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It’s a tough slate. The New Orleans Saints are set to play against 7 of the top 9 offenses in passer rating this season, though at least one of those opponents (the Russell Wilson-less Seattle Seahawks) is obviously taking a step back from last year. They’ll also square off with 6 of the top 11 rushing attacks, again including Seattle. But as effective as those teams may have been at moving the ball, they struggled to put up points: only 3 teams ranked inside the top 10 last year in points scored. There will be opportunities for New Orleans to take the lead, especially if the defense their entire offseason has been built around maintaining can meet expectations. Let’s break down each 2022 opponent:
AP Photo/Derick Hingle
Points per game: 17.8 (29th)
Passer rating: 68.5 (32nd)
Sacks rate allowed: 8.0% (25th)
Rushing yards per game: 108.4 (20th)
Key additions: RG Austin Corbett, C Bradley Bozeman, WR Rashard Higgins, LT Ikem Ekwonu (rookie), QB Matt Corral (rookie)
Key losses: RT Trenton Scott (Steelers), RB Ameer Abdullah (Raiders)
So much of Carolina’s hopes ride on the return of superstar running back Christian McCaffrey, who has been limited to just 10 games played over the last two years while managing a series of injuries. When he’s healthy, there aren’t many players better – McCaffrey earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition in 2019 while leading the league in touches (403), yards from scrimmage (2,392) and touchdowns scored (19). But that was three years ago, and you’ve got to wonder how much he’s lost to these injuries and the heavy workload that preceded them.
Then there’s the quarterback question. Carolina was the first team to make a run at Deshaun Watson, and they kept up the campaign until the final days. They’ve also been in talks to trade for Baker Mayfield, but nothing has materialized on that front. Odds are they’ll give the 25-year-old Sam Darnold another shot, largely for lack of better options, but his gnarly track record suggests it’s only a matter of time until rookie draft pick Matt Corral gets a look. Good luck to them. Matt Rhule is 10-23 through his first two years on the job and it’s tough to see when or why things will turn around.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Points per game: 18.4 (26th)
Passer rating: 86.6 (21st)
Sacks rate allowed: 6.5% (20th)
Rushing yards per game: 85.4 (31st)
Key additions: QB Marcus Mariota (Raiders), RB Damien Williams (Bears), WR Damiere Byrd (Bears), RT Germain Ifedi (Bears), TE Anthony Firkser (Titans), WR Bryan Edwards (Raiders trade), WR Auden Tate (Bengals), WR Drake London (rookie), QB Desmond Ridder (rookie)
Key losses: QB Matt Ryan (Colts trade), WR Calvin Ridley (suspended), WR Russell Gage (Buccaneers), TE Hayden Hurst (Bengals), RB Mike Davis (Ravens), WR Tajae Sharpe (Bears)
Few teams have had as much turnover as Atlanta, and they’ve needed it at almost every position but quarterback. Ironically, that’s where the biggest change occurred with their ill-advised pursuit of Deshaun Watson prompting Matt Ryan to seek a divorce. Now they’re hoping that Arthur Smith can coach up Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder and a receiving corps built around second-year tight end Kyle Pitts, position-flexible playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson, and wideouts Drake London, Bryan Edwards, Damiere Byrd, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Auden Tate. It’s not the worst plan, but it’s also likely not enough to get them into the race for an NFC South crown this year.
Atlanta needs to do a better job of running the ball, too. Anything that can be accomplished on the ground will help keep some pressure off of whoever is at quarterback. Patterson is an annoyingly fun player to watch, but he can’t do it all on his own, so it’ll take some combination of Damien Williams and maybe Tyler Allgeier, a fifth-round draft pick out of BYU, to pick up the slack. We’ll wish them the best of luck and look forward to the Saints defense grinding the Falcons offense down into a fine paste later this fall.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Points per game: 20.2 (21st)
Passer rating: 85.3 (24th)
Sacks rate allowed: 5.4% (11th)
Rushing yards per game: 93.1 (29th)
Key additions: QB Mitchell Trubisky (Bills), RG James Daniels (Bears), C Mason Cole (Vikings), RT Trenton Scott (Panthers), QB Kenny Pickett (rookie), WR George Pickens (rookie)
Key losses: Ben Roethlisberger (retirement), RG Trai Turner (Commanders), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (Chiefs), WR Ray-Ray McCloud (49ers), WR James Washington (Cowboys)
They’re really doing this Mitchell Trubisky thing, huh? It’s unlikely he’ll be able to hold off Kenny Pickett for the starting job by the time the Saints visit in mid-November, but you never know. At any rate the Steelers offense should improve between Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement and the reinforced offensive line. Better blocking up front could help lighten the load for Najee Harris – he was the only Steeler to run for more than 100 yards last season, totaling 307 attempts for 1,200 yards.
