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To get ready for Sunday's Detroit Lions game, I exchanged five questions with JR Ella from Canal Street Chronicles, SB Nation's New Orleans Saints blog. You can check out his answers below.
1. I think it's safe to say that nobody around the NFL expected the Saints to get off to a 2-3 start. What went wrong for the Saints in the first five weeks of the season?
The oversized offseason expectations for the Saints were mostly borne of the exceptional performance of their defense last season. Football Outsiders had the 2013 Saints ranked 10th in total defensive DVOA (-5.8%), sixth against the pass and 20th against the run. This was coming off an abysmal 2012 season in which they were dead last in the NFL in pretty much every defensive category you can think of. Most people just assumed that Rob Ryan’s defense would pick up where it left off last year, while everyone expected the Saints offense led by Drew Brees to stay at its usual high-flying level. That hasn’t happened for either unit.
Although the Saints offense is ranked seventh in the NFL in total offensive DVOA, New Orleans’ passing attack is ranked a lowly 20th (11.9%). This is an offense that was third in the entire league in passing in 2013. As for the Saints defense, they’ve crashed down to earth and once again occupy the cellar of the NFL with the 32nd-ranked defensive unit. To compound the issues, three of the Saints' first five games have been on the road, where New Orleans is simply not the same team it is at home. Unsurprisingly, the Saints' three losses so far this year have all been on the road (at Atlanta, at Cleveland and at Dallas).
2. Do you still think the Saints could contend for the Super Bowl this season?
I am neither a hugely optimistic nor a pessimistic "the sky is falling" type of fan. The fact that I write about the Saints has further reinforced that somewhat "neutral" view of the team I root for. Barring an unforeseen turnaround in the bad tendencies I’ve observed from the Saints through the first five games of their 2014 season, I don’t even see them making the playoffs, let alone contend for the Super Bowl. I think many of the issues they have are intrinsic problems that can’t be fixed mid-season. One of these issues, for instance, is a glaring lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball, mostly at the linebacker positions and in the secondary. When he was having quarterback issues with the Jets, head coach Bill Parcells said something to the effect of, "They think you can just dial a '1-800-and-get-a-quarterback' number." Well, there’s no "1-800-and-get-a defense" you can dial for the 2014 Saints.
3. Assuming Jimmy Graham is in fact out on Sunday with an injury, how will the Saints replace him in the passing game?
According to all the reports I have seen so far, Jimmy Graham is going to be out for at least two to three games, including obviously this upcoming game at Ford Field. Believe it or not, there are many Saints fans that are secretly excited about this. No, they are not suggesting that the Saints are better without their über-talented tight end. However, Brees has shown the tendency to lock in on Graham and try to force-feed him the ball even when he is double- or triple-teamed. That has led to many untimely interceptions. Brees is at his best when he spreads the ball around, and the Saints do not lack receiving options in rookie Brandin Cooks, second-year wide receiver Kenny Stills and veteran wideouts Marques Colston and Robert Meachem. Additionally, running back Pierre Thomas is outstanding as a safety valve on wheel routes and screen plays, and the Saints are likely getting back Michigan-native running back Mark Ingram, who was out after undergoing wrist surgery. Ingram has showed an increasing proficiency in catching the ball out of the backfield as well.
4. Which Saints running back should the Lions be most concerned about on Sunday?
The Saints running game is a true "run-by-committee" affair. Sean Payton spreads the wealth between Khiry Robinson, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. Robinson leads the team with 61 rushes for 304 yards (5.0 yards per carry), but that is mostly because Ingram missed the last three games with a wrist injury. Before being sidelined, Ingram led the team in rushing attempts with 24 and had a healthy 6.0 YPC average. In my opinion, however, the running back the Lions should be keenly aware of is Pierre Thomas. Against the Buccaneers in the Saints' last game before their bye week, Thomas had four rushes for 35 yards and a touchdown, yet he had eight receptions on 10 targets from Drew Brees for 77 yards and a receiving touchdown as well. With Graham leaving that game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, Brees seemed to rediscover his "dink-and-dunk" game, and Thomas was the main beneficiary.
5. What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses on defense for the Saints?
Defensive strengths? What are those defensive strengths things you speak of? Okay let me try to be serious here for a second.
Strengths: Before the season started, there were two areas that were thought to be strengths for this Saints defense: a) The front four, which features left defensive end Cam Jordan, who had 12.5 sacks last year, and linebacker Junior Galette, who usually lines up at the right defensive end position and had 12 sacks of his own in 2013. b) The safeties, which were to feature second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro, who had an outstanding rookie year in 2013, and high-priced offseason acquisition Jairus Byrd.
So far this year, Jordan has one sack and has mostly been a non-factor. Galette has three sacks and has shown up in spots. Vaccaro is in a dreadful sophomore slump, and he has been exploited in both pass coverage and run support. Byrd is on IR after suffering a torn lateral meniscus. Wait… you asked for strengths: okay there is one thing New Orleans does moderately well on defense and that’s stopping the run (20th in the league with a -4.7% DVOA). One wonders, though, whether this is simply the result of teams having so much success passing against the Saints that they don’t even bother to run (see weaknesses below).
Weaknesses: Where do I start? Pass defense is probably the biggest; New Orleans is ranked 32nd in the NFL against the pass (45.2% DVOA). Other troublesome areas: the Saints have tallied only six sacks through five games (by comparison, the Lions already have 20 sacks through six). New Orleans has a grand total of one interception so far this year. For perspective, the Lions already have seven. I could go on, but then you guys have already had way too much fun with this Q and A.
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