The New Orleans Saints begin their 2019 season with a Monday night test at home against the defending AFC South champion Houston Texans. The Saints have won back-to-back NFC South titles themselves, and are one of the NFL's favorites to go to Super Bowl LIV. Most football fans know about the Saints offensive prowess, with Drew Brees at quarterback, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara among the league's best offensive players, and coach Sean Payton's aggressive game plans. What has elevated New Orleans to a legitimate championship contender though, is a vastly improved defense than from earlier in the decade, one that seems poised to be one of the better defenses in the NFL. New Orleans ranked 14th in points allowed (22.1/game) and total yardage (349/game) in 2018. The Saints held six straight opponents to less than 20 points down the stretch of the year though, and held 11 opponents to 20 points or less during the course of the year. Houston's offense averaged 25.1 points per game in 2018, and was 15th in total yardage. The Texans have plenty of offensive firepower, enough to test the young playmakers on the New Orleans defense. Let's see how these two units match up against one another in this prime time battle.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. TEXANS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints surrendered nearly 269 yards per game through the air last season, ranking a lowly 29th in the league. Those numbers were a bit weighed though, due to the fact that a number of teams fell behind the Saints quickly and threw more often. A more concerning issue was the struggles that New Orleans had in their secondary, particularly early in the year. Miscommunication, coverage breakdowns, and a lack of forced turnovers often inflated opponents passing numbers. Marshon Lattimore was a bit down from the level that made him the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year, although he is still one league's better cornerbacks. A midseason trade brought corner Eli Apple to the team, improving the secondary greatly and giving the Saints one of the better duos at the position. One area that New Orleans struggled with however was slot coverage. P.J. Williams had a solid season in that area after he was moved almost exclusively inside following the acquisition of Apple, but the team was still thin after a season ending injury to Patrick Robinson. Lattimore and Apple tied for the team lead with 2 interceptions along with free safety Marcus Williams, who regressed badly in his second year. Williams seemed to play with a lack of confidence and instinct, leading to a number of big plays. His running mate, Vonn Bell, turned in the finest season of his career, and has rounded into an extremely versatile safety. The Saints added defensive backs Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton in the spring's draft, hoping to create more turnovers in a secondary that intercepted only 12 passes a year ago. The New Orleans linebackers are it's most athletic in years, and able to stay with backs or tight ends in man to man or make plays in zone coverage. The Saints had 49 quarterback sacks last year, and can pressure the passer with their front four as well as with aggressive blitz packages. All-Pro end Cameron Jordan led the way with 12 sacks and 21 qb hits. The team expects big things from second year end Marcus Davenport, who had 4.5 sacks and 10 hits coming off the bench a year ago. Depth at the edge will be provided by Trey Hendrickson, who had a monstrous preseason, and veteran Wes Horton. The Saints will need to generate interior pressure as well, despite the injury absence of Sheldon Rankins (Achilles) and one game suspension of David Onyemata.
The Texans averaged 236 yards per game passing last season, and have one of the game's better young quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson. They also have one of the NFL's top receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, who in 2018 had career highs in receptions (115) and yards (1,572) while scoring 11 touchdowns. Complementing Hopkins is supremely talented but oft-injured Will Fuller, talented slot receiver Keke Coutee (questionable with an ankle injury), and newly acquired Kenny Stills. Houston doesn't use their tight ends often, but they must be accounted for in the red zone, and they are expected to utilize the versatile talents of running back Duke Johnson around the offensive formation. Houston's success in the passing game, along with the longterm health of their young signal caller, hinges on the questionable talents of what has been a porous offensive line.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints defensive backs vs. Texans wide receivers
Lattimore and Apple matching up against Hopkins and Fuller might be one of the more entertaining duels of the night, but just as important will be the Saints slot coverage. New Orleans struggled against deep receiving corps last season, and both Coutee and Stills will test a defense. P.J. Williams, Gardner-Johnson, and Robinson must contain plays out of the slot, while Apple and Lattimore are engaged with a showdown against the talents of Fuller and Hopkins. The Saints safeties must not only be up to the task of eliminating the big play down the field, but the secondary as a whole must show that they can create turnovers consistently, something that they often failed to do a season ago.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. TEXANS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans had one of the league's best defenses against the run in 2018, ranking 2nd in yards allowed (80/game) and yards per carry (3.6). Linebackers Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein fly to the ball carrier, limit plays from sideline to sideline, and create big stops in the backfield. New addition Kiko Alonso, acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins earlier this week, is also a versatile and athletic 'backer who makes this unit much deeper. The success of the linebackers is created in part because of the success of the Saints defensive line. Cam Jordan is one of the league's best edge defenders against the run, but the defensive line dominated most opponents inside last year to control the line of scrimmage. Taylor Stallworth, rookie Shy Tuttle, and particularly free agent addition Malcom Brown must win their inside battles to control the point of attack. Their ability to do so will allow the athletic New Orleans linebackers to attack the Houston backfield, and likely make the Texans one dimensional.
The Texans had the league's 8th ranked rushing attack last year, averaging 126 yards per contest. Their leading rusher last season, Lamar Miller (973 yards) suffered a season ending ACL injury in preseason though, and it's second leading rusher was their quarterback Watson. Houston dealt for versatile Cleveland back Duke Johnson and Chiefs bruiser Carlos Hyde this offseason in hopes of filling Miller's production.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints defensive line vs. Texans offensive line
The matchup up front will probably dictate the success of the Houston passing game every bit as much as their running attack. The Texans will likely have an offensive game plan leaning more heavily on the pass, but must be able to have some success on the ground to keep the Saints defense off balance. Watson was sacked 62 times in 2018, highest among all NFL quarterbacks, and major questions linger about the team's offensive line. Houston's line could still be a mess as it enters 2019. Rookie tackles Tytus Howard (1st round) and Max Scharping (2nd) have both been moved inside to guard, while right tackle Seantrel Henderson has been extremely poor in pass protection. Houston took advantage of the Miami Dolphins fire sale by not only poaching Stills at wide receiver, but also adding franchise left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Even with Tunsil's talent, it could take awhile for the line combination to jell.
The Saints hope to generate pressure on Watson with their front four, but expect them to attack the Texans offense with aggressive stunts up from while mixing in inside blitzes. New Orleans looks to have a distinct advantage up front, even without Rankins or Onyemata inside. Their ability to win the point of attack should not only neutralize Houston's run game, but also provide a big assist to the Saints secondary in containing the Texans' outside weapons. Increased pressure on Watson as the game progresses could also force the young quarterback into game changing mistakes, which could prove to be the difference maker in this opening week showdown between the two defending division champs.
Which is the biggest match up for the Saints defense against the Houston offense?
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Jordan/Davenport vs. Henderson/Tunsil
Brown/Stallworth/Tuttle vs. Texans interior line
Saints secondary vs. Texans wideouts
Saints LB's vs. Duke Johnson/Carlos Hyde