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Saints at Browns: Five things to watch

Teams play at noon Sunday in Cleveland

  1. It's not going out on a limb to say that the New Orleans Saints defense will be improved this week. The 568 yards it allowed in the season opener against Atlanta was the second-highest single-game total the Saints have allowed in franchise history. The question is, How much? Outside linebacker Junior Galetteand the pass rushers have taken accountability by saying they didn't apply enough pressure to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, while safety Kenny Vaccaroand cornerback Keenan Lewissaid the secondary especially, and defense overall, didn't do a good enough job of tackling. Mix in the fact that Atlanta has a pretty explosive offense, and was playing the season opener at home against an NFC South Division rival that it badly wanted to beat, and it was a pretty toxic concoction for the Saints on defense. We'll get a good feel for how much Saints defenders have taken to heart their own words by the way they swarm against Cleveland. "Population to the ball" is the mantra; good things can happen when multiple tacklers find the football.
  1. Likely, the best barometer of how effective the Saints will have been in Cleveland will be how effectively they defend the run. If New Orleans can't put the Browns in favorable down-and-distance to the defense – second-and-8, third-and-6 – then the Browns can be unpredictable and the defense again might be on its heels. So, the Saints have focused on run fits, leverage, proper angles – the works. Cleveland ran for 183 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh (100 on 16 carries by rookie Terrance West). New Orleans can't allow that kind of production on the road.
  1. Meanwhile, the Saints absolutely will want to continue the offensive balance they showed against the Falcons. New Orleans had 42 passes and 28 runs, and the running game was extremely effective. Mark Ingram (13 carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns) looked as good as he did at the end of last season and during the preseason, and Pierre Thomas(seven carries for 31 yards, and six receptions for 58 yards) looked like he hasn't lost a step. Credit the runners, but also give props to the offensive line. Left guard Ben Grubbssaid in the offseason that the Saints could be a better running team because now, they have a season under their belt and understand assignments better. Last year was the first in this blocking scheme; thus, more trial and error. But the running game came on strong at the end of last year and through the preseason and regular-season opener, it hasn't showed signs of slowing down.
  1. As well as the Saints played offensively against Atlanta – 34 points, three touchdown drives of 80 yards and one of 71 – players didn't exaggerate when they said they could have been cleaner in the red zone. The Saints were 4 for 6 in the red zone, settling for a field goal once and a Drew Brees interception in the end zone the other time they came up short. Those points loomed fairly large. Don't get it twisted – perfection is difficult. But New Orleans expects that kind of efficiency from its offense and if it gets it, that's usually a good thing. Red zone efficiency was another point of emphasis this week, one that the Saints expect to get corrected sooner than later.
  1. The Browns have an All-Pro cornerback in Joe Hadenand a rookie corner they love in Justin Gilbert.Does that mean they'll challenge the Saints receivers in man-to-man coverage most of the game? Shadow Saints tight end Jimmy Grahamwith Haden? See if they can take away Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks? And will their 3-4 defensive front give the Saints' offense fits? The feeling is that the Saints will get some "shot" opportunities; you know that quarterback Drew Breesand Coach Sean Paytonhave a pretty good idea of where the "shots" will be, when they get the looks they want. If the Saints take advantage of them, it could be another big day through the air for Brees.
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