New Orleans Saints: Expect Kyle Juszczyk as a secret weapon in Week 14 matchup
The New Orleans Saints shouldn’t expect to rely on their pass rush defense if Kyle Shanahan detects and exploits the Saints’ emerging weak spot due to key injuries in this week’s matchup.
The New Orleans Saints’ depth at linebacker dwindled considerably with injuries to Kiko Alonso and A.J. Klein who are officially declared out for Sunday’s matchup against the 49ers. This led to the signing of Manti Te’o.
On the one hand, Te’o is familiar with the Saints’ defensive schemes.
That said, his pass coverage is suboptimal. While Sean Payton noted Te’o will likely be delegated more to special teams in favor of Craig Roberston, he may opt to line him up for short-yardage, early-down plays. Te’o lacks elite speed and won’t be able to cover the pass rush effectively.
This warrants cause for concern.
Fullbacks, for the most part, are typically a non-factor in most games. The exception is Kyle Juszczyk. Similar to the role employed by Taysom Hill, in a way, Juszczyk stands to be a potentially dangerous wildcard leading into Sunday’s matchup.
The 49ers are touted as a run-first offense, ranking second in rushing yards both per game (148) and in total (1,776), and accordingly are expected to lean on that strength in the Superdome. On paper, the signing of Te’o to defend the run is a smart choice.
Look for Shanahan’s usage of Juszczyk to exploit that assumption.
Despite reports of utilizing Juszczyk to bolster the run game in a two-back tandem with George Kittle, he’s much more effective when lined up split out wide. Compared to an average of six yards per rush attempt, Juszczyk averages more than two catches per game and 10.7 yards per reception.
Not only that, the Saints are the 3rd best rush defense in the league and should be expected to stifle heavy reliance on the running game. Kyle Shanahan rivals Payton in his ability to prognosticate defenses and scheme accordingly with pre-snap motions.
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He’s certainly taken notice of the Saints’ depletion of talent at the linebacker position. Kyle Juszczyk could thereby be Shanahan’s secret weapon out the backfield.
The Saints and 49ers share the same weakness of an abysmal receiving corp past their No. 1s, Thomas and Sanders, respectively. As such, if the Saints stuff the 49ers on the run game, they’ll have to adjust their offensive attack to find victory.
Payton and the Saints should expect San Francisco to take advantage of the Saints now other glaring weakness at the LB position.
If Shanahan sees Te’o lined up for short-yard coverage, this would be the perfect opportunity to exploit Teo’s limitations and frequent the employment of Juszczyk as a receiving threat.
I have the utmost faith in my favorite Saints’ free agency signing of the past decade, Demario Davis. But, similar to how Marshon Lattimore can’t single-handedly cover the entire group of receivers on the field, Davis can’t account for the entirety of the linebacker position on Sunday.
It’s not that Te’o is a bust, but his lack of ability to lock down pass coverage is worrisome because it’s common knowledge.
If it were Payton on the other side, I’d fully expect him to exploit plays where Te’o is lined up anticipating short runs up the middle; he can do this through heavy usage of Juszczyk as a receiver. I expect Shanahan to be like-minded.
I trust that Payton is fully aware of this glaring defensive hole, but hopefully, they’re ready for the ‘Juice’.