offense
The Saints rush defense has struggled a bit in recent weeks, dropping to 19th in the league rankings. They have given up 114 yards per game on the ground, and only four teams are worse than the 4.5 yards per carry that the Saints have surrendered. New Orleans does attack the opposing backfield with solid team defense, 11 Saints defenders have at least 40 tackles, but they struggle at times with gap control or shutting off cutback lanes.
Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Tyeler Davison don't show up big on the stats sheet big in the way of sacks or tackles, but have tied up blockers reasonably well at the line of scrimmage to allow the linebackers and safeties to make a play on the runner. Jordan is one of the better run-stopping ends in the league, but the loss of Okafor and Hendrickson on the opposite side may be a bigger concern against the run than in rushing the passer.
New York's 21st ranked running game will attempt to take pressure off Petty and the passing game with a three-headed attack that includes Bilal Powell (537 yards), Matt Forte (338 yards), and rookie Elijah McGuire (297 yards). Powell is an underrated and hard nosed runner who fights for extra yardage. Forte is not the versatile threat he once was, but adds a solid veteran presence to the backfield. The Jets line has struggled to open holes for the three backs, who collectively average less than 4 yards per carry.
What to Look For
Expect the Saints to pressure Petty heavily and often. Dennis Allen loves to blitz, and now New Orleans faces an inexperienced quarterback with a struggling offensive line. The Saints secondary should not have a big problem handling the Jets receivers in one on one coverage, allowing New Orleans to stack the tackle box against the running game.
On paper, this is a huge mismatch that favors New Orleans, but the Saints defense has struggled early in games against nearly opponent. A big key to success will be keeping the Jets offense from establishing any early momentum, and to overwhelm Petty and a limited Jets attack as the game progresses. With two big divisional match ups to end the season, the Saints must be careful not to overlook a Jets team that have played tough against a number of other playoff contenders.
Will this be a true "trap" game for the New Orleans defense?
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