THE KEY MATCHUP
The good news coming out of last Sunday's game regarding Saints MLB Jonathan Vilma wasn't the nine tackles he made against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was the fact that he played every play of the game.
Considering Vilma missed most of last season with a knee injury, and was still rehabbing that injury as late as June, that was great news for the Saints.
Vilma, who was acquired for a fourth-round draft choice, will be a big reason the Saints will improve defensively this season.
At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Vilma was mismatched in Eric Mangini's 3-4 defense. Before Mangini arrived in New York, the Jets employed a 4-3 and Vilma enjoyed two Pro Bowl caliber seasons, including 169 tackles in 2005. He played well under Mangini in 2006, but his knee injury, coupled with Mangini's desire to find larger linebackers, were the main reasons Vilma became expendable.
With the Saints, Vilma is the perfect fit in the middle of defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs' scheme. His speed makes him better able to flow through traffic to get to the bal carrier. He reads offenses well and puts his teammates in good spots to make plays. And Vilma is hitting ball carries the way he did his first two years in New York.
Vilma really came alive in the second quarter last Sunday, registering seven of his nine tackles. There may be no real significance in that statistic, other than Vilma's ability to deeply impact a section of a football game in a positive manner for the Saints.
They need that kind of impact after last year's debacle defensively.
Now, one area in which the Saints did struggle a bit was on run defense. The Saints gave up 146 rushing yards to Tampa Bay, ranking the Saints 24th on the young season. Their pass defense obviously improved, but without a stout run defense that secondary will face more pressure down the road.
That brings us to Portis.
The Redskins are installing the West Coast offense this year with first-year head coach Jim Zorn. In addition, the Redskins have a young quarterback in Jason Campbell who could use a productive ground game to take the pressure off of him.
No such thing happened last week against the New York Giants. Even though the game was close, the Redskins gained just 84 total rushing yards. Campbell competed just 15-of-27 passes for only 133 yards. The Giants' front seven kept Campbell under constant pressure throughout the game. With no ground game to keep them honest, the Giants teed off on Campbell.
Portis gained all of those 84 yards on 23 carries, a 3.7-yard average. He's known as a tough, physical runner who can find a higher gear when he gets in the open field. He's a one-cut back, meaning that he's going to find his hole, make his cut if necessary and plow ahead until someone stops him. Because of that, Portis is banged up often.
At 5-foot-11, 221 pounds, he doles out as much punishment as he takes and it has cost him playing time.
But Portis' success is extremely important to the Redskins and Campbell. They both need Portis to be productive on the ground in order to keep solid protection around Campbell. With a productive ground game, teams are less likely to blitz on first and second down. Also, the Redskins can use play action to suck in safeties and open up the middle for their talented H-back, Chris Cooley.
Without it, though, the Redskins get a game like last Thursday night. The Giants bottled up Portis nicely and saw little need to put more than six defenders in the box. That left enough defenders to blanket coverage on Campbell's receivers, frustrating the Auburn product all night.
So getting Portis into that 100-yard plateau is vital. But that plateau could be harder to come by than one thinks. Portis has had just five 100-yard games in the past two seasons. Plus, the Redskins are banged up on the offensive line, which seems like a yearly concern for a franchise knows for its "Hogs" of the 1980s.
So what can Vilma do? Track Portis the entire game. Vilma doesn't need to spy on Porter. Rather, he just needs to watch for the proper keys and help keep Portis bottled up. Portis won't change directions much, so once he makes that cut defenders know where he's going. Proper position, technique and getting to Portis at the line of scrimmage will be key.
If Vilma can do it, I don't see Portis gaining more than 75 yards on Sunday. And I see Campbell struggling all day against an improved Saints pass defense as a result.
Matthew Postins is the editor and publisher of saintsinsider.com. He can be heard every Friday between 3-4 p.m. on WNSP Sports Radio 105.5 FM in Mobile, Ala.