The New Orleans Saints look to rebound from a surprising opening game loss to Tampa Bay this Sunday, when they host the Cleveland Browns. The Saints offense managed to put up 40 points in the loss, but struggled to run the ball without their Pro Bowl back, Mark Ingram. The Browns managed to hold one of the better offenses in the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers, to just 21 points in an opening week tie. Today, let's break down how well the New Orleans offense matches up against the improved Cleveland defense, coached by old friend(?) Gregg Williams.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. BROWNS PASS DEFENSE
Quarterback Drew Brees was as sharp as he has ever been last week, completing 37 of his 45 attempts (82%) for 439 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. As expected, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were his primary targets. Thomas started the new season by breaking a team record that had stood since 1978, by catching 16 passes, finishing with 180 yards and a score. He did have a key third quarter fumble, but otherwise the 3rd year pro continues to cement himself as one of the best wideouts in the league. Kamara added 9 receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown, lining up all over the offensive formation. Both Kamara and Thomas are matchup nightmares for opposing defenses, and will continue to be the focal point of the New Orleans offense. Ted Ginn Jr. had a solid game as well, catching five passes for 68 yards and a score, while tight end Benjamin Watson contributed four receptions for 44 yards. After a standout preseason, rookie 3rd round pick Tre'quan Smith played surprisingly little and did not record a reception against the Buccaneers. Brees was sacked just once against Tampa Bay, despite the fact that the Saints were forced to throw on nearly every down through the second half. The offensive line provided mostly solid protection to their veteran passer, despite being without the services of left guard Andrus Peat, who was ruled inactive due to injury.
The Saints offensive line will be tested by a Browns defense that had three sacks and numerous against Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger last Sunday. 2017 first overall draft pick Myles Garrett is beginning to look like a force along the edge. He had two sacks and 2 forced fumbles last week, after leading his team with 7 quarterback takedowns last season in just 11 games. His bookend on the other side, Emmanuel Ogbah, will miss this game with injury, but newly acquired Anthony Zettel was a solid rusher with Detroit last season. Second year defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is a disrupter inside, and is joined by Devaroe Lawrence, who was acquired from the Saints in a trade following a very good preseason. Cleveland linebacker Joe Schobert is one of the more underrated defenders in the game, while Jamie Collins adds a veteran presence on the outside capable of both rushing the passer or dropping into coverage effectively. Jabrill Peppers, one of three 1st round picks in 2017, and Denzel Ward, the second of the Browns first round picks this season, team with safety Damarious Randall to give Cleveland a young but athletic secondary. The Browns gave up 335 yards passing to Roethlisberger last week, but intercepted him 3 times (2 by Ward) in addition to applying good pressure all afternoon.
~ Matchup to watch: Saints OT's Terron Armstead/Ryan Ramczyk vs. Myles Garrett ~
Garrett has 9 sacks in just 12 career games, and is showing why his team invested the top overall pick in him a year ago. Armstead and Ramczyk are among the top tackle combos in the league, but their hands will be full trying to contain Garrett, along with Collins and Zettel. The Browns secondary may be overwhelmed by Thomas, which could perhaps open up chances for Ginn and Tre'quan Smith down the field, but Brees must be given the time to let the patterns develop to make plays.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. BROWNS RUN DEFENSE
The Saints lacked balance last Sunday in the loss to the Bucs, rushing the ball just 13 times for 43 yards. Part of that was a heavy emphasis on the passing game early, and New Orleans was then in catch-up mode throughout most of the second half. Still, they averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, and were limited without the services of Ingram, the team's second all-time leading rusher. Kamara led the team in rushing with just 29 yards, but did have two slashing touchdown runs and another for a 2-pt. conversion. Recently signed Mike Gillislee had only nine yards on three carries, including a game changing 2nd quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown, and Jonathan Williams was stuffed for no gain on his only run attempt. Coach Sean Payton prefers to use the talents of Kamara all over his offensive formations, rather than as a traditional running back, but the team must find offensive balance until Ingram returns from his suspension.
The Browns surrendered 135 yards on the ground and two rushing scores to the Steelers' James Conner, who was playing in place of holdout Le'Veon Bell. Despite Conner's success, he added five catches for 57 yards, Cleveland's defense was strong against the run during the 2017 season. The Browns allowed only 3.4 yards per carry last year, second best mark in the NFL, and ranked 7th in rushing yardage surrendered. Last year's second leading tackler, outside linebacker Christian Kirksey, is questionable for this contest because of injury, but Schobert racked up an incredible 142 stops on his way to a Pro Bowl berth. Peppers has impressive athletic ability, and is far better as a run defender than in pass coverage. Conner's success against the Browns defense may have Saints coaches salivating at the possibility of what the much more athletic and explosive Alvin Kamara could do in this matchup.
~ Matchup to watch: Sean Payton vs. Gregg Williams ~
Williams was of course the Saints defensive coordinator during their Super Bowl championship season of 2009, a role he held from '09-'12, until suspended for his role in the "Bountygate" scandal. His defensive philosophy has always been predicated on heavy pressure on the quarterback, often resulting in turnovers and big plays for his unit. Payton has often been rumored to have a strained relationship, at best, with his former defensive coordinator, despite both men's statements to the contrary this week. Payton's behavior when his offense last met a defense coached by Williams could more likely be a more accurate assessment of their relationship. During the 2016 season, when Williams was coordinator of the Rams, New Orleans rolled up 555 yards of total offense (360 passing, 209 rushing) during a 49-21 victory. Most notable to many was Payton's demonstrative behavior along the sidelines, including numerous taunting gestures toward the Rams bench, and a gadget play when the game was already decided; a 50-yd. touchdown pass from wide receiver Willie Snead to running back Tim Hightower. Regardless of the actual relationship between the two coaches, they are known as among the finest offensive and defensive minded coaches in the game.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
New Orleans came out extremely aggressive against Tampa Bay, operating from the shotgun on 11 of their first 16 plays. Look for the Saints to continue to move Kamara all around their formation, but the second year back will likely be utilized as a rusher more often in this game. Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael will probably have a more balanced approach to this game, but New Orleans will still lean more heavily on the talents of Brees, Thomas, and the other weapons in their passing attack until Ingram returns. The chess match between Payton and Williams will be fun to watch, but the Saints look like they can have another big day statistically, provided they can keep their signal caller upright to find his playmakers.
What is the most important battle for the Saints offense to be successful against Cleveland?
This poll is closed
Payton vs. Williams
Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Garrett
Michael Thomas vs. Denzel Ward
Ginn/Smith/Watson vs. Browns secondary
Kamara vs. Browns linebackers
Establish a running game