No secrets here: This one figures to be physical, bruising and limit-pushing.
True, every NFL game possesses those characteristics to some degree. But when New Orleans (4-1) takes on Baltimore (4-2) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, it does so with the knowledge that the Ravens love nothing more than physically imposing their will, and with the knowledge that the Saints themselves have been able to do just that during their four-game winning streak.
Yes, the Saints' offensive numbers look pretty – a league-leading 36 points, and 424 yards, per game. But underneath the glitz has been an ability to win the grind game: 4.1 yards per carry, 31:46 time of possession, 10 rushing touchdowns, 17 of 19 on goal-to-go, 15 of 21 on third-and-3 or less.
Here are a few ways that the Saints can grind, and perhaps win, against the Ravens:
- Baltimore gets after you defensively like few others. The Ravens lead the league in sacks (26, including a team-record 11 in their last game) and total defense (270.8 yards allowed per game), are second in pass defense (188 yards) and third in run defense (82.8). For the Saints, it begins with protecting Drew Brees. New Orleans only has allowed eight sacks this season, and Brees hasn't thrown an interception through five games. We know how effective he is when given time, or even when facing a blitz. The more he's standing upright, the better for the Saints' offense. This is a good time to have his full complement of weapons, too.
- Speaking of a full complement, this might be the kind of game in which running back Alvin Kamara will flourish. If Baltimore's pass rush forces check-downs and quick throws, Kamara being covered by a linebacker is a prime offensive option for the Saints. He had heavy usage (22.8 touches per game) in the first four games before getting nine touches against Washington, coinciding with Mark Ingram's return. But Kamara always is a threat to dominate a game, and he gives the Saints an equal threat in the pass and run game.
- First, the Taysom Hill Experiment was cute. Now, the Saints' third quarterback is a viable offensive weapon. The read-option threat he poses with Kamara could produce a few critical short-yardage conversions for the Saints and in a game like this, every little bit of production could be crucial.
- The numbers say that the Saints should be able to make Baltimore one-dimensional. New Orleans has the best run defense in the league – 71.4 yards allowed and 3.1 yards per carry are stingiest in the NFL – and the Ravens average 99.2 yards and 3.4 yards per carry. If that happens, then the pass defense has to hold up. Having Marshon Lattimore (concussion) back is a major help for New Orleans, and the Saints have turned up the pass rush lately (12 sacks in the last four games, including five by defensive end Cam Jordan). Baltimore's Joe Flacco is at 44 pass attempts per game, and he has been sacked 11 times, so the Saints should have opportunities to get to him.
- Justin Tucker is the best kicker in the business. He's a three-time All-Pro who has the highest accuracy (89.9 percent) in NFL history, and he's 12 for 14 this season. But the Saints are pretty happy with what they have in Wil Lutz. Lutz was in training camp with Baltimore in 2016, was released because Tucker is entrenched there, and was snapped up by the Saints in a move that the franchise hasn't regretted. This year, Lutz is 10 for 11 on field goals and in a game like this one, kickers often make the difference. Something else to remember: Tucker has had two kicks blocked this season.