1. RED ALERT – The New Orleans Saints have struggled in the red zone this season, going 1 for 3 against Atlanta and 0 for 4 against Tampa Bay. Those aren’t numbers we’re accustomed to seeing from the NFL’s most productive offense since 2006, so the expectation is for the unit to return to normal. It will have to at some point because it’s not going to be able to rely on the defense limiting opponents to 12 points per game all season (Atlanta and Tampa Bay combined to score 24 points offensively; the Bucs also added a defensive touchdown). Don’t think quarterback Drew Brees and his offensive teammates haven’t noticed the lack of red zone production, the offensive dip (the Saints have scored a total of 39 points) and haven’t devised way to cure that ill.
2. MORSTEAD VS. PETERSON – New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead is performing at an elite level (46.1 yards gross, 43.1 yards net on punts). That must continue Sunday, because Cardinals punt returner Patrick Peterson, a former LSU star, is among the NFL’s best punt returners. Two seasons ago, Peterson returned 44 punts for 699 yards and four touchdowns. He’s fearless and willing to return from anywhere (one touchdown return was for 99 yards), so it’ll be critical that Morstead gets his usual hang time on his directional punts to Peterson. Hang time and direction will be keys to hemming in Peterson, or any other punt returner.
3. NEXT MAN UP – The Saints’ defensive ranks have thinned considerably due to injury. Credit the replacements for not allowing a dip in productivity. Minus linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith and defensive linemen Glenn Foster and Kenyon Coleman, who haven’t played this season, and defensive linemen Tom Johnson, Broderick Bunkley and Tyrunn Walker and cornerback Patrick Robinson, who were injured during the first two games, the defense hasn’t missed a beat. Three touchdowns allowed in two games is stellar by any measure. For New Orleans’ sake, you hope the team doesn’t have to dig much deeper into its depth defensively and that one or two of the wounded soon can return.
4. UNDER CONSTRUCTION – The Saints’ running game remains a work in progress. Two games have yielded 49 attempts for 153 yards, an average of 3.1 yards per carry. The attempts probably are in the neighborhood of where New Orleans wants to be in terms of offensive balance, but the average per carry is well below what the team wants and will need in the future. Pierre Thomas has been most effective in terms of average (5.1 yards per carry); he may be in line for a little more work. It’ll help if the offense takes an early lead and later, can lean on the run game to finish off the opponent.
5. CLOSING TIME – If it’s a close game late, know that the Saints aren’t going to cave in to nerves. In victories in the first two games, the Saints have closed out the wins by getting a stop in the end zone on the opponents’ final offensive play (against Atlanta), with less than a minute remaining, and by kicking the game-winning field goal as time expired (against Tampa Bay). Don’t discount what that means to a team’s psyche. Winning late builds confidence that a team never is out of it and so far, the Saints have been great at closing time.