The New Orleans Saints have a 4-1 record in part due to a defensive performance that has improved with each week after a awful start. They return to action this Sunday after a bye, faced with the task of taking on the AFC North leading Baltimore Ravens (4-2) on the road. Despite more impressive results on the defensive side of the ball in the last two games, Saints opponents have still averaged 28 points and 369 yards per game, hovering around the bottom of the league. Baltimore has averaged nearly 26 points per game, and lines up with a passing attack looking to strike down the field. Let's see how the New Orleans defense, riding a wave of momentum, will match up against a veteran Ravens offense.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints have had an effective pass defense over their last two games, putting consistent pressure on the passer and preventing big plays, something that plagued them over the first three games. The team still ranks just 30th in passing yards surrendered, giving up 298 yards per game, but have actually allowed only Tampa Bay's Ryan Fitzpatrick (417 yds) and Atlanta's Matt Ryan (374) to eclipse the 300-yd. barrier. The New Orleans defensive line has been able to apply good pressure in recent weeks, and have collected 3 quarterback sacks in each of the last four games. Cameron Jordan is having another All-Pro season, and continues to beat his blockers with either power, speed, or finesse. He leads the team with 5 sacks, and is one of the most underrated defensive players in the league. Marcus Davenport is showing why the team traded up to take him with the 14th overall selection in last spring's draft. He has two sacks thus far, and is second only to Jordan on the team in quarterback pressures. Davenport is becoming an overwhelming force with a rare blend of athleticism and strength, and looks to have just scratched the surface of his vast potential. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has been dominant at times this season as well. He also has 2 sacks, but has become had an impactful presence in nearly every game, consistently disrupting the opposing pass pocket. Demario Davis was already known to be an outstanding run defender when acquired as a free agent this offseason. Davis has also proven to be a devastating blitzer, his two sacks tying with Davenport and Rankins for second on the team, and has played very well in pass coverage. Fellow linebackers A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, and Craig Robertson have complimented Davis well, and the Saints are no longer as vulnerable to running backs coming out of the backfield in the passing game as a result. The Saints have just 2 interceptions so far this year, after 20 a season ago. Second year cornerback Marshon Lattimore is again playing at a pro bowl level after a slow start, and free safety Marcus Williams is also beginning to play at a high level again. Another standout performer over the last two games is safety Vonn Bell, who has played extremely well after a poor start. All eyes continue to be on cornerbacks Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams, who are considered to be the weakest points of the defense. Both players have played better, but were beaten deep repeatedly over the first three games.
Baltimore will attack the Saints defense with the league's 9th ranked passing attack, averaging 294 yards per game. Quarterback Joe Flacco (1,788 yards, 9 td, 4 int.) is having a good bounce back year after 2017 struggles. The Ravens armed their 11th year signal caller with an entirely new receiving corps over the offseason. Veteran wideout Michael Crabtree is Flacco's favorite target, and has 30 catches for a 343 yards and two scores. Former Saint Willie Snead is enjoying a bounceback year of his own after a lousy '17 campaign with New Orleans. Snead is tied with Crabtree for the reception lead, going for 313 yards and a touchdown. Speedster John Brown is the type of deep threat that has caused the strong-armed Flacco to thrive earlier in his career, and precisely the type of receiver that gave the Saints secondary nightmares early in the season. Brown has caught just 21 of his 47 targets, but they've gone for a team-high 424 yards and 3 touchdowns. Baltimore running back Javorius "Buck" Allen gives the team a solid receiving threat out of the backfield. Allen has 24 catches and 149 yards through the air. The Ravens have a four-headed tight end threat that is as individually talented as almost any in the league. Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Maxx Williams, and Nick Boyle have combined for 40 receptions and 410 yards, and all are capable of making big plays down the field as well as moving the chains on intermediate routes. Hurst, the first of the team's two 1st round picks this past spring, missed the first part of the year with a foot injury, but fellow rookie Andrews (3rd round) has made an immediate impact. Flacco has been sacked 11 times this year, but is a stationary passer within the pocket. Baltimore's line will be shorthanded, after losing guard Alex Lewis to a neck injury, perhaps creating an interior protection issue for their quarterback.
