In 2018, it was an improbable walk-off touchdown by Minnesota after a blown coverage and missed tackle in the divisional round. This January, it was an egregious missed pass interference call that would have resulted in a first down that would have allowed the Saints to run down the clock and — at worst — kick a potential game-winning field goal from inside the red zone in the NFC championship game.
The fallout from that play resulted in coaches being able to challenge pass interference calls in addition to the replay official being able to initiate reviews of all such instances in the final two minutes of each half and in overtime.
The rule change offers little solace to Brees and the Saints, who are bidding for a third consecutive NFC South title. The offense has been re-tooled to a degree, losing bruising between-the-tackles running back Mark Ingram via free agency and adding tight end Jared Cook.
The latter will hopefully take some of the pressure off Michael Thomas, who got paid with a capital P this offseason after signing a 5-year, $100 million contract that makes him the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL.
The Texans are also defending division champions after edging out Indianapolis in the AFC South, but that home-field advantage meant little as the Colts bounced Houston in the wild-card round.
DeShaun Watson made a full recovery from the torn ACL suffered in his 2017 rookie season, playing all 16 games last season and throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns while adding another 551 yards and five scores rushing. DeAndre Hopkins solidified his status as one of the NFL’s elite receivers with career highs of 115 catches and 1,572 yards to go with 11 touchdowns.
The Texans also made a huge pair of deals ahead of the season opener, sending disgruntled defensive end Jadeveous Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for linebackers Barkevious Mingo, Jacob Martin, and a 2020 third-round draft pick.
They then acquired left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Kenny Stills, a 2020 fourth-round pick and a 2021 sixth-round pick from the Miami Dolphins for first-round picks in 2020 and 2021, a second-round pick in 2021, and cornerback Johnson Bademosi and tackle Julien Davenport.
Houston also acquired running back Carlos Hyde from the Kansas City Chiefs to fill the void created by starter Lamar Miller’s torn ACL suffered in the preseason finale versus Dallas. The Texans other primary running back — Duke Johnson — is also an offseason acquisition, arriving via trade from Cleveland.
The Texans are banking on Tunsil being their left tackle for a decade — provided they can re-sign him over the next two seasons while on his rookie contract — while Stills should be the steady No. 2 receiver they missed all of 2018 as both Will Fuller V and Demariyus Thomas suffered injuries.
A Quick Review of the Season to Date
Houston Texans Review
The good for the Texans during their 11-win campaign was Watson not only fully recovering from his torn ACL but showing improvement at being a quarterback and being more judicious about when to leave the pocket.
Even when you think you got @deshaunwatson…
You don't. 🤷♂️
— NFL (@NFL) September 1, 2019
The latter part took some time to appreciate, especially after Watson was sacked an NFL-high 62 times last season. The tradeoff, though, was him throwing only two interceptions in his last 10 regular-season games.
Houston became just the sixth team to make the playoffs after starting 0-3, shaking off losses to Tennessee, New England and the New York Giants by a combined 15 points to reel off nine consecutive victories. Watson showed the ability to win close games, with five of those victories coming by seven or fewer points and four by three or fewer — including a pair of overtime triumphs.
Of course, it’s easier to stay in the pocket throwing to a Hopkins, who thrived despite being the focal point of opposing secondaries after the Texans lost Fuller seven games into the season and Thomas acclimating to a new team after his mid-season acquisition from Denver. Hopkins cracked 110 receptions for the second time in his career and 1,200 yards for the fourth time.
On defense, the Texans were one of the league’s best against the run, holding opponents to a league-low 3.4 yards per carry and 82.7 yards per game — good for third in the league. End J.J. Watt was another player who bounced back from an injury-marred 2017, totaling 16 sacks as he and Clowney accounted for 25 — more than half of Houston’s 43 overall.
The secondary, however, was mediocre at times as the Texans allowed 4,477 gross passing yards — the fifth-highest total in the league. Rookie safety Justin Reid showed plenty of promise with a team-high three interceptions and took one of them back 101 yards for a touchdown.
New Orleans Saints Review
The Saints were their usual productive offense selves thanks to Brees, who bettered his own single-season record for NFL completion percentage for the second straight year by connecting on a staggering 74.4 percent of his passes.
Along the way, he became the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (74,437) and completions (6,586). Should he remain healthy — and he does have arguably the NFL’s best offensive line protecting him — he should throw the 20 touchdown passes needed to overtake Peyton Manning (539) for that all-time mark.
— ucf probs (@ucf_problems) October 9, 2018
Before departing for Baltimore, Ingram and Alvin Kamara proved to be a devastating 1-2 punch in the ground game, with Ingram softening up opposing defenses between the tackles while Kamara would blow by them on the edge. The pair combined 1,498 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns while each averaged 4.5 yards or better per carry.
For the second straight season, though, few defenses had answers for stopping Kamara as a receiver as he grabbed another 81 passes but finished with more than 100 fewer yards.
