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John DeShazier: Saints-Texans a matchup of third-down strengths

Saints have top offense, Texans top defense on third down

The won-loss records suggest that Sunday's New Orleans-Houston game isn't a best-versus-best matchup, with the Saints (4-6) scheduled to play the Texans (5-5) at NRG Stadium in Houston.

But a deeper look into some of the key numbers reveals that there is a No. 1-against-No. 1 battle that will occur, and likely will go a long way toward determining whether the Saints end a two-game losing streak, or the Texans extend a three-game winning streak.

New Orleans has the most efficient third-down offense in the NFL, converting 47.2 percent (67 of 142) of the time. And Houston has the most effective third-down defense in the league, allowing opponents to convert just 26.4 percent (34 of 129) of the time.

The Saints understand that it's critical for their offense to stay on the field by converting third downs. And they have a keen awareness of why Houston has been so efficient in limiting that kind of success.

"I think there are two things that play a part in that," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "They rush the passer extremely well (Houston has 27 sacks). They have a handful of looks and a number of guys that can win the one-on-one battle. When you watch a whole season's worth of third downs, which we did last night and yesterday, and then into last season to make sure there are no pressures that you haven't seen, it's apparent that if they're not sacking the quarterback, they're forcing him to throw quicker than he wants to.

"Then, couple that with, I think, a real good secondary – experienced players, corners that are sudden with good ball skills. Those two combinations are obviously key parts to being real good in any type of pass defense.

"For us (on third down offense), there are some similarities. We've got to be able to protect. Our guys do a great job – Drew (Brees) does a great job in understanding of the scheme, where we're going with the football. We've had some balance, we've run the ball a little bit more on third down at times, with some success. Having that consistency offensively, the ability to give the quarterback that extra half-second to throw, and the receivers being able to separate versus man to man (are key).

"That's an important matchup in this game. Can we stay on the field in third down? When you watch their game two weeks ago against Cincinnati, you'd say the one thing that stood out is Houston on defense really was outstanding in getting off the field on third down. It was unusual for Cincinnati, because they're so good offensively."

The Bengals are 10th in third-down efficiency, converting 42.8 percent this season. But against the Texans – who posted a 10-6 victory against the Bengals in Cincinnati on Nov. 16 – the Bengals converted just four of 14 attempts (28 percent).

One of the keys, Brees said, is that the Texans have forced opponents into uncomfortable down-and-distance scenarios on third down.

"I think they lead the league in third and longs," he said. "So what does that tell me? Well, they are doing a good job on first and second down, getting the teams into third-and-long situations. That allows them the opportunity to dial up their pass rush a bit because you have to hold the ball a little bit longer to push the ball further down the field on third-and-longs.

"Obviously, they get a ton of production from their front four- or five-man rushes. They're getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, they're getting a lot of sacks and are getting a lot of production there. I would say everybody in the secondary has that ball-hawk mentality. They all have good ball skills, good awareness and good cover skills.

"(It's) a combination of those two things where the quarterback is under duress and has to get the ball out quicker than he wants to, and then to tight coverage. That typically results to good third down defense."

Obviously, it helps that the Texans have defensive end J.J. Watt, the best defensive player in the league. He has a league-high 11.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits this season; last year, when he was NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the second time in three seasons, he had 20.5 sacks.

But he's not the lone weapon, which makes the Texans dangerous on several fronts, and makes it imperative that the Saints remain successful on first and second downs.

"This is a team that you don't want to be in third-and-long against," right tackle Zach Strief said. "The reality is, there's going to be 100 questions about J.J. Watt and yet, (linebacker) Whitney Mercilus (6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits) is playing as good as I've ever seen him play.

"They've got guys that are making plays as a group. You don't want to be in third-and-10s against that group of pass rushers, so that's going to come early in the downs and staying efficient. Staying on schedule will be real big this week."

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