When: Sunday, September 25, 1:00 PM ET
Where: The Superdome, New Orleans
In this marquee matchup, the 2-0 Houston Texans take on their first real challenge of the season after beating up on the hapless Colts and the overmatched Dolphins. while the 1-1 Saints look to get their record on the positive side at home against an offense as explosive as theirs. The difference from Texans teams in past seasons and this one is a pass defense that appears to be very much for real. Can that new defense handle what Drew Brees has in store for it?
Houston's defense vs. New Orleans' offense
Much has been made of Houston's switch to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but as with most pure designations of defensive fronts, that's a bit of a misnomer — Phillips implements defenses with 4-3 (single-gap) principles more than he does with the traditional 3-4 two-gap defenses you might see in Pittsburgh or Green Bay. He will alternate between 5-2 fronts and what looks like four-front defenses — much of the time, those switch-up defenses are based on coverage concepts (when they go to nickel defense), and at least one player on the line will frequently have his hand off the ground.
In this case, that guy is generally Mario Williams, who is gradually making the difficult transition from sometimes-dominant 4-3 end to moveable chess piece. Phillips will use Williams as an outside linebacker coming off the edge (a role I'm still not sure about, simply due to Williams' difficulties in winning leverage battles outside with his 6-foot-7 frame), as a weakside edge piece in certain four-man fronts, and as a hybrid LEO end in ways similar to what Dom Capers does with Clay Matthews in Green Bay. It's an interesting experiment.
Of course, the primary challenge the Texans have is in trying to stop Drew Brees and the Saints' passing attack. Last season, Houston finished dead last in the league in Football Outsiders' pass defense metrics, but that was as much about the vanilla zone schemes the Texans trotted out as it was about personnel. Now, with Phillips on board, the idea is to mix a batter pass rush, more complex coverage ideas, and free agent pickups cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Danieal Manning. Gone is the straight cover zone seen play after play in 2010. Now, you'll see the Texans run coverages in which nickel defenses go tight man with three-wide sets, corner-safety combos will box in different playside route combinations, and unexpected defenders (like linebacker Connor Barwin) will drop into coverage at certain times. Phillips is known as a "set-'em-and-forget-'em" scheme-builder, but that's a discredit to the interesting coverages he's putting out there.
How should the Saints counter this? Well, Sean Payton and Drew Brees are always going to throw the ball, but they may want to pay special attention to the vulnerability that is Houston's run defense — the Texans rank 24th in that category in Football Outsiders' defensive metrics. Getting Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas involved is crucial, because it also keeps Houston's high-flying offense off the field. Thomas is the wild-card here — while Ingram is an excellent power back with three-down potential, Thomas sets blitz-happy defenses on edge with his ability to find gaps and get free on draws and delays. The Saints' offensive line will run some zone and second-level stuff — right guard Jahri Evans is on e of the NFL's finest seam blockers — but Evans and left guard Carl Nicks love to blast defensive fronts away with hat-on-hat blocking as well.
Defenses playing the Saints also have to contend with the ways in which the tight ends go in motion pre-snap. Payton will call plays where both primary tight ends — David Thomas and Jimmy Graham — will move inline from one side to another, and Thomas will set back in the backfield as a fullback. He's more the puree blocker, while Graham has taken some of Marques' Colston's role as the Saints' #1 receiver recovers from a broken collarbone. Devery Henderson is the deep threat, and Danieal Manning will be seriously challenged by that. If the Saints can establish the pass with their infinite route combinations and then pound the run against an overly reactive Texans defense, Houston is in big trouble. They have to attack intelligently and mix their coverages, because Brees is a brilliant quarterback who will murder a defense that shows him the same thing too often. Look for the Texans to run a lot of nickel, and look for the Saints to try and run them right back out of it.
New Orleans' defense vs. Houston's ofense
And now, for the "no-duh" section of our game preview: Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to blitz. Last season, New Orleans sent six or more defenders against the quarterback on 25.2 percent of their plays, by far the most in the league. What makes Williams' schemes so dangerous is that he'll run his pressure from all sorts of different angles. The primary constant in those pressure packages seems to be safety Roman Harper. Harper is a liability in coverage, but he's very adept at coming up to one edge or the other and beating the tackle or blocking back around the edge. Houston's offensive line is far, far better than the nightmarish line the Bears put up against Williams' defense last week, but the way Williams set his guys against that line was still instructive.
The Saints will move linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Jonathan Casillas around a lot pre-snap; the idea there is to create read confusion and force offenses to wait to make their pressure calls. It's very effective, especially when cornerbacks and safeties are either blitzing or bringing blitz looks off the edge. Like Phillips, Williams likes to run multiple fronts, but he's even more diverse — he'll run straight 3-4 or 4-3, 5-2 or 4-2 nickel, and he may run more 3-3-5 stack than anyone else in the league. You never know who's coming after the quarterback and who's dropping into coverage, and that's what makes the Saints' defense so dangerous. However, that same defense has proven to be vulnerable against outside and cutback runners, and that's where the Texans can kick down the door. This will be especially true if Vilma's knee prevents him from playing.
Houston runs the inside and outside zone blocking inherited from Gary Kubiak and Alex Gibbs in their Denver days, and they're to the point now where, if you wanted to see the zone scheme run to perfection, you'd want to start with Texans tape — they're that good. Behind that coordinated attack comes running back Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Though Foster's been dealing with a hamstring injury, he looked quick in bursts to the outside against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, so that's problem #1 for the Saints' defense. Problem #2 is Tate, because even if the Texans hold Foster out of this one, that line is just about the point that the Denver lines were a decade ago — you can put the UPS delivery guy behind, and you'll get some yardage. Tate's a bit more powerful and slightly less elusive than Foster, but both backs are a problem in that offense.
Of course, everyone wants to talk about Houston's passing attack, with quarterback Matt Schaub and the best receiver in the game, Andre Johnson. The underrated aspect of that passing game is the way the Texans set their receivers and tight ends up to block; they're among the best teams when it comes to spacing and placing their targets inline when necessary and helping to protect Schaub. Problems in recent years with third-down and red zone efficiency have been eliminated for the most part. Another underrated aspect of the Houston passing game is how well and how often Schaub will roll out to establish zone pockets and other advantages for his receivers. Both the Saints and Texans throw with their quarterbacks on the run, which means that both defenses will have to guard against misdirection and getting gassed late in the contest.
How this could go: Right now, as improbable as this sounds, the Texans may have the advantage on pass defense right now. Phillips' defense is coming together week by week, and as much as the Saints' defense is used to playing against teams desperate to catch up late in the game, Houston's offense doesn't have a problem putting up yards and points. Williams will have to be cognizant through the game when it comes to selling out his defenders against Houston's pure zone rushing attack, and that could be the one thing that tilts this contest in the Texans' favor.