It won’t take much for the Steelers to knock off some rust and be a problem again. Even if Roethlisberger held them back in recent years, they’ve got a strong base and made some smart moves to build off of that foundation. If he can stay healthy, George Pickens shouldn’t take long to form one of the NFL’s better receiving trios with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. He just may lack for targets behind them given their established presence within Pittsburgh’s offense.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Points per game: 23.2 (16th)
Passer rating: 103.1 (4th)
Sacks rate allowed: 8.5% (29th)
Rushing yards per game: 122.0 (11th)
Key additions: QB Drew Lock (Broncos trade), TE Noah Fant (Broncos trade), WR Marquise Goodwin (Bears), LT Charles Cross (rookie), RB Kenneth Walker (rookie), RT Abraham Lucas (rookie)
Key losses: QB Russell Wilson (Broncos trade), TE Gerald Everett (Chargers), LG Ethan Pocic (Browns)
So I don’t expect any team to end up tumbling further in these rankings than Seattle: they’ve lost more than anyone in their split with Russell Wilson. Going from a top-5 quarterback to starting either Drew Lock or Geno Smith is as far as you can fall from one situation to another in the NFL. Maybe they’ll trade for Baker Mayfield to try and salvage things. With all of that said, you can’t rule out an offense built around two dynamic wide receivers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Those two are talented enough to help out almost any quarterback, and Noah Fant makes for a nice upgrade over Gerald Everett.
And the Seahawks did move smartly in the draft to address their longest-running issue, finding a pair of bookend tackles to help clean up in pass protection. Charles Cross was the most pro-ready left tackle in the draft and Abraham Lucas was a nice find in the third round. If those two can hit the ground running while Kenneth Walker solidifies the running backs rotation, Pete Carroll can play the physical style of football he’s always wanted and minimize the impact his quarterback (whoever that ends up being) has on his game plan. But at the end of the day the quarterback is the most important position in pro sports, and that isn’t a question they can put off answering forever.
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Points per game: 20.5 (20th)
Passer rating: 84.6 (26th)
Sacks rate allowed: 8.6% (30th)
Rushing yards per game: 145.4 (4th)
Key additions: QB Deshaun Watson (Texans trade, pending suspension), WR Amari Cooper (Cowboys trade), LG Ethan Pocic (Seahawks), QB Jacoby Brissett (Dolphins), WR David Bell (rookie)
Key losses: TE Austin Hooper (Titans), WR Jarvis Landry (Saints), WR Rashard Higgins (Panthers)
The Browns shoot up the rankings in a hurry if Watson is able to play more than half the season. If he’s active for 10 or more games, Cleveland should be in the playoff picture. Anything less is a disappointment given how much the Browns sacrificed to get him on their team. If Watson dodges a year-long suspension, odds are he’ll be starting under center when the Saints visit Cleveland on Christmas Eve.
