With football season’s first Sunday slate only 36 hours away, the NFL prediction machine has predictably kicked into gear, with every pundit under the sun giving his two cents about who will make the big dance, and who will come home with the prize. This article is the first of a two-parter tackling a couple of fancied teams who I think will fall short: New Orleans and Green Bay, both offensive juggernauts led by legendary quarterbacks, both held back by poor defenses. The Saints’ drum has been beaten by many, including one representative on NFL.com’s Around the NFL podcast, as well as Don Banks of SI and Sky’s very own Kevin Cadle.
Trouble is, defence has been a particular headache for New Orleans, never important enough to stop the Saints from regularly reaching the playoffs under Sean Payton, but always a problem once the proverbial dung hit the fan. Poor defending cost the Saints a run at defending their title in 2010, when Beast Mode was blasted into our living rooms and New Orleans was the only victim of Seattle’s man-made earthquake. It happened again in 2011, when Gregg Williams’ defense made Alex Smith (Alex Smith!) look like an All-Pro. In those two games alone, New Orleans allowed a mammoth 857 yards.
Admittedly, the arrival of Rob “Wolfman” Ryan in early 2013 immediately paid dividends: the Saints ended the season in the Top 10 in Defensive DVOA, and fans the world over got to enjoy Ryan’s ranting and raving on the sidelines. The trouble is, the Saints are far from being home and dry, their second playoff defeat to Seattle in 2014 proving that once the offense goes dormant, the defense isn’t good enough to keep New Orleans in the mix. With Brees throwing for a meagre 34 yards in the first half, Seattle took a 16-0 lead, and quashed any hopes for a comeback by converting on a gutsy call on 3rd and long- Doug Baldwin’s masterful catch paving the way for Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown. 23-8, game over.
The Saints have certainly done a decent job shoring up the numerous holes in their D, but will it be enough? Ryan has helped historically poor defenses return to the mean before, only to plateau around the middle of the pack. There is talent in the Saints back line- Keenan Lewis did a good job on Desean Jackson last year, whilst Jairus Byrd is the franchise’s big free agency prize- but is still not elite. Worse, pass rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette both topped 12 sacks last season, yet the next best contributor only made 4.5. For a team that actually got a remarkable amount of coverage sacks last year, an injury to one of these two – or a drop in secondary play- could have catastrophic consequences, possibly forcing Ryan to use the more expansive blitzes he is known for, thus exposing his defense even more. The Saints would also need to improve on last year’s 20th place in Run defense DVOA.
The offense itself is hardly spotless: despite all the past accolades, New Orleans return a lineup without former regulars Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, as well as a diminished Marques Colston and an irked Jimmy Graham, who saw his potential earnings reduced in a franchise tag dispute, and his trademark celebration outlawed by Dean of Distractions Roger Goodell. Mark Ingram is being touted by just about everybody who’s been to Saints camp as a sleeper- trouble is we’re in Year 4 of his career, and his talent has only come out in spots. Though there is little doubt the Saints’ offence will thrive to some extent this season – first round pick Brandin Cooks has looked incredible in camp- will it have enough options to keep defenses honest?
Any early season rust will certainly have an impact on a team whose away record last season was 3-5, and who plays three road games in the first month. Though none of its first five opponents had winning records last year (two, the Browns and the Cowboys, look to be in pretty bad shape), New Orleans will need every win they can get, as the rest of their schedule proves. Those last 11 games will, for the most part, come against teams with strong playoff aspirations, with only a couple of them looking like they will fall short of contending. The NFC South, against whom the Saints went 3-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown, is also likely to improve- especially when we consider that the Buccaneers were one of last season’s unluckiest teams- losing three games more than their Pythagorean rating expected them to.
What makes the schedule so important is the Metrodome, and how certain Saints backers are citing it as a decisive factor in the playoffs: “Just you wait until the visitors come out of that tunnel!” Sean Payton has, after all, never lost a home playoff game, the franchise’s last L coming in 1992 at the hands of the Eagles. Trouble is , New Orleans needs to actually secure top seed in order to guarantee a home slate in the playoffs. With Seattle in rambunctious form following yesterday’s mauling of the Packers, the 49ers still one of the most consistent NFC franchises and, yes, the Packers still able to win at least 10 games through sheer firepower, this may be tougher than advertised.
Worse, the home game argument goes both ways, and has come to stink of desperation, almost as if it is implied that the Saints need to play in NOLA to progress to the final rounds. Hardly a ringing endorsement by all accounts.