The New Orleans Saints take back to the road Sunday afternoon when they travel to face the 2-3 Jacksonville Jaguars. The 4-1 Saints have won three in a row without quarterback Drew Brees, who continues to rehab after thumb surgery. Coming off of a 31-24 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where the passing game was as efficient as it's been since week 1, the Saints offense is brimming with confidence. They bring that confidence up against a physical Jacksonville defense that has talent on every level, but has struggled in recent weeks. Let's have a look at how the New Orleans offense may fare against a slumping Jaguars defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. JAGUARS PASS DEFENSE
Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has played more confidently with each week since replacing Brees, and even attacked down the field last week against the Buccaneers on his way to 314 yards and 4 touchdowns. Bridgewater has completed 70% of his throws so far with six touchdown passes and two interceptions. He benefits from having one of the best wide receivers in the game. Michael Thomas leads the NFL with 45 receptions for 543 yards, and has scored 3 touchdowns. He comes off a monster game against Tampa Bay, catching 11 passes for 182 yards with two scores, and has at least five receptions in all five games so far. Running back Alvin Kamara is another mismatch against defenses in the passing game. Kamara has 26 catches for 241 yards and 1 receiving score, often getting used all around the offensive formation. Tight end Jared Cook is looking more comfortable in the New Orleans offense each week. Seven of his 12 receptions this year have come in the last two weeks, and he finally reached the end zone against Tampa Bay. He has been targeted 24 times though, and must take better advantage of converting his chances. Receiver Tre'Quan Smith (5 receptions for 75 yards and a score in the first seven quarters of the year) returned to the lineup after missing two games, but continues to be slowed by an ankle injury. With Smith limited, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has been the only other bonafide receiving threat. Ginn has caught 14 of his 19 targets for 170 yards and a touchdown, but just 7 receptions for 69 yards in the last four games. The Saints offensive line has given their signal caller plenty of time to progress through his reads. Bridgewater has been sacked seven times, but five of those against a heavy Dallas rush two weeks ago, with the other two coming in relief of Brees in week two. Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are as good as they come, and have silenced edge rushers like J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Shaquil Barrett. Ramczyk and Armstead face another big challenge this week against disruptive Jacksonville rushers Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and rookie seventh overall pick Josh Allen.
The Jaguars have sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times this season, 12 from their powerful defensive line. Campbell, who led the team with 10.5 takedowns last year and has eight quarterback hits and 3 sacks this season, is an extremely imposing physical presence on the edge. Ngakoue, who has 29.5 sacks in his first three seasons, has been an underrated pass rusher throughout his four year career, while Allen has been impressive thus far. The Jacksonville secondary has been vulnerable though, giving up an average of 245 passing yards per game, and have allowed a 300-yd. passer in three of their five games. The Jaguars defense has caused only 2 turnovers, which is the lowest number in the NFL, and have intercepted just one pass. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who has demanded a trade, has missed the last two games with hamstring and back ailments, but may return to the lineup this week. A healthy and engaged Ramsey would deepen a secondary that already has A.J. Bouye, D.J. Hayden, and Tre Herndon at corner to oppose the Saint receivers. Jacksonville has been inconsistent against opposing tight ends. Safeties Ronnie Harrison and Jarrod Wilson have been vulnerable to the big play against both tight ends and over the top against opposing wideouts, while the Jaguar linebackers have often trailed in coverage.
Matchup to Watch:
Michael Thomas vs. Jalen Ramsey
Very very few defensive backs in the league are able to contain Michael Thomas in one on one situations. Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey is one of the NFL's best though, the type of player who can shadow the opponent's best wideout. Both players are extremely physical, and have underrated athleticism. Thomas will almost surely get his touches, but if Ramsey is healthy this will be a marquee battle every down. Also putting the onus on the other Saints receivers to get open against Bouye, Hayden, and Herndon.
SAINTS RUSH OFFENSE vs. JAGUARS RUSH DEFENSE
New Orleans may not have the most glorious rushing numbers, but they have been able to establish the run in nearly every game. The Saints have averaged 104 yards per game on the ground and 4.3 per rush attempt, but have been able to maintain offensive balance and convert in key short yardage situations to control possession. Alvin Kamara has picked up 342 yards on the ground so far, averaging 4.6/carry but only scoring 1 touchdown. Latavius Murray has carved out a role in short yardage situations and to occasionally give a breather to Kamara, but both backs would be more effective with more consistent inside blocking. Rookie center Erik McCoy has played solid football, but guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat have been a bit beneath their high standards. Utility quarterback Taysom Hill has also not been used as much as a runner this season as Bridgewater's backup, limiting New Orleans a bit near the goal line.
Jacksonville's run defense has given up an average of 137 yards per game, and the average of 5.5 yards per carry against them ranks last in the league. The Jaguars have a very athletic linebacker in Myles Jack, but the unit in general has been disappointing this season. Lerentee McCray is questionable after missing the last two games with injury, and his return would help ease the pressure on rookie Quincy Williams. The thing that would benefit the entire Jaguars defense the most would be interior disruption from defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Taven Bryan. Dareus in particular is a space eater with an explosive first step that can be a problem for interior blockers.
Matchup to Watch:
G's Larry Warford/Andrus Peat and C Erik McCoy vs. DT Marcell Dareus
The play of the Saints interior line sets up the additional cutback lanes that makes Kamara extra deadly as a runner. Bryan can be moved around at the point of attack somewhat easily, but Dareus has an explosion off the snap that can get him into an opponent's backfield quickly. The ability of the New Orleans interior to win these matchups will get Kamara into the open field quickly, giving him an advantage against Jack and the Jaguars linebackers.
The Jaguars defense has given up big plays against both the pass and run all season. Carolina's Christian McCaffrey had 176 rushing yards and 237 yards from scrimmage against the Jags a week ago, scoring 3 touchdowns. That kind of performance could be be an encouraging sign that a big day could be in store for the versatile and explosive Kamara. The Jaguars secondary has been susceptible to the big play as well, even with Ramsey in the lineup. Bridgewater hit some downfield shots against Tampa Bay, and if the Saints line can protect him could repeat that aggressiveness. Thomas versus Ramsey will be a showdown worth the price of admission alone, but Cook, Ginn, or Smith will likely need to make plays to notch a fourth straight Saints victory.
What is the biggest key for the Saints offense against the Jacksonville defense?
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Michael Thomas vs. Jalen Ramsey
Alvin Kamara vs. Myles Jack
Jared Cook vs. Ronnie Harrison
Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Campbell/Allen/Ngakoue
Peat/McCoy/Warford vs. Dareus