You never know when the adversity is going to hit, but you know that it will and for the second consecutive season, it has landed early for the New Orleans Saints.
Last year, it was quarterback Drew Brees tearing a ligament in the thumb on his throwing hand in the second game of the season, which cost Brees five games. This year, it's receiver Michael Thomas, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year after a single-season record 149 catches in 2019, who's going to miss at least one game, perhaps more, with an ankle injury he sustained in the season opener.
How well the Saints (1-0) handle Thomas' absence – beginning with the Monday night game against the Las Vegas Raiders (1-0) – will go a long way toward how successful the team can be without him. Here are a few ways the Saints can combat the loss and be successful against the Raiders:
- BE LIKE MIKE: Actually, that's unfair. No player on the roster can replicate Thomas' impact (otherwise, that player already would be doing it), but the Saints still can be productive in the passing game without Thomas. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders has been more than solid for a long time in the NFL, Tre'Quan Smith will have some opportunities to take advantage of more snaps and a bigger role, and running back Alvin Kamara also can be counted on to alleviate some pressure. But, perhaps, an eye should be kept on two players. The first is tight end Jared Cook, who's a mismatch against any defense and whom Brees targeted several times on third down in the season opener. Cook could have a big game. So, too, could running back/receiver Ty Montgomery, who didn't have a large role against Tampa Bay, but who possesses the skills to make chunk plays. Isolating Montgomery one-on-one would be an ideal scenario.
- TIME ON YOUR SIDE: New Orleans might want to condense the game by running the ball. The Raiders allowed 129 rushing yards, two touchdowns and 4.3 yards per carry against Carolina. That means Kamara and Latavius Murray could help the Saints control the clock, and perhaps the game, by grinding it out against the Raiders. Of course, Las Vegas might choose to stack the box defensively and dare the Saints to win with a receiver corps that largely is unproven outside of Sanders. But Murray is a thumper, and Kamara's health and speed are intact. If New Orleans finds success on the ground, it likely will be satisfied to chew clock and score via that route.
- NO JOSH-ING: Know that while the Saints will want to control the clock, so, too, will the Raiders, and running back Josh Jacobs is the type of runner who can make sure they will. Jacobs ran for 93 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries in the season opener, and 81 of his yards came after contact. In his rookie season last year, he led the league with 69 broken tackles and the Raiders' huge offensive line won't be bashful about attempting to punish the Saints and wear them down. Population to the ball will be critical, since Jacobs is a proven tackle-breaker; the second and third defender need to be close to the first. This could be a game where linebacker Demario Davis stacks tackles.
- SECONDARY TO NONE: New Orleans' pass defense in the opener was really good; if the pass interference calls are eliminated (and a couple looked spotty), it would have been spectacular. The Raider receivers can't be taken lightly because the group is headlined by a couple of rookies; this is the type of game where the secondary – and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Jackrabbit Jenkins, specifically – can't exhale. If the units plays to the level it achieved against the Buccaneers, that would allow more devotion to the run defense. Too, pressure always helps, and if the Saints can duplicate the three sacks they posted in the opener, that'll be welcomed.
- SPECIAL DELIVERY: It wouldn't be fair to expect the special team units to duplicate their season-opening production, but the Saints arguably have the best collective special teams unit in the league. Field position always is key, so punter Thomas Morstead pinning the Raiders when the opportunity presents, and returner Deonte Harris shortening the field for the Saints when the opportunity presents, will be critical. If it's a close game, few are the equal of kicker Wil Lutz. The Saints often have an advantage when it comes to special teams play, and that needs to show Monday night.
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