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On Drew Brees slipping & Saints’ defense as an intriguing test for Matt LaFleur & Packers

The Saints entered 2020 as a supposed juggernaut, but things have not gone according to plan.

New Orleans Saints v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In 2021 there is a good chance that the New Orleans Saints will be among the worst teams in football. New Orleans is built to win right now behind first ballot Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees, several soon-to-be free agents, and a salary cap situation that has finally hit the breaking point. We think of the salary cap as a minor impediment that can always be worked around, but eventually you run out of capacity to restructure deals and it’s time to no longer be able to pay the piper.

This wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Saints, who were exceptional last season and are one of the favorites to be in the Super Bowl this season, unless father time has finally come for Drew Brees. Injuries have also made them vulnerable on offense, and the Raiders provided an excellent template on how to attack their defense on Monday Night. New Orleans is still a very good team, and they are almost certainly the best team Green Bay has faced so far, but the cracks are starting to show.

Is Brees Done?

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. As usual, it’s best not to overreact to early season results, and Packer fans should be especially careful about judging quarterback performance absent elite receivers. Michael Thomas is quite possibly the best receiver in football. He was lost to an injury following week one, and will likely miss the Green Bay game (and a few more) as well. There’s not much behind Thomas in terms of depth, and any quarterback would struggle without him. No “number one” receiver was targeted more last year compared to the rest of his team than Thomas, and without Thomas, literally the entire offense changes.

Running back Alvin Kamara leads the team in targets with 17, and while Kamara is a fine back, there’s a huge efficiency dropoff from Thomas’s excellence to Kamara’s 10 yards per reception. Jared Cook is second with 12 targets, at which point you finally get to receivers Tre’Quan Smith and Emmanuel Sanders with eight targets each. Yes, Davante Adams has four more targets than the Saints’ two most targeted receivers combined.

Part of this early season decline is clearly a lack of Thomas, but Brees has had his own issues, which seem to be related to arm strength. He has struggled with downfield throws and his accuracy on outs was way off against Las Vegas last week. It looked to me like he was attempting to put extra juice on the ball, and it was impacting his accuracy. On easier throws he looks like his old self, but tight windows and longer distances will test him. That Brees has declined at least somewhat is indisputable.

That said, let’s not overstate things too much. The Saints have continued to move the ball and put up points, even without Michael Thomas. Brees is currently 15th in DVOA, which isn’t great but also isn’t some late-Peyton-Manning era disaster. While they are very reliant on short passes to move the sticks (Brees is currently 31st in CPOE, which is a huge drop from his normal levels), Brees can still be effective. The most likely scenario here is that as long as they lack Thomas, Brees will be a highly effective game manager, accurately hitting Kamara, Cook, and the lesser receivers underneath, relying on YAC, and supplementing that passing game with a healthy dose of Kamara and Latavius Murray on the ground (especially against Green Bay).

The natural instinct for the Saints, given the extreme weakness of the Packers’ run defense (currently 30th by DVOA), will be to rely on the run more than usual. While teams have had success running against Green Bay, New Orleans could get in trouble if they lean this way too far. For starters, Kamara has struggled early and ranks just 15th in DVOA with 3.8 yards per carry. The line doesn’t seem to be getting their normal push and although Tampa Bay has a strong defense, the same cannot be said of the Raiders. Latavius Murray has been no better, and while the Green Bay defense can make any run game healthy in a hurry, the Saints can’t just show up and run to win. Kenny Clark may also return for this game, which would help the Packers immensely.

The key for the Packer defense is to force Brees into situations that stretch his ability to throw down the field. Sacks will probably have added value, and penalties (which have bitten the Saints early and often this season) against the Saints offense will be hard to overcome. Every 3rd and long will be dangerous for New Orleans, and if the Packers can tackle well in front of them to prevent YAC, and control the run game, they should be fine. I’d wager they pick Brees off a time or two. If not, the Saints may be able to put up enough points for their defense to carry them.

Man Coverage and Penalties

New Orleans is strong up front, anchored by Cameron Jordan and his 15.5 sacks from a year ago, but he is only one among many playmakers. Jordan, Demario Davis, and Trey Hendrickson harassed Tom Brady into two picks in week one (including a Janoris Jenkins pick-6), and they were the primary reason the Saints won the game. New Orleans also boasts one of the league’s best run defenses, which has bottled up Ronald Jones and Josh Jacobs in consecutive weeks and hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since 2017. Their run defense is currently 9th by DVOA, but they are just percentage points from entering the top 5 and no one has had any kind of success against them. Aaron Jones may be in for a tough day.

The New Orleans pass defense was excellent last year, but they have struggled a bit through two games for three main reasons. First, they’ve committed an insane number of penalties, which killed any chance they may have had on Monday Night. This isn’t a short-term trend either, as they were among the most penalized teams in football last season — they ranked 5th with 147 flags against, costing them 1,023 yards (7th-most). As penalty-prone as they were last year, they became even more so through the addition of the 32-year-old Jenkins, who was acquired late in 2019 via waivers. Jenkins has been a good corner and may still be, but he’s always been physical and prone to penalties as well. The excellent Marshon Lattimore also quite physical and no stranger to penalties, and as a result, one of the best ways to attack the Saints is by challenging them deep. Don’t be surprised if MVS has some kind of insane zero-catch, 100 yard performance.

The second weakness was exploited by Las Vegas last week. The Raiders are not that similar to the Packers, but their strategy on Monday is one that the Packers can use, especially if they are without Davante Adams (hamstring). While Lattimore’s numbers against #1 receivers have been good, the further you push on the New Orleans secondary, the more vulnerable it becomes. C.J. Gardner-Johnson has done a nice job when defending slot wideouts or TEs, but after him, things get dicey. When the Raiders pushed the ball to their 4th or 5th receiving option on any given play, New Orleans has had issues. While tight end Darren Waller dominated targets for the Raiders, a total of 11 Raiders caught passes. The Saints rank just 26th against pass-catching RBs and 23rd against “other receivers,” and that’s where they are vulnerable. Las Vegas used varied personnel and formations to force tough coverage decisions on the New Orleans linebackers and safeties, and it worked brilliantly.

But the biggest weakness for the Saints’ pass defense so far is just plain old stupidity. Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire has done a nice job over the past year of highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of man vs. zone schemes, and which teams excel in each. His column this week just happens to focus on the Lions, who lack the personnel to run as much man as Matt Patricia wants, and the Saints. After the Lions, the Saints have run the 2nd-most man coverage of any team, which is completely different than what they did last year as one of the more zone-heavy teams.

It’s especially baffling because one of their newest additions, the previously mentioned Janoris Jenkins, excels in zone coverage but struggles in man. As a result, he is the primary reason the Saints are dead last against #2 receivers so far. Perhaps defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has good reason for changing things up from 2019, but if they continue to lean on man coverage with the personnel they have, they’re going to get torched by Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, who just broke out all of their best man-beaters last week against Patricia and the Lions.

The Packers don’t have anyone like Waller, but if you are looking for a random Bob Tonyan breakout game, this might be it. Allen Lazard’s size will also present some matchup problems, especially if Davante Adams is able to play and forces easier coverage his way. Aaron Rodgers’ hard counts may also be a larger than normal factor in this game, as the Saints are prone to penalties.

The Packers are going to need to be creative if they want to continue to put up big point totals, because despite some minor early season struggles, this is the best defense the Packers have faced and will face for a while.