John Crist: If there's a matchup within a matchup I'm really interested to see Thursday, it's a short quarterback in Drew Brees – generously listed at 6-0 – facing a Chicago defensive line that does a great job of batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. Rex Grossman never could figure out how to find those throwing lanes. Does Brees ever have this problem?
Matthew Postins: No, Brees doesn't have a problem finding throwing lanes. In fact, his offensive line has done a stellar job protecting him all season. Brees has been sacked only 10 times, and he's just elusive enough to avoid at least the first rusher that gets through the line. Most of his 14 picks, in my opinion, have come when he's been forced into throwing a pass he doesn't want to, and that usually happens when the secondary does a great job of blanketing his receivers. That has less to do with pressure.
The Saints O-Line does a good job pushing defenders off the line and picking up blitzing linebackers. Brees' passes usually have more than enough room to clear the line of scrimmage. The Bears can try, and they may get lucky once, but don't expect it to happen often on Thursday.
JC: Reggie Bush, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, is 6-0 and 205 pounds. Pierre Thomas, an undrafted free agent last year, is 5-11 and 215 pounds. Bush hasn't had much success running the ball between the tackles at the NFL level, while Thomas seemingly has – in the same offense. What is Bush doing wrong, and what is Thomas doing right?
MP: Bush has happy feet. He really just wants to bust the handoff outside, dance around and find a hole. That may have worked in college, but in the NFL every defender is fast and running east-west doesn't work nearly as well. You'll notice that when Bush does have success – such as his touchdown run last week – it comes when he runs off-tackle and accepts the hole that opens up for him. The problem is he doesn't do it often enough and chooses to bounce outside. Thomas is more of a north-south type of runner who will accept that hole and take the two or three yards instead of trying to break a long gain. In doing so, like he did last week against Atlanta, it leads to longer gains later in the game. Thomas ended up gaining more than 100 yards because of the great north-south running he did early in the game, which led to bigger holes in the fourth quarter.
It comes down to mentality. Bush is a game-breaker and he knows it, and he wants to break that big play every time he touches the ball. When he breaks it, he looks great. When he doesn't, he looks, well, like a regular back. He's a feast-or-famine player who sometimes lacks patience with what's developing in front of him. That's why Thomas' emergence is so important. He's the new Deuce McAllister. Don't be surprised if Thomas has better numbers than Bush in the season's final four weeks because Thomas is more than willing to wait for the hole to open up.
JC: Brees keeps compiling amazing numbers with a rotating cast of characters at all of the skill positions. Bush, Thomas, or McAllister lining up behind him. Marques Colston missed lots of time. Robert Meachem has amounted to nothing despite being a first-rounder. Jeremy Shockey has been – shocking! – hurt again. But who is the most indispensible right now?
MP: It's the guy you didn't list – Lance Moore. When Colston and Shockey went down to injury early in the season, everyone thought Meachem would step up. Turns out it was Moore who filled the void and became Brees' go-to receiver. Moore leads the Saints in receptions, yards and touchdown catches and hasn't been slowed by Colston's return. Brees is relying upon Moore to make tough catches late in games, a role that Colston held last year. This isn't to say that Moore is replacing Colston – he's still the man long-term. But Moore's emergence as a solid No. 2 will only help Colston in 2009 and beyond, as teams will be less able to double-team him.
It took two years to replace Joe Horn, but the Saints appear to finally have their replacement.
JC: Some teams continue to have all kinds of problems at the same positions year after year, like, say, the Bears at quarterback the last half a century or so. The Saints haven't been able to cover anybody in the secondary for quite a while, and they're currently 26th in the league defending the pass yet again. What has been the underlying issue there?
MP: I think it's two things. First, the Saints' pass rush did not improve any from last year. Their sack leader, Bobby McCray (6.0) is a free-agent pickup. Their studs, Will Smith and Charles Grant, have 6.0 combined. Plus, Grant is hurt and Smith may not play this week if his suspension is upheld. Considering the financial outlay to Smith and Grant, they're seriously underperforming. Second, the secondary leaks. Even with new additions like Randall Gay and Tracy Porter, the Saints still have the same issue: covering receivers deep. They're among the worst in the league in giving up receptions of 20 or more yards, a year after being tied for worst in the NFL in giving up receptions of 40 or more yards.
The weird part is there's talent in that secondary, and it leads me to believe that it could be defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs' scheme, rather than talent, that's holding this unit back. There's little noise yet about coaching changes, and I believe that the Saints defense is a two- or three-year fix-it project. But Gibbs could be looking for work next year, especially if the Saints finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs and need a scapegoat. Saints fans won't be blaming the offense.
JC: While the Bears probably need to win out to keep their flickering division title hopes alive, New Orleans is still scratching for a wild card berth. How do the Saints stand with the other contenders in terms of record, head to head, and all the other tiebreakers that come into play? And just how much does a win Thursday help them?
MP: At 7-6, I think the Saints pretty much have to win out to earn a wild card berth. Even with their 7-6 record, they're last in the NFC South, a game back of Atlanta and two back of Tampa Bay. Carolina is out of reach at 10-3. The Saints can't do much to help themselves the rest of the way, at least in terms of NFC South play. They have only one divisional game left against Carolina in Week 17. The reason I think the Saints must finish 10-6 to even entertain a wild card berth is the fact that seven teams in the NFC have at least eight victories.
So let's say the Saints do win 10 games. Can they make the postseason? It's going to be awfully tough. A victory over Chicago would help in case of a head-to-head tiebreaker. A victory over Carolina in Week 17 won't mean much, really. The Saints would finish 7-5 in the NFC, and that's the tiebreaker to watch if they're in the wild card hunt. Right now, Tampa Bay – currently the No. 5 playoff seed – has three conference losses. The rest of the five teams in front of New Orleans have four conference losses. The Saints won't win any head-to-head divisional tiebreakers because, at best, they'll be 3-3 in division and at least either Atlanta or Tampa Bay will be 3-3 as well. The Saints split with both. They may still be the No. 4 team in their division at 10-6, and if that's the case then there's no way they make the postseason.
That's why conference record will be key in a wild card tiebreaker. If head to head doesn't break the tie, then conference winning percentage does in the case of three or more teams tied for a wild card berth. And I just don't see the Saints sitting at 10-6 by themselves come Dec. 28. There are too many factors to consider to believe the Saints will make the playoffs. But it remains a mathematical possibility.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part II
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