The New Orleans Saints host the Indianapolis Colts in a primetime Monday night affair that will wrap up Week 15. The Saints lost at home last Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers 48-46, despite an explosive offensive performance where they had season-highs in points and first downs (28) while rolling up 465 yards in total offense. New Orleans may need to duplicate that offensive production to make up for a defense that has multiple impactful injuries. The Saints come into this game averaging nearly 27 points per game, fifth best in the league, and 369 yards of total offense to rank twelfth. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has completed over 73% of his passes and averaged 302 yards per game with 17 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in the seven games he's played for a Saints passing attack that ranks 8th in the NFL. New Orleans balances that with a 16th ranked running game that picks up 108 yards/game.
The Colts enter this game with a 6-7 record. Still clinging to postseason hopes in the AFC but sit two games behind the final spot and having lost their last three contests. Indianapolis has allowed 22.7 points and 345 yards per game defensively, ranking 15th in the league. They've allowed over 30 points in each of the last two weeks though, including 38 and 542 yards in a road loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 69% of their throws against an Indianapolis defense that ranks 22nd against the pass. The Colts are far more stout against the run, allowing just under 100 yards per game to rank eighth.
Here are some of the key matchups to watch closely when the Saints have the ball on Monday night.
OT's Terron Armstead/Ryan Ramczyk vs. EDGE Justin Houston/Jabaal Sheard
Armstead returned from an ankle injury last week and although limited and hobbled played well against the formidable 49ers ends. Ramczyk continues to be the most dominant offensive lineman in the NFL this season. The duo has shut down some of the best pass rushers in the league this season for a New Orleans line that has given up just 20 sacks to quarterbacks Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater.
The Colts have sacked opposing quarterbacks 33 times this season. Justin Houston leads his team with 9 sacks and Jabaal Sheard has added 3.5 from the other end spot. Houston, a 9-Yr veteran, is still one of the more dangerous pass rushers in the league and capable of wrecking an offensive game plan with his speed around the edge
RB Alvin Kamara vs. LB Darius Leonard
Kamara is still one of the most versatile and feared weapons in the NFL. He leads the Saints in rushing with 612 yards and is second on the team in receptions with 68 for another 462 yards. Kamara has scored only two touchdowns this season though, and hasn't reached the end zone since Week 3 against Seattle, where he scored both his touchdowns on the year. Kamara's average per carry over the second half of the season is comparable, but he hasn't been nearly as dynamic in the open field. He's averaged less than six yards per reception over the second half of the year as opposed to nearly ten yards per catch over the first portion of the year. The Saints possess one of the more balanced offenses in the league, but are far more effective when Kamara can make plays in the open field. Defense's have formed their game plans around containing the third year back, and he faces another stiff test again this week.
Leonard leads the Colts in tackles with 92, interceptions with 4, and his 5 sacks are second on the team. Leonard, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, looks well on his way to a second consecutive All-Pro campaign. The 6'2 230-Lb linebacker has emerged as one of the finest players at his position and will be locked up often with Kamara, the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
TE Jared Cook vs. SS Clayton Geathers
Cook left last week's loss to San Francisco with a concussion that leaves him questionable for this outing. He had two scoring catches for 64 yards before his exit and has become a vital part of the New Orleans passing game. Cook has 34 receptions for 523 yards and 6 touchdowns, giving the team an explosive option at the position missing for years.
Few linebackers can match the athleticism of the New Orleans tight end in the open field, although Leonard may draw some of those assignments. With him most likely locked up against Kamara out of the backfield however, the task of taking on Cook will fall to Geathers. The fifth year safety has good size (6'2 216-Lbs) and athletic ability. The Colts have given up six touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season and have generally struggled against better athletes at the position.
WR Michael Thomas vs. CB's Pierre Desir/Kenny Moore/Rock Ya-Sin
Michael Thomas fuels the aerial assault for New Orleans, with defenses able to do little to stop him despite inconsistent contributions from the other Saints wideouts. Thomas has 7 receiving scores and leads the league with 121 receptions for 1,424 yards, hauling in 82.3% of his targets. The fourth year receiver is on pace to break the NFL single season record for receptions and is in the conversation for league M.V.P. Thomas has eight games of over 100 yards receiving this year and has caught at least 8 passes in 11 of his team's 13 games.
Pierre Desir is the Colts' top cornerback but Moore and Ya-Sin will also have chances at Thomas throughout the game. The three have a combined 4 interceptions and 12 pass breakups but Thomas has been nearly unstoppable through short and intermediate routes. His effectiveness could also open up opportunities for Tre'Quan Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., who have a combined 39 receptions for 542 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Erik McCoy/Nick Easton/Larry Warford vs. DT's Denico Autry/Grover Stewart
Easton has played well at left guard in relief of the injured Andrus Peat, while Warford has been an outstanding run blocker from his right guard spot. McCoy, a rookie 2nd round selection, is a potential Pro Bowl player from the center position. All three have done a nice job keeping the interior pass pocket clean for Brees to check through his progressions. They've been even better as run blockers, not only getting push at the point of attack but creating cutback lanes for their running backs.
Autry is one of the league's more underrated interior linemen. The sixth year Autry has 3.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits after a career high 9 sacks a year ago and is also an adept run defender. He has a quick first step off the snap and will likely lock up with McCoy several times during the game.
Saints running back Latavius Murray has been the more effective back over Kamara in the last few games. Murray is a rugged inside runner with a slashing cutback style, and has shined in part because of the quality of the inside blocking.
The Saints have a number of injuries on the defensive side and are coming off their worst showing of the season against the 49ers. For much of his Hall of Fame career, Drew Brees and the offense had to carry New Orleans to victory. That offense may be forced to again shoulder the load as this team chases a first round playoff bye.
Which is the most important match up for the Saints offense against the Indianapolis defense?
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Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Houston/Sheard
Kamara vs. Leonard
Saints WR's vs. Colts CB's
Cook vs. Geathers
McCoy/Easton/Warford vs. Autry/Stewart