Setting the Stage:
First game of season. Saints traded TE Jimmy Graham for center Max Unger and planned to switch from a "Brees to his TE" offense to a more traditional one buiilt around a strong running attack setting up occasional shots downfield to speedsters like Cooks. Cards started out a house--fire last season only to have a magical effort derailed by Injuries to #1 and #2 QB's Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. Both Cardinal QB's are considered healed and ready to go. Lots of grumbling down in the Bayou about "best-laid plans of Peyton and Mickey Loomis" suffering setbacks and forcing them to go to Plan B. C or possibly past D.
Cards are missing three starters (Iupati, Floyd, Massie) and probably 2 TE's (Nikklas and Gresham) on offense. Saints (who were 7 & 9 a year ago) are riding an uncharacteristic 5-game home losing streak and said to be thin in depth and talent....Injuries to DB's Keenan Lewis, Brandon Browner, Jairus Byrd, P.J. Williams and Vinnie Sunseri have flipped what was supposed to be a strength into a major question mark. Saints haven't won a road-opener since 2006...
Cards go into Game #1 without Iupati and Massey on the OL, Michael Floyd at WRand possibly Gresham and Nikklas at TE. But they have Carson Palmer back under center and and have bolstered the wide receiver unit with a bigger stronger John Brown and a sub-4.3 JJ Nelson. The defense (despite the continued suspension of Daryl Washington and departure of NT's Dan Williams, John Abraham and Alameda Ta'amu has actually added and developed more talent in the offseason working from the back-end forward. Our DB's are 8-deep in veteran starters. Linebacking is partly a work-in-progress as the Cards attempt to find/develop more dominant pass rushers and greater physicality inside. While they do this, veteran FA Sean Weatherspoon has come in to plug the roster-hole created by DWash's absence and Alex Okafor has quietly emerged as a pass rush/edge-settng force. Cards are busy developing their D-Line (anchored by Pro Bowl DE Calais Campbell) is a lunch pail bunch featuring 2 rookie nose tackles and blue-collar DE's Rucker, Mauro and Stinson
Opponent's Last Game
It was the preseason Game #4 audition and not worth reviewing.
WR1 12 Colston...........83 Snead
LT 72 Armstead.......75 Peat
LG 68 Leitoi..............63 McGlynn
C 60 Unger.............65 Kelemete
RG 73 Evans
RT 64 Strief
TE 82 Watson..........89 J Hill.
WR2 10 Cooks............16 Coleman
FB 35 A Johnson
QB 09 Brees.............07 L McCown.....17 Grayson
22 Ingram...........28 Spiller.............29 K Robinson....48 Murphy.....34 Hightower
DE 93 Campbell..........73 Mauro
NT 95 Gunter...............69 X Williams
DT 92 Rucker..............72 Stinson
SLB 52 Woodley.......... 47 Riddick....96 K Martin
ILB 55 Weatherspoon..54 Demens
ILB 51 Minter...............59 Fua
WLB 57 Okafor............. 44 Golden
LCB 21 Peterson
RCB 25 Powers.............28 Bethel
SS 22 Jefferson..........36 Bucannon.. 29 Clemons
FS 32 Mathieu............26 R. Johnson
Matchup: Saints Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
Drew Brees is 36 years old in his 15th year and suffered a subpar2014 behind a medocre OL. But he's got a keen football mind and is as efficient and accurate as you'll find. With the trade of TE Jimmy Graham (and nearly as surprising departure of Wr Kenny Stills), the Saints offense figures to go through a significant period of adjustment. They still have receiver Marcus Colston to pair up with youngster Brandon Cooks and an augmented running attack with Ingram and CJ Spilller should be there to set up a big play passing game. t may take some time for the recently reworked OL to jell (& equally as long for Peyton and Loomis to know precisely what they've got).
The Cards are strong in the secondary. Pass rush is still iffy, but it looks like Bettcher will continue the Todd Bowles "blitz from every angle" approach (if not moreso). I'd expect Peyton to counter this with a heavy emphasis on the run; but if we can stop Ingram and Spiller, I'd expect PP21, Powers, Mathieu and Co. to contain Cooks and Colston. Of late, Cards linebackers and safeties have been famous for not covering opposing TE's very well. Fortunately, Graham won't be around to burn us. We just have to make sure we don't turn Watson into a superstar.
Key Matchups: Peterson vs. Cooks. Powers vs. Colston (with Mathieu and/or Bethel available to help out vs. the hottest of the two receivers). Bucannon and Mathieu vs. Ingram and Spiller out of the backfield
Matchup: Saints Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
The Saints added CJ Spiller to go with Ingram. It looks like the re-tooled OL (especially with the addition of Unger and Peat) is being reshaped to become more of a road-grading presence. A year ago, the Card run-defense didn't look all that impressive from a yards-allowed standpoint, but they stopped opposing offenses when they had to and were, in fact, a big play turnover-machine that kept points off the board. This preseason, the Cardinal defense against the run has been tougher and even more effective, with opposing teams often averaging under 2.0 - 2.5 yards per attempt.
