As the New Orleans Saints prepared this week to play the Tennessee Titans in the regular-season opener at noon Sunday in the Caesars Superdome, the beauty is that the Saints pretty much know what's coming.
Tennessee running back Derrick Henry.
Henry arguably has been the league's best running back since he became the Titans' primary ballcarrier in 2018, and he has the numbers to back it up: 7,101 rushing yards and 68 rushing touchdowns on 1,464 carries in 71 games since then, despite playing just eight games in 2021, when he ran for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns on 219 carries. Job One begins there for New Orleans, but there are other matters that also must be handled:
1. DETHRONE KING HENRY: Henry brings his thunder in a 6-foot-3, 247-pound package, so the Saints understand that defensively, they have to populate to the ball. One guy rarely takes down Henry. There's going to be plenty of work for linebackers Demario Davis and Pete Werner, but the ideal scenario is that when Henry touches the ball, the defensive line is nearby. That means an interior push from Khalen Saunders, Nathan Shepherd and Malcolm Roach, and edge containment from Cameron Jordan, Carl Granderson, Payton Turner and Tanoh Kpassagnon. Run fits and gap integrity will be paramount, because you don't want Henry running full speed into the second and third levels. The Saints allowed 130.5 rushing yards per game on 4.5 yards per carry last season, by far their worst numbers against the run since 2017. That trend cannot carry over into Sunday, or it'll be a long day.
2. ON THE HOP: Controlling Henry is the biggest part of the equation, because if he's not contained, then the play-action passing game and receiver DeAndre Hopkins are going to factor. The good thing for the Saints is that No. 1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore appears to be back to full health after suffering a knee injury in training camp, and it's likely that Lattimore will see a lot of one-on-one with Hopkins. It's a matchup to watch, because Lattimore was having the best camp of his NFL career prior to his injury. If he's back to that form, New Orleans will take its chances with Lattimore against Hopkins on the outside.
3. CARR DRIVES: Quarterback Derek Carr runs the Saints' offense now, and it appeared to be in good hands during training camp. Carr will open almost with a complete receiving corps, headlined by Chris Olave, Michael Thomas and Rashid Shaheed. Thomas only has played 10 of a possible 50 games over the past three seasons, but he looked to be regaining his form as time progressed this summer. Olave could be special, and he and Shaheed provide the home-run threat speed. But don't overlook the tight end position; converted receiver Juwan Johnson may be ripe for a big season to stack atop last year's solid numbers, and Jimmy Graham still can be a weapon in the red zone. None of that will matter, though, if the protection doesn't hold up. Second-year left tackle Trevor Penning, in particular, has to minimize the growing pains.
4. BALANCE IT OUT: Without Alvin Kamara at running back for the first three games, the load falls to Jamaal Williams, who led the NFL with 17 rushing touchdowns last year. Williams probably isn't the receiver that Kamara is, but he can mix it up between the tackles and has shown the ability to get outside. It appears that Kirk Merritt will be his primary backup, with rookie Kendre Miller (hamstring) unable to practice Wednesday through Friday and listed as questionable. The Titans allowed a league-low 76.9 rushing yards per game last year, so it won't be easy. New Orleans' short passing game partly may have to substitute for the run game, but attempts will be critical because Tennessee has to be forced to remain honest defensively.
5. JUST FOR KICKS: New Orleans will be breaking in two rookie specialists Sunday, kicker Blake Grupe and punter Lou Hedley. There's pressure in every NFL game, but getting off to a strong start obviously will help build their confidence. NFL games routinely are one-score games, so Grupe could be a big factor, and field position also will matter against a good opponent, so Hedley needs to be consistent for his gunners.