New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees can break Johnny Unitas's record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (47) when he faces the San Diego Chargers in Week 5. But there's something the Saints are pursuing with even greater vigor in this 2012 Sunday Night Football matchup: their first win.
The Saints have already lost more games this season than they did in all of 2011, when they went 13-3. They're 0-4 in their 2012 campaign without head coach Sean Payton, who is banned from coaching this season as punishment for the team's bounty scandal.
But lost in this winless season is the fact that the Saints haven't been blown out of any stadium— in fact, they haven't yet lost by more than one score.
That, plus their nail-biting one-point loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 4, indicates the Saints are knocking on the door to securing their first win.
They'll get it, if their offense performs well against an improved Chargers defense.
Here's a few ways New Orleans can game-plan for the Chargers if they hope to send Superdome attendees home happy.
Administer a Steady Diet of the Run (With Particular Focus on Darren Sproles)
Yes, this doesn't instantly seem like a great idea. Taking the ball out of your star QB's hands to ground-and-pound against the fifth-ranked rush defense in the NFL sounds like a recipe for multiple three-and-outs.
But what the Saints need aren't aggregate rushing yards but situational plays from their rushers to control the clock. They'll need to keep their league-worst defense off the field as much as possible.
That means less RB Mark Ingram—who has looked like a bust in a small sample size—and more Darren Sproles, who is a more dynamic playmaker out of the backfield.
Sproles is a classic two-way third-down back, and he's just what the Saints need to exploit a Chargers D that has trouble getting off the field on third down (they're just 18th in the league in opponent third-down conversion rate).
Expect some early third-and-short plays designed to get Sproles in space—off-tackle runs, sweeps, tosses, tear screens and throws into the flat.
That will open up play-action on third down and get the secondary playing closer to the line to stop Sproles on crucial downs, freeing up TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston up the seams and the deep-third.
Make the Chargers' Secondary Pick Their Poison
Jimmy Graham is the league's best receiving tight end, and he'll be treated as such.
The Chargers, like most other teams facing Graham, will likely use bracket coverage—in other words, they'll place a linebacker in press coverage underneath to jam him off his routes and a safety to blanket him over the top.
Though Graham has the explosiveness, hands and playmaking ability to beat these double-teams, force-feeding him the ball in tight coverage won't lead to an efficient Saints' offense.
Instead, they should line up Graham and Colston on the same side and force the safety to choose between them in coverage. Brees has no shortage of weapons, and overloads and bunch formations will force the Chargers secondary to make some tough pre-snap choices.
The Saints can also utilize burner Devery Henderson on deep routes against a slow Chargers secondary that is just 18th in the league in pass yards allowed.
San Diego can't double-cover everyone. Brees needs to recognize mismatches and not try to force the ball to Graham. Sometimes, the greatest contribution a playmaker can have to an offense is to draw defenders away from secondary weapons.
With WR Lance Moore out for the game, look for Brees to spread the ball around in Week 5.
Get the Crowd Going Early
More than any sport, football is impacted by the home crowd. That's as true in the Superdome as it is anywhere—it's no accident that the Saints were perfect at home last year.
So there's no greater opportunity for the Saints to notch their first win than a nationally-televised home game, for which the Superdome crowd will be ready.
They'll need to come out strong with a quick-fire attack. Short slants, back-shoulder outs and screens leading to efficient, fast-paced completions will get the crowd involved and demoralize the Chargers defense.
Then, in low-risk situations (like second-and-short), the Saints should take a shot at a deep strike to break the score open early.
The Saints and Chargers each have porous secondaries, and the matchup could well be a shootout. If the Saints want to come out on top, they'll need their offense to score early and force Phillip Rivers and the Chargers offense to press.
If New Orleans can get the crowd on its side with some early scores, it'll be well on its way towards racking up its first win of 2012.