The New Orleans Saints host the Houston Texans this Saturday evening, their first home game of the preseason. The game will also mark the debut of stars such as Drew Brees, Mark Ingram, Cam Jordan, and Adrian Peterson, who have been held out of game action up to this point. The Saints, like most NFL teams, often use this 3rd preseason game as a "dress rehearsal" for the regular season. The majority of each team's starters are expected to play well into the 3rd Quarter, and coaches will likely begin to implement some of their game plans for the regular season.
Canal Street Chronicles has highlighted some key matchups to watch during this contest, as we watch the Saints lineups take shape for their regular season opener.
Saints OTs Ryan Ramczyk and Zach Strief vs. Texans DEs J.J. Watt /Jadeveon Clowney and OLB Whitney Mercilus
Ramczyk saw his first action of the preseason in last week's victory over the Chargers. The 1st round pick had some nice moments against L.A. rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but was exposed a few times in pass protection. It was the kind of uneven performance that you can usually expect from a rookie tackle, yet Ramczyk also showed why he was so highly touted coming into the draft. Strief continues to be a veteran warhorse at right tackle. Underrated most of his career, yet always reliable and effective. He was playing the best football of his career in 2016, but the obvious question that remains is how long can this 11-year veteran continue his high level of play.
J.J. Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus represent arguably the best trio of pass rushers in the league. Watt, who had an incredible 70 sacks in four seasons, missed the last 13 games last year following a back injury. How he rebounds is one of the major storylines in Houston this season. Without Watt, Clowney and Mercilus combined for 14 sacks in 2016. Clowney has been limited in practices recently due to minor injury, but all three players are expected to see action against New Orleans.
It wasn't long ago that we saw Zach Strief getting absolutely abused by Watt during a regular season game in 2015. To be fair, Watt has made alot of offensive linemen look inept during his career. This will be a stiff test for the Saints offensive line, and particularly these tackles. It goes without saying that the Saints offensive success starts with the ability to protect Drew Brees and keep him upright.
Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs. Texans Linebackers
With apologies to Tommylee Lewis, Kamara is the Saints offensive star of the preseason thus far. He leads the team with 96 yards rushing on only 9 carries. Kamara was drafted to add an explosive element to the New Orleans backfield, and early indications are that he is doing exactly that. His 50-yard touchdown run on the Saints first play from scrimmage was a thing of beauty, and he later added a 22-yard reception that hopefully gave a glimpse at what he can add to the team's passing game.
The Texans have one of the most highly regarded defenses in the NFL. Everybody knows about Watt, Mercilus, and Clowney and what they can do to disrupt offenses. Houston's inside linebackers, Benardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing are extremely active as well, along with high expectations for their 2nd round pick, Zach Cunningham.
Kamara is proving to be a playmaker, but the Texans defense is expected to be one of the top units in the league, and should provide a test to his abilities in the open field. We should get a sneak peek at how Sean Payton plans to use his new weapon within the Saints offense, and hopefully prove that Kamara can be an every down threat, rather than a gadget-type of player or "scatback", as some had suggested entering the draft.
Saints Front Seven vs. Texans Offensive Line
The New Orleans defense totaled 8 sacks last week against Los Angeles, and 4 the week before against Cleveland, along with applying numerous QB pressures and hits in the backfield. A very encouraging sign was that it was the 1st and 2nd team units causing disruption, not just making plays in "garbage time" of a preseason contest.
Al-Quadin Muhammad has caught the attention of even the national media with his play down the stretch of each of the last two games. He has clearly put himself in good position to not only make the opening day roster, but potentially be a regular part of the defensive line rotation. The solid play of Alex Okafor at end, along with the much improved play from nearly all of the Saints linebackers will hopefully play an even bigger part in if this defensive unit finally improves in 2017.
The Texans offensive line is considered one of the weaker units on their football team. Add in the fact that Houston will be playing two inexperienced quarterbacks in Tom Savage and 1st round pick Deshaun Watson, and the Saints defense could have an opportunity to make a forceful statement heading into the regular season. Cam Jordan is expected to see his first action of the preseason, along with increased snaps from tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata as well as ends Okafor, Hau'oli Kikaha, and rookie Trey Hendrickson.
The competition for snaps at linebacker is red-hot as well, with the play of A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson, Manti Te'o, and rookie Alex Anzalone competing for starting spots. The Saints front seven looks to be a potentially disruptive force. Their ability to contain the running game, along with providing consistent pressure on the passer, can help protect a New Orleans secondary that continues to struggle.
Saints CB's Marshon Lattimore/P.J. Williams/Ken Crawley vs. Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins
Lost in the performances of a number of players in the Saints front seven over the last two games is the fact that their secondary continues to struggle with penalties and ill-timed completions. An expected close competion for starting spots at cornerback has thinned significantly with the injury to Delvin Breaux and the poor play of Damian Swann. First round pick Marshon Lattimore played in his first game last week, and played well enough that Chargers quarterbacks did not officially target him with a single throw. Ken Crawley rose his level of play from a mistake-filled game that we saw against Cleveland the week before, and P.J. Williams continues to improve with each week in the lineup. De'Vante Harris and Sterling Moore are both making solid cases to round out the cornerback unit, although being pushed by the athleticism of Arthur Maulet and Malik Foreman.
The Texans have one of the best wideouts in the league in DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has averaged over 1,100 yards over his 4-year career, despite the Texans' inconsistent play at quarterback. There is some question whether Hopkins will play in this game; he has been limited with injury over the last few weeks, and Houston is already down another of it's talented wideouts with Will Fuller (broken collarbone). The Saints will still have to face athletic receivers in Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong, but if Hopkins plays he presents one of the most talented targets New Orleans will face all season.
The Saints safety corps seems set with Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell, and Marcus Williams, with Rafael Bush and Chris Banjo providing quality depth. Cornerback, however, remains the biggest question mark on this entire team. Lattimore, Williams, and Crawley seem to be the top 3 at this point, and they have shown some signs of improved play. The entire secondary still must do a better job at limiting crippling penalties and back breaking completions, and must start to make the type of plays to change the momentum of a game for this defense. In 74 passes thrown against them in the first two games, the Saints have just 1 interception, made by linebacker Adam Bighill on a late game desperation attempt.
We've come to expect high levels of performance from Drew Brees and the Saints passing game, as well as good individual efforts from players like Ingram, Jordan, Michael Thomas, etc. It's some of these other match ups though, that will determine if the New Orleans Saints could make a push for the playoffs in 2017.
Which match up are you most anxious for in Saints vs. Texans?
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Ramczyk/Strief vs. Watt/Clowney/Mercilus
Kamara vs. Texans LBs
Saints front 7 vs. Texans OL
Saints CBs vs. Texans WRs