I talked to JR Ella from Canal Street Chronicles. JR is a personal friend of mine, who I met in graduate school at the University of Washington. We have always had fun discussions about football, and now with the Broncos traveling to NOLA we can finally put it out for the rest of our readers to see! Sadaraine was kind enough to let me take this weekly post from him.
1. The Broncos haven't allowed an opposing quarterback to post a 100+ passer rating for 34 straight games, and still lead the league in passing defense. The Saints’ strength is throwing the ball, how are they going to overcome the Broncos passing defense?
My belief is that offensively, the Saints are going to use what I dubbed the “Seahawks Game Plan” against Denver this Sunday. Two weeks ago against Seattle, which at that point of the season was a stronger team against the run than Denver, New Orleans adjusted their offensive tendencies: they rushed 35 times and attempted 35 passes. That kind of balance is almost unheard of in a Sean Payton era in which New Orleans has often had a 2:1 ratio pass/run. But Payton and Brees understood that throwing the ball 50 times against Seattle’s secondary was bad for business. With the Broncos being even better against the pass than the Seahawks, I expect New Orleans to once again pass less and run more, while hoping that the Broncos’ relative struggles against the run persist. Another thing that the Saints will likely do (and employed successfully against Seattle as well) is dink-and-dunk. Short in- or out-routes, slants on three-step drops with max protection, in order to get the ball out as quickly as possible and somewhat neutralize the terrorizing force that is Von Miller and Denver’s pass rush.
2. It's no secret that the Broncos are struggling on offense. But the Saints aren't exactly excelling on defense either. How do you see this match up helping or hurting the Saints’ defense? Can Trevor Siemian exploit the Saints’ weak secondary and pull ahead early in the game?
Football Outsiders ranks the Saints 28th in the NFL against the pass (+ 29.6% DVOA) and 25th against the run (- 2.8%). For defense, the more negative the DVOA number, the better the defense, so this + 29.6% should tell you just how horrendous the Saints have been against the pass so far this season. If Trevor Siemian can get any type of protection (which shouldn’t be too hard, the Saints only have 11 sacks on the season, which is 30th in the league) then he will find (wide) open receivers downfield. If you have a fantasy team with Emmanuel Sanders and/or Demaryius Thomas, I highly suggest you start them this weekend. Where New Orleans’ has improved lately however, is in its scoring defense, especially in the second half of games. In the last three games against the Chiefs, Seahawks and 49ers, the Saints have allowed a combined total of 15 points in the second half. These were halves in which the opposing team was still trying to score and yet the Saints bent but didn’t break a whole lot. Playing the same way will be New Orleans’ only hope to avoid falling behind and thus forcing Brees to have to throw to win the game, which no one in the Big Easy wants to see given the quality of Denver’s pass rush.
3. Last week the Saints had a resurgence in their rushing attack, particularly Mark Ingram. Do you think this is a newfound strength that can be used, or an exploitation of a weak opponent in the 49ers? Will Ingram get the majority of carries this week?
The resurgence actually started two weeks ago against a very good Seattle run defense, when the Saints rushed 35 times for 123 yards (3.5 yards-per-carry). In that game, Mark Ingram had only three carries, as he was benched in the first quarter after he fumbled in Seahawks’ territory. The newfound strength has been Tim Hightower, who went 26 for 102 (3.9 ypc) against Seattle and followed that with a 23 for 87 (3.8) with a touchdown against the 49ers. Hightower’s great play has seemingly galvanized Ingram, who in turn played really well against San Francisco (15 for 158, 10.5 ypc) but as we all know the 49ers are absolutely putrid against the run. So my expectation is that Hightower will be the starter again and get the lion share of the carries, with Ingram getting anywhere from 10 to 15 rushing attempts. The Saints’ offensive line has been much better than anyone expected at the start of the season and all of a sudden, with Brees and the passing game doing so well, teams have tried to put more defenders in coverage, which has allowed to team to be more successful running the ball. I expect that trend to continue.
4. The NFC South has consistently been one of the weakest divisions in the NFL the last few years. However, the Panthers became the stand out and NFC champions last year, and this year are the worst in the division. Meanwhile the Falcons look like one of the best teams in the league and the Saints are surging, beating the two best NFC teams from last season. Can you give us some insight into this trend? Does strength of schedule have anything to do with it?
Hey now, leave my division alone…alas, you’re right, the NFC South, or the “NFC Slouch” as I’ve enjoyed calling it as of late has pretty bad for about four seasons now. In fact, until Carolina won the division three years in a row from 2013 to 2015, there had never been a repeat winner since the division was created in part of the NFL divisional realignment in 2002. So this year, things are actually going back to what has been the norm, when often the worst team one year would find itself at the top the next, while the defending champion would drop in the standings the year after. Indeed, schedules always either help or hurt, but take the Falcons this year for instance, they have had quite a tough schedule to date, playing the Broncos, Raiders and Seahawks all on the road, winning two of three and they had a shot at beating Seattle at Century Link Field. This shows that Atlanta has truly improved from the team they were last season and their success isn’t simply a result of an easy path. Similarly, the Saints have a tough schedule playing both the NFC West and AFC West. New Orleans’ resurgence has been a product of an offense that (finally) understood that they needed a more “ball-control” oriented approach to help a severely deficient defense.
5. What is your score prediction for the Saints versus the Super Bowl 50 Champions in the Super Dome? And what is the buzz in the atmosphere? I know you live in Seattle, but maybe you can call on some readers and old college friends to help answer.
Ok, so the Saints haven’t beaten the Broncos since 1994. Sure they don’t play every year, but that’s a long time without a win vs. a single opponent, so I’m not very confident about this one on Sunday. Another factor to further lessen my confidence is the fact that each of the last two seasons, New Orleans has gotten to 4-4 and then proceeded to lose a string of games. The Saints haven’t been above .500 since the end of the 2013 season. As I type this, it feels almost unbelievable with a head coach like Sean Payton and a quarterback like Drew Brees. But having the worst defense in the universe year in and year out will do that to any team. So I think the Broncos take this one 24-21. The buzz in New Orleans never ceases, so even though I’m not there this weekend, I know that a Saints Sunday is always a special time. On top of that, the team is surging, the fans are starting to believe a little bit more, so the Superdome crowd with be “well-lubricated,” boisterous and ready to go. If they can rattle Trevor Siemian a little bit, maybe I’ll be wrong with my prediction, which I certainly hope.
Bonus: One thing we can agree on is that we love to see the Seahawks lose - how was the mood in Seattle after that loss?
Oh boy, was it delightful! Both the fans and pundits on the radio were crying indefinitely about how the Seahawks were jobbed in New Orleans. Let me paraphrase the mood in Seattle that week: “How dare the refs make any calls about our beloved Seahawks??? The so-called pass interference that Sherman had on Julio Jones was just a friendly touch by Richard. And the “Fail Mary” was absolutely 100 percent a catch by Golden Tate. What batted ball out of the endzone against Detroit are you speaking of?? We know of no such thing and if it did happen, then it wasn’t intentional. Oh and all the tugging and holding on receivers by our legendary Legion of Boom is just how you’re supposed to play big boy football! Except if it’s your defense that is holding our receivers, because then THAT’S holding!!!”
I enjoyed and soaked their tears in, and I drove around with that cool Fleur de Lis magnet on my car, as though I owned the whole city of Seattle. Well, for an NFL week I did own it.
Thanks so much JR! May the best team win this weekend!