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Defense gameplans for high-scoring Saints

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher stepped to the podium for his weekly meeting with the media yesterday and needed only four words to summarize what his unit will face on Sunday.

"Great challenge this week," Bettcher said.

Well, that's an understatement. When the Giants host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Bettcher's D will be tasked with restraining an offense that is averaging 34.7 points a game, features a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) who is completing more than 80 percent of his passes, and the two players – running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas – who rank first and third, respectively, in the NFL in yards from scrimmage.

"One of the top offenses in the National Football League and really an offense that collectively has been one of the top five offenses for a while," Bettcher said. "They (coach Sean Payton and Brees) have been together for over a decade, and they called a lot of plays and run a lot of plays together and you can see that. Before the snap, some of the things Drew is able to get up and do and change protections, change routes, change formations at the line of scrimmage, so it's going to be a great challenge. The running back is a really special player. A guy that they use in the backfield to carry the ball, heavily in the screen game or they split him out and use him as a slot-type receiver. They're going to find ways to target him and get him touches, and Thomas is another really, really talented receiver on the perimeter. Has really strong hands at the point when balls are up and some of those 50/50 balls, he's a really good player in those scenarios."

The triggerman is Brees, who is in his 18th NFL season and 13th with New Orleans, all in Payton's system. On Sunday, they will participate in their 178th regular-season game together, the fourth-highest total for a coach/quarterback combination in NFL history.

Brees has compiled an encyclopedia's worth of impressive statistics. Last week, he became the NFL's career leads in completions with 6,236. Brees needs 418 passing yards to break Peyton Manning's NFL record of 71,940, and four touchdown passes to become the third player in history with 500. And he's not exactly regressing at age 39; he leads the league in completions (104) and percentage (80.6), is third in passing yardage (1,078) and has thrown eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

But the numbers tell just part of Brees' story. He still moves well in the pocket and is instinctive stepping up to avoid the rush. Brees has outstanding anticipation on short and medium routes, one reason for his uncanny accuracy. Another is his intimate knowledge of the offense and his experience in having seen virtually every defense opposing teams try to use against him. Brees seldom makes a bad decision, either before or after the snap.

"There's no fooling Drew Brees," said Giants defensive back Michael Thomas. "He has seen everything. You just got to line up, do your job, play. The ball is coming out quick, tackle those guys. They're making a lot of their money off of getting the ball to some great athletes in space, and they're breaking tackles and running after the tackles, so do your job. When he throws the ball quick, gets the ball out of his hands, get those guys on the ground."

"He really is a Hall of Fame quarterback," linebacker Alex Ogletree said. "He's going to have a gold jacket one day. He's done it for a long time and everybody says pretty much the same thing, you got to get in his face and try to limit his vision. But at the same time he has good pocket presence and he knows how to work in the pocket. Just presents a challenge for us to try to go out there and get in his face and try to block his vision a little bit."

That's difficult, because Brees gets rid of the ball so quickly, usually to Kamara or Thomas, whom he has targeted on 78 passes – including 30 last week in an overtime victory in Atlanta. They have combined for 68 receptions, including a league-leading 38 by Thomas, who is also first with 398 receiving yards.

"Every team has guys they like to fix their game plan through and those two guys are definitely the top guys on (New Orleans') offense," Ogletree said. "It definitely presents a challenge for any team."

In 2016-17, Thomas caught 196 passes, which was more receptions in his first two seasons than any other player in NFL history

"They're going to move him, put him all over the field and there's special plays that are designed to get him touches, just like Kamara," Bettcher said. "It might be in the slot, it might be the X on the back side of the three-by-one, a few times it's the Z outside to the three receiver side. I think anywhere they put him you got to be aware he's a focal point and there's some things designed for him that are going to come in the game."

Kamara was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2017 when he rushed for 781 yards, caught 81 passes and scored eight touchdowns. He led all backs with a 6.1-yard rushing average (minimum 120 attempts) and 826 receiving yards, many of them on the large variety of screen passes New Orleans favors. Bettcher said Kamara might cause more matchup problems than Thomas.

"In terms of running backs, because the multitude of places he can align and motion to and shift to, there's no perfect call to get one guy on him every snap of the game," Bettcher said. "Whoever's on him got to play fundamentally sound, got to understand the routes you're going to get from the places he's aligned, and get your eyes in the right place and play fast."

As Bettcher said, the Saints present a huge challenge for the Giants defense.

"We look forward to it, though," safety Landon Collins said. "We're excited for it, because this is an explosive offense, and they've got a great quarterback back there that knows how to run it. He's been doing a great job since he's been in the NFL.

View the Saints starters for this weeks game at MetLife Stadium