Then there is Thomas, whose three-year career arc projects to put him in the same stratosphere as wide receivers Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Harrison, and Cris Carter. Thomas has increased his production each season in the league, which is borderline absurd considering his rookie baseline consisted of 92 catches for 1,137 yards.
He led the NFL with 125 receptions in 2018 and was sixth with 1,405 yards while catching nine TD passes. Thomas and Brees were virtually unstoppable as the pitch-and-catch combination was successful 85 percent of the time — about the only thing worth complaining about was Brees did not throw his way enough — Thomas finished 11th in targets last season with 147.
Yet for all the things Brees brings with his consistency and unerring accuracy, it was the Saints defense that made huge strides in 2018 to make them a Super Bowl contender. New Orleans had a six-game run last season in which it allowed 17 or fewer points, a stunning turnaround for a team torched by journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick for 48 points and 529 yards in a season-opening home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
End Cameron Jordan had 12 sacks, anchoring a starting front four including Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata and rookie Marcus Ravenport that totaled 29 drops of opposing QBs. They were also menacing against the run, yielding a league-low 80.2 yards per game on 3.6 yards per carry. While some of that can be attributed to playing from behind and needing to pass, there was no doubt New Orleans was a much-improved team on that side of the ball.
Houston Texans Offense vs. New Orleans Saints Defense
Running the Ball: Who Has the Edge?
Houston Texans Rushing Offense
The Texans have been in a scramble mode since Lamar Miller suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the third preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. They were able to acquire Carlos Hyde from the Kansas City Chiefs, and at the very least, Hyde should fit in well with the blue-collar ethos coach Bill O’Brien of establishing the ground game.
#Texans add depth to RB group with acquisition of Carlos Hyde.
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) September 3, 2019
“Carlos, I think, is a solid first-, second-down runner, can help you in the passing game,” O’Brien told the team’s official website Monday. “I think there’s a number of things he can do. I think that he’s got good size relative to that position and he’s had production in the past.”
Hyde was productive in his two full seasons as a starter for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016-17, finishing just shy of 1,000 yards on both occasions. Given how much the Texans like running the ball, there could be questions whether Hyde can tote the rock 20 times week-in and week-out, but for this game, there is also the question of how quickly he can get the offense down.
With Hyde as the early down back, fellow trade acquisition Duke Johnson is the team’s third-down back. The Texans dealt a conditional draft pick — believed to be a fourth-round selection in 2020 that could become a third — to land Johnson, who requested a trade out of Cleveland after the Chiefs signed Kareem Hunt.
Johnson got a late start in the preseason due to a hamstring injury and didn’t participate in a practice with Houston until Aug. 20. The fifth-year pro is a valuable weapon out of the backfield, however, recording at least 47 receptions in each of his four seasons while averaging 9.2 yards per catch for his career.
It would not be surprising to see O’Brien mix and match Hyde and Johnson throughout this contest if he sees matchup advantages through power running or on the edge.
New Orleans Saints Rushing Defense
The Saints were one of the best in the league stopping the run in 2018, finishing behind only the Chicago Bears at 80.2 yards per game. The difference between 2017 and last season was night and day as New Orleans vaulted from the middle of the pack — teams averaged 111.7 rushing yards in 2017 — to the upper echelon.
Some of this can be attributed to the fewer volume of carries the Saints run defense faced since opponents had to throw more often and also because opponents were more successful throwing the ball against New Orleans than they were running the ball.
Sheldon Rankins took his game up a level in the final quarter a season ago! 📈 pic.twitter.com/iRoeMqG4xT
— PFF (@PFF) September 2, 2019
The Saints will be without one of their anchors on the defensive line as Sheldon Rankins continues to recover from a torn Achilles suffered against Philadelphia in the divisional round of the playoffs. Rankins, who started every game the last two seasons, was second on the team to Cameron Jordan with 12 tackles for loss.
Rankins’ absence puts more pressure on free agent acquisition Malcom Brown to be the team’s primary run-stopper between the tackles. Brown brings a champion’s pedigree to the Saints after starting 51 of 60 games with New England the past four seasons and though he had only 39 tackles, he did well to sustain offensive linemen to allow linebacker Kyle Van Noy and safety Patrick Chung to fill the running lanes and clean up.
“First off, I saw what they’re defense could do and I’m just trying to come in and contribute wherever I can,” Brown told 247sports.com at the time of his signing in April. “I think they can help me get to the next level of my game and should be more in tune with the game and give me more opportunities out on the field.”
Behind the front four, Demario Davis is again the man in the middle of the action at linebacker after a standout first season with the Saints in which he totaled 110 tackles, including 11 for losses.