~ Matchup to Watch: Safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell vs. Ravens WR's/TE's ~
Given New Orleans' early season struggles against the deep ball, facing a gamebreaking threat like Brown could net terrifying results. The communication on the back end has been far better in recent weeks, but the Saints safeties will be seriously tested during this game. Lattimore's man to man skills are more likely going to be used most often on Crabtree or perhaps even Snead, leaving Flacco's favorite long ball target in the hands of Crawley or P.J. Williams. Bell and Marcus Williams will each need to be at the top of their game to prevent momentum changing strikes down the field, but must also limit the effectiveness of the Ravens talented tight ends.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. RAVENS RUN OFFENSE
It's gone largely unnoticed because of early season struggles against the pass, but New Orleans has had the NFL's best run defense for a number of weeks. The Saints rank 3rd in rushing yards surrendered, giving up only 72 yards per game, and opposing rushers are averaging only 3.1 yards per carry, tops in the NFL. New Orleans defensive tackles Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and undrafted rookie Taylor Stallworth have obliterated opposing interior lines at times, all but eliminating inside rushes. Stallworth will likely miss a few weeks with an ankle injury, but the team re-signed Jay Bromley to team with David Onyemata to provide solid depth inside. Cam Jordan is as good a run defender as any edge player in the league, and Davenport has worked into an every down player due to his solid play against the run. Alex Okafor gives the team outstanding depth along the edge, and the Saints don't miss a beat when he's in the lineup. The performance of the defensive line has allowed the New Orleans linebackers to flow freely and aggressively to the ball. Demario Davis and A.J. Klein in particular are shutting down the run quickly, often making hits in the backfield. The rush defense gets an added boost this week with the expected return from injury of Manti Te'o, who has missed the last three games. The team's secondary has done an exemplary job of run support, able to snuff out runners quickly if they do get into the open.
Baltimore averages just 99 yards per game on the ground, and have managed only 3.4 yards per carry. Alex Collins is the team's primary back, and has 76 carries for 271 yards, but has scored 4 times on the ground. Buck Allen has added 3 rushing touchdowns, but has only rushed for 97 yards and 2.8 yards per carry. Baltimore's second of their two 1st round picks last April, quarterback Lamar Jackson, adds athleticism to the running game in short yardage packages and has averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
~ Players to Watch: Demario Davis/A.J. Klein ~
Davis and Klein are the leaders of an improved Saints linebacking unit that has made some key plays at crucial moments. The onus will be on this group to shut down what has been a subpar Baltimore rushing attack, making the Ravens one dimensional. The linebackers must also be able to take on coverage responsibilities. Not just on Allen coming out of the backfield, but even more importantly against the dangerous Baltimore tight ends, which would allow the Saints safeties to guard against the deep strike from Flacco to his wideouts.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Ravens have the second most pass attempts in the league, and have a deep group of targets that are capable of making big plays. While it's vital that the Saints play well in coverage, most definitely an issue early in the year, it will be the showdowns up front that could be the key to New Orleans success. Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport have important match ups on the edge against Baltimore tackles Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst, or rookie Orlando Brown if Hurst moves inside to replace the injured Lewis. Rankins and his inside linemates must create disruption against veteran guard Marshall Yanda and the interior of the Ravens line. On paper, the Saints defensive line looks to have the advantage, and certainly possess the ability to take over the game. Flacco doesn't have the athletic ability to escape from the rush, and has a long history of making big mistakes when pressured heavily. Baltimore executes third downs at a 46.9% rate, so New Orleans must stop the run and short passes early to force the Ravens into 3rd and longs, where they will look to heavily pressure the immobile Flacco, perhaps resulting in turnovers. The explosive Saints offense could have their hands full against a strong Baltimore defense, so the key to an important road victory in this one could come down to big plays on defense.
What is the most important defensive match up for the New Orleans Saints against the Baltimore offense?
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Cam Jordan/Marcus Davenport vs. Ravens OT's Ronnie Stanley/James Hurst
Sheldon Rankins/Tyeler Davison vs. Ravens interior O-line
Marcus Williams/Vonn Bell vs. Ravens WR's (deep)/TE's(intermediate)
Lattimore/Crawley/P.J. vs. Crabtree/Snead/Brown
Demario Davis and Saints LB's vs. Ravens RB's
Saints LB's vs. Ravens TE's