The New Orleans Saints are midway through preparations for their second game of the season this Sunday, a home tilt with the Cleveland Browns. The Saints season opener was a colossal disappointment, falling 48-40 at home to the underdog Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Particularly disappointing was an abysmal defensive performance for a unit expected to be a catalyst for a potential championship push. While one loss is certainly no reason for the team to shift into panic mode, the Saints must go back to the drawing board quickly to avoid an 0-2 start to a difficult schedule. They will be taking on a Browns team that finished 0-16 in 2017, but opened their year with a 21-21 tie last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Let's have a look at how well the reeling Saints defense may match up against an improved Cleveland offense.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
Let this sink in for a moment: New Orleans gave up 417 yards passing and 4 touchdowns on just 21 completions to Tampa's backup quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. A truly terrifying thought, since the Saints still have the likes of Matt Ryan (twice), Jared Goff, Eli Manning, Carson Wentz, and Ben Roethlisberger remaining on the schedule. A New Orleans defensive line that was expected to be among the more disruptive in the league got no sacks, and applied zero pressure on the Buccaneers quarterback. Cam Jordan, Alex Okafor, and Marcus Davenport were stymied from the edge, and neither Sheldon Rankins nor David Onyemata were able to hurry the Bucs quick rhythm game plan with an inside rush. The team's linebackers continued to get caught out of position or beaten quickly by backs and tight ends, despite offseason upgrades that were supposed to have upgraded the unit. Almost as surprising as the lack of production from the front line was the poor play of the New Orleans secondary, expected to be a formidable strength. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, and Patrick Robinson, along with safety Marcus Williams, were repeatedly torched downfield by Bucs receivers Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, and tight end O.J. Howard for nearly 23 yards per catch. Lattimore and Crawley, who shut down Evans and Jackson last season, were victimized deep repeatedly by the pair this time around, running roughshod through the Saints defense for 293 yards and 3 deep scores. Safety Vonn Bell looked lost in coverage, and was replaced by veteran Kurt Coleman in the second half, but with little success. Defensive end Cameron Jordan called his unit's performance "UNACCEPTABLE" following the game, and vowed rapid improvement for this week. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has alot of talented pieces to work with on his side of the ball, and we should expect a far more aggressive defensive approach this game than we saw the team open with the Buccaneers.
Cleveland drafted Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick this past spring, so it's only a matter of time before he takes the reigns as the Browns starter. For now though, the job belongs to Tyrod Taylor, who was acquired from Buffalo in the offseason. Taylor completed just 15 of 40 passes with a touchdown and an interception against the Steelers, resulting in 150 yards. He was also under heavy pressure all afternoon, and was sacked seven times. He did throw a 4th quarter score to send the game into overtime and put his team in position for the game winning field goal in the final moments of the extra period, which was blocked. Taylor, a very mobile quarterback, was also his team's leading rusher, running for 77 yards and a score. He has a 22-20 record as a starter, all with Buffalo, including leading them to a playoff berth last season. He has thrown for 52 touchdowns in his career against 19 interceptions with a 61.6% completion percentage. Taylor has some talented receivers to throw to in wideouts Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon, as well as tight end David Njoku and running back Duke Johnson. Landry, obtained in an offseason trade with Miami, was targeted 15 times by Taylor against the Steelers, catching 7 balls for 106 yards. Gordon is an immensely talented wideout who is as dangerous as any in the league, but has had problems staying on the field due to disciplinary issues, while Njoku is precisely the type of athletic tight end that tends to give the Saints defense fits down the field.
~ Matchup to watch: Lattimore/Crawley vs. Landry/Gordon ~
The Browns wideouts are as good as any pair throughout the league, and present a challenge to the entire New Orleans secondary that matches up talent-wise, but is coming off a shockingly poor performance last week. Cam Jordan, Alex Okafor, and Marcus Davenport must get fast pressure on the Cleveland quarterback. Six of the seven sacks surrendered by the Browns last week came from the edge, but the New Orleans secondary needs to prevent the Taylor's targets from getting open quickly, something they were unable to do against the Tampa receivers. Lattimore was able to contain Landry during a week 4 contest when the latter was with the Dolphins last season, holding him to just 40 yards on six catches.
SAINTS RUSH DEFENSE vs. BROWNS RUSH OFFENSE
The New Orleans pass defense was kept on their heels last week in part due to their inability to shut down Tampa Bay's running attack, thus opening up play action opportunities for Fitzpatrick and freezing the Saints rushers. New Orleans held the Buccaneers to less than 3.5 yards per carry as a team, but their 112 yards and 34 rush attempts were more than enough to keep the struggling Saints defense off balance. Saints linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein made some plays against Tampa's running game in the second half of last week's game, but they must establish themselves as a presence early in games to have a greater impact, along with fellow 'backers Craig Robertson, Alex Anzalone, and Manti Te'o.
Cleveland ran for 177 yards against Pittsburgh last week, although Tyrod Taylor did account for 77 of those yards. The Browns rushing attack is led by veteran Carlos Hyde, signed as a free agent from San Francisco in the offseason. Hyde is a rugged runner between the tackles who had 62 yards and a score on 22 rushes against the Steelers. Duke Johnson is an underrated all-purpose back, but the future of Cleveland's running attack likely belongs to Nick Chubb, an exciting 2nd round pick out of Georgia.
~ Matchup to watch: New Orleans defensive line vs. Cleveland offensive line ~
The Saints must win the battle up front against a suspect Cleveland front line, something they did not do against an equally suspect Buccaneers line a week ago. Jordan, Davenport, and Okafor's ability to bring pressure against the pass as the Steelers did against the Browns last week is certainly vital to the success of the pass defense, but they must also contain Tyrod Taylor as a runner out of the pocket. The Saints allowed a far less athletic Fitzpatrick to scramble for 36 yards and a score last Sunday, and Taylor has always been a much more dangerous threat as a runner than a passer. Rankins, Onyemata, and Tyeler Davison must get fast penetration inside to blow up Cleveland backs Hyde and Chubb, who are more effective inside. If the New Orleans line can win these battles up front, then a still gelling linebacking corps can fire through gaps unencumbered to make plays in the Browns backfield.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The New Orleans Saints came out surprisingly flat against a divisional foe on opening weekend. They were beaten in every phase defensively, and showed great frustration as the game wore on. Dennis Allen's crew has always played their best with an aggressive scheme, rather than the read-and-react approach they seemed to employ against Tampa Bay. Cleveland has some dangerous playmakers that will test the Saints coverage down the field, but expect the pro bowl caliber defenders like Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and Cam Jordan up front to have a far better showing. New Orleans held Taylor to just 9-18 passing for just 56 yards, while sacking him twice and forcing an interception when he was with Buffalo last season. Expect New Orleans to heavily pressure the Browns backfield with their front seven. They should be able to contain Cleveland's running game well enough on early downs to keep an extra safety back to help Marcus Williams in coverage support of Lattimore and Crawley. Third down stops will be key, as New Orleans allowed the Buccaneers to convert almost 62% of their chances (8/13), while Cleveland was only 5/18 (27.8%) on their 3rd down opportunities against Pittsburgh. The Saints are an angry group on defense, and they realize that they must play up to their playmaking potential if the team as a whole is going to have a successful 2018 season.
What is the biggest key for a Saints defensive turnaround against the Browns?
This poll is closed
Lattimore/Crawley vs. Landry/Gordon
Jordan/Okafor/Davenport providing pressure and containment
LB's must make plays
Rankins/Onyemata/Davison providing inside disruption.