When you think of the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, you immediately think of offense. As Chris pointed out earlier this week, defending Drew Brees and his deep ball is a huge challenge for Rob Ryan's improved defense.
But the Saints haven't been putting up the yards and points that they did last year. I've heard theories from Super Bowl hangover to Reggie Bush's presense makes everyone better. Neither of these seem very plausible to me. Brees and Sean Payton are too professional to have any serious level of let down. And Bush, well, I am not convinced he is good enough to make the difference between average and great. I've always thought he was overrated. More Dante Hall than Marshall Faulk, if you will.
But regardless, the Saints are still a good and maybe great team. In a conference where no team is running away with battle for divisions or best records, New Oreleans sits at 4-2 and coming off their best offensive performance of the year, and playing the 1-5 Browns. It doesn't look good, but let's look a little deeper and see what we find in this matchup.
When the Saints have the Ball
Again, everyone should read Chris' piece on this part of the game. Especially the passing game, where Brees' vertical passing game seems especially promising for the Saints against a Browns team that have allowed less-skilled QBs to conect on huge passes. Chris' article also reminded me of the pure number of weapons Brees has at his disposal. Nobody should be shocked if Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, or Robert Meachem had a 125 Yd, 2 TD game tomorrow. I don't know if any of them are household names, but they each are good enough to make plays and Brees is great enough to get the ball to any of them if they are the slightest bit open. (In comparison, the Browns may have Carlton Mitchell as their #2 option). Add a decent TE like Jeremy Shockey, and you have an incredible amount of options for a QB that is probably the most consistently precise passer that I have ever seen. Overall, the Saints rank 8th in offensive DVOA, 14% better than average and the Browns defense ranks 26th, 11% worse than average.
Whatever the reason for the relative lack of scoring for the Saints this year, it isn't Drew Brees. Brees is 4th in DVOA and 3rd in DYAR among QBs this year. And even though Brees spreads the ball around like no other, Saints receivers are amongst the leaders: Meachem is 2nd in DVOA (45.2%!) and 14th in DYAR, Moore is 12th in DVOA, Colston and Henderson are also above average. The Browns have been terrible defending passes to first-string receivers all year. In fact, it is probably the biggest weakness on the team by these numbers (matched probably by our own WR's output).
The Saints have been hit with injuries at the RB position. While they used Bush sparingly last year from scrimmage, they have also have had to deal without starting RB Pierre Thomas, who was the #1 RB on a per rush play basis last year (26%). Chris Ivory, an undrafted rookie, has filled in nicely, having a breakout game last week and a respectable 10% DVOA in his limited number of carries. The Browns rush defense is 11th in the league at -10%.
With Bush and Thomas out this week, and given the Browns defense, look for Brees to pass early and often.
When the Browns have the ball
The Saints have won some low scoring games this year. They have held the Bucs and the Vikings to under 10 points. And they beat Carolina 16-14. Overall they are 17th in DVOA, exactly average (0%).
The Saints are 19th in pass defense, despite being in the top 10 against #1 and #2 WRs. They struggle against TEs and RBs out of the backfield (23rd and 24th, respectively). Given the fact that Evan Moore, Ben Watson, and Peyton Hillis are likely to get more targets than our injured and awful WR corps anyway, this is a very good sign. Colt McCoy is the QB for the second week in a row. And despite playing with limited weapons, injuries that forced a change in gameplan, and playing the best defense on the planet in his first NFL game, he looked pretty good. Even with 2 INTs that were only partially his fault, his DVOA is 10% above average... that's right Browns fans, we have an above average QB! (Actually Seneca Wallace is about 20%, so we've had an above average QB most of the year). McCoy would rank 15th in DVOA if he qualified and he already is the 25th most valuable passer in the league this year. He has also shown that he is an effective scrambler.
Peyton Hillis remains a central part of our offense. Overall, he is the 18th most effective runner in the league. And he is the 3rd most valuable receiver out of the backfield. The Saints are good against the run, 10% better than average, good for 10th in the league. This will be a good challenge for the offensive line.
The Saints rank 19th in Special teams. Here is where they miss Bush. Their return units have been quite average. While their punt team has been very good, the FG unit has gone back and forth between two kickers that have struggled. Its the worst FG unit in the league. The Browns have improved to 12th, still lead by their coverage units, but dragged down by their return teams.
Thoughts and Conclusions
I actually think we stay in this game. It is a good matchup for the offense, and while Brees will score, I think we will too, for a half, anyways.