So what about the team around him? Cooper is kind of a boom-or-bust receiver on his own but the attention he commands from defenses frees up opportunities for those around him, so that’s big news for returning starter Donovan Peoples-Jones and David Bell. David Njoku is now in the driver’s seat at tight end with a hefty new contract, so there’s motivation to get him involved. He’s exactly the sort of big athletic pass-catcher the Saints have struggled with in the past (let’s not dwell on the 12-catch Darren Waller game in 2020 any longer than we need to). Nick Chubb can run the ball as well as anyone in the NFL, but Cleveland’s offensive line has eroded these last few years. Let’s hope the Saints defensive front is intact and ready to take advantage come December.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Points per game: 22.8 (17th)
Passer rating: 84.4 (27th)
Sacks rate allowed: 8.5% (28th)
Rushing yards per game: 145.8 (3rd)
Key additions: RT Morgan Moses (Jets), RB Mike Davis (Falcons), C Tyler Linderbaum (rookie)
Key losses: C Bradley Bozeman (Panthers), WR Marquise Brown (Cardinals trade), WR Sammy Watkins (Packers), TE Eric Tomlinson (Broncos)
Baltimore is hoping for a big second-year jump out of Rashod Bateman, giving Lamar Jackson a new go-to receiver after they traded away Marquise Brown and let Sammy Watkins walk in free agency, taking 195 targets with them (Bateman was targeted 68 times as a rookie). That’s a lot of pressure to put on one young receiver and a quarterback with some erratic tendencies. At least they tried to improve their offensive line and get younger at running back. The Ravens have found a winning formula that relies on balancing rushes with passes and putting Jackson in the best position to win. We’ll see if these shakeups throw them off.
I would like to take a second and meditate on the injuries Baltimore dealt with last year. Jackson played a career-low 12 games, with his backups Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson going 1-4 in his absence. They were also with standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley plus top running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards for most of the season. It’s the kind of situation Saints fans have known all too well in recent years. The Ravens could bounce back quickly with better luck.
San Francisco 49ers
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Points per game: 25.1 (13th)
Passer rating: 99.2 (9th)
Sacks rate allowed: 6.0% (17th)
Rushing yards per game: 127.4 (7th)
Key additions: WR Ray-Ray McCloud (Steelers), TE Tyler Kroft (Jets), RB Tyrion Davis-Price (rookie), WR Danny Gray (rookie)
Key losses: C Alex Mack (retirement), LG Laken Tomlinson (Jets), RT Tom Compton (Broncos),WR Trent Sherfield (Dolphins)
So much of this hinges on whether or not Trey Lance is good, and frankly we didn’t see enough out of him as a rookie to say so either way. He only threw 71 passes and got into 6 games, going 1-1 across two starts. There’s so much uncertainty surrounding him, but it’s early, and he was a fine prospect coming out of school, and the 49ers didn’t give up so much to trade up for him for no reason. We’ll just have to wait and see whether Kyle Shanahan can elevate his game the way he’s done with almost every other quarterback he’s coached. Having such a dynamic receiving corps certainly helps.
With that said, there’s a lot of instability up front for San Francisco on offense. They’ve lost three starters along the offensive line including a perennial Pro Bowler in Alex Mack. If the backups that have been preparing to take over those roles aren’t up to snuff, it’s going to throw the entire offense out of rhythm and create opportunities for talented pass-rush units like New Orleans’ to disrupt them. That just might be a fatal flaw for a young, inexperienced quarterback like Lance.
Las Vegas Raiders
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Points per game: 22.0 (18th)
Passer rating: 93.8 (13th)
Sacks rate allowed: 6.0% (15th)
Rushing yards per game: 95.1 (28th)
Key additions: WR Davante Adams (Packers trade), WR Demarcus Robinson (Chiefs), WR Keelan Cole (Jets), RB Brandon Bolden (Patriots), WR Mack Hollins (Dolphins), FB Jakob Johnson (Patriots), RB Ameer Abdullah (Panthers), LG Dylan Parham (rookie)
Key losses: QB Marcus Mariota (Falcons), WR Bryan Edwards (Falcons trade), WR Zay Jones (Jaguars)
Las Vegas pushed all their chips in on pairing Davante Adams with his college quarterback Derek Carr, and they’re counting on that combo to keep them competitive in the AFC West. So they’ll probably be disappointed once Marshon Lattimore erases Adams again – in two career meetings with the Saints, Adams has drawn 12 targets but caught just 7 passes for 68 yards, having yet to find the end zone. When matched up with Lattimore specifically he totaled 5 targets for 2 receptions and 37 yards, converting a single first down with Lattimore bagging a pair of pass breakups. It’s been a great battle between two of the game’s top players at their positions.
