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January 8, 2014 at 7:18 AM

Five Questions, Five Answers: New Orleans Saints

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Time for a Divisional Playoff edition of Five Questions, Five Answers, previewing Drew Brees (above in an AP photo) and the New Orleans Saints. Our guest is Jeff Duncan, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He can also be found on Twitter at @JeffDuncan.

Q1: What in a nutshell went so wrong for the Saints in the game up here on Dec 2?

A1: The Saints’ struggled to communicate offensively and it led to some uncharacteristic breakdowns. Sean Payton said a communication error along the offensive line was directly responsible for a missed blocking assignment that allowed Brandon Mebane to penetrate the backfield and drop Pierre Thomas for a 4-yard loss on the game’s first play. In some respects, I think the Saints outthought themselves. They brought noise-reduction earplugs and used sideline play cards for the first time in Payton’s tenure and I think the entire ordeal had them thinking too much. Above all, the Saints are built to play with a lead and dictate terms to their opponents and the early turnover/touchdown put them in an early hole and had them on their heels. Things just kind of snowballed on them from there. I thought the Seahawks and the crowd rattled the Saints and that’s also very uncharacteristic of them.

Q2: And what in a nutshell could they do different this time?

A2: Plain and simple, they must play smarter, harder and with a greater sense of urgency. When I saw smarter, I mean, avoid turnovers and drive-killing penalties. The Saints can’t afford to give Seattle’s offense short fields or the home crowd any more reason to amp up. The longer the Saints hang around in this one the more confident they’ll become. The Saints really have nothing to lose in this one, and they can be dangerous as an underdog. Payton loves to play mind games. He’ll have the Saints much more energized and motivated than ever after last month’s blowout. I will be really surprised if the Saints don’t keep this one close and make it a four-quarter game.

Q3: It appears that the Saints are running more now than they did against Seattle. What has been the key to that?

A3: Two things: 1.) The line has improved. Jahri Evans and Zach Strief are healthier now and left tackle has improved with the promotion of rookie Terron Armstead for a struggling Charles Brown. The coaching staff challenged the line after the Seahawks game and they’ve responded. And 2.) The improved line play has bolstered Payton’s confidence in the rushing attack, which has caused him to be more patient in play-calling. In the past, he often was too quick to abandon the run and become too pass-oriented in his play-calling because of Brees’ talents. Lately, he’s shown a greater commitment to the run and it’s paid off.

Q4: Do the Saints really have issues playing on the road that go beyond the issues every team has playing on the road or are there specific problems they encounter when playing outside the Superdome that have led to their road record?

A4: In the initial meeting, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said the Saints relied too much on their kill system, which allows Drew Brees to audible into and out of plays at the line of scrimmage, and the crowd noise hindered their ability to communicate the pre-snap checks. He said the Saints were trying to call plays over the noise and the poor communication caused them “to play slow.” Brees was called for one delay of game infraction and officials missed another one. When the Saints offense is at its best, its playing with tempo and zipping in and out of plays before the defense can get set and a bead on what they are doing. That wasn’t the case in Seattle, because the Saints were spending so much time trying to communicate the checks at the line. I expect them to employ a different plan this time.

Q5: Can you recap the Saints injury issues in the secondary and how big that could be going into this game, especially considering Seattle had one of its best passing games of the season in the first matchup?

A: Three of the Saints’ top six defense backs – safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson – are out with season-ending injuries and a fourth could be sidelined if cornerback Keenan Lewis is not cleared to play by independent doctors, per the league’s head injury protocol. Lewis missed most of the second half when he suffered a head injury while making a tackle early in the third quarter. His playing status is critical to the Saints’ upset chances. He practiced Tuesday and said he’ll be ready to play. His absence would be a devastating blow for the Saints. He’s by far their most experienced and talented cornerback. Other than Brees, he might be the most irreplaceable starter on the roster.

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