By Curt Macysyn
Never write off what a Super Bowl winning coach can do, especially when he has a Super Bowl winning quarterback in tow. While this could be a description of this season’s New York Giants (4-3), it also applies to the New Orleans Saints (3-4) this year as well. The Saints are going through a bit of an identity change this season, with All Pro tight end Jimmy Graham being shipped off to Seattle and a new found focus for defense in the Big Easy.
After a bitter loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, the Giants had to get to work early on game planning for a hungry Dallas Cowboys squad. The G-men, behind big plays by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Dwayne Harris, upended the Cowboys 27-20 at the Meadowlands to gain control of the NFC east, at least temporarily. Now, the Giants fly south to New Orleans hoping to leave with a win and maintain control of the NFC East.
The Saints So Far
The New Orleans Saints started the season with a three game losing streak and there was increased chatter about where Sean Payton’s next coaching stop would be. The chatter has died down as Payton has been able to right the ship by winning three of the last four games. After playing poorly in a 39-17 loss to Philadelphia (sound familiar?), New Orleans played their best game of the season in dispatching the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons 31-21 two weeks ago.
On Sunday, the Saints jumped out to a 27-0 lead and held on for a 27-21 victory over the Colts in Indianapolis. The win raised the Saints record to 3-4 on the season, as they continue to chase the Carolina Panthers (6-0) and Atlanta Falcons (6-1) in the ultra-competitive NFC South division. The Saints finished out of the playoff hunt last season, stumbling to a 7-9 record, just one year after going 11-5.
Saints On Offense: Cool Brees
It is strange not to see Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham leading the offensive stat line for New Orleans, but the Saints have made a commitment to become a more well-rounded squad. Trading Graham to Seattle netted the team center Max Unger, who has helped solidify the offensive line. With Thomas gone, the Saints are committed to Mark Ingram as their featured back. Ingram already has 450 rushing yards this season, as he attempt to break the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his five-year NFL career.
Free agent wideout Willie Snead leads the team in receiving with 461 receiving yards, closely followed by speedster Brandon Cooks with 444 yards. Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson has already caught 29 passes this season, which far exceeds the 20 catches he had last year with Graham around. Veteran receiver Marques Colston has been battling a shoulder injury, and he only had one catch against the Colts on Sunday. Colston has 19 grabs on the year, but has been held without a touchdown.
Quarterback Drew Brees shows no signs of slowing down at age 34. Brees completes nearly 68 percent of his passes and has accumulated 1,871 passing yards in six games. The veteran quarterback has thrown eight touchdowns, only four interceptions and has a 93.2 quarterback rating this year.
Saints On Defense: Jordan Rules
Quietly, the Saints have accumulated some first round draft picks who have banded together to form the foundation of a good defensive unit. Leading the bunch is former 2011 first round pick (24th overall) Cameron Jordan. Jordan not only leads the team with six quarterback sacks, he also is the highest rated (+30.7 grade) defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, according to Pro Football Focus.
Another first round pick, rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, has 45 total tackles, a quarterback sack and an interception to his name. The Saints secured the 31st draft selection of the first round this year, in the Jimmy Graham trade with the Seattle Seahawks. So with Unger and Anthony, the Saints appeared to have gotten value in exchange for Graham.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro was the fifteenth selection in 2013 NFL draft and many thought that he was going to be a bust after a very poor 2014 season. Vaccaro graded out as a (-18.9) according to Pro Football Focus last season, which was 85th out of 87 safeties in the NFL. This season, Vaccaro has come alive and has 44 tackles, as well as a (+2.7) grade by Pro Football Focus.
Players to Watch
After having two running backs surpass 100 yards rushing against them in successive weeks, the G-men should expect a healthy dose of Mark Ingram this week. Even if the Giants’ defense can slow down Ingram, they would still have to contend with Brees, who is much better than Sam Bradford and Matt Cassel from the previous weeks.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan is a disruptive force against the pass and run. His six sacks this season lead the team, but he also grades out well against the run (+7.7) according to Pro Football Focus. Giants’ rookie left tackle, Ereck Flowers, has been a solid addition to the offensive line, but he still is a rookie going against a player having a career year.
On paper, these two teams appear to be evenly matched, so the home field of the Superdome might bolster the chances of the Saints just a bit. The game planning will prove to be critical; can Ben McAdoo out maneuver Rob Ryan? On the other side of the coin, Sean Payton matching wits with Steve Spagnuolo should be fun to watch.
Curt Macysyn has been covering the New York Football Giants for the past four seasons for Examiner.com, and he is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). Born and raised in New Jersey, Curt attended Seton Hall Prep School in South Orange, N.J. and is a graduate of Rutgers University – New Brunswick. Follow him on Twitter @CurtMac23 for the latest NFL and New York Giants news.