But let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Josh McDaniels has brought in a lot of new talent to the skills positions, and Dylan Parham’s addition could help a solid offensive line improve further. Getting more production out of the run game should be a priority. With elite quarterbacks crowding their division like Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Justin Herbert, it’s important for the Raiders to better control the pace of play and keep those passers off the field as long as possible.
AP Photo/Butch Dill
Points per game: 26.4 (11th)
Passer rating: 100.6 (8th)
Sacks rate allowed: 6.2% (19th)
Rushing yards per game: 122.1 (10th)
Key additions: RG Will Hernandez (Giants), WR Marquise Brown (Ravens trade), RB Darrel Williams (Chiefs), TE Stephen Anderson (Chargers), TE Trey McBride (rookie)
Key losses: WR Christian Kirk (Jaguars), C Max Garcia (Giants), RB Chase Edmonds (Dolphins)
There’s been a lot of shakeup in Arizona, which is unusual considering it’s happening in the midst of a contract standoff with franchise quarterback Kyler Murray. They’ll be welcoming DeAndre Hopkins back from a six-game suspension when they kick off with New Orleans, while also working in “Hollywood” Brown, a couple of new tight ends, and a complimentary running back to James Conner. Four of five offensive line starters are returning, but three of them are over 30.
The good news is the Saints have handled this offense well in the past: they beat the Cardinals soundly in Murray’s rookie year, sending them back to Arizona with a 31-9 defeat, limiting Murray to just 13 rushing yards (he’s averaged 38.8 yards on the ground per game in his career). And Marshon Lattimore has defended Hopkins well before, too – they were matched up on 7 targets in the 2019 season opener, with Hopkins catching 4 passes for 51 yards, scoring one touchdown reception and dropping a pass. You’ll take that against a receiver who averages 5.8 receptions for 77.8 yards per game in his career.
AP Photo/Butch Dill
Points per game: 25.0 (14th)
Passer rating: 101.6 (7th)
Sacks rate allowed: 4.7% (5th)
Rushing yards per game: 113.5 (17th)
Key additions: RT Jesse Davis (Dolphins), LG Chris Reed (Colts), WR Albert Wilson (Dolphins), RG Ed Ingram (rookie)
Key losses: TE Tyler Conklin (Jets), C Mason Cole (Steelers)
It feels weird to rank the Vikings so highly (and to see them ranked so highly in a couple of different metrics) given how thoroughly mediocre they’ve been, but look at the personnel. Kirk Cousins is the new prime meridian standing between the league’s great passers and detrimental quarterbacks. Dalvin Cook is an outstanding runner. Justin Jefferson is one of the game’s brightest young stars at receiver. Injuries have slowed him down but Adam Thielen is still dangerous. If the Vikings can smooth out their offensive line with these new additions, and to his credit Cousins has navigated pressure well, they’ll be problematic. But at the end of the day a lot hinges on how well first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell imports the Sean McVay-L.A. Rams offense.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Points per game: 27.1 (7th)
Passer rating: 106.9 (2nd)
Sacks rate allowed: 9.0% (31st)
Rushing yards per game: 102.5 (23rd)
Key additions: RG Alex Cappa (Buccaneers), C Ted Karras (Patriots), RT La’el Collins (Cowboys), TE Hayden Hurst (Falcons)
Key losses: TE C.J. Uzomah (Jets), WR Auden Tate (Falcons)
We all know the story here: the Bengals needed to do a better job protecting Joe Burrow, and they moved aggressively to do just that in free agency. These additions may not be enough to elevate their offensive line to join the NFL’s elite, but if they can just hit league-average they should reap the benefits. Keeping him clean on a play-to-play basis is obviously important, but cutting down on drive-killing sacks will help them sustain possessions and increase scoring opportunities.
