The 7-1 New Orleans Saints travel to Cincinnati to begin the back half of their 2018 schedule to face the 5-3 Bengals this Sunday. The Saints have been inconsistent defensively during their seven game winning streak, but have been able to come up with some timely stops to bolster their balanced offensive performance. The defense has still given up an average of 27 points per game, and ranks just 25th in total yardage. They now face a banged up Cincinnati offense that averages almost 28 points per game (10th best in the league), but is only 24th in total yards (344/game). While the overall numbers might look to favor the Saints, Cincinnati's chance for offensive success could come from where New Orleans has been most vulnerable this year. Today, we have a look at how the NFC South leaders match up defensively against their AFC North opponents.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
New Orleans continues to give up passing yards at a high rate. Opponents have averaged 311 yards a game through the air against the 31st ranked Saints pass defense, and four quarterbacks have thrown for over 350 yards against them. The team's secondary play continues to be a major concern. New Orleans has allowed 7 different receivers to break the 100-yd receiving mark, including four wideouts in the last three games. Cornerback Eli Apple, acquired late in October in a trade with the New York Giants, is starting to look more comfortable in his new defense. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is hoping that Apple can combine with Marshon Lattimore to give him a pair of solid man to man corners. Former starter Ken Crawley has been taken out of the defensive rotation the last two weeks due to poor performance, and it remains unclear how he fits into Allen's defense the rest of this season. P.J. Williams, another cornerback who has struggled, had some good moments late in last week's win over the Rams after a key interception return for a touchdown against Minnesota the week before. Williams has often been a coverage liability also, and is hobbled by a hamstring injury, but it's clear that the coaches have more confidence in him than Crawley. Safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell have given the defense better play on the back end in recent weeks, somewhat limiting the big plays deep, but the secondary as a whole has struggled with consistency and has not made big plays. The team has just 4 interceptions this year, after 20 pickoffs in 2017, and have often been extremely vulnerable late in each half. Pressure on the quarterback helps any secondary, and the Saints have provided that up front when the defense has performed well against the pass. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has five of the defense's 17 sacks, 15 of which have come from the defensive line. The team will continue to be without rookie first round pick Marcus Davenport for the next few weeks while he recovers from a foot injury, but can still generate pressure from end Alex Okafor. Tackle Sheldon Rankins has four sacks, tied with Davenport for second on the team and tying his career high. Rankins and the team's other defensive tackles have disrupted pass pockets all year. The Saints linebackers have not blitzed as often as they have in years past, but Demario Davis (2 sacks), A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, and Craig Robertson have all shown good ability to pressure the passer. More importantly to the New Orleans defense this season has been their ability to play well in coverage. They have been able to contain opposing backs and tight ends with effective coverage drops as well as well as solid man-to-man coverage when needed.
Cincinnati's passing offense has been limited by injuries much of the year. Oft-injured tight end Tyler Eifert has been on injured reserve since week five with a broken ankle. His backup, Tyler Kroft, is sidelined with a foot injury and Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green will miss this game with a broken toe. Third year wideout Tyler Boyd is emerging into a potential star for the team in their absence. Boyd has 620 yards and five scores on a team leading 49 receptions, and has at least 90 yards receiving in four games this season. He is a big target with the physicality to excel on intermediate routes and the athleticism to get deep. The Bengals receiving corps could get a boost with the expected return of big play threat John Ross, the 9th overall pick in 2017 draft. Ross has missed three games this year after missing nearly all of last season, and has just 7 catches for 79 yards. He has caught 3 touchdowns however, and was drafted for his deep speed and open field running skills. Reserve tight end C.J. Uzomah may not be the athletic threat of Eifert or Kroft, but is a big target that has 17 catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. The Bengals don't often use running backs Joe Mixon (19 receptions, 115 yards and a score) and Giovani Bernard (14-78) as primary receivers, but each can be playmakers in the open field. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton is often maligned throughout the league, but has proven ability to put up big numbers. Dalton has completed just under 64% of his 292 attempts, throwing 17 touchdowns, for a passing game that has averaged 252 yards per game. The knock on Dalton has been his penchant for mistakes, and he has thrown 8 interceptions this season. He has also been under fierce pressure at times this year, getting sacked 16 times but several times under heavy harassment as he threw.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints CB's vs. Bengals WR's ~
Green and Eifert's absences are a huge loss for Dalton and the offense, but Boyd is a vastly underrated wideout, and Ross' skillset is precisely what has tortured the Saints secondary all year. Lattimore and Apple have the one on one skills to match up against any receiver they face, but they need to be more consistent to allow Williams and Bell to help in other coverage areas from their safety positions. Boyd and Ross will challenge the Saints downfield coverage, but Dennis Allen may use his best two corners to get physical with the Bengal wideouts to alter their routes, with Marcus Williams taking deep responsibility.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
While the Saints pass defense has been a weak spot, the opposite can be said of the top ranked New Orleans run defense. Opponents average just 3.4 yards per carry against the Saints, and have managed only 76 yards per game on the ground, both league bests. The Saints have limited their last seven opponents to less than 100 yards rushing, even holding the Rams Todd Gurley, a midseason M.V.P. candidate, to just 68 yards rushing a week ago. The New Orleans linebackers have been devastating run defenders, led by Demario Davis, who is playing pro bowl caliber football. Rankins has been as destructive to opponent's run blocking as he has to their pass protection, and Cam Jordan is one of the best all-around defensive ends in football. Jordan and Rankins are joined up front by tackles Taylor Stallworth, Tyeler Davison, David Onyemata, and end Alex Okafor, who have not only consistently won their showdowns up front to let the linebackers make plays, but often get fast penetration into the backfield to blow up the play.
The Bengals average 4.4 yards per carry, but are 30th in the league in rushing attempts, averaging only 93 yards per game. Mixon, in his second season, is Cincinnati's primary rushing threat and has 509 yards and 4 touchdowns. Bernard is a solid change of pace back who makes defenders miss with his quickness, but is questionable for this game with a knee injury. The left side of Cincinnati's line is it's strength, led by veteran tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Clint Boling. Right guard Alex Redmond has been ruled out with a hamstring injury, and right tackle Bobby Hart is expected to have his hands full with Jordan. Another big matchup will be in the middle, where rookie 1st round pick center Billy Price will try to control the Saints' Rankins for any hope of rushing success.
~ Matchup to Watch: Demario Davis vs. Joe Mixon ~
Mixon has run for at least 80 yards in four games this season, all Bengal victories. He hits the hole with power and has an explosive burst into the open field. Davis has led an aggressive and vastly improved New Orleans linebacking unit that attack opposing backfields. With the Saints defensive line talent tying up the Cincinnati line, this match up likely leads to a number of violent clashes at or behind the line of scrimmage.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Bengals and Dalton have excelled at attacking opponents down the field, which is exactly what the New Orleans defense has had the most difficulty defending this season. All five of Cincinnati's victories have come when they've rushed for at least 99 yards as a team, but they are fairly quick to abandon the running game if they don't have success early. If the New Orleans front seven is able to shut down the Bengals running game early, Cincinnati will quickly become one dimensional, which is often a recipe for Andy Dalton interceptions. Cam Jordan and Co. should be able to pressure the Bengals quarterback, especially from the right side, so the onus will once again be on the Saints secondary to make plays against a depleted Cincinnati receiving corps.
What is the Saints biggest defensive matchup against the Bengals offense?
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Cam Jordan vs. Bengals OT's
Sheldon Rankins vs. Billy Price
Saints LB's vs. Joe Mixon
Saints CB's vs. Tyler Boyd/John Ross
Marcus Williams vs. Andy Dalton