.@Saints @demario__davis is so underappreciated. How in the name of… did the @nyjets let him out of the building. #whodat is lucky that some teams can’t evaluate their own personnel. He does everything well. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/ZTKLnOwqNW
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) August 26, 2019
Notable Rushing Statistics
Houston Texans Offense
Houston Texans 2018 Team Rushing
Carries — 472 (4th)
Carries Per Game — 29.5 (4th)
Yards — 2,021 (8th)
Average Rushing Yards per Game — 126.3 (8th)
Average Rushing Yards per Carry — 4.28 (19th)
Rushing TDs — 12 (T-20th)
Houston Texans Individual Rushing
Lamar Miller — 210 rushes, 973 yards, 4.63 yards per carry, 5 TDs
DeShaun Watson — 99/551/5.57/5
Alfred Blue — 150/499/3.33/2
New Orleans Saints Defense
New Orleans Saints 2018 Rushing Defense
Opponent Carries — 356 (4th fewest)
Opponent Carries per game — 22.3 (4th)
Opponent Rushing Yards — 1,283 (2nd)
Average Opponent Rushing Yards Per Game — 80.2 (2nd)
Average Opponent Rushing Yards Per Carry — 3.60 (2nd)
Opponent Rushing TDs — 12 (T-10th)
New Orleans Saints Individual Defensive Statistics
Demario Davis — 74 solo tackles/36 assists/110 total tackles/11 tackles for loss/4.5 stuffs
Vonn Bell — 61/26/87/4/4
A.J. Klein — 42/28/70/7/6
Alex Anzalone — 45/14/59/3/1.5
Marshon Lattimore — 49/10/59/1/0
Marcus Williams — 46/9/55/0/0.5
P.J. Williams — 44/9/53/2/0
Eli Apple — 42/10/52/0/0
Cameron Jordan — 35/14/49/18/6
Sheldon Rankins — 26/14/40/12/3.5
Alex Okafor — 25/11/36/5/0
David Onyemata — 23/12/35/4/1.5
Ken Crawley — 28/3/31/1/1
Kurt Coleman — 21/9/30/1/1.5
Tyler Davison — 8/15/23/2/1.5
Marcus Davenport — 12/10/22/6/3.5
Manti Te’o — 12/6/18/0/0
Craig Robertson — 8/2/10/2/1
Taylor Stallworth — 6/2/8/1/1
Who Has the Edge?
The Saints stout run defense gets the nod here because of the uncertainty of how the Texans are going to attack them with Hyde and Johnson. Even without Rankins gumming things up in the middle for New Orleans, Brown should be able to take on most of those assignments and let Davis do his thing in the running lanes.
It is hard to envision Houston being able to use its full complement of running plays in this game given both Johnson and Hyde have been with the team less than a month and more specifically, practicing with the team for less than three weeks ahead of this contest.
Advantage: New Orleans Saints
Aerial Assault: Who Has the Upper Hand?
Houston Texans Passing Offense
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the Watson-to-Hopkins connection that has thrived from the moment the Texans made Watson the 12th overall pick in 2017.
This DeShaun Watson TD pass to DeAndre Hopkins is a thing of beauty. Watson zips it in, Hopkins snags it.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) November 18, 2018
Hopkins closed 2018 with a flourish, recording three straight 100-yard games while totaling 31 catches for 418 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and most of that came with opposing defenses shading him since the Texans were on their third No. 2 receiver by that point after losing Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas to injury.
The scary part is there is still potential to be reached for both players to take this partnership even further.
“I never even worked out the whole off-season with a quarterback. Just because it’s in and out,” said Hopkins in an interview with GQ talking about life before Watson. “Cut. One year. Cut.
“You don’t understand what I’ve been through. Nobody understands, and I keep it to myself,” he said. “I don’t bash people in the media, like other people. Before Deshaun, I used to be frustrated … all the time, just saying, ‘How am I in this position?’”
The return of Fuller and the arrival of Stills gives the Texans three pro-caliber receiving threats that could be on the field simultaneously for the Texans. With Keke Coutee nursing an ankle injury, Stills has the chance to make an immediate impact in this game as the No. 3 wideout, with the possibility of using Fuller underneath in the slot.
“He can run all the routes on the outside,” O’Brien said of Stills, who began his career with the Saints as a fifth-round drat pick in 2013. “I think he can play on the inside. I think he’s a versatile wide receiver that can do a lot of different things. He’s got good hands, is a really good route runner, very smooth route runner, so he has a combination of speed and route running ability that, I think you guys know in being around me for a while, that I really like having on the team.”
New Orleans Saints Passing Defense
The Saints pass defense will be under strain the entire season because of the success of the run defense but also because they are still, at best, a mediocre unit with much to prove entering this season.
The good news was that they stabilized to a large degree after acquiring cornerback Eli Apple from the New York Giants in midseason. Still, much of the success New Orleans will have in this game defensively boils down to how well Marcus Lattimore can contain Hopkins.
Lattimore endured a rough early part of 2018 and while he broke up 12 passes, opposing quarterbacks still picked on him plenty. Teams completed 64.4 percent (50 for 78) of their attempts thrown his way for 777 yards and four touchdowns.
