Saints at Ravens: Why Play Calling Could Make the Difference

Nobody would disagree that the matchup between the Saints and the Ravens is critical to both teams who each trail the leaders in their divisions by at least a game.  However, a win is more critical for the Saints who are competing for a playoff wildcard spot in the crowded NFC race.  Although there’s a lot at stake for both teams, New Orleans needs the win just to hold on to the second best record in the NFC and the glimmer of hope of winning their division.

The big story leading up to this game has been the frigid weather.  It’s cold and snowy in Baltimore and more is expected.  The big concensus is that with New Orleans being a dome team, the cold, icy weather is going to be a hinderance to their high-powered offense, which has been playing some of its best football the last six games. 

Well we saw the Saints look fresh and crisp against Cincinnati despite the frigid temperatures and the snow.  But my mind often goes back to the NFC Championship Game of 2006 when the Saints had to travel to Chicago to play the Bears in the inclimate weather.  From what I saw, the Saints problems didn’t arise from the weather conditions.  It was the play calling that did them in.  Rather than run the ball to establish balance, which they had been doing with some effectiveness in that game, the plan was to rely on the passing game to get it done.  As a result, there were just too many costly mistakes made for them to overcome.  I always felt like if they’d run the ball more, the Saints could’ve won that game.  But of course it’s water under the bridge now.

Since then, Pierre Thomas has joined the team and brought some consistent, tough running to the offense.  Not only does he bust through tackles and run through defenders, he’s as reliable as it comes when executing the screen.  What I love about him is that you won’t see him drop too many balls or fumble very often.  And he’s no less effective in cold weather.  During his rookie year in 2007, Thomas rushed for 105 yards and had 121 yards receiving against Chicago in the cold.  He’s had marked success in some other cold weather games as well.  I look for him to be a huge part of the offense against the Ravens, to run from scrimmage, of course, but mostly to run those screens as only he can so masterfully do.

Next, I don’t think Baltimore can match up with the Saints 3 and 4-receiver sets and the offense gets extra hard to defend when  Reggie Bush is put in as a fifth.  That way, even if they have to account for Ed Reed on the field, he can only cover one receiver at a time.  I think that Drew Brees has so many weapons that it’s going to be hard for the Ravens to check everybody.  Nonetheless, the execution has to be flawless or close to it.  The penalties and turnovers cannot be a part of the gameplan or Baltimore’s opportunistic defense will take advantage.   Also, Jermon Bushrod is going to need some help with Terrell Suggs from time to time, so look for players to slide over to help him with that.  That means that Brees is going to have to get the ball out of his hand quickly, but he’s one of the best at doing that anyway.  One given is that the Ravens are definitely going to try to get pressure on Brees to throw him out of rhythm, so the play of the offensive line is going to be critical.  Those guys are going to have to protect Brees–point blank.  They can’t afford to have the protection breakdowns that have left him sacked 19 times so far. Still, if the Saints receivers and tight ends are on their games, I believe they will put up some monster numbers, although I’m not buying into any of the hype that the Ravens defense is slacking in any kind of way.  They are still a very dangerous corps of defenders and shouldn’t be overlooked for any reason.  I expect Pierre Thomas to see a lot of action in this game as well, more from receiving though than from rushing.  Hopefully Chris Ivory will be able to play to throw yet another wrinkle at that Ravens defense.  Jimmy Graham and Jeremy Shockey both can create matchup problems also and could figure into the scheme heavily.  But I wouldn’t take for granted that anything is going to be automatic.  It’s going to be tough.  However, if the Saints play to their full potential, they are hard to defend. 

Defensively, the Saints have to contend with the play action of Joe Flacco and his offense and the power running of Ray Rice.  But Gregg Williams’ unit hasn’t been getting much respect leading up to this game, despite being one of the best in the league statistically.  In fact, they rank ahead of Baltimore’s in a lot of areas.  For instance, the Saints have allowed 308.6 per game whereas Baltimore has allowed 319.8 yards per game.  The Saints defense also ranks ahead of them in sacks (26 to 24) and in takeaways (21 to 17).  Yet it’s the Raven’s defense that is more feared and thereby receives top billing.  The Saints defense is certainly going to have it’s work cut out, nonetheless, because the Ravens are also very talented offensively.  They have some physical receivers in Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason who can get vertical and get open down the field.  They also have the talent of Willis McGahee to go along with that of Rice.  Getting pressure on Flacco is going to be key because if he’s allowed to get comfortable in the pocket, he can find those targets down the field for big plays.  Those exotic William’s blitzes and disguised defenses are going to be the difference makers. 

Knowing what a team is going to do is only half the battle.  How you counteract it is what makes the difference in the end.  Fortunately, the Saints have masters on offense and defense who know what it takes to win games.  I hope that Sean Payton utilizes that massive playbook of his and uses every weapon at his disposal; the Saints cannot be allowed to become one dimensional.  That’s what it will take against the Ravens.  New Orleans has too many good receivers and too solid a run game to not get it done.  They have to hold on to the ball though and work extra hard to get open; it wouldn’t hurt sometimes if they’d come back for the ball when Brees gets into trouble either.  The Saints also have to expect the unexpected, (Cleveland taught us that), but they should also consider pulling out a few stops of their own.  And I don’t even need to harp on the importance of special teams.  This game might not be won in a conventional method.  In fact, it might come down to which play caller is the most unconventional.  I think when it’s all said and done, the Saints will win it 24-14.

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