Saints vs. Titans: 5 Things to Watch for on Sunday

Zayne Grantham@ZPGSportsContributor IIIDecember 9, 2011

Saints vs. Titans: 5 Things to Watch for on Sunday

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    The New Orleans Saints are currently 9-3 and ready to make a run towards the playoffs. They need to keep winning so that they can close the gap between themselves and the San Francisco 49ers and hopefully claim the second seed in the NFC before the postseason gets started.

    This week's game is the first Saints game since Week 10 that will not be nationally televised. We know how good the Saints can be when everyone is watching, but I look for them to prove this week that they do not need a national audience to play well.

    This game against the Titans is one that the Saints are notorious for overlooking. It happened in Week 8 when the Saints went to St. Louis and got manhandled by a winless Rams team. They also started slow in a Week 6 visit to Tampa Bay and never caught up against the Buccaneers

    This is also the first, and only, cold weather game of the Saints' 2011 regular season. This team is known for struggling in cold weather situations, but that will not happen this week.

    The Saints know that people are watching to see if they can win against a Tennessee Titans team that they are supposed to beat easily. I expect nothing less from the Saints. As I have already stated, I believe the Saints will win this week's game against the Titans. 

    There are many key matchups this week, but let's look at five that could determine the outcome of the game.

Saints vs. Cold Weather

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    As we have already said, the Saints are notorious for playing bad in cold weather games. 

    The forecast for the game on Sunday is projecting a high of 48 and a low of 32. The good news is that it is supposed to be sunny out—oh, and the Saints actually have a very good running game.

    I believe the Saints will use a lot of early runs to break themselves into the cold weather. I expect the Saints to use a similar game plan to the one they used last week. Run Mark Ingram early and often, then get Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas some carries off tackle and catches in the screen game.

    The other good news is that the Saints receivers have not been dropping balls much as of late. Look for Marques Colston and Lance Moore to get a lot of balls thrown their way because of their reliability to catch the ball. Jimmy Graham should also get a lot of targets, despite his occasional case of the drops.

    The Saints defense will not have to brave the cold as much as the offense. The defense loves to bring pressure, hit people and force turnovers. The freezing temperature will not disturb those tactics.

    The Saints should be able to handle the cold, sunny weather with no problems at all. The run game will get the Saints going and Drew Brees is accurate enough to get his receivers solid passes in the cold.

    If the Titans are banking on the weather affecting the Saints, then they better get a snow machine in Nashville by Sunday.

Saints Defense vs. Chris Johnson

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    Leading into Week 12, Chris Johnson had 509 yards rushing and just two touchdowns. He was averaging a measly 3.2 yards a carry. However, in Week 12, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he exploded. Johnson ran for 190 yards on 23 carries that day, reaching an astounding 8.3 yards a carry. He followed that up the next week against Buffalo running for 153 yards on 6.7 yards a carry and reaching the end zone twice.

    If the Saints want to go into Tennessee and beat the Titans, then they need to stop Chris Johnson.

    They have stopped the run relatively well this season, ranked 16th in the NFL, but the Saints have played much better since the bye week.

    The Saints allowed 73 rushing yards to the Giants and 87 to the Lions. Granted, neither one of those teams have been known for the running the ball this year, but neither have the Titans, until two weeks ago.

    The Saints definitely have the weapons on defense to slow down Johnson, and I believe that they can. They managed to keep the Texans' third-ranked rushing offense to 109 yards earlier in the season.

    The keys to the Saints stopping Johnson begin with the defensive line. If Will Smith and Cameron Jordan can keep contain, then that will force Johnson into the big arms of Shaun Rogers and Sedrick Ellis. It will also allow the linebackers, which have been playing great football lately, to close the gaps and make tackles.

    It's imperative that guys like Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper be there to clean up anything that gets by Jon Vilma and the backers. The Saints safeties are known for getting sucked up too far sometimes, and they cannot let that happen against Johnson, or he'll be high stepping his way to the end zone.

