The New Orleans Saints return to action this Sunday, trekking north to face the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints (4-1) have won four straight games, and possess one of the NFL's most efficient passing attacks. New Orleans also got their Pro Bowl running back back into the mix, when Mark Ingram returned after a four game suspension to start the year. The Saints again look capable of dominating opponents either through the air or by rush, and are averaging a league-best 36 points per game. The immovable object opposing the irresistible force of the New Orleans offense is the defense of the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens sit near the top of the league rankings in nearly every defensive category, including 1st total yards surrendered, giving up an average of only 271 yards per game, and allow the opposition just 12.8 points per game. Let's have a look at how well two of the best units in the NFL match up against one another.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. RAVENS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, now the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader, has averaged 333 yards per game and has yet to throw an interception this season while throwing for 11 touchdowns. Brees has completed an incredible 77.9% of his passes, and remains near the top of his game. Leading the aerial assault is the dominant third year wideout Michael Thomas, who has caught 46 of his 49 targets for 519 yards and three scores. Second year running back Alvin Kamara continues to be a key target for Brees as well, despite not recording a reception against Washington. Kamara is second on the team in both receptions (38) and receiving yards (351) and can stretch any defense both vertically and from sideline to sideline. The Saints have gotten solid performances from their other weapons in recent weeks. Rookie Tre'Quan Smith exploded for 111 yards and two scores against the Redskins on a primetime stage, and is expected to play a bigger role in the offense moving forward. Another offseason addition who looks like he's going to play a key role is Cameron Meredith. Eight of Meredith's nine receptions on the year have come in the last two games, and he has clearly established some trust from his quarterback. Tight end Benjamin Watson has caught 17 balls for 187 yards, and can still make a defense pay for ignoring him. New Orleans continues to protect Brees well, allowing only 8 sacks and giving their Hall of Famer a clean pocket to go through his progressions.
The Ravens defense will present perhaps the biggest challenge to date for the Saints offensive line. A big and physical crew up front, Baltimore has sacked opposing quarterbacks 26 times this season, including 11 takedowns of the Titans Marcus Mariota in a 21-0 demolition of Tennessee last Sunday. The ageless Terrell Suggs leads their defensive charge. Still playing at a Pro Bowl level in his 16th year, Suggs has 130 career sacks, including 4.5 this season. Fourth year edge rusher Za'Darius Smith is having his best season, already tying his career high with 5.5 sacks, although three came last week, and a team high 10 qb hits. Baltimore also brings additional pressure from Matt Judon, Tim Williams, and Tyus Bowser from the edge, through blitzes with Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, and push the pass pocket backwards with a set of powerful defensive tackles. The Ravens surrender only 188 yards per game through the air, second best in the league, and have a capable secondary full of playmakers. Cornerback Anthony Averett remains a question mark after missing the previous four games with a hamstring injury, but the team did get back Pro Bowl corner Jimmy Smith after a four game suspension. He joins Brandon Carr, Tavon Young, and last year's first round pick, Marlon Humphrey, to give Baltimore a formidable coverage squad against any receiving corps. Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are arguably the most dangerous pair of safeties in the league, helping the team to five interceptions this year after a league leading 22 interceptions a season ago.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints OT's Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk vs. Ravens edge Terrell Suggs, Za'Darius Smith, Matt Judon, and Tim Williams ~
Armstead is playing the best football of his underrated career, and Ramczyk is already one of the top pass protectors in the game, giving New Orleans one of the best offensive tackle duos in the NFL. They will each be severely tested by Suggs, a potential Hall of Famer, Smith, Judon, and Williams on the edge. The New Orleans receivers will have a tough match up versus an underrated Raven secondary, but the wideouts are playing well, and Michael Thomas has shown that he can produce against any coverage. Ramczyk and Armstead must be able to win their one on one battles with the talented Baltimore rushers to allow Brees to put the ball in the hands of his gamebreakers.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. RAVENS RUN DEFENSE
Ingram's return to the lineup not only gives the Saints a decidedly more powerful running attack, but helps immensely in the passing game as well. He is an underrated threat in the screen game, and is terrific at blitz pick ups. He didn't have a great stat line against Washington, finishing with just 53 yards on 16 carries, but provided the team a tough inside rushing threat that had been lacking over the first month. Ingram sits just 681 yards and three rushing scores from passing Deuce McAllister as the team's all-time leader on both lists, and is coming off the most productive season of his career. Alvin Kamara provides the other half of the Saints devastating 1-2 punch at running back. Kamara has averaged 4.8 yards per rush while running for 299 yards, five touchdowns and two 2-pt. conversions thus far, and will be an even more effective threat on the ground with Ingram back in the fold. The Saints offensive line opens up holes at the point of attack, but also has the athleticism to open up lanes at the second level of a defense, allowing their talented backs the opportunity to break bigger gains. Taysom Hill is given a bigger role with each passing week. His abilities have made New Orleans extremely difficult to defend on the ground in short yardage packages.
Baltimore has allowed opposing teams just 83 yards per game rushing so far, giving up 3.9 per carry and only two scores on the ground. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams is a powerful inside force, and stonewalls offensive lines, along with Chris Wormley and Brent Urban. That allows C.J. Mosley and his fellow linebackers the freedom to roll over opposing ball carriers. Safeties Jefferson and Weddle are outstanding run supporters, making it difficult to find any running room against this defense.
~ Matchup to Watch: Mark Ingram vs. Brandon Williams/C.J. Mosley ~
Williams and the Baltimore line are next to impossible to blow off the ball. Saints interior linemen Andrus Peat, Max Unger, and Larry Warford are going to have to move the big Baltimore line just enough for Ingram and Kamara to find a crease. Ingram has excellent vision as a runner, another underrated aspect of his game. If the Saints are to have any success on the ground, both he and Kamara will need to immediately recognize the short-lived gaps that the New Orleans line opens up front, which then leaves them in a one on one match up with the pro bowler Mosley.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale likes to employ many different looks with his defensive fronts. The strategy overwhelmed Mariota and the Titans front line a week ago, and has kept every offense they've faced in check, allowing over 14 points just one time this season (a 34-23 week two loss at Cincinnati). Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and the New Orleans offense is decidedly better than any squad Baltimore has faced thus far, however, and the Saints have had an extra week to prepare. Obviously a huge key for the Saints will be their ability to keep Brees upright and with time to throw, but New Orleans must be able to find running room as well to maintain a balanced attack. Expect the Saints to use both Kamara and Ingram heavily in their game plan. Hopefully that will force the Ravens to use their safeties more to contain the two pro bowl backs. If successful, that should open up one on one opportunities for Michael Thomas and the receiving corps. The battle for points and yards will be a fierce one all afternoon, and 3rd downs will be a key battleground. The Saints have converted 42% of their 3rd down opportunities, but the Ravens allow just 26.5% of third downs to be converted. New Orleans will likely try to run an up tempo attack in an attempt to limit substitution from a deep Ravens front seven, hoping to wear down the talented top ranked defense in each team's toughest test of the 2018 season.
What will be the key matchup for the Saints offense against the fierce Baltimore defense?
This poll is closed
Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Ravens edge rush
Ingram/Kamara vs. Mosley
Thomas/Saints receivers vs. Ravens CB's
Brees vs. Weddle/Jefferson
Peat/Unger/Warford vs. Williams/Wormley/Henry