With all the talk in the NFC about the undefeated Green Bay Packers and the seemingly inevitable two-seed San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints made their own bid for the top of the mountain on that conference with their 49-24 thrashing of the New York Giants last Monday night. All of a sudden, the 8-3 Saints, who face off with the 7-4 Detroit Lions on Sunday night, appear to be the most dangerous of teams — the kind few in the media are discussing, but that all coaches and coordinators fear.
Quarterback Drew Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record — he has 3,689 yards and 27 touchdowns through 11 games. Running back Darren Sproles isn't just the best free-agent signing of the year; he's also one of the most productive and consistent players in the NFL. Beyond the marquee names, though, it's about the Saints' ridiculous depth on offense — and ability to hang tough on defense — that has them looking at a chunk of the NFC's pole position despite the fact that they're three games behind the Super Bowl Champs.
Asked about his next opponent earlier this week, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz didn't mince words — facing the Saints can be a nightmare, especially for a defensive-minded coach. "Obviously Brees is (a) very efficient quarterback," Schwartz said on Wednesday. "He runs that offense probably…he's in the same league when it comes to guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning — when Manning was healthy. Drew Brees just executes that offense exactly the way it's drawn up and he has playmakers. He has guys that he can go to and get them the ball and they can make a play. It's not just a tight end or not just one wide receiver and not just a running back—very deep in playmakers.
"It's a great challenge that they're the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL, but their run game (is) eighth, so they're good there. I think they're second in points scored, first in third downs—there's a lot of challenges, but regardless of what our situation is, you know, we expect to get the job done and we expect players that are on the field to get the job done."
And that's a very good point. It's not just the wide receivers who present serious challenges — in fact, you could argue that the New Orleans offense has one of the more impressive combinations of tight end and running back production in recent memory. While Detroit's Calvin Johnson ranks second in the NFC interceptions behind Atlanta's Roddy White, the Saints claim third and fourth, with second-year tight end Jimmy Graham (62 catches for 873 yards and six touchdowns) placing third and Sproles (60 catches for 448 yards and three scored) fourth.
Graham is the NFL's newest and hardest-to-stop of the new wave of tight ends as big receivers, and he presents the ultimate matchup nightmare for opposing defenses — linebackers can't keep up with him, he runs right by safeties, and the next cornerback that wins a jump-ball battle with him will be the first. Graham and Brees' other receivers abused the Giants over the intermediate middle when New York went more straight Cover-2; Schwartz seems to understand that covering Graham like a "normal" tight end is a sure recipe for disaster.
"He (was) a basketball player at University of Miami—I think only played one year of college football, but you could see his athletic ability, even that year, he was just playing a little bit of football.
"(He) went down to the Senior Bowl. Everybody had a lot of exposure of him going into the (NFL) Draft—really big athlete, great wingspan, and really good ball skills down the field. He's averaging a lot of yards for a tight end. They use him down the field, but (it's) not something we haven't seen before. We've played some outstanding tight ends this year. We had [Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael] Finley last week, Witten, we've had Kellen Winslow, we've had Tony Gonzalez, I mean, there's been a bunch of tight ends, so the way he's playing right now….I don't think coming into this season anybody would have said you say his name along with those other guys, but with his production, he's leading the team in receptions, 6 touchdowns—he's playing outstanding football."
According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics, the Lions are the second-best team in the league when it comes to shutting down tight ends (only the Philadelphia Eagles were better at the start of Week 13). That's of some benefit, but there also seems to be an extra characteristic that offensive players gain when they become part of this Saints system. Sproles is having the very definition of a career year, and on other teams, Graham might be a 20-catch afterthought. As Brees said on Wednesday, that was part of the sell job he gave to Sproles, who was a free agent and relatively unwanted by the San Diego Chargers after the lockout was finished.
"I trained with him in the offseason. I have known Sproles since I was in San Diego in 2005 when we drafted him," the former Chargers quarterback said. "I have known Darren for a long time. It has been fun to watch him from afar, just kind of growing and developing and become a player that he has become. Then this offseason with the lockout and everything, we were training together in San Diego. I just remember during that whole process, I am sitting here watching this guy going, 'Why is he not on our team?'"
"I knew he was going to be a free agent and he was talking about how he felt like he probably was not going to be back in San Diego, so he was looking for a new team. I told him, 'Buddy, you have got to come to the Saints.' So at the time, Reggie (Bush) was still on our team but I knew that there was a chance he wouldn't be, Sproles is out there, and I had told Sean Payton already, 'If this guy is available, we have got to go get him.' It was kind of a no-brainer. I know some other teams were in the mix but I am glad he saw the opportunity in us because he has certainly made the most of it."
However, what makes this particular Saints team different, special, and more of an outdoor playoff threat than other iterations of the teams put out by Sean Payton and Drew Brees since 2006 is the rise of a three-headed monster at the running back position. Sproles is the lead dog when it comes to creating plays in the passing game, but there's also the woefully underrated Pierre Thomas, who can do just about everything at a high level, and 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram, who is learning to mix power and productivity at the NFL level.
Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, as confident a coach as you'll find in the league, had no trouble reflecting on the challenges those backs present. "All of them are really good players. They have two power backs. Sproles is the guy, though. If you look at him, he had their background this year, every game they lost he didn't do anything. Every game they won — he is not averaging 6.8 [yards] a carry for nothing. He is the leading third-down converter in the NFL. Like I said, if he was [part of the Lions roster], I would shoot somebody before they let him go. He is a dynamite football player. He is like an old-day third down back where you have to double him with a defensive back and a linebacker or he would eat you up. Nowadays, you get guys in there that are like shoemakers on third down. I could cover some of them. This guy, he is special."
Worth mentioning as well that these Saints are averaging 42 points per game when they play at the Superdome, which they will be doing tonight. The Lions are currently on the outside looking in from a playoff perspective, and playing the Saints might be the worst possible remedy for that situation. Last time these two teams faced off, it was 2009, and Brees threw six touchdown passes in a 45-27 Superdome massacre. These Lions are better, but Sunday night could well be a continuation of last Monday night for the Saints — a coronation for the NFC's best team nobody's talking about.