With a December Monday Night schedule that could make viewers implode from boredom, we at least get to say goodbye to November with a compelling, playoff-implicating NFC matchup. This warrants a classic five-part breakdown.
Saints offense vs. Giants defense
1. Giants pass-rush vs. Saints pass protection
This is a glaring mismatch. New Orleans has the worst pass-blocking offensive tackle tandem in football in Jermon Bushrod (left side) and Zach Strief (right side). Bushrod is slow and has awful technique. Strief is just slow. The sack numbers do not reflect this because Drew Brees is a magician when it comes to getting rid of the ball quickly and moving in and out of the pocket.
Brees, like most star quarterbacks, gets rid of the ball thanks to shrewd presnap reads. But where he’s really elite is in going through his reads. Brees can scan three or four different receivers on a simple five-step drop. He recognizes and anticipates receiver-defender relationships as fast as any passer in the game.
Because so much of what Brees does is based on quick timing and rhythm, it’s not necessarily wise to blitz him. Instead, the objective is to force him to exhaust his progressions. It’s 50-50 that the pass protection can hold up long enough for him to do this (if Brees were a typical quarterback, it’d be more like 25-75). The Rams did this in their Week 8 upset of the Saints.
The Giants’ defensive ends are several grades better than the Rams’. They’ll pressure Brees with four rushers.
2. Saints WR’s vs. Giants secondary
In Week 8, the Rams thrived with physical press coverage aided by safety help. The Giants secondary delivered terrific press coverage in their win at New England a few weeks ago. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more of that Monday night. The Saints have four quality wide receivers: Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore.
With a matchup nightmare like tight end like Jimmy Graham, most of the Saints’ formations involve only three of those wideouts. But whatever the pieces, they can -- and do -- align in all different spots on the field.
This is one reason it’s enticing to play press-man against them. Instead of trying to figure out the litany of formations and route possibilities, a defensive coordinator can put a safety or two over the top and tell his cornerbacks to just jam the hell out of whoever they line up against.
But when defenses can mix in zone coverages, they obviously give themselves more options. With rookie Prince Amukamara now healthy, the Giants might be one of the few secondaries in the league versatile enough to do this against the Saints.
With Corey Webster shadowing DeSean Jackson most of last Sunday night (Webster has shadowed the opposing No. 1 receiver regularly this season), Amukamara and Aaron Ross played inside and outside across from him. Both men played man and zone principles.
The Giants also have a multipronged tool in safety Antrel Rolle. He’s rangy in space and, as a former cornerback, adept at playing all coverages as the nickel slot defender.
3. Saints’ savvy run-pass tactic
Don’t be surprised if the Saints frequently throw out of running formations Monday night. Jimmy Graham is extremely effective running routes from a traditional tight end stance, and fullback Jed Collins is capable of catching passes in the flats. We think of the Saints as a spread offense, but Brees is averaging about 10 pass attempts per game out of two-back formations, and 10 of his 23 touchdown passes have come from such sets.
The run formation approach gains potency because the Giants starting linebackers struggle in coverage. Those struggles manifest drastically if Michael Boley (hamstring) is still out. Boley’s replacement, Mark Herzlich, was fantastic against the run last Sunday, but he was badly exposed when dropping back in coverage.
The linebacking issues are significant enough that the Giants may even be compelled to play their 4-2-5 nickel defense against the Saints base offense (they’d be treating Graham as a wide receiver). In that case, Sean Payton would have his array of running backs pound the rock behind monstrous All-World guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans.
The run formations could also aid New Orleans’ proficient play-action game (Brees was 17/19 for 212 yards and two touchdowns off play-action fakes against the Falcons in Week 10). It’s a myth that you need to establish the run in order to set up play-action.
In reality, defenders are trained to react to movement; play-action will work if the fake and the offensive linemen’s initial movements are executed well, regardless of how a team has been running the ball. That said, those fakes and movements are obviously more believable when the offense is lined up in a run formation.
Giants offense vs. Saints defense
4. Giants run game woes
The Giants will not advance deep in the playoffs if their run game does not get going. A typical Brandon Jacobs run these days involves the 265-pounder stumbling a yard behind the line of scrimmage, bumping into his own blocker, fighting for a yard-and-a-half and then pissing off every player around him by bumping into body after body as he tries to prove his manhood by ferociously picking himself up off the ground before other players can unpile, all the while barking emphatically about ... what, exactly?
How lucky are the defenders that this isn’t four years ago, when Jacobs was actually productive?
The Giants need a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw in the worst of ways. Of course, the rock-firm scatback’s presence would only present a greater opportunity for a rejuvenated run game -- not the assurance of one. Bradshaw was averaging just 4.0 yards per carry before his foot injury -- 0.7 yards below his career average.
New York’s problems start up front. And they may not be solved this week. Center David Baas has struggled with lateral run-blocking in tight spaces. Saints defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin is not an ideal opponent to face when trying to correct this. Thirty-one-year-old left guard David Diehl is showing signs of decline. This week could be tough, as the Saints defensive ends are excellent in run defense, particularly when crashing inside.
If the Giants offensive line can somehow break even in this matchup, New York’s fullbacks and tight ends will likely have opportunities to work against a Saints linebacking corps that’s without leader Jonathan Vilma (out since the start of the month with a knee). The Saints would almost need to commit eight to the box at that point. Roman Harper might be the best pure in-box safety in the NFL, but if the Giants can compel him to focus heavily on the run, they’ll impeded his blitzes, which are one of the Saints’ best weapons in pass defense (see item 5).
5. Saints blitzes
A big reason Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams blitzes so much is he knows his down four linemen cannot consistently collapse the pocket on their own. Don’t expect that to change much Sunday night (even though the Giants offensive tackles struggled mightily against the Eagles).
The difference between Williams’ D and other blitzing defenses is that Williams’ D blitzes hard. His blitzes often involve six pass-rushers instead of just five. And because one of those six rushers is usually a defensive back (Harper is phenomenal in this facet, as his 6.5 sacks on the season attest), and because nickel linebacker Jonathan Casillas has crazy speed and acceleration downhill, New Orleans’ blitzes are exceptionally fast.
Expect Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard to be big factors Monday night; as slot targets they’ll be Eli Manning’s hot reads against these blitzes.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 12 games.
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