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Packers vs. Saints: Q&A with Canal Street Chronicles

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JR Ella of SB Nation's New Orleans Saints blog Canal Street Chronicles answers our questions about Drew Brees, New Orleans' struggling defense, and what he expects from Packers vs. Saints.

Jonathan Daniel

On Sunday Night Football, the Green Bay Packers travel south to the Superdome to take on the New Orleans Saints. JR Ella of Canal Street Chronicles was kind enough to answer some questions about the Saints and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.

APC: The Saints entered 2014 as one if not the trendy pick to potentially knock off the Seahawks in the NFC. Now sitting at 2-4, what caused New Orleans to fall short of those expectations thus far?

Wait, you mean to tell me that the Saints aren't going to the Super Bowl anymore? All kidding aside, the expectations heaped on the Saints during the offseason were based on two things: a) The Saints' offense with Drew Brees at the helm was expected to be...well, the Saints offense: high flying, high scoring and efficient. b) The Saints defense, which was one of the best in 2013, was expected to sustain, and maybe even increase its excellent level from last year.

Alas, New Orleans defense has been a major disappointment, as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan tried to implement a more complex scheme in his second year in New Orleans. The result has been a lot of confusion from the players and a slew of blown assignments on the field.

On the other side of the ball, the offense has been good (7th in the NFL with an 11.8% DVOA) but it hasn't been great. The end result is a 2-4 start and a big hole to climb out of.

APC: Drew Brees has turned the ball over at an uncharacteristically high rate this season. Has something changed about his play, or is the issue with his supporting cast or play calling?

Brees is on pace to throw about 18 interceptions this season (he currently has seven, through six games). These numbers are eerily similar to those he had in 2012 (19 interceptions), when the Saints fielded such a dreadful defense that he felt the immense pressure to carry the team on his back. That led him to taking unnecessary chances, forcing the ball into impossible windows and turning it over.

With the 32nd ranked defense in the NFL so far in 2014, it seems Brees is back to trying to win games all by himself on every offensive play. He is not the only culprit however. The Saints are running the ball extremely well this year (2nd in the NFL with a 10.2% DVOA), which should help Brees. Unfortunately, head coach Sean Payton isn't exactly a fan of the running game. Through six games, New Orleans is averaging 44 passing attempts per game vs. 25 rushing attempts. Not exactly the balance you'd want in order to protect your quarterback.

APC: In 2013, the Saints produced what most regard as one of the better defenses in the NFC. A year later, the unit has allowed the 28th most points per game and is 32nd in DVOA. Why has New Orleans fallen so far defensively?

There are several reasons for New Orleans' terrible start on defense this year, let me just cite a few of them. One major problem has been a cruel lack of pass rush. Last year, defensive end Cam Jordan and linebacker Junior Galette had 12.5 and 12 sacks respectively.  Other players like tackle John Jenkins and defensive end Akiem Hicks were also a force pressuring quarterbacks in 2013. So far this year, Jordan has only one sack and has been a near non-factor on the defensive line. Galette has four sacks and is coming on, but he too was non-existent at the beginning of the year. Jenkins and Hicks are seemingly in the witness protection program, as they are yet to be heard from in 2014.

The biggest defensive wart for the Saints however, is the second cornerback spot. Believe me, by the end of the game on Sunday night, Packers fans will have learned to love and appreciate Saints cornerback Corey White. A third-year pro who usually lines up at the nickel position, White has been thrust into a starting role due to the ineffectiveness and injuries of incumbent Patrick Robinson. Alas, White has been burned repeatedly. Quarterbacks have mostly avoided throwing at number one cornerback Keenan Lewis, since throwing White's way has proven quite successful. Aaron Rodgers is salivating right now.

APC: If you were game planning against the Saints, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?

This is a great question.

How to attack the Saints offense: The recipe to neutralize the Saints' offense sounds simple: pressure up the middle. Drew Brees, has we all know, is not very tall. Having guys rush him from the edges almost always results in him stepping up in the pocket, buying some time and eventually finding the open man downfield. However, with pressure right up in his face, that's when Brees has thrown most of his picks, not being able to see over the mountains that are his offensive linemen.

On the perimeter, it goes without saying, tight end Jimmy Graham needs to be guarded closely. Physical play from linebackers and cornerbacks has, at times, thrown him off his game. The good news for the Packers is that Graham is still recovering from a shoulder injury and isn't 100%. This means that defending him might not actually be such a challenge on Sunday. Another weapon to keep an eye on is rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Despite a so-so game last week in Detroit, Cooks has quickly become Brees' second favorite target (right behind Graham). He'll line up at several positions, in the slot, on the outside, in the backfield and has speed to spare.

How to attack the Saints defense: The Saints have been decent at stopping the run (16th in the league with a -8.6% DVOA). However, they're 30th against the pass and I think that's where I would press the issue, over and over. As I detailed in my answer to your third question, the second cornerback spot has been a major liability for New Orleans. I think it is infinitely safe to assume that if we all know it, Aaron Rodgers knows it as well. I expect Rodgers to throw the ball in Corey White's direction early and often on Sunday night.

APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday and why?

Ah, this is a tough one. Tough because my head tells me that the Packers should win rather easily, probably pull away late, after a somewhat tight first half. However, I have seen a Drew Brees-led Saints team play lights out in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome too often to completely dismiss New Orleans' chances this Sunday night. In Detroit last week, the Saints had the game under control with five minutes left and then they fell apart. But for the first time this year, for 55 minutes, they finally resembled the New Orleans Saints we all expected to see in 2014.

The Packers' offense should have very little trouble scoring on the Saints, but in the Superdome, I expect the Saints offense to have just as much success against Green Bay's defense. In my opinion, it might simply come down to: hunger. The Packers are flying high and riding a four-game winning streak, which I think will have them less desperate than New Orleans on Sunday night. To that effect, I'm going to use more of my heart to make this prediction and say that New Orleans takes this one 34-31 in a "whoever has the ball last wins the game" type of scenario.

We'd like to thank JR 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 Packers vs. Saints.

Jason B. Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. He also serves as an SB Nation Newsdesk Contributor and writes for Sports on Earth.