The New Orleans Saints fully are aware of the approaching mayhem for Sunday’s game against Cleveland in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Cleveland’s defense is choreographed by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (2009-11), whose calling card is pressure.
The high-risk approach can be feast or famine for a defense, sacks and turnovers in bunches (including four sacks, six turnovers in the season-opening tie against Pittsburgh) or pillaged by an efficient offense.
In Drew Brees, the Saints have a quarterback who, time and again, has displayed the ability to lead a pillage. And one who is somewhat familiar with Williams’ defensive concepts.
Brees had three years of practice against the Williams-led defense in New Orleans, where the competition often took on a game-like atmosphere. And Brees also has played those defenses during the regular season, twice with the San Diego Chargers and twice with the Saints.
In the first three meetings, the younger Brees had little success against Williams’ defenses: 13 of 24 for 148 yards and no touchdowns, and sacked three times in 2002 (Chargers); 22 of 44 for 215 yards and no touchdowns, with three interceptions and sacked three times, in ’05 (Chargers); and 21 of 38 for 207 yards and no touchdowns, with an interception, and sacked twice in ’06 (Saints).
But the seasoned, wiser, Hall of Fame-shoo-in Brees was much more effective in ’16: 28 of 36 for 310 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, and sacked twice.
That Brees has an even clearer understanding of the plan Cleveland likely will employ Sunday.
“It's an aggressive style,” Brees said. “He gets those guys playing hard. They’re multiple, meaning they do a lot of things and do a lot of things well.
“Looking at them from last year to this year, they kind of revamped their secondary in the draft. (Cornerback) Denzel Ward, high pick. And (they) go out and get some free agent guys as well that have really bolstered that secondary. (They have a) really good linebacker corps, really good front seven (and) one of the most elite pass rushers in the league in (defensive end) Myles Garrett. So they're a formidable defense.”
They’re an aggressive defense that will feast off passivity and errors. A Williams-led defense likely never was better than in 2009, the Saints’ Super Bowl season, when New Orleans forced 39 turnovers, had 35 sacks and scored seven touchdowns.
But, too, Saints Coach Sean Payton has schemed a healthy share of solutions to possible defensive problems during an NFL coaching career that began in 1997. Since Payton was hired in 2006, the Saints haven’t finished lower than No. 6 in total offense and it was Payton’s offense, in ’16, that punished the Rams for seven touchdowns and 555 yards in a 49-21 victory.
“I think the first thing you want to avoid is minus plays, because of the amount of pressure and zone pressure,” Payton said. “So you’ve got to be able to recognize what it is (Williams is) trying to do and then, there’s opportunities for big plays.
“And then when they play in a softer zone, you’ve got to be smart and patient enough to move the ball down the field. So it’s really recognizing what it is he’s trying to do relative to the down and distance, and what you have called. It’s a challenging defense and it forces you to really go through your protections, your run game – all the things that you want to do offensively get tested a little bit.”
The Saints already have seen portions of the test. The effectiveness of their study will show Sunday.