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November 28, 2013 at 12:07 PM

Five Question, Five Answers: Saints

payton

It may be Thanksgiving. But it’s also time for our weekly Five Questions, Five Answers look at this week’s opponent,  the New Orleans Saints.

Our guest is Jeff Duncan, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who can be found on Nola.com and via Twitter at @JeffDuncan_.|

Q1: The Saints are obviously playing a lot better this season. Is it really all just the return of Sean Payton (above in an Associated Press photo) following his one-year suspension, or what else has factored in?

A: Much of it has to do with Payton’s return. You can’t underestimate what he means to the organization. He is the unquestioned leader of the football team and holds everyone accountable: players; coaches; and even administrators. His presence has raised the standards of everyone in the building. His hiring of Rob Ryan also has proven prescient. Truth is, the Saints weren’t as bad on defense as they played a year ago. They had a lot of high draft picks and prized free agents on that side of the ball but it just didn’t work out a year ago and they lost all confidence in themselves and Steve Spagnuolo’s system. Ryan has instill a confidence and an attacking scheme that is similar to the one Gregg Williams ran here during the club’s Super Bowl season. The emergence of several young defenders has expedited the process.

Q2: Drew Brees seems like he’s as good as ever. Any change to his game this season or just more of the same?

A: If possible, I think Brees might be a tad underrated these days. He’s widely considered one of the elite quarterbacks in the league but he’s never won an MVP and likely won’t win it again this year, even though he’s clearly deserving. Nothing new with Brees this season. He continues to be remarkably accurate and efficient, always one step ahead of the defense. The most underrated aspect of Brees’ game is his athletic ability. He has extraordinary lateral quickness and pocket awareness, which makes him extremely difficult to sack. He’s made fewer mistakes this season because he doesn’t have to try to be Superman with the improved defense playing so well. If he has a big game Monday night, I think it could vault him into front-runner status for the MVP award.

Q3: Given Seattle’s sudden personnel issues at cornerback, do you think the Saints would change anything to try to take advantage?

A: The Saints will definitely try to find the weak link and attack whoever they think it is. That’s standard Payton M.O. It’s usually not an all-out ambush rather than a strategic set-up for a big play. It’s a cliché, but the Saints really do take what the defense gives them. Their offense is so multi-faceted and laden with playmakers they simply call another number if, say, Jimmy Graham is double-teamed. The key is Brees. He’s so smart and well-prepared, he almost always knows where the mismatch is and exploits it.

Q4: What has been the biggest change in the defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan?

A: The young defensive line has emerged into a dominant unit. Third-year defensive end Cameron Jordan (9.5 sacks) is headed to his first Pro Bowl. Second-year defensive tackle Akiem Hick is a poor man’s Reggie White inside, a 6-5, 300-pound anchor inside. And speed rush specialist Junior Galette provides a nice counter-balance to Jordan on other side. The addition of free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro has bolstered an already solid secondary, completing the unit’s back and front ends. There’s no superstar but the group has few weaknesses and plays extremely well together.

Q5: How has New Orleans’ run defense been this season?

A: In a word: vulnerable. This is the one area I expect the Seahawks to attack. The Saints are relatively undersized in the front seven and opponents can do damage on the ground if they stick with their rushing attacks. Problem is, the Saints are so prolific offensively, they usually mount quick leads and force opponents to abandon the run in catch-up mode. I truly believe this is by design. The Saints seem willing to sacrifice rushing yards as long as the unit rallies to the ball and prevents the big play. Ryan is very good at “scheming up” opponents when they reach the red zone. The Saints’ situational defense in the red zone and at the goal line is excellent. More often than not, they force opponents to kick field goals. That’s a “win” for the Saints. With Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and company, you need to score touchdowns to beat the Saints.

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