    If the Saints shut down Johnson early, then that makes the Titans offense very one-dimensional, and they cannot beat the Saints in a shootout. The defense of the Saints needs to stop Johnson to make this game a lot easier.

Saints' Running Backs vs. Titans' Fumble Forcing Defense

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    The Titans defense has not done many great things this year, but one thing they can do is strip the football.

    The Titans are ranked fifth in the league in forced fumbles with 13 on the year. However, not only do the Titans force fumbles, but they recover them as well. The Titans are second in the NFL with 10 fumble recoveries.

    The Saints running backs have been very good this year at holding onto the ball, and they must continue that trend in their Week 14 matchup against the Titans. The Saints have only lost two fumbles this year, and one of those was Marques Colston's giveaway against the Packers in Week 1.

    The Saints' ball carriers have to secure the football this week and avoid costly turnovers. The only way that the Titans can keep up with the Saints is if they can run the ball and force mistakes. It is imperative that the running backs do not allow this to happen.

    They will get a lot of touches because of the weather this week, and keeping a grip on the ball will be a focal point throughout the game. I have no doubt that they will be able to do this. 

    Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas have been effective all year, running well enough to be eighth in the league. I expect that to continue this week against the Titans.

Saints' Special Teams vs. Titans' Return Game

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    This is really a matchup of best on best.

    The Saints' punting and kicking game has been amazing this year, thanks to Thomas Morstead. The Saints are No. 1 in the NFL in touchbacks with 49. Morstead's punts average 42.2 net yards, which is second in the league. The Saints have also punted a league low 37 times and allowed the least returns in 15. On top of that, the Saints have only allowed 84 punt return yards all year, which averages out to 5.6 yards a return.

    It is safe to say that the Saints do not give opposing teams too many chances to return kicks, and when they do, they play darn good special teams coverage.

    On the other hand, the Titans have been very good at returning kicks in 2011. They average 28.5 return yards on kickoffs and that is first in the NFL. They also return punts an average of 11.8 yards, which is seventh in the league. The Titans have returned two kicks back for touchdowns this year.

    This matchup may not be as interesting to watch as the others, but it may be more important than all of them. 

    If the Saints can prevent the Titans from getting big returns, then that will limit what the Titans can do on offense. The Saints should focus on pinning the Titans back deep in their own territory and stopping Chris Johnson. The Saints will not punt the ball much, and when they kick off it typically goes out of the end zone.

    However, when the Titans are given chances to make big returns, the Saints' special teams need to get to the ball carrier quickly.

    Field position is an important battle in this game, and the Saints need to come out on top to earn a victory in Week 14.

Saints Secondary vs. Matt Hasselbeck and Titans Receivers

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    Do I need to even bring up the game against the 7-9 Seahawks in last year's playoffs?

    In case you do not know, or have wiped the memory clean from your brain, the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints went into Seattle to play the first team to ever make the playoffs with a losing record, and lost. Matt Hasselbeck led the Seahawks to the major upset.

    Now the Saints get to play him again, except this time he is a Tennessee Titan.

    Hasselbeck shredded the Saints last postseason as he threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns. We have to remember that Hasselbeck was throwing the ball to the likes of 35-year-old Brandon Stokley, who has two catches this year, Mike Williams, 14 catches in 2011, Ben Obomanu, 30 catches this year, and Cameron Morrah, four catches so far this year.

    He also threw two touchdown passes to John Carlson, who has not played a down this year thanks to season-ending shoulder surgery. The point is that Hasselbeck torched the Saints with receivers that no one remembers. Now he has more talent in Tennessee.

    However, the Saints are looking for revenge and they will take anything that they can get. The key will be to not only pressure Hasselbeck, but to get home on the rush plays and sack him. The Saints' front seven should be able to shut down Chris Johnson for most of the game, which would mean that the secondary will need to be there to protect the Saints from giving up a big play in the passing game.

    I believe that they can do this. The Titans' leading receiver this year is Nate Washington, and tight end Jared Cook is next behind him. The Saints should have no trouble covering these receivers, and that will allow for an easy Saints victory this week against the Tennessee Titans.