Each week we check in with our opponent’s blog under the SB Nation umbrella. This week, we ordered up a Sazerac and a big bowl of gumbo with Chris Dunnells of Canal Street Chronicles in advance of Bears vs. Saints.
Windy City Gridiron: After getting embarrassed by Sam Bradford (yikes) and Tom Brady in the first 2 weeks, it looked like the same ole Saints defense was going to torpedo another year in the HOF career of Drew Brees. Since week 3, the defense has seemed to put it together and has helped this team to a division leading 4-2 record. Is this defensive rejuvenation down in the Big Easy the real deal?
Canal Street Chronicles: There are a lot of things in play when looking at the turnaround from the Saints defense. First, you have to keep in mind the luck the Saints had in the timing of their games. They played a fully healthy Minnesota and New England, and then had a bunch of luck fall into place. They faced a dinged-up Cam Newton and the Panthers while he was still obviously struggling with his shoulder. Then they played the Ghost of Broadcasting Future in Jay Cutler when the Miami Dolphins were playing in London and still reeling from the aftermath of a major hurricane. Then they played a Detroit Lions team where Matthew Stafford was Questionable in practice the entire week leading up to the game and the Lions offensive line had lost two starters the week before. Then last week they got to play a Green Bay Packers team in Lambeau that would normally sound like an automatic loss, but instead of Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Saints defense faced off against Brett Hundley making his first NFL start. I don't think it's a complete coincidence that the Saints defense has looked better at the same time the Saints schedule has tilted more favorably, but at the same time, the Saints have made noticeable personnel changes in between Weeks 2-4 that coincided with the Saints change in defensive play. After starting the first two games, CB De'Vante Harris was benched after poor performance (to say the least) for Ken Crawley, who has played very well since being named a starter. Another CB, PJ Williams, was benched for disciplinary matters and has yet to see the field again, with the aforementioned Crawley and Safety Kenny Vaccaro stepping into his role. The Saints then lost rookie LB Alex Anzalone to season-ending injury and were forced to place 2016-starter Craig Robertson back into the starting Linebacker rotation. These moves, along with continued growth from the young players around them, have helped the Saints defense take advantage of the easier schedule they've seen the past few weeks. Because regardless of luck - which every team needs a little bit of - it still takes a good team to take advantage of a favorable match-up and get the win.
WCG: Sticking with defense, most fans know the name Cameron Jordan, who has emerged as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Who are some more unknown players that are emerging on this defense that Bears fans should watch out for?
CSC: He's starting to make more and more headlines as the season goes on, but I'll have to go with 2017 1st Round Pick CB Marshon Lattimore. He consistently grades out by PFF as one of the best Cornerbacks in the NFL each week - not just rookies, ALL Cornerbacks. Obviously just 6 games into his professional career you are hesitant to start anointing any rookie, but Lattimore looks like he could be a true lock-down Corner and has already put opposing QBs in a position where they try to stay away from whichever WR he is matched up on. To give you one more, I'll pick veteran DE Alex Okafor, who the Saints signed this offseason to rush the passer opposite Cam Jordan. Through 6 games, he has 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 passes defended, and 23 combined tackles. He's been a solid addition for the Saints this year, and on one-year $2 million dollar contract, he's provided value above his cost.
WCG: Drew Brees's historically amazing numbers are down just a tick this year. He's projected out to finish somewhere in the 4,400 yard, 30 TD range, which, to be clear, is ridiculous I'm calling them down but they are noticeably off from his annual flirtation with 5,000 and 40. Is this a reflection of the running game starting to figure things out, missing Brandin Cooks, or is there just a touch of rust starting to show on the phenomenal Drew Brees?
CSC: It's really hard to say, but I'm fairly dismissive of the Brandin Cooks reason. Brandin Cooks is a great NFL player, but Ted Ginn Jr's production with the Saints this season cannot be overlooked. He has more than stepped in for the Saints and helped pick up the slack left behind after the Cooks trade. I think a portion of it goes back to the schedule. For instance, the Miami Dolphins have an incredibly underrated defense this year, and Brees was "only" able to throw for 268 yards and 2 TDs. Compare that to the Week 2 matchup against the New England Patriots, who have one of the weaker defenses thus far, and Brees threw for 356 yards (granted, some of that came in garbage time when the game was already well in-hand for the Patriots). The Vikings and Lions have tough secondary’s, while the Packers game was played in its entirety during the rain. These next few weeks and matchups will be very telling of any potential issues (maybe Father Time is slowly creeping in?) with Brees. But to your point, I think another set of factors would be the team around him. In the Carolina game, the Saints defense forced three turnovers and kept the Panthers from moving the ball up and down the field. This led to shorter fields and less work reliance on Drew's arm. Likewise, in the Detroit game, the Saints defense scored 3 times and the Saints running game (in their first game without Adrian Peterson), finally started to show life. When the Saints find success moving the ball on the ground (like against Detroit and Green Bay), again, the Saints won’t be forced to have Drew sling the ball around.
WCG: I have to ask about rookie Running Back Alvin Kamara. With the Adrian Peterson experiment over, the Kamara - Mark Ingram tandem looks like a completely natural 1-2 punch for Drew Brees. Just how good is Kamara and is he the Darren Sproles-type character you've been missing?
CSC: Honestly, it looks like the sky is the limit for Kamara. His role with the Saints right now is that Darren Sproles/Reggie Bush type you alluded to, but it can eventually be so much more than that. Darren Sproles is 5'6 and 190 lbs. He ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at his combine. His role in the NFL is as a quick, shifty player who you want to get the ball to in space and let him run. We don't need to pigeon-hole Kamara into that role this early. When people ask if Ingram and Kamara can be like Sproles and Pierre Thomas, no one is thinking about Mark Ingram in the Sproles role. Granted, I'm not saying that's Ingram's place either, but hear me out: Ingram and Kamara are both 5'10, 215 lbs. Based off 40-yard dash times, Ingram (4.53) is actually slightly faster than Kamara (4.56). The major difference here is Kamara is 5 years younger than Ingram right now. Ingram has done enough to earn the starter's role in New Orleans, but Kamara has all the makings of taking that job and running with it (no pun intended) once Ingram's time is over. Right now, because Ingram is the starter, yes, Kamara is limited to primarily catching passes out of the backfield, But he can do so much more than that. You would never think of Darren Sproles as a legit between-the-tackles runner, but that's exactly what Kamara could be, showing that in college by averaging over 6 yards a carry with Tennessee in 2015.
WCG: In mid-September, after the 0-2 start, it looked like Sean Payton was on the hot seat. Now, at 4-2 in a winnable division and a defense starting to show competence, are Saints fans thinking Super Bowl?
CSC: It's still early, but I'd be lying if I said that the Saints fanbase isn't excited right now. Personally, I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm not thinking about the Super Bowl, but I'm definitely thinking about what it would take to make it to the playoffs. This team is built to at least make things interesting in the stretch run, and if the Saints could luck into a playoff spot, anything can happen Any Given Sunday.
WCG: Bonus: Bears fans should like New Orleans as it hosted SB XX but also because of the amazing food. My last time down in the Big Easy I had a BBQ Shrimp Po'boy from NOLA Po'boys that I still dream about. What are a few of your favorites?
CSC: Next time you find yourself in New Orleans for a Saints game, walk down Poydras from the Super Dome to find Mother's and eat a plate of baked ham or a debris po-boy. Don't worry, you can thank me later.
Thanks to Chris and Canal Street Chronicles!