That’s going to make for a really tough challenge for New Orleans. Cincinnati is returning most of their starting lineup and a lot of depth from last year’s team, and they’re rightfully being talked up as a team that could get back to the Super Bowl. The Saints need to overcome the upgrades the Bengals have made up front and pressure Burrow early and often to keep them off-balance. Cincinnati’s below-average rushing attack is an opportunity to make the Bengals one-dimensional, but you kind of have to be careful what you’re wishing for when that means more chances for Burrow to fling touchdown passes towards Ja’Marr Chase in front of an understandably friendly home crowd.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Points per game: 26.1 (12th)
Passer rating: 89.2 (18th)
Sacks rate allowed: 5.9% (14th)
Rushing yards per game: 159.7 (1st)
Key additions: WR A.J. Brown (Titans trade), WR Zach Pascal (Colts), C Cameron Jurgens (rookie)
Key losses: RG Brandon Brooks (retirement)
The Eagles have been such a tough matchup for the Saints – New Orleans hasn’t beaten them in Philadelphia since the 2013 playoffs. And A.J. Brown’s arrival immediately boosts the Eagles passing attack to a higher ceiling; he’s a great pairing for DeVonta Smith, with Zach Pascal and Quez Watkins making for nice depth behind them. But things get dangerous if Philadelphia can get anything out of Jalen Reagor in his third season. They’ve done well to set up Jalen Hurts for success. If he can’t make it work with this assortment of weapons, they’ll be in a good position to move on come the offseason.
But in the meantime, the Eagles have kept enough of their already-strong offensive line together to maintain one of the NFL’s better rushing offenses. Cameron Jurgens could help fill in for Brandon Brooks at right guard, but otherwise four of five starters are returning from last season. That’s going to create problems for New Orleans given how tough an out the Eagles have been lately. Hurts has run for 175 yards and scored 3 touchdown runs the last two years, with running back Miles Sanders totaling 209 yards with a pair of scoring runs between the two meetings. The Saints need their typically-stout run defense to bounce back in the worst way.
Los Angeles Rams
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Points per game: 27.1 (7th)
Passer rating: 101.6 (6th)
Sacks rate allowed: 4.9% (7th)
Rushing yards per game: 99.0 (25th)
Key additions: WR Allen Robinson (Bears), RG Logan Bruss (rookie)
Key losses: LT Andrew Whitworth (retirement), RG Austin Corbett (Panthers), WR Robert Woods (Titans trade), RB Sony Michel (Dolphins)
The trade for Matthew Stafford allowed Sean McVay to fully weaponize the offense he built around Jared Goff last year, and the reigning Super Bowl champions are going to be a threat so long as those two are still working together. They’ve since shaken things up at receiver by swapping Robert Woods for Allen Robinson and gotten healthier at running back, with high hopes for Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson Jr. to form a strong duo. It’s possible Odell Beckham Jr. ends up re-signing with them, too, but that hasn’t happened yet while he continues to recover from injury.
If there’s a chance the Rams offense does fall off, it’ll be due to their offensive line. Longtime left tackle Andrew Whitworth has hung up his cleats (to be replaced by his understudy Joe Notebook), and they’re likely starting a rookie at right guard in relief of Austin Corbett. That would mean only three starters are returning from their Super Bowl-winning offensive line, and there’s vulnerability there for a talented defensive front to exploit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AP Photo/Jason Behnken
Points per game: 30.1 (2nd)
Passer rating: 101.6 (5th)
Sacks rate allowed: 3.1% (1st)
Rushing yards per game: 98.4 (26th)
Key additions: RG Shaquille Mason (Patriots trade), WR Russell Gage (Falcons), LG Luke Goedeke (rookie), RB Rachaad White (rookie)
Key losses: LG Ali Marpet (retirement), RG Alex Cappa (Bengals), TE O.J. Howard (Bills), RB Ronald Jones II (Chiefs)
The toughest opponent on the schedule also happens to be the offense New Orleans has defended better than any other. Tom Brady has been frustrated and beaten by the Saints defense in every matchup, only advancing in the playoffs a few years back because a series of offensive turnovers gifted him ideal field position. When the Saints offense does its job and protects the football, Brady struggles to find answers. Tampa Bay is returning a lot of established starters, sure, and Russell Gage adds depth to an already-strong receiving unit. It’s annoying that the Buccaneers figured out how to run a team after a couple decades of quiet mediocrity. Nevertheless: the Saints have defeated Brady’s bunch before, and they’ll do it again. Even if Todd Bowles is head coach now, not Bruce Arians.