The New Orleans Saints have been known as one of the NFL's best offenses for years with quarterback Drew Brees at the helm, but in 2013, their defense may be the hallmark of the team.
Many wouldn't have dreams of such a scenario just last season, when the Saints gave up an NFL record 7,042 yards of offense to their opponents. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has brought his aggressive scheme with him, which has given the Saints their attitude back.
The fact that those Saints finished with a 7-9 record, without their head coach and with an historically bad defense, is a testament to Brees' dominance at quarterback. Even with all the dysfunction, Brees still led the league in passing yards and touchdowns for the second straight year.
Let's take a look at the best the Saints have to offer, and a quick recap of their season to this point, headed into Sunday's matchup with the Patriots.
How they got here: The Saints are off to their second 5-0 start in the past five years, having reeled off 13 consecutive wins to start the 2009 season. They have won games every which way this year. They grinded out their first two wins of the season, winning two division contests by a combined eight points against the Falcons and Buccaneers, needing a late field goal to pick up a 16-14 win over Tampa Bay. The Saints then rolled to big wins over the Cardinals (31-7) and Dolphins (38-17) before their most impressive win of the season in Week 5 against the Bears, holding Chicago to just 10 points in the first 57 minutes of action.
Key cog, offense -- Jimmy Graham, TE: Brees would be the easy answer, but Graham is having an outrageous season to this point, and the Patriots haven't defended tight ends very well in awhile. Graham leads the NFL in receptions (37) and yards (593), and ranks second in receiving touchdowns (6). At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Graham is the quick, big-bodied tight end that can create problems up the seam and in the red zone. He played basketball from 2005-2009 with the Miami Hurricanes, and has plenty of experience winning jump-balls as a result.
Key cog, defense -- Cameron Jordan, DL: The Saints defensive line has created a lot of pressure this season, but one of their best defenders has been Cameron Jordan. He has 19 quarterback hurries, five hits and four combined sacks, making him the second-most productive pass-rushing 3-4 defensive end behind Texans defensive end J.J. Watt this season. Jordan has a 6-foot-4, 287-pound frame to help him hold stout at the point of attack, but also a quick burst to get through the line when rushing the passer. Jordan will likely face off with left tackle Nate Solder for the majority of the game.
X-factor -- Darren Sproles, RB: Sproles is the true definition of an X-factor because he can contribute in so many ways. The Saints will look to get him involved with different matchups, either on a linebacker or a safety, but they'll even split him out wide and get him matched up on a cornerback from time to time. His average of 11.8 yards per reception is on par with some receivers (the NFL average is 11.9 yards per reception). There are so many ways that Sproles can hurt a defense, from screens out of the backfield to running routes as a receiver and even on standard running plays. For some perspective on his versatility, he has 25 rush attempts and 26 receptions this season.
Stats and notes: Here are some interesting stats and notes on the Saints.
- Drew Brees is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in more than one season; he holds the record with 5,476 yards in 2011, and he's on pace for 5,510 passing yards this season.
- According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Brees has posted a 121.9 passer rating when blitzed this season; he has completed 70.9 percent of his aimed throws and has five touchdowns and just one interception when blitzed.
- Jimmy Graham's seven targets and five catches on passes 20 yards or more downfield are both the most for any tight end this season so far.
- Brees uses the play-action fake quite often (26.4 percent of his dropbacks is seventh-most in the NFL), but he's much better without play-action. He completes 74.8 percent of passes without play-action, but just 55.6 percent of his passes when he uses play-action. His passer rating is also 37.5 points higher without the use of play-action.
- The Saints gave up nearly two passing touchdowns per game in 2012, but have given up just six in five games in 2013 (on pace for 19).
- The Saints are a little small up front. Aside from defensive tackles John Jenkins and Akiem Hicks, the Saints don't have a single defensive linemen over 300 pounds. Their primary inside linebackers are both 240 pounds or less, and their primary outside linebackers are both 260 pounds or less.
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