The New Orleans Saints return home this week after two straight games on the road to host the Washington Redskins on Monday night football. It will be the Saints (3-1) first appearance on prime time this season. Opposing them will be the 2-1 Washington Redskins, coming off a bye week. Washington has surprised some with their defensive performance early this season, giving up less than 15 points and under 280 yards per game but they will be challenged by one of the NFL's most productive passing games in New Orleans. The Saints will also get Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram back on the field after a four game league suspension. Let's have a look at some of the key matchups to focus on when the Saints have the ball in this game.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. REDSKINS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans welcomes back one of it's best players in Ingram, one of the league's better all-around backs and the franchise's second all-time leading rusher. Without him, the Saints have averaged almost 105 yards rushing per game as a team, down from the league's 5th ranked rushing attack that averaged nearly 130 yards per game a year ago. After totaling just 105 yards on the ground in their first two games, New Orleans has rushed for 143 and 170 yards in wins over the Falcons and Giants in each of the last two weeks. Alvin Kamara leads the team in rushing with 275 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and running for five scores. The team's rushing totals have been bolstered by a couple long runs by Taysom Hill, who is second in rushing with 67 yards, and an end around to wideout Ted Ginn Jr. The Saints offensive lines, one of the better in the league, has struggled a bit to open interior rushing lanes for their backs, but benefited from Andrus Peat's return to the lineup from injury last week. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have been outstanding run blockers outside, grading as one of the league's top duos.
Washington comes to town allowing only 90 yards per game on the ground, although they do give up 4.5 yards per carry. Rookie defensive tackles Da'Ron Payne (1st round) and Tim Settle (5th round) have been immovable inside, often able to push the offensive line backwards, and have been a big reason why the Skins have been able to improve from their 32nd ranking against the run last year. Inside linebackers Mason Foster and Zach Brown are excellent tacklers and superb run defenders, able to chase down plays in the backfield and sideline to sideline. Washington's outside defenders have good size, and hold the edge well, and safety Montae Nicholson provides solid run support.
~ Matchup to Watch: Ingram/Kamara vs. Payne/Foster/Brown ~
New Orleans attacked the outer edges of Atlanta's and New York's defenses over the last two weeks in the running game, and the result was big plays from both Kamara and Hill by getting them in space. With the slashing Ingram back, the Saints will be even more effective inside. Last year during a week 11 win against the Redskins, Ingram and Kamara combined for 176 rushing yards, 274 all-purpose yards, and two scores. Peat, center Max Unger, and guard Larry Warford must win their battles against Payne and the big Redskin defensive line to open up running lanes for their talented 1-2 punch. The inside-outside abilities of Kamara and Ingram should spread the Redskins linebackers out to give room for the backs to make plays once at the second level.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. REDSKINS PASS DEFENSE
Ingram's return will also greatly help the passing game. Not only is he a valuable weapon on screen passes and as a check down option, he was third on the team with 58 receptions in 2017, but he is excellent at picking up blitzers as well. The threat of a more consistent running game should also open up opportunities for potential big plays off play action passes as well, hopefully increasing the effectiveness of Ted Ginn (12 catches, 135 yards, 2 touchdowns) or rookie Tre'quan Smith (1 catch, 18 yards) down the field. New Orleans continues to have one of the best passing attacks in the league, and quarterback Drew Brees continues to play at an elite level. Brees has averaged 326 yards per game so far this season, completing over 75% of his attempts while throwing 8 touchdowns without an interception. He benefits from having two of the most feared receivers in the league, in the explosive Kamara and 3rd year wideout Michael Thomas. A match up nightmare due to his crisp routes and physicality, Thomas leads the NFL with 42 receptions and 445 yards. Kamara has added 35 catches for 336 yards and a score, and has been a threat to opposing defenses from all over the offensive formation, something that will only increase with Ingram's return. There continues to be a big dropoff in production behind Thomas and Kamara. Ginn's 22 targets are the third most on the team, well behind the 47 and 44 times that Kamara and Thomas have been targeted, respectively. Veteran tight end Ben Watson has 13 receptions for 157 yards, each third best on the team, and his quarterback trusts him in key situations. Wide receiver Cameron Meredith and Smith have been more involved in the game plan in recent weeks, but must do a better job of converting their chances. The New Orleans offensive front has allowed only six sacks, enabling Brees the time to survey the field to tear a defense apart.
Only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (265 yards) has thrown broken the 200-yd. barrier against the Redskins, who have allowed only 187 yards per game through the air after ranking 9th against the pass last season. Washington attacks opposing quarterbacks in waves with a big and powerful front seven. Last year's first round pick, Jonathan Allen (2 sacks), looks like a potential star after missing much of his rookie season. Matthew Ioannidis leads the Redskins in sacks with 3, and Washington has brought down opposing passers seven times. Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith have yet to bring down the quarterback in 2018, but were the team's leaders in that area last season, and can bring heavy pressure from the outside. Ryan Anderson and Pernell McPhee adds solid edge depth, and are versatile pass rushers. Washington's best defensive back, cornerback Josh Norman, looks questionable for this game with a hamstring injury, which may leave Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau the tall task of containing Thomas and the Saints receiving threats. Free safety D.J. Swearinger (2 interceptions) has great range, and is one of the more underrated defensive backs in the game. He can make an offense pay for testing the Redskins down the field.
~ Key Matchup: Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Redskins pass rush ~
Brees threw for 375 yards and two scores in a thrilling comeback over Washington last season, but was under a good bit of pressure from the edge most of the game. The New Orleans receiving corps looks to have a big advantage over Washington's secondary, particularly if Norman is unable to play. The Redskins have often been able to pressure Brees from the edge in six meetings against him. Allen, Ioannidis, Kerrigan, and Smith all have both the strength and athleticism to give opposing lines fits. The entire Saints line must win their one on one match ups, the the fine tackle combination of Ramczyk and Armstead will face one of their bigger challenges of the schedule.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The improved Washington defense is extremely physical, particularly in their front seven. The Saints will likely look to establish balance with their running game early with both Ingram and Kamara, but don't be surprised to see them take a few play action shots down the field at the start of the game. Both Thomas and Kamara should have good games again receiving, but New Orleans had good success in the middle of the field against the Redskins secondary last season. That could lead to some big receptions from Watson, Meredith, or even Josh Hill. Brees needs only 201 yards to pass Peyton Manning as the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader. Given the match ups against Washington's secondary, the future Hall of Famer should likely break the 300-yd. barrier, but protection up front from his offensive line will be key for him to get the ball to his outstanding playmakers.
What is the Saints biggest key offensively against Washington?
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Ingram/Kamara vs. Mason Foster/Zach Brown
Ramczyk/Armstead vs. Kerrigan/Smith/Iaonnidis
Peat/Unger/Warford vs. Payne/Allen
Michael Thomas vs. Josh Norman
Other Saints receivers vs. Redskins coverage