We caught up with Mike Triplett, part of the team of reporters covering the unbeaten New Orleans Saints for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He agreed to answer three quick questions about this weekend’s opponent for Redskins 360.
1. Did you expect the Saints would be able to run the ball so well after letting Deuce McAllister go?
The Saints’ revamped running game has been every bit as surprising and important as their improvements on defense this year. They struggled to run the ball the last two years – ever since McAllister suffered his second ACL tear in 2007. And they basically resorted to throwing the ball on most downs, which is why Drew Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing yardage record last year with over 5,069 yards.
But this year the Saints made a commitment to become more balanced on offense, and now they have the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the NFL. It starts with Coach Sean Payton, who has shown more patience with the run game in his play-calling. But they’ve also found the right runners too. They barely use Reggie Bush as a traditional tailback anymore, because it’s clearly not his strength. Instead, they feature a 1-2 punch of underrated starter Pierre Thomas and power runner Mike Bell, whom they unearthed as a street free agent late last season.
2. How much difference has former Redskins defensive boss Gregg Williams made for New Orleans’ defense?
You can’t give Williams enough credit for what he’s done in New Orleans . His attitude and approach is exactly what the Saints needed. Their defense had become bland in recent seasons, giving up way too many big plays and not forcing any big plays of their own. Now they’re an aggressive, attacking and deceptive bunch that pressures quarterbacks and leads the NFL with 32 takeaways.
They brought in some new players who have made huge impacts — namely free safety Darren Sharper, who is tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions, and cornerback Jabari Greer. But Williams’ approach has also gotten maximum impact from the players who were here before, especially former Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith, who has 7½ sacks over the past five games.
Williams just called his best game on Monday night, shutting down the Patriots’ passing attack even with the Saints’ top three cornerbacks out with injuries. Cornerback Mike McKenzie, who was just signed last week after a year away from football, set the tone by snagging an interception from Tom Brady in the first quarter.
3. The Saints looked so great against the Patriots on Monday night. Do they have an Achilles’ heel or are they Super Bowl-bound?
When the Saints are at their best, they’re better than any team in the league, as they displayed against New England . … But even when they come out flat and sloppy, they’re hard to hold down for long. They fell behind 24-3 at Miami earlier this year but came back to win by double digits. They fell behind 14-0 against Carolina , too, but they can score so quickly on offense that they made up the deficit before you could bat an eye.
This trip to Washington feels like a “trap game,” but even if the Saints come out sluggish and fall behind by 10 or 14 points, it’s hard to imagine the Redskins matching points with them. Then comes a trip to Atlanta , a home date with Dallas , home against Tampa Bay and at Carolina . A 16-0 season is very realistic.
The Saints have shown some weaknesses, though. They’ve struggled to stop the run consistently, and their injuries are piling up at cornerback. So if they have a bad day against the wrong team, they could fall short of the Super Bowl. The Vikings could be a very tough matchup for the Saints with their run game, their imposing defensive line and their ability to score points. New Orleans would love to secure home-field advantage for that potential showdown.
Want more from Mike? You can check out his Saints coverage at the Times-Picayune Web site (http://connect.nola.com/user/mjtriplett/index.html), and you can find him on Twitter at @miketripletttp