Biggest Questions the Saints Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs

Murf Baldwin@@MurfBaldwinContributor IDecember 17, 2013

Biggest Questions the Saints Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs

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    It's funny the complete autonomy you get as a writer after the team you cover is destroyed in a loss. Fans scoff at the mere suggestion of change when their team is winning, but they must be talked off the proverbial ledge after a loss. But what really changes between wins and losses?

    The now 10-4 New Orleans Saints were completely demolished by the 6-8 St. Louis Rams by a score of 27-16. But the Saints really didn't do anything different than they normally do.

    They incessantly forced the ball downfield into a defensive scheme centered around limiting the pass, they ignored the run—although the Rams did everything but hang a banner that read "Please run the ball!"—and they operated in methodical fashion despite having the personnel to run an uptempo offense.

    Yep, the same ol' Saints...

    The main difference was the style of opponent (a physical one) and the fact that they were on the road—two scenarios they will undoubtedly face in the playoffs. Now let's not get it twisted; the Saints are a great team. But they are a flawed great team that needs certain circumstances to maintain that status.

    The Saints have a myriad of questions they must answer in a short period of time heading into the playoffs. Let's take a gander at the most prominent ones.

Who Can Win a One-on-One Situation Outside of Graham?

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    Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

    The Saints offense just doesn't look like it has in years past. Gone is the prerequisite field-stretcher who would open things up for everyone underneath while taking the top off a defense with explosive plays. 

    Also, it's getting harder to pinpoint which receiver can take over a game besides tight end Jimmy Graham. As teams like the Rams and New England Patriots have proven, when you take Graham away, the Saints don't execute nearly as efficiently.

    Incumbent No. 1 receiver Marques Colston has had a roller coaster of a season. At times he's looked like his normal self, while at other times he's looked like he has one foot into retirement.

    The past two games, he's been nothing short of great. But even that carries the caveat of being against two of the worst secondaries in the NFL. When the Saints needed him to step up against the best secondary, the Seattle Seahawks, Colston ended up back on the proverbial milk carton.

    Rookie receiver Kenny Stills has been, well, a rookie. He's had flashes of brilliance but has generally disappeared for the majority of the schedule, as most rookies do. Fellow receiver Lance Moore (30 receptions for 337 with one touchdown) is having an awful season and can't be relied upon to deliver.

    This makes it even more puzzling that explosive receiver Nick Toon continues to be a healthy scratch after a bad outing against the New York Jets. Toon is a matchup nightmare at 6'4" and 218 pounds—and has the wheels to stretch the field.

    The Saints are the only team in the NFL whose top three receivers are a tight end (Graham) and two running backs (Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles). Letting a talent like Toon languish on the bench is ludicrous. Especially when you consider Robert Meachem continues to play awfully.

Where Will the Run Production Come From?

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    Mark Ingram
    Mark IngramJohn David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

    For those of you who believe the screen game suffices as an actual run game, look no further than the Rams game. Not only was the screen game pretty innocuous, it did little to drive the extra defenders out of coverage.

    Despite playing against a light box and a two-deep safety look, the run game was neglected in favor of the aerial attack.

    Most fans think production is production, but it's not that black and white. Running the ball, regardless of production, is an attitude thing. You build confidence by going to war, football-wise, in the trenches, which in turn reverberates throughout the squad.

    How many times have we seen the Saints lose confidence when they don't blast a team out of the water in the initial stages of a contest? That's because playing a finesse game lends itself to front-running.

    Fans will point to the ineptitude of the offensive line, but do you see that stopping a team like the Denver Broncos—who have a patchwork group of linemen—from at least trying to run the ball? You can't use the old "Why would you not pass with your great QB?" excuse, as Peyton Manning (Broncos QB), in my opinion, is the best ever to lace them up.

    And you definitely can't use the old "We don't have talent in the backfield" excuse either, as the Broncos have very similar talent on their roster to the Saints. But despite it all, the Broncos are sixth in the NFL with 414 rushing attempts, while New Orleans sits at 27th.

