The Giants will attempt to stay atop the NFC East and break a three-game losing streak vs. New Orleans when they host the Saints this Sunday in MetLife Stadium. A loss in Washington on Monday night dropped the Giants to 7-5, one game ahead of the Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in the division race. The Saints started the season 0-4 and have lost their last two games, to San Francisco and Atlanta. But in-between they won five of six games and are 5-7 overall. The Giants lead the series, 14-12, but New Orleans has recently had the upper hand, winning the last three meetings, including a 49-24 triumph last season in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints are ranked sixth in the NFL in total yards (386.4), but this is a team that prefers to move the ball through the air. They are third in the league in passing (294.2) and 27th in rushing yardage (92.3). But that last figure is a bit misleading. In the first seven games, New Orleans averaged 72.6 yards on the ground. Aaron Kroner then turned over the interim head coaching duties to Joe Vitt and focused his attention on the rushing attack, his specialty. In the last five weeks, New Orleans has averaged 119.8 rushing yards a game and 4.8 yards per carry.
New Orleans is tied for fifth in scoring (26.6 points a game). The Saints have scored touchdowns on an NFL-best 70.3 percent of their trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line (26 of 37). They have attempted only 14 field goals. New Orleans has a minus-two turnover differential (the Giants are plus-14, tied with Chicago for best in the NFC). In their seven losses, the Saints had 14 turnovers. In five victories, they gave the ball way just five times. They threw an average of 46 passes in their losses, but only 34 in their wins. When Drew Brees throws at least 40 passes, the Saints are 1-6 (beating only San Diego on October 7).
Brees is a six-time Pro Bowler who is still one of the NFL's very best quarterbacks. He is in the top 10 in all major passing categories this season. Brees leads the league with 31 touchdown passes, but is also tied, with Andrew Luck, for the league-high with 16 interceptions. Last week, he threw five picks in a loss at Atlanta, where his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass ended at a record 54. Brees has excellent throwing mechanics and he has a terrific feel for when he has to step up in the pocket. And few quarterbacks are better at utilizing pump fakes. Brees does have 72 career fumbles, including five this season. His backup is Chase Daniel.
New Orleans has one of the NFL's most productive receiving corps. Marques Colston tops the team with 61 catches and is tied with tight end Jimmy Graham for the lead with eight touchdown receptions. Colston is a premier possession receiver who is big and strong and has a huge catching radius. Devery Henderson is a nine-year veteran with outstanding takeoff quickness and the speed to stretch the field. He has a 17.9-yard average on 243 career catches. Lance Moore is one of the NFL's most precise route-runners and a consistent vertical threat. Joseph Morgan runs deep and clears out the underneath routes. He has just five catches, but they've accounted for 204 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown.
Graham, a 2011 Pro Bowler, lines up all over the field and is right behind Colston with 59 catches. Six of his eight scores have been from the red zone. He is a big, athletic receiving tight end who excels at working the voids in a defense. David Thomas is a reliable outlet target, though he missed the Falcons game with a knee injury. Michael Higgins was signed from the practice squad and instantly became the team's best-blocking tight end. He started in Atlanta.
For a team that doesn't generate a lot of yardage on the ground, New Orleans has as deep a group of backs as any team in the league; five of them are in uniform on game day. Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram both run strong between the tackles. Thomas is the only Saints back with a 100-yard game this season. He leads the team with 425 yards and his good receiving skills have resulted in 22 catches. Ingram has a Saints-high 98 carries and is a powerful runner with good vision, quickness and explosion. He is often employed in short-yardage situations. Darren Sproles missed three games with a broken hand, but has at least four receptions each time he's been in uniform. Sproles is primarily a perimeter player (he has 51 catches) who has uncommon body control and is dangerous in open spaces. Chris Ivory did not play in the season's first seven games, but has since averaged 5.4 yards on 36 carries and scored two touchdowns. Travaris Cadet, a rookie from Appalachian State, is a jack-of-all-trades back.
