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New Orleans Saints defense sees several offensive standouts for Jacksonville

Minshew is aided by LSU products Fournette, Chark

Check out the game action between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Check out the game action between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The New Orleans Saints defense knows this much about the magic of Gardner Minshew: As good as the undrafted rookie quarterback has been for Jacksonville, he isn't a one-man show.

Not that Minshew hasn't been outstanding after stepping in for injured starter Nick Foles. In five games and four starts for Jacksonville (2-3), he has completed 110 of 165 passes for 1,279 yards and nine touchdowns, with just one interception. Saints Coach Sean Payton saw the ability when the team scouted Minshew.

"He's smart," Payton said. "He had that ability to make plays. You could tell he was a tremendous leader. All those intangibles."

But entering Sunday's game against the NFC South Division-leading Saints (4-1) at TIAA Bank Field, what Minshew also has, is help.

The Jaguars have topped the 20-point mark four times this season, including three straight games. They accomplished that feat five times all of last year, and never three games in a row.

Partly, credit the development of former LSU receiver D.J. Chark, who has blossomed in his second season. Chark caught 14 passes for 174 yards and no touchdowns as a rookie, in 11 games with no starts. This year in five games, he has 27 catches for 485 yards and five touchdowns.

"He's a big target (6 feet 4, 198 pounds) that can run," Payton said. "And I think that happens at times; a quarterback comes in and there's some confidence that's usually born out of some plays or a game, and all of a sudden that continues to grow. I think you've seen it with those two guys."

Too, partly credit the return to prominence of former LSU star running back Leonard Fournette, a native New Orleanian who currently is third in the NFL in rushing yards. Fournette, who had 439 yards on 133 carries (3.3 yards per carry) in an injury-riddled 2018, has 512 yards on 95 carries (5.4 per carry) this year.

"He's strong," Payton said. "The thing that's dangerous about him is his speed. If he can get an edge, he's one of those backs that can score a touchdown from anywhere on the field. He's good in protection, he knows how to block the blitz. He stays on the field. He's playing 90, 91 percent of their snaps.

"A back like him, who runs behind his pads, that's hard to tackle. I think that's why he's been successful. He's got that rare combination of size and speed."

And he's getting the ball more often.

The Jaguars have been a lot more run-oriented lately, as a way to assist the young quarterback. In the first three games – against Kansas City, Houston and Tennessee – Jacksonville totaled 57 carries for 272 yards. In the last two games, against Denver and Carolina, the Jaguars had 69 rushing attempts for 418 yards.

It's what Payton expected to see from Jacksonville Coach Doug Marrone, who was offensive coordinator on Payton's staff with the Saints from 2006-08.

"I think the one thing is, you see in the last couple of weeks this commitment to running the football, whether it's out of sub personnel or base personnel," Payton said.

"I know Doug well enough to know, you're wanting to help your quarterback, you're wanting to help your team – we're the same way. So you're finding ways to reduce the third-down-and-longs. So I think that you've seen that, you've seen the rushing attempts go up."

Still, though, there's the "magic" to contend with – a young quarterback who has helped jump-start the Jacksonville offense.

"They've been executing pretty well running the ball," Saints cornerback Eli Apple said. "I know Leonard Fournette is up there with the leading rushers, so that's a big thing. They're also good throwing the ball up, big plays, chunk plays and stuff. Real fast receivers on the edges, and we've got to try to contain that."

Fortunately for the Saints, they enter Sunday in their best defensive groove of the season.

In three straight victories, the Saints have: Built a 31-17 lead and held Tampa Bay to 174 yards until the Bucs had a 78-yard touchdown drive on their last drive; held Dallas to 257 yards and 10 points; and held Seattle to a touchdown, while taking a 27-7 lead, before Seattle posted 225 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth.

"We're getting there," Apple said. "We're getting back to playing confident, great football. It's just about doing it four quarters, really finishing out, and that's what we're trying to emphasize this week."

Apple's play at cornerback has been instrumental in the Saints' defensive run.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," he said. "I think it's really mainly just us coming together as a defense, getting the games under our belt and just getting that experience out there, making our adjustments and keep rolling and getting better every game. That's our main thing, finishing games and becoming a great defense, not just good."

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