8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: New Orleans -3
Someone make sure there is a warranty for the scoreboard, as the New Orleans Saints host the Green Bay Packers in a matchup of prolific offenses on Sunday Night Football. With nearly half of the season in the books, it’s safe to say that the 2014 campaign has not gone as expected for the Saints (2-4), who have been woefully inconsistent thus far, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. That must make things even more frustrating for Sean Payton and the Coaching Staff, for after their defense set records for ineptitude in 2012, they underwent vast improvement in 2013, helping to propel the team back to the postseason. And while they haven’t been terrible, Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan’s charges have played a significant part in all four of New Orleans’ losses thus far; in the opener at Atlanta they were torched for 37 points on 568 yards, while at Dallas they were gashed for 38 points on 445 yards of offense. However, all the blame cannot be placed up their shoulders, for their compatriots on offense have been uncharacteristically mistake-prone; Drew Brees and Co. have committed nine turnovers in their four losses to this point, and have given the ball away a total of twelve times in six games this season. Last weekend’s 24-23 loss at Detroit summed it all up; despite owning a 23-10 lead with 5:29 remaining, the Saints inexplicably relinquished fourteen unanswered points, including a 73-yard touchdown pass, while committing a pair of crucial turnovers.
No matter what era football is played in, the biggest factor in any game is turnovers. More than likely, if you manage to win the turnover differential in a game you also manage to earn victory, and vice versa if you manage to lose said differential. This of course, brings us to the Saints, who have posted a terrible minus-8 turnover differential thus far. As we stated earlier, Payton’s outfit has turned it over a dozen times this season, or in other words, at least twice in five out of their six contests. Brees, though as prolific as ever, has been afflicted by this more than anyone; despite completing 67.7% of his passes for an average of 319.3 yards per game on 7.3 yards per attempt, has only thrown eleven touchdowns to seven interceptions, leading to a Total QBR of only 66.06. With the exception of their 20-9 victory over struggling Minnesota, Brees has been picked off in all but one game, including three in a 37-31 win over Tampa Bay, in which he had to put together a mad rally to come back from an eleven-point Fourth Quarter deficit. And don’t look now, but the injury list is getting rather bloated; with Jimmy Graham playing sparingly last week with an ailing shoulder, New Orleans will be without the services of both Pierre Thomas (shoulder) and Khiry Robinson (forearm), leaving their backfield dangerously thin. Payton has leaned more on the running game this season than in years past, as the Saints are averaging 123.0 yards (13th overall) on a healthy 4.9 yards per carry (2nd overall). Look for Mark Ingram to get the majority of the carries tonight, even though he has missed his share of time this season as well. The former Heisman has played well in this, his fourth year in the league, averaging a career-high 53.0 yards per game on 4.7 yards per carry.
With that said, even with the myriad of mistakes that the offense has made thus far, the defense has struggled far more than expected this season. When Ryan took over in 2013, he inherited a unit that allowed an NFL Record 440.2 yards per game, and proceeded to rebuild them into a group that would emerge as a top-five defense. Last year, the Saints ranked fourth in both points allowed (19.0) and yards allowed (305.7), including second against the pass (194.1). Ryan made them more multiple from a schematic standpoint, utilizing different position groupings, along with a more aggressive coverages, leading to more creative blitzes. Of course, changing personnel doesn’t help, which is something that New Orleans continued to do this offseason, signing Pro Bowl Safety Jairus Byrd to a huge contract. However, the injuries have plagued this unit too, sidelining Byrd (knee) for the season before he even played a single regular season down. Furthermore, Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis (knee/shoulder) and Patrick Robinson (hamstring) are both listed as Questionable for tonight’s game, while Nose Tackle Broderick Bunkley could miss yet another outing suffering lingering effects from a concussion. With a dearth of healthy bodies in the Secondary, the Saints have been picked on in the passing game, allowing an average of 270.5 yards per game (28th overall) on 7.2 net yards per attempt (26th overall), and as a result have struggled to produce any big plays; the turnover issues aren’t exclusive to the offense, for the defense has registered just four this season, third-fewest in the league.
Meanwhile, the Packers (5-2) are at the opposite end of the spectrum, riding a four-game winning streak after a disappointing 1-2 start to the campaign. Ever since Aaron Rodgers pleaded for the team’s rabid fan base to R-E-L-A-X, his team has done anything but; Green Bay has put their foot on the gas, outscoring their opponents 145-68 over that span. Last weekend, Mike McCarthy’s charges dismantled the Panthers at Lambeau Field, racing out to a 21-0 First Quarter lead, en route to a 38-17 thumping that put them back in the running for first place in the competitive NFC North. Unlike, their opponent tonight, the Packers have enjoyed great fortune on the turnover front, owning a plus-ten differential thus far; the offense has committed just four this season, including only one over the past four outings, while the defense has generated a wealth of takeaways, racking up a whopping fourteen, second-most in the league.
After a slow start to the season, McCarthy’s offense has been dialed in, averaging 28.4 points (4th overall) on 341.0 yards per game (25th overall), including 242.3 (20th overall) of that total courtesy of Rodgers and the passing game. Don’t be fooled by that lack of yardage, for that is just a function of the defense forcing so many turnovers and granting their comrades a short field with which to work with. Green bay has averaged 6.8 net yards per pass (12th overall), and 5.6 yards per play altogether. It’s hard to fathom Rodgers playing at a higher level than he is at the moment, as the former MVP is completing 66.8% of his attempts for 239.1 yards per game on 7.9 yards per attempt, with eighteen touchdowns and just one interception, while posting a Total QBR of 83.92. The tenth-year veteran was flawless at home against Carolina last weekend, completing 19-of-22 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, extending an NFL record to four consecutive games with at least three touchdown passes and no picks. Jordy Nelson has been the prime benefactor with 47 receptions for 712 yards (15.1 yards/catch) and six touchdowns, while fellow Receiver Randall Cobb leads the team with eight scores. Now all these guys need is for the running game to get things going; the Packers have only averaged 98.7 yards on the ground (23rd overall), a steep decline from last year’s 133.5 pegged them at seventh in the league. Eddie Lacy got off to a slow start, but has since averaged 69.3 yards over the three games. And as the sophomore tailback goes, so does the rushing attack; Green bay has averaged 133.0 rushing yards over the past three games, a stark contrast to the 73.0 that they managed in the first four contests.
While their Quarterback may have implored them to relax, Packers’ fans must be doing handstands over the play of their defense, which has been as opportunistic as any this season. It’s no secret that Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ unit has been the Achilles Heel of this team since they hoisted their fourth Lombardi Trophy back in 2010, but after investing a wealth of draft picks on this side of the ball over the last four years, finally look like they are coming together. Through seven games, these guys are allowing 21.0 points (9th overall) on 362.8 yards (19th overall), including 214.9 versus the pass (5th overall) on 5.8 net yards per attempt (4th overall), and another 147.9 versus the rush (31st overall) on 4.6 yards per carry (25th overall). As we mentioned earlier, turnovers are the most decisive factor in football, and this defense has done nothing but make plays this year, forcing fourteen turnovers, including at least one in every game thus far. Over the last five outings, Green Bay has racked up a dozen alone, averaging 2.4 per game over that span. Ten of those takeaways have been interceptions, with eight different players logging a pick, with Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Casey Hayward each owning a pair. The pass rush has also played it’s part, with sixteen sacks to their credit, as nine different players have successfully dropped the Quarterback for a loss.