For as long as Drew Brees and Sean Payton have been in New Orleans, the Saints have been an offensive force. That’s never been in question and it won’t be this season. New Orleans is seventh in yards per drive and seventh in points per drive. This will easily be the Giants’ toughest matchup on defense through four weeks. Let’s take a look at what to watch for on that side of the ball:
By the numbers
For more information on what these numbers mean, go here, and play with some of them yourself here.
Pick your poison
Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara. Pick which one you want to stop as a defense and you’ve chosen poorly because the other will kill you anyway. Thomas has turned into one of the league’s best wide receivers. He leads the league in receptions (38) and receiving yards (398) while catching 95 percent of his targets. NINETY-FIVE.
Thomas isn’t a deep threat, but he can win in any intermediate area and still has the ability to work his way open behind defenders. Janoris Jenkins had to cover DeAndre Hopkins last week, but Thomas might be his toughest test of the season. Jenkins has struggled as the No. 1 cornerback this season — he’s 52nd among 65 qualified cornerbacks in yards allowed per pass and 43rd in success rate, per Football Outsiders. The Giants are also 27th in DVOA against opposing No. 1 receivers.
Then there’s Kamara, who is as much — or bigger — a threat as a receiver as he is from the backfield. Kamara third in the league in receptions and leads the league in yards from scrimmage (430). There’s no place on the field where Kamara isn’t a threat to make a big play. He can break a run play on any handoff, he can win from the slot, and as an outside receiver.
What really makes this duo dangerous is when they’re lined up beside each other in the passing game. The Saints have done a great job creating route concepts that use Kamara and Thomas on the same side of the field in empty sets. This puts a possibly unrivaled amount of stress on a defense when trying to figure out how to defend it.
Even when they’re not used together, the Saints know how to find a mismatch. When the Saints played the Los Angeles Rams last season, they picked on Alec Ogletree and that didn’t turn out too well for the current Giants linebacker.
Alvin Kamara vs Alec Ogletree is not a fair fight pic.twitter.com/YfcwfDEadK— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) November 27, 2017
One of the concerns about the Giants defense was how much pressure they could create without — and even with — Olivier Vernon on the field. The pass rush was non-existent against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it got a little better against the Dallas Cowboys, and the Giants were in the backfield so often against the Houston Texans they might have been asked to pitch in for rent. All things combined, the Giants are fourth in defensive pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions.
It hasn’t just been one player stepping up to fill the void — it’s been everyone. Kareem Martin is tied for eighth among defenders in pass pressures, per SIS, and he took over the game against Houston with four quarterback hits. Connor Barwin is tied for 11th. Kerry Wynn is tied for 18th. There’s been pressure coming from all over.
However, the Saints have been one of the best teams at preventing pressure this season. New Orleans ranks 10th in pressure rate allowed and Drew Brees has the fifth-lowest sack rate among quarterbacks. Brees also has the third-quickest average time to throw among quarterbacks this season. It’s hard to pressure Brees and that’s by design. When he pressured, though, Brees is one of the best at handling it. Set aside for a second that quarterback rating is bad and splitting it into smaller samples is worse — Brees has been one of the best quarterbacks this season against the blitz — something the Giants do quite a bit of.
Secondary weapons against the secondary
Thomas and Kamara are good — but so are the receiving options behind the, Ted Ginn has been rejuvenated in a role that allows him to get the ball on screens, create after the catch, and also still get open down the field. Cam Meredith is a good receiver at full health — he only has one target this season, but that went for a touchdown. Tre’Quan Smith has the ability to be the deep threat in the offense as his role grows. There’s also Ben Watson, the 38-year-old tight end who is fourth on the team in targets and has nearly identical numbers to Ginn through three games.
Watson can still beat linebackers down the field and with Brees throwing the ball, it doesn’t really matter if he’s all the way open.
With Eli Apple out again, those secondary receivers will be seeing a lot of B.W. Webb and Donte Deayon. Ask Will Fuller if he’d take those matchups again. The Giants are 13th in DVOA against opposing No. 2 receivers (that was second in the first two games with Apple) and 29th against “other” receivers with spans No. 3s to the end of the roster.
Play-action and read-option remain problems
The Giants have not handling the zone read well this season and that’s not going to be a problem against Drew Brees, though it might when Taysom Hill takes over. The Saints showed against the Falcons they weren’t hesitant to put their backup quarterback/special teams contributor in at quarterback to run some option plays on third downs and in the red zone. Hill had three carries against Atlanta for 39 yards. He Had a two-yard gain on third-and-2 from the Atlanta 10-yard line. A two-yard gain on a second-and-10 and a 35-yard run on a third-and-2 from the New Orleans 45.
Don’t be surprised if the Saints whip this out against a defense that showed in the first two games how they struggled against the read option — it would have been three games if Houston coaches had any rational game planning.
However, the deception the Giants should really be concerned about is play-action. The Saints don’t run a lot of it (28th in play-action rate), because they don’t always need to because of how good the passing offense already is — their 7.9 yards per attempt on non-play-action passes ranks seventh. But even though the Saints are just average by play-action yards per play (15th) their 8.2 yards per play is still higher than their total without it. That’s a concern for a Giants team that has seen the seventh-highest rate of play-action run against them (28 percent) and has allowed the seventh-highest yards per play (10.0) on play-action passes.