The New Orleans Saints couldn't have had a better opponent picked for the proverbial dress-rehearsal game. The Houston Texans are virtually the most balanced team in the NFL. They are most certainly poised for a deep playoff push in 2013 after knocking on the door the past couple of seasons.
To truly get a gauge on where the Saints are as team, they will need to efficiently execute and impose their collective wills on an extremely game Texans squad. It won't be easy, but it can be done.
If you're like me—which is a scary thought in itself—the first thing you do when the schedule comes out is find out who your squad plays in the penultimate game of the preseason. Typically the starters play the most in this game, which can be the consummation of the entire offseason program.
When players go through OTAs, minicamps, training camp and preseason, it's in an effort to be firing on all cylinders when the season starts. In this day and age of parity, achieving a successful start to the season can be exponential to the outcome as a whole.
Units often shine in certain aspects, which can be a confidence boost as well as an overall prelude of things to come. Conversely, some teams falter in certain areas and tend to haul that baggage into the early part of the season or longer.
Coincidentally these two teams played each other in the third preseason game of the 2012 season. The game ended up being a microcosm of the regular season for the Saints starters. Missed tackles, bad run-fits, penalties and horrific pass-coverage ran rampant throughout the Saints defensive unit. And to make things worse, that was just on the first series!
A series that saw Matt Schaub, Ben Tate and Owen Daniels take control of the wheel and drive right down for a score. These are three players who I fully expect to be leaned upon heavily in this game.
Subsequently, after a quick turnover, the Texans washed, rinsed and repeated the first drive. The Saints' starters were down 14-0 before the home crowd could get in their seats! It was quite clear that the Saints' defense, under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, had a ton of work to do. Work that ultimately never got done.
Looking forward, there are aspects in this game that the Saints need an efficient showing in. If they achieve success in these areas, lookout NFL!
Stopping the Texans Run Game
In 2012, The Texans' offense narrowly missed out on being only the second team to post top 10 rankings in both the run and the pass—the first being the New England Patriots. This balanced combination led to a seventh overall ranking, solidifying the Texans as a premiere offensive attack.
As plentiful as the Texans weapons are through the air, the combination of Arian Foster and Ben Tate in the backfield may be without peer in the NFL. Foster won't play in this game, but Tate most certainly will.
I know I may be in the minority—which is nothing new—but I think Tate is every bit as good as Foster. Fans are familiar with Foster as he became a household name in media circles through his huge 2010 campaign. Both Foster and Tate played in the SEC at the same time, and it was clear then that Tate was the more productive, talented and athletic player between the two.
Through circumstance (injury), Foster got the first shot and never looked back. Tate's first season as the primary backup to Foster was special. He tallied 942 yards on 175 attempts (5.4 YPA). When Tate is healthy, and Foster for that matter, the Texans have the most diverse backfield in the league.
The Texans use the run to set up their immense play action game. The Texans employ a zone-blocking scheme that can be a bit tricky to defend. For an aggressive defense, like the one new coordinator Rob Ryan is in the process of installing, maintaining the proper run-fits can be a bit problematic.
As you can see, the Texans don't block moving forward like most teams. They block at an angle in attempt to create cutback lanes. The running backs must practice patience, which allows for those lanes to form. This is the aspect that separates Foster from most. His vision and patience supersedes his speed and power any day.
This play is originally designed to go off-tackle. But, if the blocks form correctly, the back may have multiple options.
This particular run was blocked to perfection. Every defender is accounted for. Tate has two legitimate options at making this an explosive play. His vision allowed him to find the cutback lane. At this point, this is where Tate's skill set takes over.
At 5'11", 215 pounds and running a 4.43 40-yard dash, Tate is the perfect blend of speed, power and size. Getting him in one-on-one situations with linebackers will be much to the detriment of the Saints.
As you can see, the results can be damning. The Saints have to win at the point of attack. This is a game where Akiem Hicks and Brodrick Bunkley can make names for themselves. If they can two-gap while not getting forced outside the play, they can play an instrumental role in defending this particular scheme.
Inside linebackers Ramon Humber and David Hawthorne must practice form-tackling if caught in space against the Texans' running backs. I expect 5-technique Cameron Jordan to blow up a lot of these plays with backfield penetration.
Defending the run will be the most significant aspect for the Saints to conquer. They must stop the Texans run game, or it will be a long day!
If the Texans are able to establish the run game it will open up the play-action pass. Texans' QB Matt Schaub is at his best off this play-fake. The Texans run a vintage version of the West Coast offense that often moves the QB out of the pocket.
Schaub is a very good at carrying out his fake on each play, which in turn disguises when he is actually going to keep the ball. Usually after the fake, Schaub has future Hall of Fame receiver Andre Johnson on the other end of an explosive play.
The Saints don't have anyone on their roster that can cover Johnson—neither does anyone else in the NFL for that matter. At 6'3", 229 pounds, with 4.41 40-yard dash speed, Johnson is simply too big and too fast.
Deep safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rafael Bush will need to provide help over the top to starting corners Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis, respectively. When the Saints launch into their blitz package the bracket coverage will be paramount.
Texans tight end Owen Daniels is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. Daniels is athletic with soft hands. The Texans do a great job of getting him matched up with linebackers and safeties. This means maligned safety Roman Harper will be once again a player of interest.
Could this be the time for Rob Ryan to replace Harper with Kenny Vaccaro? The rookie would be a very good matchup for the revered tight end.
Contain Inside Pressure
When the Saints are on offense, Texans 5-technique J.J. Watt will be a person of interest. He is the best player in all of football! His ability to collapse the pocket from all positions on the line is uncanny. Coincidentally, the only other person I can think of that may have that type of impact will be watching Watt from the Saints' sideline.
Every player on the Saints O-line should be on high alert. When Watt is on the left side of the formation, his matchup with guard Jahri Evans will be something to watch. If the O-line can dampen the impact of Watt, the Texans have trouble generating pressure from the rest of the line.
And we know what happens when you give Drew Brees ample amount of time.
This will be an excellent time for Saints head coach Sean Payton to establish the run game. I fully believe that if the Saints can't run the ball this year, they will be a non-factor in the crowded NFC playoff picture. The Saints should feed Mark Ingram the ball early and often.
The lack of commitment to the run is one of the main reasons for last season's debacle. Although Payton was not apart of it, I'm sure he's well aware of it. So far in preseason, the Saints are repeating last year's cycle.
Before Saints fans write Ingram off as a bust. Lets see him get 15-plus carries a game to establish some sort of rhythm. I'm not sure if I remember Ingram getting the ball twice in a row.
Finally, the rookie receiver combo of Nick Toon and Kenny Stills will get their stiffest competition yet. The Texans secondary is stockpiled with talent and will provide resistance in the form of physicality.
Efficiently executing versus the Texans would be a great opportunity for the Saints to send a visual message to the rest of the league. Although it's an exhibition game, the results can linger a lot longer than one would think. Fans of the "Black & Gold" are hoping for the results to be of the positive nature. I happen to think they will be.
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