Listen to the full podcast here: (link – https://t.co/AVTNNZBrrd)
— New Orleans Saints Podcast (@SaintsPod) September 4, 2019
Hopkins was quick to offer praise for his opponent, telling Houston Chronicle writer Aaron Wilson the third-year corner is “fast, long, and makes plays on the ball.”
Apple and slot corner P.J. Williams also figure to have their hands full with Stills and Fuller, which makes it imperative edge rushers Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport at least make Watson uncomfortable. Jordan had a team-high 12 sacks last season while Davenport chipped in 4.5 as as rookie and finished third on the team with 12 QB hurries.
“He’s elusive back there, he knows how to find the rush and escape out of the pocket,” Brown said of Watson. “He can throw the ball outside the pocket, so we have to keep him in the pocket.”
Notable Passing Statistics
Houston Texans Offense
Houston Texans 2018 Team Passing
Passes Attempted — 506 (27th)
Passes Completed — 345 (20th)
Completion Percentage — 68.2 (6th)
Gross Passing Yards — 4,165 (16th)
Net Passing Yards – 3,781 (17th)
Net Passing Yards Per Game — 236.3 (17th)
Average Gain Per Pass Play — 6.66 (12th)
Yards Per Attempt — 8.23 (5th)
Yards Per Completion — 12.07 (7th)
Passing TDs — 26 (T-17th)
Interceptions — 9 (T-6th fewest)
Times Sacked — 62 (1st most)
Passer Rating — 102.9 (6th)
Houston Texans 2018 Individual Passing
DeShaun Watson — 345 completion/505 attempts/68.3 completion percentage/4,165 yards/26 TDs/9 INTs/103.1 passer rating
DeAndre Hopkins — 0/1/0.0/0/0/0/39.6
Houston Texans Individual Receiving
DeAndre Hopkins — 115 receptions/1,572 yards/13.7 yards per catch/11 TDs
Will Fuller V — 32/503/15.7/4
Keke Coutee — 28/287/10.3/1
Lamar Miller — 25/163/6.5/1
Ryan Griffin — 24/305/12.7/0
Demaryius Thomas — 23/275/12.0/2
Jordan Thomas — 20/215/10.8/4
DeAndre Carter — 20/195/9.8/0
Alfred Blue — 20/154/7.7/0
Jordan Akins — 17/225/13.2/0
Bruce Ellington — 8/92/11.5/1
Vyncint Smith — 5/91/18.2/1
Tyler Ervin — 3/35/11.7/0
D’Onta Freeman — 2/28/14.0/1
New Orleans Saints Defense
New Orleans Saints 2018 Passing Defense
Opponents’ Passes Attempted — 573 (11th-most)
Opponents’ Passes Completed — 384 (T-8th)
Opponents’ Completing Percentage — 67.0 (7th)
Opponents’ Gross Passing Yards — 4,623 (2nd)
Opponents’ Net Passing Yards — 4,302 (4th)
Opponents’ Net Passing Yards Per Game — 268.9 (29th)
Opponents’ Yards Per Attempt — 8.07 (4th)
Opponents’ Yards Per Completion — 12.04 (5th)
Opponents’ Average Gain Per Pass Play — 6.92 (28th)
Opponents’ TD passes — 30 (T–9th)
Interceptions — 12 (T-18th)
Sacks — 49 (T-5th)
Opponents’ Passer Rating 100.3 (6th)
New Orleans Individual Defense Sacks and Quarterback Hurries
Cameron Jordan — 12 sacks/21 quarterback hurries
Sheldon Rankins — 8/15
Demario Davis — 5/11
David Onyemata — 4.5/6
Marcus Davenport — 4.5/12
Alex Okafor — 4/9
A.J. Klein — 2/4
Alex Anzalone — 2/6
Tyeler Davison — 2/3
Vonn Bell — 1/3
Marcus Williams — 1/0
P.J. Williams — 1/2
Craig Robertson — 1/1
Taylor Stallworth — 1/1
New Orleans Interceptions and Passes Broken Up
Marcus Williams — 2 INTs/3 Passes Broken Up
Eli Apple — 2/9
Chris Banjo — 2/3
Marshon Lattimore — 2/12
Justin Hardee — 1/2
P.J. Williams — 1/9
A.J. Klein — 1/3
Alex Anzalone — 1/2
Who Has the Edge?
Tunsil’s first test at left tackle will be a formidable one in trying to slow down Jordan, but if he can do that, the Texans should be able to make a consistent pocket for Watson against a short-handed defensive line along the interior.
Another big if is Fuller. If he is fully recovered from his knee injury, the fall-off from Hopkins to Fuller and Stills is a manageable gap that can put considerable pressure on New Orleans’ secondary. It is still a Saints defense that was among the five worst in gross and net passing yards allowed as well as average gain per completion.
Houston was also not afraid to look downfield, ranking in the top seven in both yards per attempt and yards per completion. If the Texans keep Watston upright, the Saints secondary could be in for a long evening.
