After New Orleans came back from a 31-16 deficit last year to beat Washington, safety DJ Swearinger Sr. said he knows there are no excuses this time around.
“They came back on us last year, we’ve got to take that personally,” he said. “We lost, I played a part in that deficit, I missed a tackle at the end of the game last year. It will definitely be personal, it should be personal for everybody in this organization.”
Washington is not the same team it was during the Week 11 matchup last year. They’re notably healthier along the offensive line, they have a new starting quarterback and running back and their defense is playing top-notch football.
New Orleans, on the other hand, is a similar foe. Its offense has hit full stride, averaging 34.2 points per game, the third highest average in the league. The Saints still lean on their playmakers Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas; Drew Brees is still surgical in his accuracy; and Mark Ingram has rejoined the squad after a four-game suspension to start the season.
Their defense on the other hand has taken a noticeable step back through their first four games. So far this season they’ve allowed 30.3 points per game. Still, they’re sitting at 3-1 at the top of their division, primed to make a playoff push.
So, let’s take a look at what makes the Saints tick.
They give up huge pass plays. Every game, without fail, the Saints have gotten burned for a long gain through the air. In their first three games, they allowed a touchdown of 45 yards or more to a wide receiver. They tightened up last week, but that was against an anemic Giants offense.
In Week 1, Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw it all over the field en route to a four touchdown performance. He had two touchdown passes of 50-plus yards, each time to a receiver running a go route and burning the Saints single-high, cover 3 defense. The Saints tend to have their single-high safety, who is almost always Marcus Williams, favor the side of the field with three wideouts to help with trips and bunch formations. The issue is that leaves the cornerback alone on the other side of the field, on an island with the opponent's wideout of their choosing. When the Saints pass rush can’t get pressure in these situations (more on this later), it allows huge plays.
Washington could look to exploit this by running vertical concepts out of three and four wideout formations. If they can get the Saints safeties to shade to the bunch or trips side, Alex Smith should be able to hit the isolated receiver on the other side.
Part of the issue is the Saints just don’t have a cornerback outside of Marshon Lattimore that can cover a team’s top wide receiver. Both Ken Crawley and PJ Williams haven't helped either -- Falcons rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley torched Williams for a 75-yard touchdown in Week 3 and Crawley gave up multiple scores against the Buccaneers.
The Saints are lucky they have a top offense, because these games would have gotten ugly quickly if the Saints weren’t able to keep pace.
Run away from Cam Jordan. Literally, just run the other direction. The Saints run defense has been excellent, allowing only 3.2 yards per carry, the best mark in the NFL.
In particular, it has been nearly impossible for offenses to run to the right side. Opposing running backs are only averaging 1.6 yards per carry on 16 rushes off the right tackle, but they average 3.8 yards per rush when running off the left tackle.
The most obvious reason for this is All-pro defensive end Cameron Jordan, who lines up exclusively on the right side. He’s known for his pass rush (four sacks through four games), but his ability to limit opposing offenses to one side of the field has been equally as important.
Washington’s leading rusher Adrian Peterson comes into the Week 5 matchup averaging 6.6 yards per carry when running off the right tackle, so obviously something will have to give. It will be interesting to see if the Redskins try running to the left with Peterson despite averaging just 2.7 yards per carry off left tackle Trent Williams.
The pass rush has been inconsistent for the Saints this season. They didn’t affect Fitzpatrick during the Saints' Week 1 loss, but they’ve had multi-sack games the following three weeks. That said, by now we know it’s not all about sacks.
Football Outsiders has New Orleans ranked 28th in the league in terms of pressure percentage, only pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 21.7 percent of pass plays (the Dallas Cowboys lead the league at a 38.0 percent rate). The Saints don’t get pressure often enough to help their secondary out, and it leads to the big pass plays described earlier.
Keep an eye out for inside linebacker Demario Davis, who has become known for being a blitzing specialist through his seven years in the league. Although he is a part-time starter for the Saints, Davis collected two sacks in the Saints win over the Giants last week, both on inside blitz plays where the Saints sent five defenders.
When sending five or more rushers this season, Saints opponents have averaged 8.6 yards per play. When sending four or fewer they’re averaging 8.95. Both numbers are less than ideal, but with Davis's increased production, the Saints may look to send five more often the rest of the season in order to alleviate their lack of pressure.
