Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Saints 2019: Biggest Questions

            The New Orleans Saints begin their 2019 season next Monday night in the Superdome against the Houston Texans. After last year’s division title and trip to the NFC championship game, expectations in the Big Easy are high. As quarterback Drew Brees enters his age-40 season, it’s now or never for the Saints to bring home another Super Bowl title. 

            The leading projection systems are in line with fan expectations. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects New Orleans to go 10-6 with a 73% chance to make the playoffs. The Saints have the third-highest odds to win the Super Bowl (12.3%) behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots.  Football Outsides gives the Saints the best chance of winning Super Bowl LIV at 13.5%. 

            Rather than do a traditional preview, let’s look at the big questions confronting the Saints this season. The answers will determine whether New Orleans will have to add another parade to the already busy Mardi Gras season or go home again without a Super Bowl title. 

Will Drew Brees bounce back? 

            At first glance, Brees had a typical year for him—32 TD passes to only 5 INTs, a 74.4 completion percentage, and nearly 4,000 passing yards. But over the last three regular season games (Brees didn’t play in Week 17) and the Saints two playoff games, Brees was far from his usual self. His yards per attempt fell to 6.95, well below his seasonal average of 8.16. He only threw 2 TD passes against 2 INTs in 3 games. The Saints average points per game fell from nearly 30 to just over 20. In the NFC championship game Brees threw a crucial interception in overtime that resulted in the Rams victory. 

            The question facing the Saints is will Brees bounce back or was this the beginning of the end? The aging curve for 40 year old quarterbacks isn’t pretty. Remember what happened to Peyton Manning in Denver or Brett Favre in Minnesota? But look at Tom Brady in New England who is entering his age 42 season and shows no signs of slowing down. And even a diminished Brees is still better than most other quarterbacks in the NFL. In other words, who knows which Brees will show up on Monday night, but the Saints' Super Bowl hopes ride on #9. 

Will the defense be good again? 

            After years of languishing at the bottom of the league in team defense, in 2018, the New Orleans defense had their second good season in a row. In total, the Saints finished 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA defensive rankings, with the 3rd best run defense but 22nd ranked pass defense. The 2018 Saints flipped their defense ranking from 2017 when they finished 8th overall with the 5th ranked pass defense and 23rd ranked run defense. Over the last few years, New Orleans has invested significant draft capital on defense including first round picks on Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Davenport and second round picks on Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell. 

            Defensive performance, however, varies significantly from season to season. Additionally, the Saints were remarkably injury-averse in 2018, finishing 6th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost. Backup cornerback Patrick Robinson was the only significant defensive player to miss time. Injury luck also doesn’t hold over from season to season. The Saints defense may look good on paper, but if Lattimore or star pass-rusher Cameron Jordan miss time, then it will be difficult for the Saints to replicate their defensive success from past years. 

Can the Saints keep winning close games? 

            In 2018, New Orleans went 5-1 in games decided by six points or less. Performance in one score games varies from year to year because it depends on just a handful of plays to break one way or another. Against Cleveland in Week 2, Will Lutz hit a 44 yard field goal with 21 seconds left in the game to win the game for the Saints 21-18. Against Atlanta in Week 3, the Saints had to drive down the field and tie the game 37-37 with 1:15 left in regulation before winning in overtime. Only a missed extra point by the normally reliable Ravens Justin Tucker prevented a 24-24 tie that would have likely gone to overtime. Against Pittsburgh in Week 16, Brees led the Saints on a game winning TD drive and left the Steelers with just 1:25 left on the clock. This season, all those plays might not go the Saints way.  

            Last season, the Saints went 13-3, had homefield advantage in the NFC, and hosted the NFC title game. In order to reach that point, a lot had to go right for the Saints—a good defense, health, and luck mostly—and New Orleans will need those to happen again to give Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and the people of the Crescent City their second Super Bowl title.  

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