The New Orleans Saints begin their 2019 season in front of a national television audience, when they host the Houston Texans on Monday night football. The Saints are coming off their second consecutive NFC South title, and were an incompetent (at best) officiating crew away from Super Bowl LIII. Houston is coming off of their third AFC South championship in the last four years, although coach Bill O'Brien may be on the hot seat after another feeble first round playoff exit. New Orleans averaged 31.5 points per game in 2018, scored 30 or more points in nine of their first eleven games, and have some of the most feared offensive weapons in the league. Houston normally has one of the NFL's better defenses, but free agent defections in the secondary and a preseason trade of holdout linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle have created some questions around this normally strong unit as they enter the season. Let's have a look at how the most publicized squads of each of these defending division champs match up against each other for the season opener.
SAINTS PASSING OFFENSE vs. TEXANS PASSING DEFENSE
New Orleans had the league's 12th ranked passing attack in 2018, the lowest in the 13-yr. tenure of head coach Sean Payton. Drew Brees has quarterbacked Payton's offense for all thirteen of those historically productive seasons. The now 40-yr. old Brees will once again be at the helm this year, after earning the 12th Pro Bowl bid of his illustrious career. Brees' 266 yards per game last season was the lowest of his career in New Orleans, but he shattered his own league record for completion percentage (74.4%), and threw 32 touchdown passes against just 5 interceptions. Brees may not be able to fling the ball down the field like he once did, but he's as deadly accurate as ever, and will dissect any defense from sideline to sideline and through the intermediate zones. Protecting Brees is a virtual fortress up front. He was sacked just 17 times last year, lowest since 2008, and is often given the time necessary to go through his progressions. Tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk have shown that they can handle any edge rusher in the NFL, while guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat keep their quarterback's line of vision clear inside. Rookie center Erik McCoy has big shoes to fill in replacing the retired Max Unger, but he flashed the impressive ability to do just that this preseason. Wide receiver Michael Thomas is the main beneficiary of Brees' accurate strikes, along with running back Alvin Kamara. Thomas led the NFL with 125 receptions last year for a franchise record 1,405 yards and nine scores. Kamara added 81 catches for 709 yards, both second on the team. Thomas and Kamara accounted for 54% of the team's passing game a year ago though, and more is needed from the Saints complimentary weapons. New Orleans made a major move to do just that when they signed veteran tight end Jared Cook this offseason. Cook is one of the most athletic tight ends in the league, and should add another dangerous dimension to the offense. Second year receivers Tre'quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood each flashed potential in 2018, but are expected to be more consistent from their rookie seasons. Veteran deep threat Ted Ginn Jr. also returns after missing much of 2018 with injury, giving the Saints an explosive option down the field that opens things up underneath.
Houston's defense was vulnerable to the pass a year ago, surrendering 260 yards per game and finishing 28th in the league through the air. The Texans added cornerback Bradley Roby and safety Tashaun Gipson this offseason to improve coverage on the back end, but it will be the players up front that dictate the success of the Texans the pass defense. Veteran end J.J Watt is still one of the most disruptive defensive players in the game, and had 16 of the team's 43 sacks last season in addition to forcing 7 fumbles. Losing Clowney, who had 18 sacks and 42 quarterback hits over the last two seasons, will certainly be a big loss to the pass rush. Eight year vet Whitney Mercilus is an accomplished pass rusher who has 42.5 career sacks though, and should be able to capably compliment Watt, along with Barkevious Mingo, obtained in the Clowney trade. The Texans have athletic linebackers who can match up well with most tight ends and running backs in coverage. Houston went through a few changes this offseason on the back end though, essentially replacing Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson with Roby and Gipson. They join cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Aaron Colvin, and safety Justin Reid for a team that intercepted 15 passes last year.
Match up to watch:
Saints OT's Armstead and Ramczyk vs. Texans edge Watt and Mercilus
When these teams last met during the regular season (2015), J.J. Watt single handedly wrecked the Saints offense, hitting Brees 8 times while sacking him twice and forcing a fumble. Most of it was against the since-retired Zach Strief, but right tackle Ryan Ramczyk must be up to the task of handling the always disruptive Watt. Ditto for Armstead, not only when Houston moves their All-Pro around the formation, but he must also contain the underrated Mercilus. Failure to provide Brees with a clean pass pocket would lead to disaster for an offense that relies on timing and precision.
SAINTS RUSH OFFENSE vs. TEXANS RUSH DEFENSE
New Orleans averaged nearly 127 yards per game on the ground in 2018, ranking 7th in the NFL. They led the league with 26 rushing touchdowns, showing a lethal balance that kept opposing defenses clueless. The Saints line set the tone early on in most of their 14 victories a year ago, bullying opponents and imposing their will. Alvin Kamara led the team with 883 yards rushing and 14 scores, and could be primed for a 1,000 yard season both receiving and rushing. While Kamara is the team's primary offensive weapon, one of the questions surrounding the Saints coming into the year was how effectively Latavius Murray could replace the free agent departure of Mark Ingram. Murray got only a little work during the preseason, but has shown throughout his career that he can pick up yards between the tackles and gain separation in the open field. The wildcard in the New Orleans offense is of course Taysom Hill, who creates a unique dynamic for opposing defenses. Hill rushed for 196 yards and two scores last season, but helps creates additional running lanes with his presence in the lineup.
Houston boasted the league's 3rd best rushing defense last season, allowing only 83 yards per game. Clowney's trade could affect the defense here too though, because of his run stopping skills. Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader does an outstanding job tying up multiple blockers inside, allowing other teammates to roam free while often making plays himself. Reader's presence allows athletic linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham to make plays sideline to sideline and flow to the ball more quickly.
Matchup to Watch:
Alvin Kamara vs. LB's McKinney and Cunningham
The New Orleans offensive line will have a daunting responsibility to control Houston's front seven. The most entertaining showdown of the day might be the dynamic Kamara versus the Texans linebackers though. Kamara is the best two-way back in the league, and is a mismatch against most defenders, but McKinney and Cunningham both possess a unique blend of physicality and athleticism.
For as productive the New Orleans offense usually is, they scored more than 27 points just twice in their final seven games last year (including playoffs), and were held to 20 or fewer four times. The passing game in particular, struggled over the final two months of the year. Much of that was due to numerous injuries along the offensive line, but the downturn in production also led to questions about a potential Brees decline. Expect the Saints to come out of the gate extremely aggressive, like they typically do, to keep Houston's defense on their heels. The Texans, who allowed an average of less than 20 points per game and allowed over 30 points just once last season, have as much defensive star power as anyone in the league. Look for New Orleans to start the game with a quick rythm passing game to keep the pass rush at bay, while looking to establish the run early. New Orleans will rely on it's own stars; Thomas, Kamara, and Cook, knowing that there are few defenses in the NFL that can contain that trio. For the Saints to sustain offensive success throughout the game though, their complimentary weapons will have to make some plays. New Orleans will likely come out firing against one of the AFC's better teams, looking to make a significant statement to the rest of the league to kick off the 2019 season.
Which is the biggest match up when the Saints offense squares off with Houston's defense?
This poll is closed
Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Watt/Mercilus
Saints wide receivers/tight ends vs. Texans secondary
Kamara vs. McKinney/Cunningham
Saints interior line vs. Texans inside defenders