The New Orleans Saints sit at 4-1 in large part due to an aggressive defense that is playing as well as any in the NFL currently. The Saints have won three straight games despite the absence of injured quarterback Drew Brees on offense. They look to make it four in a row when they take on the 2-3 Jacksonville Jaguars on the road this Sunday afternoon. The Jaguars have been without their own starting quarterback since opening week, but have been led by an exciting low round draft choice who is among the early candidates for offensive rookie of the year. The Saints defense is playing with a high level of confidence and momentum, but will they continue their success against a big play Jaguars offense and their upstart quarterback?
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. JAGUARS PASS OFFENSE
The New Orleans pass defense has fortified itself since some early season concerns. Opponents are averaging 244 passing yards per game against them, but the New Orleans defense has dominated the aerial games of both the Cowboys and Buccaneers in the last two games. The team's secondary has rebounded in a big way from some early season inconsistencies, and have eliminated big plays against them while holding some big-time receivers in check. Safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell are playing with good anticipation and aggressiveness. Cornerbacks Eli Apple and Marshon Lattimore have been suffocating in man coverage, while P.J. Williams and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson have provided solid depth. The linebacking corps has been effective in their coverage responsibilities as well, and opposing receivers have often had little room to run free once a reception is made. Coordinator Dennis Allen has been able to confidently run different coverage packages to confuse quarterbacks, in part because of the pressure his defensive front has been able to generate without the aid of blitzing. The Saints have 16 sacks on the year, including six in last week's win over Tampa Bay, and have applied heavy pressure consistently on opposing passers. Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport have been particularly dominant. Each have 3 sacks, and have combined for 19 quarterback hits. End Trey Hendrickson will miss this contest with a neck injury, but rookie Carl Granderson had an impressive debut against the Buccaneers, and Mario Edwards Jr. provided some edge pressure in his own return from the injured list. The Saints have been able to put pressure on the qb from their inside rush as well. Tackles Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, David Onyemata, and Shy Tuttle have combined for 4 sacks, but have often flushed the quarterback from the pocket or collapsed interior protection.
Rookie 6th round draft choice Gardner Minshew has been one of the league's biggest surprises, stepping in admirably at quarterback for Nick Foles, when he was injured in the first quarter of the season opener. Minshew has completed 66.7% of his throws for an average of 255 yards per game with 9 touchdown passes and only 1 interception. The unheralded rookie has made a number of big plays on broken plays, and has shown solid poise despite often being under a heavy rush. The Jacksonville line has given up 12 sacks so far, after surrendering 53 sacks in 2018, and has allowed Minshew to get pummeled. Ten of this year's sacks have come from the edge, where left tackle Cam Robinson and rookie right tackle Jawaan Taylor have struggled to provide a secure pass pocket. When Minshew does have time, he has a trio of players at wide receiver who aren't household names, but are solid playmakers. Second year wideout D.J. Chark is a tall and athletic target who has already surpassed his rookie output with 27 receptions for 485 yards and 5 touchdowns so far. Last year's top receiver Dede Westbrook, who has 23 catches for 227 yards and a score, is smaller than Chark, but a jitterbug in the open field who also makes plays deep. Chris Conley is a big play threat as the number three receiver, and has 14 receptions for 243 yards and a touchdown. The Jaguars placed their most productive tight end, James O'Shaughnessy, on injured reserve this week, leaving the spot in the hands of Geoff Swaim. Jacksonville uses their running backs as little more than a checkdown option, but the Jaguars backs will occasionally slip down the field in patterns, and are too athletic to be ignored.
Matchup to Watch:
Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple/P.J. Williams vs. D.J. Chark/Dede Westbrook/Chris Conley
Lattimore shut out Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans last week, after holding Amari Cooper of Dallas to just 48 yards the previous game. As brilliant as Lattimore has been, Apple has been nearly as impressive, and Williams has not been as susceptible to the big play as in the past. They'll be expected to maintain their high level of play against the Jacksonville receivers who aren't mentioned among the league's best units, but are more than capable of stretching a defense for big plays.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. JAGUARS RUN OFFENSE
The Saints rank 16th against the run, giving up around 108 yards per contest. New Orleans has completely shut down the running game in recent weeks though, holding opposing running backs to 53 yards per game and only 2.9 yards per carry in the last three contests. The New Orleans tackles, especially Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins, have been able to get decisive penetration inside off the snap, creating chaos for the opposition. The Saints ends and linebackers, led by leading tackler Demario Davis, have been able to take advantage of that disruption by cleaning up plays in the backfield or stuffing plays at the line for little gain.
Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette is one of the league's most bruising backs, with the speed to break big gains in the open field. Fournette has 512 yards on the ground this season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry but scoring just once. After a somewhat slow start to the year, Fournette ran over the Denver Broncos defense for 225 yards two games ago and rolled up 104 yards against Carolina last week. The Jaguars interior line has done a nice job of opening up holes at the line for their star back to get to the second level quickly.
Matchup to Watch:
Demario Davis vs. Leonard Fournette
Expect more than a few stadium shaking collisions when these two physical specimens meet up. Davis has been playing at an All-Pro level for the New Orleans defense, and has the speed to track down any ball carrier along with the physicality to make the game changing play.
The success of the Saints defense starts with disruption up front from a defensive line as talented and deep as any in the NFL. They look to again have an advantage against a Jacksonville line that has struggled to protect it's quarterback and been inconsistent in the run game. Taking advantage of that mismatch would limit Fournette's production in the running game, leaving it on Minshew and his receivers for success. The New Orleans pass rush may then take control of the game, coupled with a defensive backfield playing with a ton of confidence, which could turn out to be the difference in shutting down a big play Jacksonville attack.
Which is the biggest matchup for the New Orleans defense against the Jaguars offense?
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Cam Jordan/Marcus Davenport vs. Jawaan Taylor/Cam Robinson
Demario Davis vs. Leonard Fournette
Saints CB's vs. Jaguars WR's
Saints DT's vs. Jaguars interior O-line