The New Orleans Saints (4-4) are climbing upward after starting their season 0-3. After winning three straight, they can’t afford to sleep on the Tennessee Titans (1-6). Head coach Sean Payton and his squad are fully aware of the task at hand.
The Saints are back at home for the second straight week in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and the Titans come to town to visit for the first time since 2007. Don’t hate me, but the Saints haven’t beat the Titans at home since 1993, which obviously goes back to the old Houston Oilers days.
Here’s some key areas the Saints will need to excel in to climb over .500.
Don’t be vulnerable on defense
If there’s one sore spot from last week’s win, it was the defense.
“It is still a work in progress. There are some things technique-wise that we have to improve on,” Payton said during his Thursday press conference.
Payton added, “I think the penalties is something that comes up in the backend. I think we’re getting more hurries and pressures from the front which has really helped us. Just within the framework of the zone coverage scheme, there are a handful of details that we’re working to improve on.”
The Titans will be without their top receiver, Kendall Wright, which definitely hurts rookie Marcus Mariota. However, the Saints will still have their hands full with tight end Delanie Walker, and former Falcons receiver Harry Douglas. Rookie Dorial Green-Beckham has an ability to be a playmaker, so proper attention from the Saints secondary will need to be top of mind.
Tennessee has given up the fourth-most sacks in the league (28.0), so there is ample opportunity to disrupt Mariota. Cam Jordan is red-hot entering this game, and the Saints have been doing a better job overall getting pass rush from their front 4. If interim head coach Mike Mularkey is truly committing to protecting Mariota more in this game, then you could very well see more help in the way of a tight end and/or running back in protection.
The biggest concern for the Saints defense is that they’ll be without linebackers Hau’oli Kikaha, Dannell Ellerbe, and Ramon Humber. However, the Saints planned accordingly by signing Mike Mohamed this week and scooping up Jo-Lonn Dunbar last week. Also, let’s not forget about David Hawthorne, who is your veteran presence on the team.
Hawthorne will likely pencil in as the team’s starting strong side linebacker, and Dunbar would go to the weak side. They’ll be the primary keys to isolating Titans running back Antonio Andrews and containing Marcus Mariota on Sunday.
Play smart, balanced football on offense
The Titans are a much better defense than anyone will give them credit for. Drew Brees faces one of the league’s top third down defenses, who is only giving up 316.6 yards per game (5th). The Titans boast the league’s third-ranked passing defense, yielding just 197.9 passing yards per game. On the flip side, the Titans rushing defense is allowing 118.7 yards per game (21st).
Unfortunately, Khiry Robinson will no longer be an option the rest of the way for Sean Payton’s attack. Mark Ingram hasn’t exactly had an extensive workload up to this point, as the most carries he’s had in any single game through eight contests is 20 attempts against the Atlanta Falcons. This would be an excellent time to improve on the league’s 21st-ranked rushing attack (99.3 yards per game). Also, it would help control the ever so coveted time of possession, which has favored the Saints heavily in each of their last three victories.
Something to also keep an eye on, Tim Hightower will likely see his first regular season game in over four years. His last regular season game was on October 23, 2011. Needless to say, he’ll be energized.
Get going early
If there’s one thing you don’t want to see when playing a team that’s 1-6, it’s getting off to a slow start and letting them hang in there. Last week, the Houston Texans offense started with three punts on their first several drives, but were then able to put together a 5 play, 54-yard touchdown drive, recover a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and then boot through a field goal to go up 10-3.
Last week, the Saints punted on their opening drive, but didn’t punt again until the 10:47 mark of the 4th quarter. I don’t look for similar success this Sunday, but I do expect some early victories. Also, the Superdome crowd will be in this one from the very beginning. In turn, it should be enough to lead to another black and gold victory.