I caught up with Chris Dunnells down at Canal Street Chronicles to get the story on the #2 seed.
Windy City Gridiron: The Saints defense started off a bit slow but has looked really good in the second half of the year. Like, really, really good - second in defensive DVOA good. They’re top-three against the pass and the run. They’re tied for the league lead in interceptions and top ten in sacks. The Saints are who Bears fans hoped the Bears would be. What’s the secret sauce for this side of the football?
Canal Street Chronicles: I don’t want to burst Saints’ fans bubbles completely, but there is some important context for the question you’ve asked. In the first half of the season, the Saints defense faced Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Justin Herbert’s Chargers. In the second half, the Saints played a Broncos team without a quarterback, the Panthers (who were forced to play P.J. Walker at quarterback during the game), the lowly Falcons (twice), and Nick Mullens’s 49ers. Don’t get me wrong: the Saints also faced Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second half and held Tom Brady’s Buccaneers to just three points, but if we’re talking about averages, I think it’s important to at least point out that the average was built, at least in part, on the competition.
But to answer your question about the “secret,” it’s the unique strategy of hitting on draft picks and shrewd free agent signings and trades to fill out a roster. Sarcasm aside, the Saints have built their current defense through all three facets of acquisition (compare that to something like the Legion of Boom that was primarily drafted by the Seahawks). Players like Cam Jordan, Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson, CJ Gardner-Johnson, and Marshon Lattimore were all draft picks. Demario Davis might be the best free agent signing in franchise history after Drew Brees. Trading for Janoris Jenkins from the Giants for pennies on the dollar also helped round out the unit.
WCG: I’m under the assumption that this will be the last season for Drew Brees. The Saints were able to hold steady at the end of the year to give him time to heal from broken ribs and come back, ready for the playoffs. The question is, what does he have left in that right arm of his? Is he at all a threat to throw the ball downfield or should the Bears dare him to beat them deep?
CSC: I agree that this is likely Drew’s last hurrah, so I wouldn’t be daring him to do anything at this point. Whatever he has left in the tank is getting poured out in this postseason run.
After his return from injury, Brees was surprisingly aggressive with downfield throws, and I think it’s important that he put that game tape out there as he gets ready to face the Chicago defense. This will force the Bears to respect the threat of a deeper pass, but where this Saints offense gets you is in long, methodical drives with possession receivers like Michael Thomas and Jared Cook and yards after the catch or yards after contact from Alvin Kamara. If you try to sell out to stop the short and intermediate stuff, Emmanuel Sanders and Deonte Harris can still beat you over the top.
WCG: Alvin Kamara had another excellent season, gaining 1,688 yards from scrimmage and a league-leading 21 rushing and receiving TDs...in 15 games. The 16th game was lost because Kamara landed on the COVID list and the Saints were forced to play Week 17 with no RBs. How is Kamara’s health, does he have a chance to play in Sunday’s game, and how important is he for this version of the Saints offense to be successful?
CSC: Word on the street is that Kamara is still asymptomatic and will be activated for the game on Sunday, despite missing a full week of practice.
I would say this offense depends on Kamara, but I think it was proven last week when Ty Montgomery ran for over 100 yards that this offense is better with Kamara, but it’s so deep it might not “need” any single player to still have a chance to win. Drew Brees misses a month? Fine, you have an electric option in Taysom Hill and the league’s leading passer from last season in Jameis Winston ready if needed, and Taysom performed admirably filling in for Brees this season. The reigning Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas has to miss the vast majority of the season? That’s fine. Emmanuel Sanders can step up. Alvin Kamara misses time? Latavius Murray is still a more-than-capable back in his own right.
But make no mistake about it: this team is better when Alvin Kamara is healthy and on the field.
WCG: Michael Thomas had a lost season. The phenomenal WR played only 7 games this year with only 40 catches - low for his standards - due to a high ankle sprain suffered Week 1. New Orleans placed him on IR after Week 14 with the hopes of getting him healthy for the playoffs. What does his health look like and what does a healthy Michael Thomas mean for this offense?
CSC: His injury is one to watch, but - again - word on the street is he’ll be ready for the wild card round. He was placed on injured reserve with the idea that he would be back in time for the postseason.
Like I discussed above, this team is so deep that they can still win games without single star players on offense. But like Kamara, this team is noticeably better when Michael Thomas is on the field. His presence helps opens up the passing game for players like Sanders, Kamara, Jared Cook, and others, and he is one of the most sure-handed receivers in the NFL, a fact that has earned Drew’s trust time and again.
A scary thought? The Saints won 12 games this year, but Drew Brees and Michael Thomas only played 10 quarters of football together this season.
WCG: How far can this team go? Can this team hold serve against the Bears and, say, the Seahawks and make the final four? Can they beat Green Bay? Kansas City?
CSC: I feel like I’ve been saying this for a while now, but this team can go as far as they want. There is not a single fatal flaw on this team like there might be on other postseason contenders.
Could they beat the Seahawks? I think so. The Seahawks defense looks like it can be attacked downfield and Russell Wilson has dramatically cooled off after a redhot start. Could they beat the Packers? They were a Taysom Hill fumble away from doing that in the regular season, and that was in a game without Michael Thomas and one of their better edge rushers in Marcus Davenport. Obviously playing in Green Bay would be a concern, but this isn’t the Saints teams of old that were required to rely on Drew Brees’s arm to win games. This is a team that can play in the trenches with a run game and defense, better-suited for cold weather games than - I would argue - even the Packers themselves. Could they beat Kansas City? The Saints came within 3 points when the two teams met late this season, but again, that was without Michael Thomas in the game.
This team has the ability to beat anyone. “Will they do it?” is the question.
WCG: Bonus: A couple of years ago I attended the Rams vs. Saints game in the Superdome and tailgated with some new friends I made that morning. The tailgating food was amazing and the experience was enriched by some of the nicest people I’ve been around. The 2020 season has been tough for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the absence of that community around your favorite team. What is the ultimate New Orleans tailgate food and what do you miss most about that part of the experience?
CSC: Man, I hate to burst your bubble here, but I’m not much of a tailgater, and as I’m sure you saw in New Orleans, the Superdome’s layout in the city doesn’t provide for the best tailgating options. But when I’m on the tailgate scene, I’m a classic hotdogs-and-burgers with a cold beer kind of guy. The food isn’t important. As you said, it’s the camaraderie that makes the experience.
Here’s to a good game, without injuries, and I wish the Bears nothing best the best of luck starting in August of 2021 :)
Editor’s note: I have reported Chris to the New Orleans tailgate association to be fined for his disappointing food takes!
Thank you to Chris and Canal Street Chronicles!