Give the New Orleans Saints this much: They've displayed a great talent for shape shifting.
The Saints (4-1) have been whatever they've needed to be in order to win four of their first five games and to rise to the top of the NFC South Division standings. Offense, defense and special teams have been instrumental in their three-game winning streak, and not always in the same four quarters.
Sunday's game against the Jaguars (2-3) at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., will present the next opportunity for New Orleans to shape itself into a form that's suitable for victory. Here are a few ways that can happen:
- Jacksonville quarterback Gardner Minshew is about much more than a mustache and jorts – the guy can play. His numbers (110 of 165 for 1,279 yards and nine touchdowns, with one interception) say as much. But the Jaguars are going to try to pound the Saints on the ground. In the previous two games, Jacksonville has 69 rushing attempts for 418 yards; in the first three games, the Jags ran 57 times for 272 yards. Effective running keeps Minshew out of unattractive situations, and running back Leonard Fournette (95 carries, 512 yards and a touchdown) has been a bruising speedster. If New Orleans can take away the running game – and it pretty much has done that effectively the previous three games – then it'll be able to get after Minshew, who has been sacked 12 times. The Saints are coming off a six-sack game, and defensive linemen had all of them. That tells you how much that unit is affecting the passer. But, stop the run first. Otherwise, it'll be a long, hot day.
- The Saints' secondary is in a pretty good groove, too. It'll need to be, because if Minshew is flinging it around, then he'll be looking for receiver D.J. Chark (27 catches for 485 yards and five scores). Minshew is going to give Chark opportunities to make plays, which means the Saints equally should have some chances. Few, if any, cornerbacks have played better the last two games than New Orleans' Marshon Lattimore. He likes challenges, and this will be another one.
- Now, we have a fuller understanding of what Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater can do. Notice that I said "we," because Bridgewater and his teammates already knew, and had informed everyone that Teddy was fine. He was pinpoint in his dissection of Tampa Bay – 26 of 34 for 314 yards and four touchdowns, with an interception – and now that he's done it once, the expectation is that he'll do it again and again. Except he might not need to Sunday. The Jaguars allow 136.6 rushing yards per game, and a league-high 5.5 yards per carry. New Orleans would be derelict in its duty if it doesn't see if it, too, can have success against the Jags' run defense. Alvin Kamara might have a busy day (there's nothing better on the road than imposing will in the run game and hogging time of possession). But if the Jags decide to pack the box and swarm Kamara, the Saints have the comfort of knowing that Bridgewater and Michael Thomas (11 catches, 182 yards, two touchdowns against Tampa Bay) are in sync. The Jags may ask cornerback Jalen Ramsey to see how well he can guard Mike; if so, that, of course, will be a matchup worth monitoring.
- The Saints believe that rookie returner Deonte Harris has been having technical difficulties, rather than physical errors, and that they're correctable. Harris needs to make his coaches right. We know he's explosive and has take-it-the-distance ability and vision from anywhere, but he has to be better with his decision-making and he absolutely, positively must secure the ball. New Orleans has managed to bail out Harris a few times this season, but he has made the punt return exciting for a couple of the wrong reasons so far. Even if he doesn't pop one against Jacksonville, he could use a quiet, steady day.