This is the seventh of 16 articles that I will post throughout the season, previewing the Colts' upcoming matchup. I'll attempt to analyze some strengths and weaknesses of both teams, a few areas to focus on, and a couple of key individual matchups. Overview: The last time these two teams met, the New Orleans Saints hoisted the Lombardi Trophy following a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. Last week, Pierre Garcon and Curtis Painter threw away another opportunity for a Colts' victory, suffering a 27-17 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Colts are now 0-6 after completing the "easy" portion of their schedule. Meanwhile, the Saints lost their week 6 matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26-20, but the two teams sit atop the NFC South with a 4-2 record.
New Orleans Saints
- Pass Offense. Drew Brees, one of the league's best quarterbacks, has thrown for more than 350 yards in 5 of the Saints' 6 games this season. He's currently on pace to throw for 5,700 yards this season. Brees loves to spread the ball around – 7 players have at least 14 receptions so far this season, and Brees' 13 touchdowns have been thrown to 8 different targets.
- 3rd down Conversions. New Orleans has converted a ridiculous 56.3% of their 3rd downs, 2nd best in the NFL. Considering how bad the Colts' defense has been at getting off the field, expect the Saints to put together some long, time-consuming drives Sunday night.
- Darren Sproles. Sproles is a major reason why the Saints are so successful on 3rd down, but he's being utilized as an every-down RB more and more as the season progresses. He's averaging 7.4 yards per carry on 27 attempts, and has already caught 39 balls out of the backfield (which puts him on pace for 104 catches). Of his 66 touches, 22 of them have gone for a 1st down. He's also averaging 26.7 yards per kick return, and has a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown.
- Depth. It's not often that a team has 7 legitimate pass-catchers, but nobody loves to utilize them all quite like Sean Payton. Their Wide Receivers can do a bit of everything – Lance Moore and Marques Colston are tremendous possession WR's, while Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem both stretch the field as big-play threats. Both Sproles and Pierre Thomas are reliable pass-catching Running Backs, and Jimmy Graham has emerged as one of the league's best Tight Ends – 39 catches, 620 yards, 3 TD's.
- Rush Defense. While teams are only running for 109.2 yards per game against the Saints, they're doing so at 5.1 yards per rush, T-3rd highest in the league. That number is even more alarming when you consider that the Saints have faced the Houston Texans without Arian Foster, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without LeGarrette Blount.
- Take-Aways. The Saints have only forced 4 turnovers all season (3 INT's, 1 fumble), which is the 3rd lowest total in the NFL. When the team went to the Super Bowl in 2009, they forced 39 turnovers in the regular season (nearly 2.5 per game). This will be an interesting stat to monitor all season since Gregg Williams, the Saints' Defensive Coordinator, is known an aggressive defense that forces a lot of turnovers.
- Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner. Angerer is on pace for 195 tackles; Conner for 155. That is not a typo. The Colts' 1-2 punch at linebacker happen to be the top 2 tacklers in the NFL entering week 7 with 73 and 58 tackles, respectively. At first glance, you might think that having linebackers make so many tackles is an indictment on the defensive line play. However, the Colts are allowing only 3.9 yards per carry, and that's good enough for me.
- Offensive Line Play. Somehow, the Colts' offensive line is playing well right now. The unit has suffered injuries to Ryan Diem, Anthony Castonzo, and Ben Ijalana, yet continues to be a strength of this Colts' team. Ryan Diem returned to the lineup last week, Ijalana is on I.R., but no word yet on Castonzo's availability for week 7. Despite the injuries, the Colts are averaging 4.0 yards per carry, and Curtis Painter has only been sacked once in the past 2 weeks.
- Pat McAfee. The 'star' punter has averaged 48.5 yards per punt this season, 8th best in the NFL. He's also boomed 19 of his 25 kickoffs for a touchback. That 76% rate is bested only by the Broncos' Matt Prater, who's kicking in the mile-high elevation of Denver. McAfee has made 2 of the 6 tackles on kick returns this season, and his 4 special teams tackles are 2nd best on the team.
- 3rd Down Failures. The Colts' offense is converting just 35.5% of their 3rd down opportunities (19th in the league), while their defense is giving up a 1st down on 48.3% of opponent's 3rd down opportunities (2nd worst in the league). Simply put: the offense can't put long drives together, and the defense can't get off the field. That's a recipe for disaster.
Big Plays on Defense. During the past 3 weeks, the Colts' defense has registered just 4 sacks and 0 turnovers. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney were
practicallyinvisible against the Bengals, the duo failed to record a single tackle. It's time for this defense (and Larry Coyer) to think outside-the-box in an attempt to find a pass rush and create turnovers.
- Total Offense. While Curtis Painter has far exceeded expectations this season, the truth of the matter is those expectations were never set very high. The Colts rank 31st in the NFL in total yards (28th in both rushing and passing), and 28th in points per game. Time for Clyde Christianson to prove that he, not Peyton Manning, is the true Offensive Coordinator of this team.
What to Watch For:
- Turnovers. It's been a common theme in this series, but winning the turnover battle is once again the Colts' best chance to remain competitive. The Saints' defense has struggled forcing turnovers, which gives hope that Curtis Painter can turn in another strong performance. It's time for Freeney and Mathis to get back on track, causing havoc in the Saints' passing game.
- Jimmy Graham vs. the Colts Defense. Graham has become a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. As a former basketball player, Graham is simply too fast and athletic to be covered by linebackers, and too big to be covered by defensive backs. With the Colts' secondary allowing a league-worst 104.0 rating to opposing QB's, expect Drew Brees' favorite target to have a big game.
- Darren Sproles vs. the Colts Linebackers. I've already talked about the kind of season Sproles is having, but it's worth mentioning that he has a history of torching the Colts. While Angerer and Conner have had a great start to the 2011 season, this will be their toughest assignment yet.
- Colts' Running Game. After losing Joseph Addai, the team's rushing attack has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry the past 2 weeks. While rookie Delone Carter showed some positive flashes early in the season, he's been outplayed by Donald Brown the past 2 games, yet holds a 26:13 advantage in touches. Expect Brown to see an increased workload on Sunday night.
- Prime Time. The last time the Colts played on Sunday night, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis terrorized Ben Roethlisberger as the team nearly upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. It will take a similar effort this week against the New Orleans Saints if the Colts expect to remain competitive. Although the Saints are the home team, the Colts' defense should benefit from playing inside, which allows the unit to play faster.
Final Thoughts: The "easy" part of the schedule is now over for the Colts. Over the final 2 months of the season, the team has 4 games against playoff teams from 2010, 5 divisional games, and a matchup with the newly-revamped Carolina Panthers. The New Orleans Saints will be the best team the Colts have faced in 2011, so it's hard to imagine that the Colts will earn their first victory. They must find a way to slow down Drew Brees and the Saints' offense, and that starts with shutting down TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles. Offensively, I expect a conservative game-plan; establish the run to open up the passing game. But sooner or later, Painter needs to prove that he's in complete control of this offense, and the Saints' suspect pass-defense provides a great opportunity. One final point: isn't it time for young guys to get some playing time? Let's see what Joe Lefeged can do as a starting safety. Can Chris Rucker and Kevin Thomas really be any worse than Jacob Lacey at Cornerback? Give Jerry Hughes a 15-play package as a defensive end/joker rusher role, and see what he can produce. Afterall, the 2011 season is over for the Colts, competitively speaking. It's time to plan for the future.