After a frustrating loss to an NFC South opponent, the Packers will be right back it again versus the NFC South as the 2-0 New Orleans Saints come to town to face the 1-1 Green Bay Packers, but these are not your father’s New Orleans Saints. Long gone are the days of Drew Brees putting up mind-boggling passing numbers while the defense put up less resistance than melted butter. This is a tough defense, one good enough to keep the points spread within two points on DraftKings, and an offense still trying to find its footing in the Derek Carr era.
Overall, the Saints sit 14th in offensive EPA-per-play. They rank 15th in EPA-per-dropback and 16th in EPA-per-rush. It’s almost impossible to get more average than this offense has been so far. While it is still early and thus difficult to put accurate opponent adjustments onto these numbers, the Saints so far have played the Tennesee Titans and Carolina Panthers defenses. Tennessee has the 18th-ranked defense by EPA-per-play and Carolina has the 16th, so not exactly a murder’s row of opponents. The Saints' offense has been about average against an approximately average slate of defenses. The Packers' defense ranks one spot ahead of Carolina at 15th, but it’s worth noting that they had the benefit of playing a putrid Bears offense and a very limited Falcons offense.
From both a personnel and playstyle perspective, it’s hard to figure out New Orleans. They play 11 personnel at a below-average rate and 12 personnel at a slightly above-average rate, but their use of Taysom Hill as a Joker pushes both of these numbers towards league average once taken into account. There isn’t a single personnel group with any meaningful snap number where the offense has necessarily excelled. One reason for this may be that Alvin Kamara, offensive weapon extraordinaire, is serving a suspension through this week’s game for a February 2022 incident of battery in Las Vegas. To add injury to idiocy, Jamaal Williams did not return to Monday night’s game after injuring his hamstring, so New Orleans may be down to RB3 on the depth chart this week, plus some Taysom Hill snaps. Neither Williams nor Jones has been effective so far, both averaging three or fewer yards per carry. The rushing attack has been entirely buoyed by Taysom Hill snaps. Jamaal Williams has the seventh-worst EPA-per-rush in the league, and Jones’ EPA-per-rush is heavily buoyed by two touchdowns that make up over 15% of his carries so far.
In the passing game, Chris Olave is a problem. He ranks tenth in yards-per-route-run and fifth in targets-per-route-run. New Orleans likes to get him the ball and do it often. Michael Thomas, yes he still exists, is back and is doing a bit of an old-man Michael Thomas impression. He is putting up less than ten yards-per-reception, but is posting a solid 71% catch rate so far. Their third receiver is Rashid Shaheed, who has been a bit of a big play threat so far averaging nearly 17 yards-per-reception and even pitching in with two carries. Neither Juwan Johnson nor Foster Moreau are getting a ton of work in the passing game, but both are semi-competent tertiary options at this point.
One reason for the Saints' struggles in the passing game is that their offensive line, outside of right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, has really struggled. Trevor Penning alone has allowed three sacks and ten total pressures. Only three tackles have allowed more pressures than Penning. Both Cesar Ruiz and James Hurst have given up a handful of pressures as well and have dismal PFF pass-blocking grades. Things are not much better in the run-blocking department either. Cesar Ruiz has PFF’s worst run-blocking grade of any offensive lineman in the NFL this season. Trevor Penning has the seventh worst. Hurst, Ramczyk, and McCoy are competent there, but unlike the Falcons' offensive line which could reliably blow the Packers off the ball, this unit does not appear to be that special. ESPN’s run-block-win-rate is higher on the Saints' run blocking than PFF, having them 15th through two weeks, but still not a dominant unit (I am also increasingly skeptical of the win-rate stats utility). If Green Bay can hold serve on early downs against a mediocre-at-best run-blocking unit, the opportunity to pin their ears back and pressure Derek Carr, who does not have the same evasiveness of a Justin Fields or Desmond Ridder, will be there to take advantage of.
Pass protection composite ratings— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 20, 2023
For once the Dolphins haven't had awful pass protection!
(yes still kind of all over the place, maybe it'll stabilize after more games?) pic.twitter.com/SnPtrDBoNM
While the offense may be nothing to write home about, the Saints' defense is a problem. While they have played two admittedly bad offenses so far, the Saints' defense ranks fifth in EPA-per-play, third against the pass, and a more mediocre 22nd against the run. It does help to play the Titans' inept passing game and a rookie quarterback with no weapons, but dominance is not new to the Saints' defense. This unit has not allowed twenty points or more in ten straight games, so do not expect fireworks this week.
How Green Bay tries to attack this defense will mostly come down to who is available. Was it just the turf keeping David Bakhtiari off the field last week? We can presume Elgton Jenkins will miss at least this matchup with his MCL sprain. Can one or both of Aaron Jones and Christian Watson play? The Packers offense has so many injury questions right now that it’s hard to identify how they’ll attack this defense without having the slightest clue who is actually playing and if they’ll be on a pitch count. What I can say so far is that the Packers' passing game has been quite good, even if choppy. The Packers are second in EPA-per-dropback despite Jordan Love sporting an ugly 54% completion rate. A combination of big plays, third down conversions, the fourth-highest aDOT, and no interceptions boosts that number. I don’t think the Packers have really ‘earned’ that ranking so far as there has still been quite a bit left on the table, but through two games, it’s tough not to be encouraged by what they have put on tape, especially considering how many starter snaps they have missed.
The running game, though. Oh, the running game. This unit, especially the one that played against Atlanta in the latter portions of the game, is not a particularly good run-blocking unit. They’re pretty small, intentionally built to be an elite pass-protecting unit, which they have been so far. But they don’t move bodies like Atlanta’s unit does. You can see this, especially in Josh Myers, who has been abysmal in the run game so far, showing up just a few spots above the aforementioned Trevor Penning in PFF run-blocking grades. Zach Tom, Bakhtiari, and Jenkins are all solid run blockers, but not elite. Jon Runyan Jr is probably below average by NFL standards. Royce Newman is Royce Newman and no one would call Rasheed Walker nor Yosh Nijman road graders. Still, despite this. the Packers are 20th in run-blocking grade right now. Not good, but not disastrous. What AJ Dillon has done so far this season is borderline unbelievable.
Dillon has the eighth-worst EPA-per-rush in the NFL so far. He has not generated one (1) explosive run across two games. He is averaging an abysmal 2.64 yards-per-carry. He has the eighth worst rushing-yards-over-expected-per-carry in the NFL at -1.22. That latter stat takes into account the blocking at the mesh point. And to top it all off, he slipped twice for no reason against Atlanta, the first time injuring Elgton Jenkins by falling on his leg and then in the fourth quarter failing to convert what would have been an easy first down. The latter play alone was good for -1.7 EPA and a six percentage point swing in win-probability. If Dillon cannot keep his feet when changing direction on a pristine surface, we need to be having a serious discussion about his roster spot, not just whether he should be getting carries. The team needs to seriously consider practice squads across the league and filling that RB2 role with someone else, because this level of production is just not tolerable at the NFL level.
How well the offense performs is dependent heavily on the availability of Aaron Jones and Christian Watson, but if they can break that Saints streak of 19-points-or-less games, that has to be considered a win for the unit. This week is all about the offense being able to do just enough and the defensive front bouncing back from an embarrassing performance in Atlanta.