The New Orleans Saints begin the second half of their 2018 regular season riding a seven game winning streak. They start the back half of their schedule with a road trip to Cincinnati to face the 5-3 Bengals, who have lost two of their last three games. The Saints enter the game with the league's second highest scoring offense, averaging 34.9 points per game, and average over 400 yards of total offense. They oppose a Cincinnati defense that is dead last in yards given up (448 yards/game), and are giving up 29.6 points per contest. While this appears to be a matchup largely in favor of the NFC South leaders, let's have a closer look how well the Saints offense actually stacks up against the Bengals defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. BENGALS PASS DEFENSE
The big news throughout New Orleans this week was Wednesday's signing of former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl wideout Dez Bryant. While it remains to be seen how much Bryant will contribute to the Saints offense, or even if he will suit up this weekend, he is expected to add another physical presence to the receiving corps. New Orleans is averaging 290 passing yards per game to rank 7th in the league, and quarterback Drew Brees is having one of the most efficient seasons of his storied career. Brees is completing just under 77% of his passes, and has thrown 18 touchdowns against just one interception. The future Hall of Famer's favorite target is third year wideout Michael Thomas, who is seemingly re-writing the team's record books with each passing week. Thomas has 70 receptions for 880 yards and five touchdowns so far, and has hauled in almost 89% of the passes in which he gets targeted. He has made many opposing defensive backs look helpless, including Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, who he victimized for 211 receiving yards last week.
While Thomas has been nearly unstoppable over the last two seasons, another of Brees' weapons that makes defenses look foolish is Alvin Kamara. The reigning offensive rookie of the year has been targeted 66 times, catching 51 balls for 427 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. Kamara has not had over 50 yards receiving since a week three victory over Atlanta, in part due to his increased responsibility in the running game, but also due to defenses constructing their game plans to contain him. That strategy has allowed opportunity for the Saints other targets to flourish, but the results have been inconsistent at best. Tight end Ben Watson is third on the team in targets (32), receiving yards (292), and receptions (26), a big dropoff from the production of Thomas and Kamara. Rookie receiver Tre'quan Smith is carving out a bigger role in the offense in the continued absence of the injured Ted Ginn. He has 12 catches for 214 yards and 3 touchdowns, and looks like he will play a key part of the Saints offense down the stretch. Wide receiver Cameron Meredith, an offseason free agent signing, was placed on injured reserve on Thursday for a knee injury to clear a spot in the lineup for Bryant. New Orleans has one of the best offensive lines in the league, and have allowed their veteran quarterback a clean pocket to pick apart opposing defenses. Brees has been sacked only 9 times against some of the NFL's top pass rushers, and often isn't even hurried as he goes through his progressions.
New Orleans will face a Cincinnati pass defense that is the league's worst. The Bengals have allowed over 300 yards passing in six of their eight games, and opponents are averaging 319 yards per game through the air. Cincinnati has intercepted opposing quarterback 10 times, led by their safety combination of Shawn Williams and rookie Jessie Bates, who have 3 each. The team's cornerbacks have especially struggled, despite having three former number 1 draft picks at the position. Dre' Kirkpatrick (drafted 2012), Darqueze Dennard (2014), and William Jackson III (2016) do not have an interception among them, and have been especially vulnerable down the field. The Bengals can pressure the passer despite their issues in coverage. They have brought down the quarterback 21 times, led by end Carlos Dunlap (7 sacks) and tackle Geno Atkins (6 sacks), son of former NFL safety Gene Atkins, who played for the Saints from 1987-93. Cincinnati also added end Sam Hubbard (2 sacks) in the 3rd round of the draft, and still have athletic veteran end Michael Johnson to add pressure from the edge.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints offensive line vs. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap ~
Atkins and Dunlap, both in their 9th seasons, are two disruptive pass rushers who have the ability to wreck an opponent's pass pocket. They have a combined 138.5 career sacks, including 13 this year. Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are among the top edge tandem in the league, and will take on the task of controlling Dunlap, along with Hubbard and Michael Johnson on the outside. The challenge of containment on Atkins and Cincinnati's interior rush will fall to center Max Unger, and guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat. The Saints line allowed only 1 sack in the three games since their bye week against the formidable pass rushes of Baltimore, Minnesota, and Los Angeles. The Bengals defensive line is more adept at rushing the passer than their abilities against the run, setting up a potential dominant scenario for the New Orleans front five.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. BENGALS RUN DEFENSE
The Saints have the 15th ranked rushing attack, averaging 112 yards per game, but has the sixth most rushing attempts in the league. The Saints offensive line has bullied opponents, enabling them to control the pace of the game and setting a physical tone. Kamara has been the team's leading rusher, gaining 490 yards on the ground, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and scoring 9 rushing touchdowns. Veteran Mark Ingram has not yet produced at the level he is accustomed to over the last few years since his return from suspension, but he has 181 yards and two scores, and is certainly still a key part of the offense. Taysom Hill has gone from being a gadget player to an important part of short yard and goal line packages for New Orleans. Hill has picked up 133 rushing yards, and provides a legitimate threat to the defense when in the game, which relieves some of the defensive focus on Ingram and Kamara.
The Bengals defense has allowed opposing rushers nearly 5 yards per carry, and have given up 128 yards on the ground per game to rank near the bottom of the league's rankings. The team's defensive line has struggled at the point of attack, which has allowed opposing offensive linemen to get blocks on Cincinnati's linebackers. To make matters worse, linebacker Nick Vigil, one of their leading tacklers, will sit out this game with a knee injury. Preston Brown is a solid middle 'backer, but has been caught up in traffic in pursuit due to the failures of the linemen in front of him. Vincent Rey replaces Vigil in the lineup, but he struggles to shed blocks or to keep up with backs coming out of the backfield. Vontaze Burfict makes most of the headlines for the Cincinnati defense, but often for the wrong reasons. Known as one of the dirtiest players in the NFL, Burfict is actually an athletically gifted player, but one who is often undisciplined and frequently caught out of position.
~ Matchup to Watch: Ingram/Kamara vs. LB's Burfict/Brown/Rey ~
Even though Ingram has yet to get on track, the Bengals defense has struggled with physical running backs. Defensive tackles Atkins, Andrew Billings, and Adolphus Washington have struggled to establish themselves inside, and their linebackers and safeties are often out of position, leading to big plays in the open field. The Bengals are already missing one starter, Vigil, and Burfict has been hobbled all week by a hip injury.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
This certainly looks like a major mismatch in favor of New Orleans, at least on paper. Remember though that the Saints offense has struggled in this exact situation in year's past; on the road against what looks to be an inferior opponent. Expect New Orleans to start physical and aggressively to establish momentum early. Although the newly signed Bryant may not play, the Saints will look to get Michael Thomas involved early against a struggling Cincinnati secondary, especially with Dennard slowed by a shoulder injury. New Orleans certainly must avoid the turnovers that the Bengals have been able to force in the games that their defense has played well. The Saints have dominated the trenches against the physical fronts of Washington, Baltimore, Minnesota, and Los Angeles over the last month, and expect to do the same in this game. The Bengals defense is last in the league in 3rd down percentage, giving up an astonishing 55.9%, and a balanced Saints attack could equal that. With the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and division rival Carolina after the Panthers loss to the Steelers on Thursday night, expect the New Orleans offensive stars to shine and take control of this game early.
Which Saints offensive player will have the biggest game against the Cincinnati defense?
This poll is closed
The offensive line