Advantage: Houston Texans
New Orleans Saints Offense vs. Houston Texans Defense
Who Has the Edge in the Ground Game?
New Orleans Saints Rushing Offense
Murray signed a 4-year, $14.4 million deal with the Saints after spending the past two seasons with Minnesota, becoming the feature back at points each year after Dalvin Cook went down with an injury.
Murray will not be a feature back per se as Payton will continue to use Kamara and Murray similar to how he did with Ingram for inside runs, but the goal is to make sure Murray has enough touches to keep Kamara fresh for later in the season.
“Look around the league. You have that running back room that typically brings different skillsets and you are able to mix and match,” Brees told SaintsWire in May. “I think our offense is proven that we do a lot of things with two backs in the game. It just gives us a lot of flexibility and gives a lot for the defense to have to worry about and game plan for.”
— Saints Happy Hour Podcast (@SaintsHappyHour) September 5, 2019
Payton’s desire to keep Kamara fresh is understandable when you look at the back’s overall running numbers from his second season. Kamara finished with just 155 more yards on 74 more carries as his average yards per carry dipped from 6.1 to 4.6. Some of that was Kamara getting more touches while Ingram served a four-game suspension, but he also had just three games where he averaged 5.o yards or better per carry compared to the eight in his rookie season in 2017.
Houston Texans Rushing Defense
The Texans were no slouches in the running game last season as they ranked behind only the Bears and the Saints, yielding 82.7 yards per game. Nose tackle D.J. Reader is the gap-plugger, which allows linebackers Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney to fill the running lanes to make tackles.
Texans defensive line coach Anthony Weaver talks about the contribution NT’s DJ Reader and Brandon Dunn makes on and off the field to the younger guys. #BigSargeSportz @Djread98 @javier_edwards9 @houstonstyle pic.twitter.com/alGfOx7QG2
— SPORTZ TALK WITH BIG SARGE (@BigSargeSportz) August 13, 2019
But filling the large void Clowney’s departure created starts with Brennan Scarlett, who has gotten first-team reps all camp while Clowney held out. The fourth-year pro has been a part-time starter since sticking with the team as undrafted rookie out of Stanford and faces a huge challenge of slowing down Kamara and Murray.
“I think my big focus every day is choosing something to get better at,” Scarlett told the Houston Chronicle. “Whether that would be defending the run, setting the edge or working on my pass rush and working on my toolbox and arsenal of moves, that’s definitely been a focus this year.”
Notable Rushing Statistics
New Orleans Saints Offense
New Orleans Saints 2018 Team Rushing
Carries — 471 (5th)
Carries Per Game — 29.4 (5th)
Yards — 2,025 (6th)
Average Rushing Yards per Game — 126.6 (6th)
Average Rushing Yards per Carry — 4.30 (17th)
Rushing TDs — 26 (1st)
New Orleans Saints Individual Rushing
Alvin Kamara — 194 rushes, 883 yards, 4.55 yards per carry, 14 TDs
Mark Ingram — 138/645/4.67/6
Taysom Hill — 37/196/5.30/2
Dwayne Washington — 27/154/5.70/2
Mike Gillislee — 16/43/2.69/0
Houston Texans Defense
Houston Texans 2018 Rushing Defense
Opponent Carries — 385 (9th fewest)
Opponent Carries per game — 24.1 (9th)
Opponent Rushing Yards — 1,323 (3rd)
Average Opponent Rushing Yards Per Game — 82.7 (3rd)
Average Opponent Rushing Yards Per Carry — 3.44 (1st)
Opponent Rushing TDs — 8 (3rd)
Houston Texans Individual Defensive Statistics
Bernardrick McKinney — 63 solo tackles/42 assists/105 total tackles/5 tackles for loss/2.5 stuffs
Zach Cunningham — 73/32/3/0.5
Tyrann Mathieu — 70/19/89/5/2.5
Kareen Jackson — 70/17/87/5/2
J.J.Watt — 47/14/61/18/8
Johnathan Joseph — 49/9/58/1/2
Jadeveon Clowney — 38/9/47/16/9.5
Whitney Mercilus — 22/17/39/5/3.5
D.J. Reader — 23/10/33/5/1.5
Shareece Wright — 25/7/32/3/2
Aaron Colvin — 22/7/29/0/0
Angelo Blackson — 18/6/1/0.5
Brandon Dunn — 13/11/24/4/4
Christian Covington — 8/7/15/4/1.5
Dylan Cole — 13/0/13/1/0
Brennan Scarlett — 8/4/12/0/0.5
Andre Hal — 5/6/11/0/0
Duke Ejiofor — 6/2/8/1/0
Brian Peters 3/4/7/0/0.5
Who Has the Edge?
Kamara brings plenty of problems with his ability to get wide, but the Texans are one of the few teams who can match speed for speed from sideline to sideline with McKinney and Cunningham. The swing vote in this matchup is Scarlett, since the Saints will have even more incentive to run away from Watt and towards Scarlett on the right side, whether that is trying to get outside him on the edge or even between the tackles with Murray.