Key Matchup: Ingram &/or Spiller (both in running the ball and catching out of the backfield vs, Minter, Bucannon, Okafor and Mathieu. Look for wise old veterans like Campbell, Rucker, Okafor and Weatherspoon to make certain we don't get sucked out of position by misdirection fakes.
WR1 11 Fitzgerald, 12 John Brown, Golden
LT 68 Veldheer, 79 Sowell
LG 62 Larsen, 76 Iupati
C 63 Sendlein, 53 Shipley
RG 61 Cooper, 74 Humphreys
RT 61 Massie, 78 Watford, 79 Sowell
TE 87 Niklas, 85 Fells
WR2 15 M. Floyd, 14 JJ Nelson,13 Jaron Brown
QB 03 Palmer, 05 Stanton xx Barkley
RB 38 Ellington, 27 C Johnson, 31 D Johnson, 30 Taylor,
TE 85 Fells, 80 Momah, 84 Gresham, 87 Nikklas
LDE 94 Jordan........90 Barnes...71 Eulis...
NT 92 J Jenkins.....95 Davison
DT 93 K Williams
RDE 76 Hicks............78 Richardson...xx Gwacham
WLB 57 Hawthorne...91 Edebali
MLB 50 Anthony........59 Ellerbe....53 Humber....xx Mauti
SLB 45 Kikaha..........55 Tull
LCB 21 Lewis...........40 Breaux....20 Diixon...Seamster
RCB .39 Browner.......38 Swann...24 K Wilson
FS 31 Byrd............25 Bush .
SS 32 Vaccaro.......33 Sanford
Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Saints Pass Defense
Palmer is back. He'll have Fitz, the Brown dudes and Nelson (but not Floyd) to throw to. Saints will be minus starting LCB Lewis and two other DB's (Browner and Byrd) are nicked up. Major key for Palmer will be to be kept upright and operate from a "clean" pocket. If our receivers can get open, he should be OK. But if they don't, he must avoid the temptation to force the ball into uber-narrow windows or hang onto the ball too long. He will be operating behind an O-line missing 2 of 5 starters and pass pro by our RB's remains a bit iffy. With both NO corners banged up, I'd expect BA to test NO early and often with deep throws to the Browns and Nelson (At the very least, this should help open things up underneath for Fitz).
Key Matchups: Fitz vs. Breaux. John Brown and Nelson vs. Browner and Swann. Ellington and C Johnson (out of the backfield) vs. Vaccaro, Anthony and ther Saint LB's. Watford and Veldheer vs. Jordan, Hicks and Anthony
Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Saints Run Defense
Cards have strengthened their running attack by adding Chris Johnson and a big rookie with pass catchng skills (David Johnson) to go with Andre Ellington. All have prerequisite home-run/receiving skills. All (if for no other reason than the position they play) are vulnerable to injury. I'm less concerned about our RB's to pick up yardage than I am our offensive line's to open holes for our runners. Our best run blocker (Iupati) will probably be out). Our original starting RT (Robert Massie) will be serving the first week of a 2-week suspension. It will be up to Veldheer, Sowell, Watford, our TE's (since we didn't keep any FB's) and our three other interior guys (Shipley, Sendliein and Larsen) to take control of the LOS and make our running game go. Look for BA to attempt to isolate a RB on the least physical of the NO corners.
Key Matchup: Watford and Cooper vs. Jenkins, Hicks etc. C Johnson, Ellington or D Johnson vs. Breaux or Swann.
P 06 Morstead
K 02 Hooker
H 04 Lee
LS 47 Drescher
K 07 Catanzaro
P 02 Butler
H 02 Butler
LS 82 Leach
KR 10 Golden ......14 Nelson
PR 10 Golden.......14 Nelson
Matchup: Saints Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
It's hard to know how special teams will shake out this early in the season - especially on teams experiencing high personnel turnover. Card coverage teams should remain pretty strong. We still have Bethel and Campbell to block kicks. Golden and Nelson have a lot of speed, but speed is only part of the equation when it comes to returning punts. Catanzaro has left a couple of points on the field (within the context of a longer XP distance). I still can't get over Butller's shaky performance in last year's playoff loss. I confess to knowing absoutely nothing about NO's key kicking, punting or return personnel.
Key matchups: Campbell and Bethel vs. Hooker. Nelson or Golden vs NO cverage teams.
NO: Sean Payton is HC, Pete Carmichael OC, Rob Ryan DC and Greg McMahon ST's. Peyton is turning over his roster much faster than most teams do. It may take time for the team to develop necessary chemistry. You also have to wonder whether the trades of Graham and Still make Brees feel as if he's being left out there to dry while the Saints rebuild. Expect Ryan's defense to be...well...a "Ryan defense"(i.e. not all that less aggressive than Bettchers).
AZ: Meanwhile, all has been pretty upbeat around Cardinal Hq. Only questionmark might have to do with whether Jim Bettcher will make any significant changes to Todd Bowles' defensive approach (So far not: If anything, Bettcher's approach seems even more aggressive).
I like us "on paper." But people/not paper win football games, and we'll have to see how that plays out Sunday..