To preview tomorrow's primetime Monday Night matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks, I traded scouting reports with Canal Street Chronicles' Dave Cariello. Many thanks to Dave for the collaboration, and make sure you head over to CSC to find more on the Saints and follow Dave on Twitter.
1. The obvious starting point when you want to know about the Saints is to ask about Drew Brees. What has been, in your opinion, the big difference between last year and this year in terms of his efficiency and numbers? Has the offense looked substantially different this year as compared to last with the return of Sean Payton?
Not that Brees was bad last season by any means but he's definitely playing a little better this year. Part of it is Payton, I'm sure. The two of them were made for each other. Another factor, I think, is not always having to play from behind. Play calling changes when you have a lead and when you need to catch up in a hurry. Drew hasn't had to press as much this year. Yet another thing working in Drew's favor this season is having a healthy Jimmy Graham to depend on.
On the whole, however, I don't think there's that much of a difference in the offense this year compared to last. They're currently ranked 3rd overall in yards per game and finished last season as the 2nd best offense. So actually, you could argue they're worse.
2. Along the same lines, how has the Saints' run game looked this season? Whenever I think about the Saints, the first thing that comes to mind is a high-octane passing game, but has the run game been a factor this year?
The run game definitely struggled during the first half of the season. A large part of the trouble was the offensive line not doing a great job blocking. The other part of the problem was the play calling; it's tougher than usual to run the ball when you don't dedicate to it and you don't make it a priority.
But things have seemed to pick up in the last few games and, again, I think that can be attributed to the better play of the offensive line and more balanced play calling. Saints fans had pretty much given up on Mark Ingram after a few highly disappointing games early this year, but since their Sunday Night Football game against the Cowboys Ingram has experienced a welcome resurgence. In the end, however, the Saints are always going to be a pass-first team. That's how Sean Payton calls it, that's their identity, and with Drew Brees slinging the ball, who could really blame them.
3. How has Rob Ryan transformed the defense? What are the main strengths and principal weaknesses that Seahawks fans should know about?
Rob Ryan brings the same defensive style that Gregg Williams did in 2009 when the Saints won the Super Bowl, which makes sense considering they both learned under Buddy Ryan. They use lots of different fronts and bring pressure from all angles to keep opponents confused. Ryan is a players coach who lets his guys use their instinct and take risks. It's just a more natural fit for this personnel. I think Ryan is also better at evaluating defensive talent than anyone the Saints have had on the staff before.
What the defense is doing well is getting to the quarterback. Not including the Week 13 Thanksgiving games the Saints were tied for first in the league with 37 total sacks. That's a ridiculous turnaround from last season, when they ranked 25th overall. That factor combined with the addition of cornerback Keenan Lewis in free agency plus the drafting of Kenny Vaccaro and the Saints have done very well shutting down the passing attack. They're also pretty good on third down. On the flip side, they're a little lacking in the run defense department.
4. How has New Orleans' rookie class fared this year? Any standout players?
This year's draft class is actually one of the best of the Sean Payton era. First round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro has been a stud as an instant starter, everything we've expected. Wide receiver Kenny Stills was a steal in the fifth round and has picked up this complicated offense incredibly quick, becoming a trusted target of Brees downfield.
Third round pick NT Jonathan Jenkins is a regular in the defensive line rotation, eating up space with his massive body. Add to that some pretty sweet pickups in undrafted free agency like tight end Josh Hill, running back Khiry Robinson, and defensive end Glenn Foster, all of whom have contributed this season, and it all equals a pretty good year for the Saints scouting department.
5. Along similar lines, are there any under-the-radar players that Seattle fans should know about that have been playing significant roles for the Saints?
There are more than a few players I could mention here, some of whom I just mentioned above. But I think I will go with cornerback Corey White. Because of an injury to Jabari Greer, White has been thrust into the starting spot. He's come on strong the past few games but opponents are likely to target his side of the field and pick on White, making his job that much tougher. I'm a little nervous about how he handles the Seahawks Monday night.