Advantage: New Orleans Saints
Who Has the Upper Hand in the Passing Attack?
New Orleans Saints Passing Offense
For the fourth straight season in New Orleans, be prepared to see a whole lot of this:
— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) August 24, 2019
Between Brees’ accuracy and Thomas’ ability to get open, this connection operates on a plane few other quarterback-receiver pairings can, though their opponents have an excellent one in Watson and Hoplins. Brees’ accuracy plays into this stat to a degree, but it is still somewhat mind-bending to realize Thomas was ELEVENTH in targets while leading the league in catches.
To wit, if you project NFL leader Julio Jones’ 170 targets onto Thomas’ 2018 numbers, that would add 19.6 catches to his total (let’s round up and say 20 — he’s good for the 0.4 catches). So with 145 catches at 11.2 yards per reception, Thomas would have had 1,629 yards, which would have been second only to Jones’ 1,677.
That $100 million contract extension, however, does raise the stakes to a degree where Thomas could get those extra 20 targets over the course of a season. After all, what is one more pass each game to the unquestioned No. 1 wideout on a team?
“It’s kind of crazy, because I wouldn’t be lying to you if I told you that was my goal. Some people are afraid to shoot that high or set those types of goals or be that determined or that intentional in something,” Thomas told ESPN as part of their Body Issue. “I’m very intentional. My plan was always to be the first $100 million receiver. All my steps, all my moves, the way I acted, the way I handled my business, the way I treat people. That’s what it looks like to be the highest-paid receiver.”
Still, there are only so many times Brees can throw his way without having the entire opposing defense crowd that half of the field. Having Ted Ginn healthy would be a huge plus in taking some of the defensive attention off Thomas as well as Tre’Quan Smith making progress in his second season in the league.
Ginn was lost for the season after just five games with a knee injury and had 17 catches for 209 yards. Everyone remembers Smith for his 13-catch, 157-yard effort versus Philadelphia while forgetting he totaled 15 receptions and 270 yards in the other 14 games.
One area where the Saints upgraded significantly in the passing attack is at tight end, where Jared Cook replaces Ben Watson. Cook was another player surprisingly deemed expendable in Oakland by Jon Gruden and is coming off a career season in which he had 68 catches for 896 yards and six touchdowns — with most of that coming after the Raiders dealt Amari Cooper to Dallas.
And after one season in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers that ended one step short of the Super Bowl in 2016, Cook has the same hunger as Brees in taking that final step.
”It’s all about the preparation. The more you go into a game plan knowing what to do, knowing what your quarterback is going to check to or tell you before he even says it, I think the preparation in that aspect gives you a step above the competition,” he told The Associated Press. ”It’s your preparation that’s going to get you a little extra open. That’s going to make the difference between a 1-yard contested-catch or 5-yard separation, wide open. So it’s just how I approach the game, how I go about it, how I’m learning.
Brees has been there, done that when it comes to starting out on Monday Night Football or in prime time. He’s all about winning.
“Yeah, listen, it would be very important; it would be nice to start out (laughs) in the win column,” said Brees. “You’re always fighting human nature. You know human nature is that when you’re winning, maybe, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s all good. We’re winning,’ stuff gets, little mistakes get swept under the rug and that kind of thing. You still feel good about everything. You have to self-discipline yourself to sit there each and every week and just take a hard look at everything. And whether you won or lost, it’s, ‘We gotta get better,’ and it’s a race to get better, especially early in the season. It’s a race to get better and we’re always looking for constant improvement.”
Houston Texans Passing Defense
To steal a phrase from Agent Smith in “The Matrix,” J.J. Watt is the sound of inevitability for opposing quarterbacks.
Dolphins take care of Jadeveon Clowney with a TE and RB. Laremy Tunsil slides inside to help with DJ Reader.
JJ Watt eats Brock Osweiler’s face, despite drawing a holding penalty. pic.twitter.com/PvxrBSuyTt
— Matt Hammond (@MattHammondShow) September 1, 2019
Watt will draw double-teams and likely a chip block from Murray or Kamara on his way to trying to get to Brees, but with Clowney’s departure, the question becomes whether facing it every single pass play will drain him. He led all linemen and linebackers on the Texans last year by playing 90.1 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and like it not, there will be noticeable difference the handful of plays he is not on the field without Clowney on the opposite side.
While Scarlett is expected to help the pass rush on the edge, the edge rusher who can best help the Texans is Whitney Mercilus, who is comin off a sub-par 2018 in which he totaled four sacks. After his breakout 2015 season in which he totaled a career-high 12 takedowns, Mercilus has totaled 12.5 combined in 36 games over the past three years, but defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is confident Mercilus can be both effective and versatile.
“Whitney is one of those guys that – he 12 sacks a couple of years ago,” Crennel told the Texans’ official website. “He’s an ultimate team guy. He’ll do whatever we ask him to do, and I think that we’re going to try to move him around a little bit more this year than we did last year, and see what that does for him.”
