The Ravens enter week 11 after having their bye against a Saints team that is currently on a two game losing streak at home. The Ravens, having been bad on the road this season, look to right their ship and rack up win number seven on Monday Night Football. I sat down with Jean-Rene Ella from Canal Street Chronicles to discuss the Saints and exactly what the Ravens will be facing on Monday.
Q1: Brees has had some consistency issues over this year. While still one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year, his play has seemingly dropped off as one of the top 3 guys in the NFL. Is it a matter of scheme, not enough weapons around Brees or is Brees finally becoming human?
A: The case of Drew Brees this year has been a bit of an enigma. As you stated, he is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league: (8th in QB rating at 95.9, 6th in total QBR at 73.5 and 9th with a DVOA of 17.9%). On the other hand, he already has thrown 10 interceptions through 10 games and has turned the ball over in all but one game. The main issue is that with the Saints’ defense being as bad as it has been, Brees has forced a lot of throws, trying to win games by himself. He has developed a sort of "Brett Favre Syndrome," thinking himself invincible, flipping the ball up with defenders draped all over him, trying to make plays where there aren’t any to be made. So I guess the answer is Brees has definitely become more human this year. He had similarly average years in 2007, 2008 and 2012, all years in which the Saints had bad defenses and missed the playoffs. If his subpar play continues in 2015, then we might start wondering if Drew Brees has started the slow descent into Father Time’s abyss.
Q2: The Ravens have been the toast of the town throughout the season because of their rushing attack. However, the Saints actually have more yards rushing on fewer attempts this season. What is the key to stopping a high powered rushing attack from the Saints?
A: As hard to believe as it is, New Orleans’ running game has been better than its passing game this year. The biggest factor (literally) for the Saints’ success running the ball has been the offensive line. Football Outsiders has New Orleans’ O-line ranked 2nd in the NFL in run blocking efficiency, behind only the Dallas Cowboys. However, one thing has been the Achilles’ heel of the Saints running game: The number of rushing attempts. While a team like the Cowboys is fifth in the NFL with 315 rushes, the Saints are 14th in the league with 275 on the season. Head coach Sean Payton has shown a tendency to quickly abandon the run if it isn’t successful early. So for the Ravens, there are two ways to thwart the Saints running game: a) stack the box early and force the Saints to pass. Despite Baltimore’s secondary being somewhat undermanned, Brees has shown that he’ll throw the ball to the other team this year. b) Get up on the scoreboard early and Payton is likely to try and get back in the game solely relying on the right arm of his quarterback.
Q3: The Saints are known for having Jimmy Graham, one of the best tight ends as a receiver in the league right now. How can the Ravens slow him down?
A: Jimmy Graham is a force of nature when it comes to size, strength, quickness and pass-catching ability. Not so much when it comes to mental toughness. When a physical linebacker or cornerback frustrates him early by denying him touches and mugging him at the line of scrimmage, he will at times drift out of the game mentally and lose his focus. Another key against Graham will be to constantly put a safety over the top and double-cover him on medium to deep routes. Brees will often throw to his top tight end even in traffic, increasing the chances of interceptions for the defense.
Q4: The Saints defense has given up the 12th most points per game in the league. What is the biggest weakness that the Ravens can exploit?
A: Oh boy, how much time do you have? Alright: the biggest weakness is the secondary and it’s unfortunately close, because the Saints defense simply hasn’t been very good at any level in 2014. The front four is average, the linebacking corps is average and the secondary is below average. Exploiting the cornerbacks and safeties is where the Ravens will find the most success however. Top cornerback Keenan Lewis has been stellar this year, alas he has a bum knee and even if he plays, he’ll be limited in what he can do. The other cornerback spot is a "free-for-all" buffet of veteran Patrick Robinson and second-year man Corey White, both of whom have been toys for opposing quarterbacks this year. At the safety position, second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro has been average but also the victim of the poor cornerback play. Vaccaro’s counterpart Rafael Bush broke his fibula last week against the Bengals and is now out of the year. Bush will be replaced by a combination of Pierre Warren who was plucked from the Vikings’ practice squad and Jamarca Sanford whom the Saints recently signed off the street after he was released by Washington. If Joe Flacco isn’t doing cartwheels right now it’s probably just to avoid getting himself injured.
Q5: Brandin Cooks was a guy that a lot of Ravens fans wanted to draft this year and it seems to have been justified. Unfortunately, he is out on the year with a broken thumb after leading the Saints wide receivers in yards and receptions. How much does that hurt this offense and is Marques Colston still able to be that premier guy for Brees and the saints?
A: The loss of Brandin Cooks is a big blow for the Saints offense. Cooks had 53 catches for 550 yards and three touchdowns. Such production simply can’t be easily replaced. New Orleans however has a few options to try and compensate for the loss of Cooks, including one that had been missing for a while. It all starts with tight end Jimmy Graham, who has 59 catches for 623 yards and seven touchdowns on the year. Wide receiver Marques Colston is having a down year, but with 34 receptions for 536 yards and a touchdown, he’ll still be a factor for Drew Brees. Second-year receiver Kenny Stills is one player to watch, with 31 receptions for 431 yards and two touchdowns. The option that Brees will have at his disposal that may make the biggest difference is running back Pierre Thomas. Thomas is probable to play on Monday night after being out the past four games with rib and shoulder injuries. Thomas already had 26 catches for 204 yards and a touchdown prior to being sidelined. Throughout his career with the Saints, Thomas has been Brees’ favorite safety valves on passing plays.
Q6: What is your prediction for the game?
A: At this point of the season, I believe the Ravens are undoubtedly a better team than the Saints. They have the better defense and that’s usually how you win games in the NFL. However, I see a few factors playing in New Orleans’ favor in this one: under Sean Payton/Drew Brees, the Saints have been excellent in the Superdome despite their current two-game home losing streak. New Orleans has also won 14 consecutive primetime games at home. After losing their last two home-games, I expect the Saints to show up with a "do-or-die" attitude to avoid going 0-3 on their three-game home stand. Lastly, I think Drew Brees finally ends his 0-3 losing streak against the Ravens as an NFL starting quarterback. The way I see this one going is Baltimore getting up 7-0 or 10-0 early, the Saints clawing back to tie the game and eventually taking the lead for good late in the second half for a narrow win. I’ll go with a 24-20 score in favor of New Orleans.