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Enemy Intelligence: New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints are coming off a 31-17 home win against the Detroit Lions. They jumped out to an early 24-7 lead before the Lions cut the deficit to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter before a Drew Brees to Darren Sproles touchdown pass extended the lead to fourteen points.

As I’ve seen some or all of something like nine games the Saints have played this year, my observations will be based on everything I’ve seen, not just last Sunday’s game against Detroit. After the jump, my thoughts on the Saints.

  • Drew Brees is the best quarterback the Titans have faced this season. No real surprise there. The kind of gameplan Ben Roethlisberger successfully executed for the Steelers in their win, I have a great deal of confidence Brees can successfully execute. Quick and accurate passes will find holes in the Titans’ zone coverages, and he can make the kind of throws that beat man coverage as well. He doesn’t have a gun like Roethlisberger, but he’s still a good deep ball thrower.
  • The Saints do an excellent job of surrounding Brees on offense with the right parts. Brees is really short for an NFL quarterback, but the offensive line is designed to minimize that issue.  They’re particularly strong at guard, as Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans are both among the best at their position, and Brian De La Puente is slotting in nicely at center. The tackles, Bushrod and Strief, are vulnerable to speed rushers (not that that’s a strength of the Titans) and outside rushers in general, but Brees does an excellent job of stepping up in the pocket. To disrupt Brees, the Titans need to get interior pressure from their defensive tackles. Karl Klug, I’m looking at you in particular.
  • Jimmy Graham gets a ton of publicity for what he’s doing at tight end, and while he’s not the in-line blocker that the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski is, he deserves every bit of it for his receiving skills. He’s big, fast, and a matchup nightmare. Most teams have beem matching up with a defensive back when he’s in the game. It’d be really nice to have Jason McCourty back for this game. The Saints will flex Graham outside. He will drop the occasional pass, though, and killed a couple drives in the loss to the Rams that way.
  • Darren Sproles is in my mind an even worse matchup for the Titans than Graham, as he might create issues for Keith Bulluck in his prime and the Titans don’t have a great athletic coverage linebacker. He doesn’t run downfield routes like Marshall Faulk did for the Mike Martz Rams, but is instead a versatile chess piece for Sean Payton to move around. He’s also not a liability running between the tackles like Reggie Bush was.
  • Marques Colston functionally is a kind of guy who for most of his career did the kind of thing Nate Washington did when Kenny Britt was in the lineup: running what I think of as interior routes from more of a slot position. I think a big thing for the Titans’ defensively this year has been moving Finnegan inside to the slot in nickel situations this year, and I actually like his ability to matchup against Colston.
  • I’ve never been able to decide if either Devery Henderson or Robert Meachem is a really good player in his own right or a decent player who’s in a very good situation. Both guys can burn you, especially deep, but the offense clearly goes through Graham, Colston, Lance Moore, and Sproles before it goes through them.
  • Mark Ingram’s turf toe may keep him out of this weekend’s game, but the Saints are perfectly capable of having an effective running game with Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory. Well, more Sproles and Thomas than Ivory, in my eyes.
  • The defensive line has not really impressed me. They’re vulnerable against the run and have trouble winning 1v1 in the pass rush. I used to be a big fan of DE Will Smith, but don’t see him as more than a complementary rusher at best at this point in his career. The Saints are a below-average team at bringing down the quarterback (they’re 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate), and what pressure they get tends to be schemed.
  • As blah as the defensive line is, the linebackers in particular are unimpressive. I used to think Jonathan Vilma was good, but he’s looked awful at times this year against both the run and the pass. I’ve never thought too fondly of Scott Shanle. The strongside linebacker, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, is by far my favorite, and I kind of like him as an SLB against the run and in Williams’ blitzes, but am not particularly fond of him in coverage. Counters toward Shanle is what I want to see.
  • The weaknesses in the secondary are cornerback Patrick Robinson when he’s in the game (Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are the starters) and, especially, strong safety Roman Harper. In the Seahawks’ playoff upset last year, Hasselbeck a number of times took advantage of Harper’s alleged defensive responsibility, and I’d look for him to do the same thing this week.

Bottom line: the Saints are an elite and creative passing offense, a good run offense that works off the passing game, and a defense that when it’s at its most effective is opportunistic rather than good. If Chris Johnson runs like he has the past two weeks, I think he could have another big day against the Saints, but it won’t matter because the Titans’ pass defense will be in smoking ruins.  With the Titans playing at home, the line is probably something reasonable (apparently NO -3.5), but I see the Saints winning this game by double-digits.