A revamped secondary faces a tall order in shutting down Brees and company, and it starts with second-year safety Justin Reid. The third-round pick from Stanford became a full-time starter in Week 6 and finished with 81 tackles and three interceptions. He is the only holdover among the four starters as the Texans signed Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Bradley Roby, and Tashaun Gipson from Cleveland, Denver, and Jacksonville, respectively.
The Texans had 15 interceptions last season, but that figure stands to increase given the expected increase in opponents’ passing given Clowney’s departure and Houston’s solid run defense. Reid noted one of the keys will be trying to take away Brees’ first read — which is usually Thomas — and most certainly easier said than done.
Notable Passing Statistics
New Orleans Saints Offense
New Orleans Saints Offense
New Orleans Saints 2018 Team Passing
Passes Attempted — 519 (23rd)
Passes Completed — 381 (11th)
Completion Percentage — 73.4 (1st)
Gross Passing Yards — 4,174 (15th)
Net Passing Yards –4,042 (12th)
Net Passing Yards Per Game — 252.6 (12th)
Average Gain Per Pass Play — 7.50 (4th)
Yards Per Attempt — 8.04 (7th)
Yards Per Completion — 10.96 (19th)
Passing TDs — 33 (7th)
Interceptions — 7 (T-2nd fewest)
Times Sacked — 20 (31st most)
Passer Rating — 112.3 (2nd)
New Orleans Saints 2018 Individual Passing
Drew Brees — 364 completions/489 attempts/74.4 completion percentage/3,992 yards/32 TDs/5 INTs/115.7 passer rating
Teddy Bridgewater — 14/23/60.9/118/1/1/70.6
Taysom Hill — 3/7/42.9/64/0/1/36.3
New Orleans Saints Individual Receiving
Michael Thomas — 125 receptions/1,405 yards/11.2 yards per catch/9 TDs
Alvin Kamara — 81/709/8.8/4
Ben Watson — 35/400/11.4/2
Tre’Quan Smith — 28/427/15.3/5
Mark Ingram — 21/170/8.1/1
Ted Ginn Jr. — 17/209/12.3/2
Josh Hill — 16/185/11.6/1
Keith Kirkwood — 13/209/16.1/2
Dan Arnold — 12/150/12.5/1
Cam Meredith — 9/114/12.7/1
Austin Carr — 9/97/10.8/2
Zach Line — 5/14/2.8/2
Tommylee Lewis — 3/60/20.0/1
Houston Texans Defense
Houston Texans 2018 Passing Defense
Opponents’ Passes Attempted — 594 (7th-most)
Opponents’ Passes Completed — 385 (7th)
Opponents’ Completing Percentage — 64.8 (15th)
Opponents’ Gross Passing Yards — 4,477 (28th)
Opponents’ Net Passing Yards — 4,167 (28th)
Opponents’ Net Passing Yards Per Game — 260.4 (28th)
Opponents’ Yards Per Attempt — 7.54 (13th)
Opponents’ Yards Per Completion — 11.63 (11th)
Opponents’ Average Gain Per Pass Play — 6.54 (18th)
Opponents’ TD passes — 28 (18th)
Interceptions — 15 (T-9th)
Sacks — 43 (T-11th)
Opponents’ Passer Rating 92.7 (20th)
Houston Texans Individual Defense Sacks and Quarterback Hurries
J.J. Watt — 16 sacks/25 quarterback hurries
Jadeveon Clowney — 9/21
Bernardrick McKinney — 7.5/5
Whitney Mercilus — 4/14
Christian Covington — 3.5/8
Tyrann Mathieu — 3/4
D.J. Reader — 2/3
Kareem Jackson — 1/1
Angelo Blackson — 1/2
Duke Ejiofor — 1/2
Carlos Watkins — 1/1
Houston Texans Interceptions and Passes Broken Up
Justin Reid — 3 interceptions/10 Passes Broken Up
Andre Hal — 3/5
Johnathan Joseph — 2/13
Kareem Jackson — 2/17
Tyrann Mathieu — 2/8
Zach Cunningham — 1/5
Brennan Scarlett — 1/3
Bernardrick McKinney — 1/7
Who Has the Edge?
This has the makings of a potentially long night for the Texans defense as it tries to adjust without Clowney. While he did not practice with the team all camp, Scarlett and others have gotten the needed reps in to be ready for this game, but it is a whole other level to be ready for what Brees and Payton throw at them.
Roby is expected to be the primary cover on Thomas, and that may not be the best matchup considering opponents completed 61.3 percent (49 of 80) passes thrown his way for 790 yards and five touchdowns against his 12 pass breakups.
The pick-your-poison problem also crops up with Brees’ progressions. When Kamara, Thomas, and Cook are all deployed on routes, who is the second target? Is the slot corner going to cover Kamara or a linebacker? Is Reid going to cheat and come up to cover Reed. The up-and-coming safety is going to need to have his head on a swivel since New Orleans can flood all three levels and send Smith screaming down the field as an added element of chaos.