The Saints have a talented offensive line, but they've had to use four different players at right tackle in the last four games. Zach Strief is the listed starter, but he missed three games with a groin injury before returning to the lineup against the Falcons. He re-injured himself in the fourth quarter. Charles Brown was the first fill-in, but he suffered an MCL injury at Oakland in his third start. New Orleans then turned to Bryce Harris, who started against San Francisco two weeks ago and promptly broke his leg. That forced William Robinson to play right tackle. When Strief was hurt again in Atlanta, Robinson stepped back in.
Elsewhere on the line, left guard Carl Nicks – perhaps the premier player in the league at his position - signed in the offseason with Tampa Bay. So the Saints replaced him with another Pro Bowler, former Baltimore Raven Ben Grubbs, who mauls opponents with his powerful upper body. Right guard Jahri Evans is a three-time Pro Bowler who has started 116 consecutive games. He is an instinctive player who adjusts quickly in space. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod has been a steady performer while starting all 12 games at left tackle. The center is Brian de la Puente, who is tough, competitive and smart. Eric Olsen is used as an extra tight end in their heavy run formation.
The Saints have struggled at times to adapt to the system installed by new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who held the same position for the Giants in 2007-2008. New Orleans is 32nd and last in total yards (440.5) and rushing yards (153.8) yards allowed and 30th vs. the pass (286.7). The Saints have also given up a league-high 290 first downs and they are 28th in scoring defense (27.3 points per game). New Orleans allowed at least 400 yards in each of its first 10 games and league-high totals of 53 runs of 10 or more yards and 20 red zone touchdown passes. But the defense is improving and last week surrendered only 283 yards in Atlanta.
In addition to Spagnuolo, the Saints have several defensive players who weren't on the team when they faced the Giants last year. Linebackers David Hawthorne (formerly with Seattle) and Curtis Lofton (Atlanta) were signed when New Orleans was uncertain if Jonathan Vilma would be suspended. Former Eagle and Ram Brodrick Bunkley is a starting defensive tackle.
Cameron Jordan, a former first-round draft choice, is an attacking style left end who uses a variety of pass rush moves. He leads the team with 7.0 sacks. On the right side, former Pro Bowler Will Smith is a smart, versatile and violent player who has 5.0 sacks. Bunkley is a heavy-bodied run-stopper and the other tackle, Sedrick Ellis, is an active, natural-leverage player. Backup Turk McBride has 25 career starts and plays with a hot motor. Martez Wilson is a former linebacker who has become a disruptive pass rusher as a substitute end. Junior Galette has been relentless while playing about 30 snaps a game.
Lofton is seldom off the field and leads the Saints with 122 tackles (76 solo). He has impressive lateral speed and downhill quickness and a nose for the football. Hawthorne missed five games with a hamstring injury but when healthy, he has been a productive first and second-down run defender as the strongside backer. Vilma, formerly the middle linebacker, now plays on the weak side. No longer an every-snap player, Vilma plays in the base and goal line packages. Vilma is instinctive and athletic and speed remains one of his most valuable assets. Jonathan Casillas enters the game when the Saints use their nickel package, where his impressive coverage ability is best utilized. Scott Shanle, the weakside linebacker last season, has been a healthy scratch the last four games.
Cornerback Patrick Robinson usually covers the opposition's No. 1 receiver. He leads the team with three interceptions, including one he returned 99 yards for a touchdown against Philadelphia, and 15 passes defensed. He has top-end speed, which enables him to run stride-for-stride with the NFL's fastest receivers. Jabari Greer is a smart, savvy veteran with good movement skills at left corner. Strong safety Roman Harper (96) and free safety Malcolm Jenkins (95) are the team's second and third-leading tacklers. Harper often lines up at the linebacker level and is at his best in the box. Jenkins has the versatility to line up at corner. Elbert Mack is a feisty nickel corner and Rafael Bush is the dime back. Cory White has capably filled in at times.
The Saints often get a field possession advantage thanks to punter Thomas Morstead, who benefits from playing in a dome and leads the league with a 44.8-yard net average – almost one yard better than the NFL record 44.0-yard average posted last season by San Francisco's Andy Lee. Morstead's gross average is third at 50.0. Kicker Garrett Hartley has made 11 of 14 field goal attempts and has 34 touchbacks. Cadet is fifth in the NFL with a 28.8-yard average on 17 kickoff returns, including a 75-yarder, and Sproles is averaging 8.7 yards on 15 punt returns.