Bill Huber: What's the state of the Saints after a five-week stretch of three road games, a "home" game in London and the bye week?
Matthew Postins: It's not good. The Saints are faltering thanks to injuries, an ineffective run game and a defense that did not improve markedly from a year ago. Last week's game with Kansas City was make or break, and they won. But I don't have much confidence in their ability to make the postseason. They still face three divisional games -- and they're looking up at all of them, despite being 5-5.
And there's still the looming specter of potential suspensions for RB Deuce McAllister and DE Will Smith, due to potential violation of the NFL's steroid policy. The third potential suspension, DE Charles Grant, went on IR two weeks ago. It's been that kind of season for the Saints.
BH: Is this the week Reggie Bush finally returns from arthroscopic knee surgery? And what have the Saints missed from a guy who at one time was one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league but, at the same time, has to be considered at least something of a disappointment?
MP: It should be this week. It's been four weeks since he suffered the injury, which is just about right for his recovery time. It's likely he'll be close to 100 percent, and the Saints need his explosiveness. He's been a mixed bag this year. He's put together some great individual plays, including punt returns for TDs and a big game in September. But he lacks consistency as a running back and is proving to be more fragile than the Saints expected when he was drafted second overall. It lends credence to the assertion that Bush will be nothing more than a 10-15 touch guy in the NFL. That's fine given Bush's natural talents, if they have the right back to counterpoint him.
When McAllister is healthy, he can do that. When he's not, Bush's overall rushing numbers suffer. He may end up becoming a latter-day Eric Metcalf: a great pass-receiving back and returner who can occasionally get you a big game as a running back. Given what the Saints are paying him, that's not enough.
BH: What a matchup: Saints quarterback Drew Brees is on a record-setting pace. The Packers' pass defense ranks third in the league and is a big-play machine. How do you see this key matchup shaking out?
MP: Brees is having a fantastic season, but it's really out of necessity. The Saints can't consistently run the football, so they have to rely on Brees' arm to produce yards, first downs and points. So, yes, Brees' numbers are gaudy. He's on a pace to match last year's career high of 28 touchdowns. He's also on pace to match last year's career high of 18 interceptions. He's still deadly accurate, but because he's throwing the ball 40 times per game he's prone to make more mistakes. He forced a few throws against Kansas City last week, one of which resulted in an interception.
Brees will be a top-five QB in this league for at least the next five years. But the Packers, who have shown a propensity for turning pickoffs into touchdowns this season, could feast on Brees if the game stays close and his attempts creep into the 40s, which I can almost guarantee you will happen.
BH: The Saints were something of a chic pick before the season, but they still are seeking their first two-game winning streak of the year. What's gone wrong in New Orleans? Is it as simple as a great offense isn't good enough to overcome a bad defense?
MP: The defense did not improve nearly as much as the Saints anticipated this offseason. The only move they made that really meant something to the defense was the Jonathan Vilma trade. The rest of the moves, like drafting DT Sedrick Ellis -- he's been hurt for much of October -- and DB Tracy Porter and signing DE Bobby McCray have proved to be a wash. Injuries, especially to CB Mike McKenzie, have sapped the Saints of depth.
The Saints are what they were last year: decent at stopping the run but a real liability in pass defense, especially on routes of 20 or more yards. I'm sure the Packers have seen that on film. The Saints' ineffective running game has played a role, too. But the Saints lost three games by 10 points early this season, and most of that could be traced to a defense that faltered late in games.
BH: The Saints are 3-1 at the Superdome with the only loss coming to Minnesota, a game in which Bush returned two punts for touchdowns and the Saints held Adrian Peterson to about 1.5 yards per carry. How big of a dome-field advantage do the Saints enjoy?
MP: It's noisy, I'll tell you that. It's probably the biggest issue opposing teams face. The Saints sell out and they aren't quiet in the Big Easy. The Packers have to get an early lead to quiet the crowd. The worst-case scenario is seeing the Saints score early and getting the crowd revved up.
Plus, the lighting has never been that great. Of all the domes I've been in, it's probably the poorest lit, and I think that's something that opposing teams -- especially those that make their home outside -- have difficulty adjusting to. The Packers should have less trouble with that since they play in domes in Minnesota and Detroit every year.
To read Part II of this three-part series, where Bill answers five questions from Matthew, Click Here.
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