Preview: Offense strong, defense suspect

The Saints are 0-2, mainly because their defense has been giving up yards generously. We take a position-by-position look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Saints.

To look simply at the standings, the 1-1 Vikings would look to be an even match with the 0-2 Saints. But games aren’t played on paper and 0-2 means much less for New Orleans than it does for the other six teams that started the season 0-2. Both of their losses came on the road.

In terms of the Saints, that means nothing. Last year, the Saints made the playoffs with a record of 11-5. They were 3-5 on the road and 8-0 under the roof of the Mercedes Benz Superdome. As they have their home opener Sunday, the Vikings will be the first team to try to break the Saints’ ongoing winning streak at home and, with the team desperate to get rid of the zero in the win column, this has the type of must-win feel that typically brings out the best of the Saints when they’re enjoying home cooking.

The clear face of the Saints franchise is quarterback Drew Brees. In his 14th NFL season and his ninth with the Saints, Bees has never thrown for less than 4,300 yards, has thrown for 5,100 or more in each of the last three seasons and hasn’t thrown for less than 33 touchdowns in each of the last six years, including 128 TDs over the last three seasons. He is a Hall of Famer and nobody will be more critical for the Vikings defense to stop. If he isn’t pressured, Brees can pick a defense apart, so it will be imperative that he not have the time to throw, because he has too many weapons at his disposal.

Most people don’t view the Saints as having a strong running game, but they use the run about as well as most NFL teams. Last season, the Saints had more rushing attempts than their opponents and, through two games this season, New Orleans running backs have been averaging 5.7 yards a carry. Their primary back. The team’s leading rusher, Mark Ingram, suffered a broken bone in his hand last week and won’t be in the lineup. But the Saints still have veteran Pierre Thomas and bruising youngster Khiry Robinson to pick up the slack. Robinson is more of a between-the-tackles player while Thomas is more of a receiving threat, but can be a three-down back. The Vikings may be catching a break with Ingram out of the lineup, but Robinson, Thomas and Travaris Cadet can all get the job done, so there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off.

One of the things that makes the passing game so dangerous is that there are so many weapons at Brees’ disposal. They have five wide receivers who are all potentially big-play threats. Veteran Marques Colston has been a favorite target of Brees, especially in the red zone, and he is surrounded by an impressive group of young players with game-changing ability, including explosive first-round rookie Brandin Cooks, veteran Robert Meachem and young vets Kenny Stills, Nick Toon and Joseph Morgan. They all play a role in the offense, but none of them are as important as tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham has almost twice as many receptions (18) and yards (200) as any other receiver on the team through the first two games and has two of the three touchdown receptions. The Vikings may try to take away Graham, but, if they do, the Saints have other weapons who can take advantage of single coverage.

The unheralded heart of the Saints offense is a veteran offensive line that is strong across the board. The only young player on the roster is 2013 third-round pick Terron Armstead. The rest of the line is comprised of strong veterans, including guards Ben Grubbs (8th year), Jahri Evans (9th year), center Jonathan Goodwin (13th season) and right tackle (9th season). The group doesn’t have a lot of remaining time together given their age, but they do have as strong a group as there is in the NFC for the short-term and it is critical to the success of the offense.

The Saints offense has been one of the most potent in the NFL for years and, whether it has been a result of being on the field so often, the Saints defense has been one of the statistically worst in the league. Through two games this season, opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 652 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 104.9. Despite boasting that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is one of the best at his job in the league, the New Orleans defense has been susceptible to getting burned far too often.

The Saints have a young, active defensive front highlighted by former first-round pick Cameron Jordan, the son of former Viking Steve Jordan, along with nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley and defensive end Akiem Hicks. Depth is very thin and inexperienced, so they need to be on the field for most plays for the defense to be effective.

The key to any 3-4 defense is to have a very strong linebacker corps. The Saints don’t have an elite group, but they have question marks and injuries. The team brought in free agents Curtis Lofton and Parys Haralson last year, two players who are solid performers, but their former teams made little effort to lock them down with contracts before they hit free agency. Junior Galette is a solid pass rusher and is decent in coverage. David Hawthorne is a strong inside linebacker, but he won’t play Sunday, which will push unproven Kyle Knox and/or veteran Ramon Humber into the starting lineup. If this group doesn’t have a better day than it has had the first two weeks, the Vikings will try to take advantage of it both with the run and the pass.

The secondary is stronger than most give it credit for, largely because they’re victimized by the lack of a pass rush that gives QBs the chance to allow deep plays to develop. At cornerback, the Saints have a pair of solid veterans in Patrick Robinson and Keenan Lewis, as well as young, improving corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste. All of them are very capable corners who can play man coverage, which is a Ryan defensive staple. But they take chances and will get burned too often as a result. At safety, former top pick Kenny Vaccaro and veteran free agent Jairus Byrd are a dominant set of safeties, with former starter Rafael Bush providing depth. With the talent the Saints have in the secondary, it can be a strength of the defense and, if the Saints are to reverse their fortunes this season, this group will likely lead the charge.

The Saints are a team with a 0-2 record in desperate need of a win. But when they play in the Superdome they are a different team. Despite their deficiencies at some key spots, for the Vikings to beat New Orleans they may have to play a near-error-free game. Don’t let their record fool you. The Saints are at home and few teams have proved harder to beat in the dome than New Orleans … just ask the Vikings who have played there before.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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