Week 4 of the 2018 NFL season has already seen a bunch of contenders and pseudo-contenders disappoint, at least relative to expectations. The Jaguars got blown off the field by the Chiefs. The Packers lost to the Lions. The Eagles lost an NFC title game rematch to the Vikings, at home. After beating Philly last week, the Titans came out and lost an ugly game to the Bills. The Rams struggled to beat the Seahawks without Earl Thomas. The Ravens lost to the Browns.
Can the Saints avoid the same fate on Monday night?
The Saints are 3-1 entering this game but Drew Brees and company will at least finally have (close to) their full complement of weapons, as Mark Ingram returns from his four-game suspension for this contest against Washington. Brees has been his usual electric self this year even while Ingram’s been watching the games from home, but getting another strong running back on the field can’t hurt.
Washington, meanwhile, is coming off its bye week with a 2-1 record. The Alex Smith era is off to a decent, but not great start, as he’s been his usual efficient, but not necessarily explosive self. The team’s defense seems much improved, which is a good sign, but there’s never really been a defense that can shut down Brees and the Saints at home.
Can the Redskins defy the odds or will the Saints run wild in the Superdome? We’ll find out Monday night (8:15 p.m., ESPN). In the meantime, here’s what we should be looking out for.
When the Saints have the ball
Let’s start here: there is a very, very good chance that by the end of this game, Drew Brees has broken Peyton Manning’s all-time record and is the new NFL leader in career passing yards. Brees is 201 yards behind Manning heading into the game. He’s thrown for at least 200 yards in 90 of his 98 starts at home during his 13 years in New Orleans. In two home games so far this season, Brees is 65 of 80 for 682 yards, five touchdowns, and no picks. Something wildly out of character would have to happen for Brees not to do this — especially when you consider that the Saints surely want Brees to get the record at home in front of the Superdome fans.
When Brees goes to the air, we pretty much know where he wants to go with the ball more often than not: Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara. Brees has thrown 161 passes through four weeks. Thomas has been the intended target on 44 of them (27.3 percent) and Kamara has been the intended target on 47 (29.2 percent). The next-closest player in targets is Ted Ginn with 22 (13.7 percent), but he’s out for this game. Brees has not necessarily shown much inclination yet to trust either Cameron Meredith or rookie Tre’Quan Smith, who have combined for nine targets in six games.
Washington has been excellent against No. 1 receivers like Thomas this season, with Football Outsiders ranking them fifth in DVOA against No. 1’s through four weeks. They’ve also been pretty good against running backs out of the backfield, ranking 11th. They’ve been one of the best teams in the league against the short passes that are the lifeblood of New Orleans’ offense, ranking second in DVOA. On throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Brees is 98 of 122 for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s good for a 112.2 passer rating, which is just ridiculous.
A key against New Orleans is always getting pressure up the middle and moving Brees off his spot. It’s an open question as to whether Washington will be able to do so. The team’s adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders, is below-average at 6.0 percent, and they have recorded just six sacks in four games. New Orleans, meanwhile, has the fourth-lowest adjusted sack rate allows at 4.6 percent. Their sack rates are almost always low, largely because Brees gets rid of the ball quicker than almost any quarterback in the NFL. He’s releasing his average throw within 2.54 seconds of the snap this season, per NFL.com’s NextGen Stats, fifth-fastest in the league. (Three of the guys ahead of him are not regular starters.)
The New Orleans running game will receive a boost in this game with the return of Mark Ingram, who has been suspended for the first four games of the season. Kamara is averaging 4.9 yards per attempt this season but he’s been running into stacked boxes far more often than he did a year ago, when Ingram had that responsibility. Ingram seems unlikely to make a major dent in Kamara’s workload given how electric the second-year back has been, but he does provide an opportunity for the Saints to give Kamara the occasional breather without the team losing much in either the running game or passing game. Ingram is an excellent inside runner with the capability of breaking big plays, and he’s shown over the past few seasons that he can make an impact through the air as well, averaging 51 catches per year over the past three seasons.
When Washington has the ball
Washington’s offense has been up and down so far this season. Alex Smith and company hung 24 points on Arizona in Week 1, but then slumped to just nine points against the Colts in Week 2, only to explode for 31 against the Packers in Week 3. It looks like an exceedingly average offense with the capability of being very good or very bad depending on the day, but in this game, they should put some points on the board.
After the New Orleans defense finally looked like a competent unit last season, the team has backslid in a major way. New Orleans is allowing 390.5 yards per game, 23rd in the NFL. They’re allowing 6.5 yards per play, 30th in the NFL. They’re yielding 30.3 points per game, also 30th in the NFL. And they’re getting popped for 2.51 points per drive, which ranks … you guessed it … 30th in the NFL. And all this is despite the fact that Saints opponents have the fourth-worst average starting field position in the NFL, beginning drives, on average, 74.6 yards away from the end zone. And still, more than 44 percent of opponent drives against the Saints have ended with points.
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The Saints have the single worst pass defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and they’ve been dreadful against No. 1 receivers (31st), No. 2 receivers (32nd), and running backs out of the backfield (31st). They’ve been especially atrocious against deep passes, and Washington should absolutely try to get the ball downfield to Paul Richardson on a double-move at some point during this game. A year after stretching himself by throwing downfield more often than ever, Alex Smith has reverted to being mostly conservative and not attempting many deep throws. He’s just 6 of 11 on throws at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but those passes have at least generated 202 yards and a score, which is pretty good.
Smith, like Brees, tends to trust two pass-catchers more than any others. Fittingly, given Smith’s propensity to take the short throw, those pass-catchers are a running back (Chris Thompson) and a tight end (Jordan Reed). Thompson is one of the most capable backfield receivers in the NFL, as he can run a full route tree when he lines up out wide and is one of the most elusive players in the NFL with the ball in his hands. Getting him the ball soon after the snap and trusting him to make guys miss is a pretty damn good idea. He’s broken four tackles, gained 109 yards after the catch, and 32 yards after first contact on his 20 receptions so far this season.
Washington does need to get its perimeter passing game going in order to reach its full potential offensively, but there’s just not that much of a sign that it’s going to happen anytime soon. Richardson, Josh Doctson, and Jamison Crowded have combined for just 23 catches for 258 yards in three games. Doctson in particular has been practically invisible, catching just five of 13 passes thrown his way.
The Adrian Peterson-led running game, meanwhile, has been a cipher. Peterson already has eight runs of 10 yards or more on his 56 carries, a strong 14.2 percent rate. However, he’s also been stopped for no gain or a loss of yardage on 12 of those 56 carries, one of the worst rates in the league. As such, his success rate, as measured by Football Outsiders, ranks 21st out of 38 qualified running backs. Peterson being on the field is also usually a pretty big tell that Washington will be running the ball — those 56 carries have come on 99 snaps. Then again, Thompson being on the field is a pretty big tell that Washington is throwing the ball, which it’s done on 93 of his 108 snaps.
Prediction: Saints 27, Washington 20