    In addition, the Broncos aren't even hitting the benchmark for yards per attempt (4.0) generating only 3.9 yards a rush. But they do recognize the importance of making teams defend all areas of the field and developing an attitude that will keep them in every game they play.  

    Can you say the same for the Saints?

Can the Saints Stop the Run?

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    That attitude lends itself to the defensive side of the ball as well.

    It can be argued that the defense is just as finesse-oriented as the offense. Flying around sacking the quarterback is the equivalent to operating the telescope-like offense the Saints possess.

    The Saints are giving up 4.6 yards per rush, 28th in the NFL. Conversely, they are only generating the aforementioned 3.8 yards per rush.

    That's baby food soft...carrots and all!

    You have to think this all starts at the core. Does anyone actually think the Saints concentrate on the run in practice? We all know coach Sean Payton has QB Drew Brees throwing those B-52 bombs all around the practice field.

    This would explain why the Saints are so good against the pass (tied for 10th). You're usually going to be keen on what you see in practice.

    Furthermore, you have to think the Saints are still transitioning personnel-wise on defense. In the second half against St. Louis, the Saints went exclusively to the mysterious 3-4 on base downs and had great results stopping the run.

    But as we've seen in the past, the Saints struggle against the pass in that alignment due to the fact that they don't have the type of outside linebackers, or inside linebackers for that matter, to execute the scheme.

    This is to be expected; most of the parts along the front seven are geared towards an even-front alignment.

    The Saints will only get better on defense as the years pass if they are fortunate to hold onto defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

    But it may be at the expense of players like Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne—both of whom are natural linebackers in a 4-3 scheme.

Can the Saints Make Tough Personnel Decisions?

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    When Coach Payton made the decision to bench struggling left tackle Charles Brown, it was anything but flabbergasting. Brown was being used as a personal turnstile by Rams defensive end Robert Quinn.

    But he's usually some defensive end's turnstile—so why was it an issue now?

    Brown should've been benched in the first half of the season when he was struggling, which would've given rookie Terron Armstead a significant amount of game experience. Instead, Payton chose to move fellow turnstile Zach Strief over to Brown's spot while using rotational tackle Bryce Harris in Streif's old spot against the Rams.

    While it's finally a move in the right direction, it wouldn't be out of line to describe it as putting a Band-Aid where stitches are necessary. As great of a coach as Payton has been, he—along with general manager Mickey Loomis—struggles to make personnel decisions on the fly.

    Case in point: keeping running back Mark Ingram on the roster instead of flipping him in a trade with a running back-needy team, despite the coaching staff souring on his talents, just screams indecision.

    Without Ingram on the roster as a virtual albatross, rookie Khiry Robinson perhaps would now just be coming into his own as most rookie backs do. But continuously giving Ingram two carries per game, when he's not that type of back, accomplishes what, exactly?

    It only slows down another promising youngster's progress, just like receiver Nick Toon—who should be getting veteran receiver Lance Moore's reps at this point.

    This is a player's league, Coach.

Can New Orleans Win a Tough One on the Road?

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    Before the loss to St. Louis, many wondered if the Saints' road woes could be attributed to playing outdoors.

    Well, wonder no more—the Saints are a classic example of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

    Let's be honest here; the Rams won't be winning any awards anytime soon. But you could've easily confused the Saints as the team that was 5-8 preceding the contest. The Rams whipped the Saints six ways from Sunday (hey, that phrase actually fits here!) and exposed the Saints as the virtual home juggernauts they are perceived to be.

    This loss was eerily reminiscent of the butt-kicking the Saints took from the Jets earlier this season. And as a matter of fact, the Rams and Jets are extremely similar in how they operate.

    They both have great football character—meaning they are built from the inside out—so they focus on both running and stopping the run first and foremost. Both can generate pressure.

    But most importantly, both have tough-nosed coaches that promote toughness like no other. 

    These type of teams will always give finesse squads fits, especially in their house. Considering teams like the roughneck Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks all may stand in the Saints' way, the postseason will provide judgment on the current and future direction of the team.

    But make no mistake about it, those teams have to stop the Saints as well. And we all know the old adage "any given Sunday."

    So let the games begin.