New Orleans has one of the best offensive lines in the league, and Watt is going to have to work to lay a hand on Brees. Throw in the constant double teams and it is hard to see a way where the Saints fail to enjoy a good deal of success.
Advantage: New Orleans Saints
Special Teams, Coaching, & Intangibles
Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn is coming off a monstrous season in which he totaled 150 points by banging through 37 of 42 field goals — 17 more than 2017 — and all but two of his 41 extra points. He was automatic inside 40 yards (20 for 20) and connected on 4 of 6 from 50 yards or longer.
Trevor Daniel held off a challenge from Bryan Anger to retain the punting job, and while he put 36 of his 74 efforts inside the opponents’ 20, Houston still had plenty of work to do on coverage as opponents attempted to return 32 of them and averaged 7.5 yards.
DeAndre Carter handles return duties after being acquired midseason from Philadelphia in 2018. He offered some potential on punts, averaging 9.8 yards on 20 runbacks, highlighted by a 50-yarder.
O’Brien has plenty of challenges on his plate in this season opener, almost as many with his team as he does stopping the Saints. There are many fluid pieces and newcomers on both sides of the ball, and that could prove problematic in a raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans Saints
Wil Lutz has recorded 409 points in his first three seasons and is never idle long with New Orleans’ offense. He had 136 points last season while hitting 13 of 15 field goals from 40 yards or longer and has only missed five of 153 PATs since taking over kicking duties.
Thomas Morestead is one of the best at what he does, and posted an impressive net punting average of 43.2 yards last season as opponents totaled just 60 return yards with only 12 runbacks. Morestead pinned 15 punts inside the opponents’ 20 of the 43 he unloaded.
Undrafted rookie Deonte Harris looks like he will get first crack as returner, with the Division II standout showing plenty of potential in the preseason by running a punt back for a touchdown. Kamara and jack-of-all trades Taysom Hill are also available in supporting roles as returner.
The Saints won both their games on Monday night last season, steamrolling the Washington Redskins at home while grinding out a victory at Carolina. It is still dome sweet dome for the Saints, who averaged 34.1 points at MBS in 2018, and that includes a meaningless 33-14 loss to the Panthers in their season finale.
New Orleans scored 40 or more points in four of its eight home games, hanging 45 and 48 on fellow playoff teams Los Angeles and Philadelphia in back-to-back contests.
Who Has the Edge?
New Orleans on a Monday night is still one of the premier places for an NFL game, and that crowd noise will definitely fuel adrenaline. Neither coach is going to be fazed, but there is a concern with the Texans having so many new faces that things could get lost amid the noise.
The kickers are basically a wash, and the Saints have a slight edge in punting. The return game is a mystery on New Orleans’ end even with the promise Harris showed in exhibition games, but the residual anger from last season’s NFC Championship game is going to keep the fans fired up throughout this contest.
Advantage: New Orleans Saints
Final Outlook – Time to place those bets!
In the end, it’s still the Saints and by a potential big number. The offensive continuity in this matchup looms large against a revamped Texans secondary and a pass rush missing a very big piece without a proven replacement.
There may be some flashes where Houston is effective, perhaps slowing down Kamara through Cunningham and McKinney, but there are simply too many options in the passing route tree and Brees’ progression to think the Saints offense will be held down for any prolonged stretches of this game.
Additionally, it would not be surprising to see the Texans stray from trying to establish the run if Hyde and Johnson do not get going early and potentially turn this game into a shootout. Houston has a more balanced passing offense with Fuller back and Stills in town, and there is no reason to shy away from using it.
Houston Texans 20, New Orleans Saints 41
Updated: please continue below for details and new prediction.
Updated on Sep 8 at 2:00pm EDT
Getting the Saints giving less than a touchdown is a very strong play, especially at home in a prime-time setting. The Texans are 3-10 ATS in their last 13 Monday night contests in addition to being 3-7-1 ATS in their last 11 on the road.
The over is more of a challenge at 52 points, which is a flat TD+FG number, so be on the lookout for the hook in either direction. There is still confidence both teams will put points on the board, but the time to jump on the over is if the low hook emerges at 51.5.
Three player props we like:
Saints TE Jared Cook OVER 49.5 yards (-114)
Saints WR Michael Thomas OVER 83.5 yards (-114)
Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins OVER 96.5 yards (-114)
Hopkins recorded five of his seven 100-yard games last season on the road. There was some thought to taking Watson to finish with more passing yards than Brees at +105 given the expectation the Texans will be trailing for most of the contest, but Houston’s stout defense could result in the Saints offensive balance tipping to a pass-first scheme.
The Texans could be worth a play as 4-point underdogs in the first half as they led at halftime in their final six road games of 2018 and the Saints still looking to prove themselves as a secondary collectively. The over in the first half also looks appealing at 26.5 points since four touchdowns is a very reachable figure.