JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2019 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
John DeShazier of NewOrleansSaints.com on the Saints' matchup with the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m.
Question: The Saints are 4-1 and have won three consecutive games since losing quarterback Drew Brees with a thumb injury. That must mean they feel good about their situation right now.
Answer: The Saints feel great about themselves right now. Even with Drew Brees, had they come out of the first four games 3-1, I think they would have been satisfied with that. Having Brees go down in the second game and for him to have played basically about four-and-a-half quarters of the season, to be 4-1 with three straight victories … that's a lot to have asked for. But this is the team they have built – through the drafts with [assistant general manager/college scouting director] Jeff Ireland, and through free agency with [director of pro scouting] Terry Fontenot, they have picked up some key free agents; they have built a team that can last. This is a team capable of winning without Drew Brees, and most people around New Orleans would have thought that would be unfathomable a couple of years ago. Yet, here it is. They have built a team that can win without him.
Q: How did that happen?
A: It goes back to the draft – with [defensive tackle] Sheldon Rankins, [wide receiver] Michael Thomas, [cornerback] Marshon Lattimore, [safety] Marcus Williams, [running back] Alvin Kamara and [offensive tackle] Ryan Ramczyk. They built up a base of young talent, then they brought in key veterans in free agency such as [linebackers] Demario Davis and A.J. Klein. Even last year, they were a 13-3 but they didn't have to depend on Drew Brees; it wasn't so Drew Brees-centric. He threw for less than 4,000 yards for the first time in forever – since his second or third NFL season. That showed they had built a team that could win without him having to be the hero, which is what you have to do. Even though he's extremely efficient and extremely effective, he's getting older. They needed to build a team that didn't depend on his heroics each and every week. They couldn't continue to try to win shoot-outs each and every week. They built a team that can play some defense, a team that's really good on special teams and a team that when it needs to score is capable of scoring. They don't have to put up 28 or 30 a week, but when they need to score, they do it.
Q: Without Brees, what is this offense?
A: Teddy Bridgewater is extremely efficient at quarterback, but this Saints team – this year and last year – would like to be more balanced. They want to run the ball. They want to keep it balanced. That might not necessarily mean Kamara gets 23 carries a game; they don't want him to have that many touches. Latavius Murray helps out in the backfield also. What that could mean is Alvin Kamara gets 15 to 17 to 18 carries a game and then maybe catches five or six passes out of the backfield. Those swing passes and screen passes for the Saints are really an extension of the run game. It's a long handoff. You want to get Kamara in space one on one against a linebacker or a defensive back or a safety. The Saints feel like that's advantage Saints if they get Kamara in a one-on-one situation. But they want to be balanced. They want to run the ball. You can't just sit back there and chuck it all the time, especially when you're talking about going against a front-line and a front seven as good as good as Jacksonville. You have to be able to just pound it up there. A successful run game might only be 3.8 yards a carry, but if it's 28 carries that might be an effective run game.
Q:People rarely seem to talk about the Saints defense, but this is a good unit.
A:They're a really good defense. They shut down Dallas completely. They shut down Seattle for three quarters. They really shut down Tampa for three-and-a-half quarters. When they're clicking and everybody's communication is the way it should be, they really can be a good defense. Lattimore has played back to back weeks at cornerback about as well as anybody could have asked. He has been outstanding against [Cowboys wide receiver] Amari Cooper and [Buccaneers wide receiver] Mike Evans in back-to-back weeks. Then they have a front four that can get to you: [End] Marcus Davenport is playing well, then you've got [end] Cam Jordan obviously, and now Rankins is back and David Onyemata is underrated, but he holds the glue in the middle of the defensive line. Then you've got a linebacker as versatile as Davis, who can rush or get out in coverage and he's extremely good against the rush. They love what they have defensively. When they're locked in, it's really hard to move the ball against them.
Q: When the Saints struggle, what happens?
A: When they struggle, it's because they're behind and have to throw it a lot – especially if you have to throw it a lot without having Brees. We haven't seen that facet of Teddy Bridgewater yet because they have been either ahead or even against Seattle, Dallas and Tampa Bay. That's usually when you get in trouble because the defense knows exactly what's coming. You can't be balanced. You can't keep them off step. Now, they can just pin back and come after the quarterback. Bridgewater has played extremely well, but Brees has been the master of this offense since 2006. He knows it in his sleep. Bridgewater has had three or four weeks as the No. 1 guy where they're trying tailor the offense to his talents and his skills, so you don't want to put him in the situation where he has to throw it every down against a formidable defense like Jacksonville.
Q: Where do you see this team headed? This feels like a Super Bowl or Disappointment year.
A: I think it's exactly that, especially with the way they have held up without Brees. He has to come back as fast as can because that's the guy he is, but there's no reason for him to push it because they're 4-1 and they have a little something banked where they can withstand a little bit of adversity until he gets back. They have been the class of the NFC South the last couple of years. It looks like that will be the case this year, though Carolina is coming on, but then it will be what they can do against the [Los Angeles] Rams, Cowboys, [Chicago] Bears or Seattles of the world – but they look like a team fully capable of winning the NFC and they would be extremely disappointed if they didn't.