All of these defensive inadequacies add up to the Saints having a bad defense. They have some star players in Lattimore and Jordan, and talent at other positions, but the unit itself is just not effective. According to Football Outsiders, the Saints are allowing the second most points per drive at 2.82 (the league average is 1.96), giving up an average of almost a field goal every time the opposing team touches the ball.
Speaking of pressure, the Saints offensive line has done a good job protecting the most accurate passer in NFL history. Drew Brees has only been pressured on 20 percent of pass plays, the 10th-best rate in the league.
All five starters on the offensive line are former third-round picks or better. Tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford have played every snap this season, and the Saints returned starting left guard Andrus Peat from injury last week. The unit is solid and should be ready to go against Washington.
But the offensive line is not a one-trick pony. They have a top-10 rushing attack, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and they have the second most rushing touchdowns in the league with seven. Their ground game will likely get a boost with the return of former Pro-Bowl running back Mark Ingram, but the star of the first four games picked up right where he left of last season.
PHOTOS: Saints Week Practice (10/01/18)
Check out these photos of the Redskins' preparing for their Week 5 game against the New Orleans Saints Monday, Oct.1, 2018, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
Alvin Kamara has been the weapon he was billed to be. In last week’s win, Kamara rushed for 134 yards and three touchdowns on only 19 carries.
On his third touchdown run, the Saints came out in a heavy I-formation with a little over two minutes left in the game, trying to run out the clock.
Left guard Andrus Peat pulled to the right, fullback Zach Line stood up the defensive end, and Kamara took off through the gaping hole created off the right tackle for a 49-yard touchdown.Through four games, Kamara is averaging 84 receiving yards per game, more than Antonio Brown, A.J. Green or Odell Beckham Jr. Twice this season Kamara has gone over 100 yards receiving in a game. He’s averaging over 150 yards from scrimmage per game. These numbers are insane.
But part of the credit needs to go to Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. Kamara has been utilized in just about every way one could think of so far. When he was having success against the Giants running the ball, the Saints dialed up a play where Brees faked the handoff to Kamara, looked to his right and then dumped the ball off back to Kamara on the left side for a 25-yard gain.
Against the Falcons, Kamara lined up out wide left and ran a hitch for a nine-yard gain. Later, he lined up in the same spot, ran the same depth for a hitch and then cut in on a dig route and caught the ball in between the zone defenders for 21 yards.
Kamara can do so many things well that he acts as a complementary piece to himself. The Saints can scheme him open by getting him the ball anywhere on the field. They can make slight changes to plays he’s already run, fake the ball and get it back to him or power it straight ahead and let him do the rest.
Payton told reporters that opponents will change their coverage depending on where Kamara lines up at the beginning of a play, because of his impact on the game.
“If Alvin’s in the game with three receivers and a tight end, then you get a handful of things,” Saints Head coach Sean Payton told reporters. “But if he’s in the game with another halfback then he’s essentially taking over the nickel receiver position. That does not mean he cannot be in the backfield. It just depends on who is on the field with him.”
The Saints have heavily relied on Kamara, which could change with the addition of Mark Ingram this week. What’s more likely is they’ll find a way to involve both backs, like they did to much success in the 2017 season.
Quarterback Drew Brees is on the cusp of history and it he’ll almost certainly achieve it Monday night.
Brees needs 201 yards to become the most prolific passer in NFL history. He’s currently third on the list behind Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, and it would take an enormous effort by Washington to hold Brees to under 200 yards while he’s at home under the dome.
Throughout his 18-year career, Brees has always spread the ball around in his offense, but that’s becoming more difficult with the emergence of Kamara and Pro-Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas.Through four games he’s targeted Thomas or Kamara on over 55 percent of his throws, and the two have combined to make up 60 percent of the team’s receiving yards.
Brees is used to carrying the load for the Saints, as they’ve had a poor defense more years than not (when they have had a good defense, the Saints have done pretty well). So far in 2018, it’s more of the same as the defense has gotten itself into shootouts early and often.
In the Saints' only loss of the season, Brees completed 37-of-45 passes for 439 yards and three touchdowns. He took no sacks, didn’t commit any turnovers and he still lost because the game went to overtime and he didn’t get to touch the ball.
Washington won’t need to stop Brees from having a great day in order to win on Monday, they’ll just need to let the Saints defense keep the door open for them and they should have a shot at road win on Monday Night Football.