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New Orleans Saints run defense takes on big challenge in Tennessee's Derrick Henry

Linebacker Demario Davis leads charge to slow Henry, NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,329 yards

The New Orleans Saints host the Indianapolis Colts at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday, December 16, 2019.

The New Orleans Saints want more.

They're in the playoffs as NFC South Division champions. At worst, they'll be the No. 3 seed, which means there will be at least one playoff game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But – with some outside help – the No. 1 and 2 seeds remain in play. Each would give the Saints an off week, and the No. 1 seed would assure that all New Orleans playoff games prior to the Super Bowl would be in the Superdome.

Heady stuff, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Because the only thing that matters now is how the Saints (11-3) fare against Tennessee (8-6) on Sunday at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. And beating the Titans will be no small task.

  1. Name a more efficient NFL offense than the Saints' in the past two games. I'll wait. (OK, I really can't wait.) New Orleans has averaged 40 points in the last two games, and 34.8 over the last five. And Drew Brees may be in one of those "Brees" grooves, with nine touchdown passes, no interceptions, 658 yards and 83 percent completions the last two games. The numbers say the Titans are somewhat vulnerable to the pass – they're 25th in the league, allowing 258.1 yards per game. But, too, Tennessee surrenders just 19.9 points per game, and has given up 22 touchdown passes in 14 games. If anyone can pry open the gates, it's Brees.
  2. If Brees is throwing it, look for Michael Thomas to be catching it. Thomas is 10 catches away from tying Marvin Harrison's single-season reception record of 143, and 11 from breaking it. Eight times this season (in 14 games), he has had at least 10 catches in a game and five times, he has had at least 11. The Saints are 5-3 in his 10-catch games, and you have to figure that the Titans will look for ways to slow him down (doesn't everyone?). Receiver Tre'Quan Smith has been low-key productive the last two games (three catches, 50 yards, two touchdowns) and tight end Jared Cook has been high-key productive the last six (23 catches, 409 yards, four touchdowns). Their production makes life a lot easier offensively for the Saints.
  3. The last time the Saints saw a running back as imposing as Tennessee's Derrick Henry – 6-foot-3, 247 pounds – was…well…come to think of it, it's hard to remember the last time anyone saw a running back as imposing as Henry. Oh, he can run, too, with 1,329 yards (second-most in the league) and 13 touchdowns on a league-high 271 carries. If he gets to the secondary repeatedly, that'll be trouble. Ignore the Pro Bowl selections; there isn't a better linebacker in the league than New Orleans' Demario Davis. He's good sideline to sideline, he's good plugging gaps, he's good in coverage. In short, he's good. The Saints have to populate to the football when Henry has it, and Davis will lead the population.
  4. I'm beginning to lose track of all the momentum-swinging/game-changing/game-winning plays the Saints have had this season on special teams. Deonte Harty' punt return touchdown against Seattle was huge. Wil Lutz two game-winning field goals as time expired have been even bigger. Then, there's been the four punts that have been blocked or deflected, each giving New Orleans a jumpstart in those respective games. The Saints seem to have a decided edge at kicker: Lutz (31 of 35 field goals) is a Pro Bowler, while the Titans signed Greg Joseph off Carolina's practice squad last week. Prior to that, three Titans kickers had combined to make eight of 18 field goals this season. The weather could be yucky – forecast calls for low 50s, 50 percent chance of rain, overcast, 8 mph winds in Nashville on Sunday – but Lutz feels just as comfortable outside as he does inside
  5. If the Saints can make Tennessee one-dimensional, that'll put the ball in the hands of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who's playing the best football of his NFL career. Tannehill, who has won six of eight games as a starter this season, is completing 71.6 percent of his passes, with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. His favorite target is receiver A.J. Brown (47-893-7). But Tannehill is sacked about three times per game, and he also has fumbled six times (lost three), all in the last eight games. New Orleans may be able to entice a turnover or two out of him.

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