On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers start the Brett Hundley era against future Hall of Fame quarterback, Drew Brees. Chris Dunnells of Canal Street Chronicles was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Saints and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: After the Saints defense cost the team trips to the playoffs in recent seasons, the unit ranks 21st in points allowed and 15th in DVOA entering Week 7. What changed to account for the improvement this year?
Well, timing for one. The Saints have had the benefit of playing a beat of Matthew Stafford, a beat up Cam Newton, and the Ghost of Broadcasting Future Jay Cutler in London. All three wins by the Saints were against teams that had injuries at QB (sound familiar?) and injuries to their offensive line (sound familiar?). The pass rush has been able to take advantage of depleted offensive lines, led by DE Cameron Jordan who was just named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. In the secondary, 2017 1st Round Pick Marshon Lattimore looks to be a future keystone of the Saints secondary, grading out by Pro Football Focus as one of the top Cornerbacks (not just rookies) in the NFL through the season's first quarter. It's hard to say if the improved pass rush has led to better play from the secondary as the QB has been forced to make rushed, contested throws, or if improved play from the secondary by not allowing routes to develop has allowed the defensive line more time to get to the QB. In any event, the entire defensive unit looks noticeably improved in every facet.
APC: The Saints traded wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots this offseason. How has the loss of Cooks affected the offense, and who has stepped into his place as the go-to receiver?
You could make the case that by midseason last year Cooks was no longer the "go-to" receiver, and that title had passed to then-rookie Michael Thomas. In any event, last week was the first game of the season that the Saints had their full stable of Wide Receivers (having lost WR Willie Snead the first three weeks to suspension, then an injury and a Bye). In the route tree, Ted Ginn Jr has been running all of Cooks' routes and taken up duties on Special Teams. But Drew has leaned heavily on WR Michael Thomas and rookie surprise RB Alvin Kamara to get those crucial first down catches that would go to Cooks. Ginn is still the deep threat, and Snead will likely go back to being the trusted slot receiver to convert on 3rd downs, but it's hard to pinpoint a single player that has replaced Cooks' production.
APC: Drew Brees becomes a free agent after this season, and the Saints cannot apply the franchise tag to him. What are the chances of Brees leaving New Orleans, and where could he land if he does indeed depart?
It all comes down to winning. If the Saints are able to make the postseason this year, I see no reason why Tom Benson doesn't open the checkbook one more time to re-sign Brees. A winning record, even if it falls short of the playoffs, is still probably enough to keep him to stay. On the flip side, if the Saints end up going 7-9 again (absent a string of bad luck or injuries), Brees is probably out the door, with Sean Payton not too far behind him. I hope it doesn't happen, but if I had to guess where Brees would end up, I'd be looking for another situation that Peyton Manning found in Denver: a good defense, young skills player, a winnable division, and a question mark at QB. The first team that comes to mind would be the Jacksonville Jaguars, but there are a lot of teams that could be interested - the Vikings, the Steelers (if Big Ben hangs it up), and the Cardinals (if Palmer retires) come to mind as other potential landing spots.
APC: If game planning against the Saints, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
If it were me, I would motion Ty Montgomery out of the backfield and try to get him lined up against a Linebacker in coverage. Use pre-snap motion to try to help Brett Hundley figure out the coverage situation. Have him use short, quick throws. Bubble screens to Randall Cobb. Quick slants to Jordy Nelson. I'd try to get Safety Kenny Vaccaro in coverage and exploit his tendency to get big-eyed with a mobile QB. On defense, stuff the Saints running game and make the Saints one-dimensional on offense. Sean Payton has a history of getting frustrated with the run if it isn't successful early on, and if you get to a point where you feel comfortable dropping more back in coverage, you could get Drew to make mistakes.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday, and why?
Granted, it's not a player of Hundley's draft pedigree, but I remember a mobile rookie QB coming to New Orleans and embarrassing the Saints defense. While I don't think Hundley will have quite the success of Robert Griffin III, I'm still not going to take him - or this game - lightly. Current spread is -6 for New Orleans, but I give the Packers a little more credit playing at Lambeau. 30-27, New Orleans.
We'd like to thank Chris and Canal Street Chronicles for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Saints. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Saints vs. Packers.