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Redskins vs Saints: Five Questions with Canal Street Chronicles

We spoke with Jean-Rene Ella to get the inside scoop on Sunday's game!

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We spoke with Jean-Rene Ella of Canal Street Chronicles for the inside look at the New Orleans Saints.

1.  C.J. Spiller is a pretty dynamic back who I think most NFL observers (and probably Saints fans as well) though would play a pretty big roll in the Saints offense. With Sproles and Jimmy Graham gone (and now Khiry Robinson, too), what gives with Spiller not being more involved? It's kind of baffling, isn't it? Also, how have roles changed with the loss of Khiry?

Everyone in New Orleans has been wondering the same thing. There is even a short video from the Titans' game last Sunday showing Payton calling a play on the Saints' sideline. Spiller is paying close attention and then shows disappointment on his face, presumably because the play wasn't called for him. Last Sunday, Mark Ingram ran the ball 22 times for 54 yards (2.5 yards-per-carry). Spiller ran twice for eight yards (4.0 ypc). Those 24 total carries accounted for all of the Saints' running back production against the Titans and we are left scratching our heads at the underutilization of Spiller. I am almost wondering whether this is a health issue and if Spiller's knee still isn't completely 100%, but this is pure speculation at this point.

As for the running back roles, Mark Ingram will still get the lion share of the carries, while I expect recently re-signed Tim Hightower to start seeing some carries to spell Ingram. Spiller was brought in to be the "change of pace" back, a la Darren Sproles a few years ago. Alas, I can't tell you whether he'll get used more against Washington, I guess Sunday will tell us more.

2.  Drew Brees began the season not so hot. Most people would agree he wasn't playing up to his usually high standards. But over the past month or so, he's really come around and started heating up. What changed?

This is an interesting case of optical illusion. Brees got hurt in the second game of the year against Tampa Bay in the Superdome. With a wide receiving corps comprised of many young players (Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman are all second-year players) it took a while for he (Brees) and his new wide receivers to create a rapport and gel and the missed game only contributed to slowing that offensive growth. Combine that with the fact that veteran receiver Marques Colston and "first team offseason hype" Brandin Cooks both had a very rough first half of the season and it looked like Brees was playing more poorly than he actually was.

In his first game back from injury against the Cowboys, Brees had a quarterback rating of 119.4, completed 80.5% of his passes with two touchdowns and no picks. Since that game, Brees has been pretty good, but what is making him look even better now is the fact that all of a sudden, Cooks and Colston have joined a party that tight end Ben Watson and first-year wideout Willie Snead had already started. Lo and behold, the Saints' offense (and Brees) are looking like...well, the Saints' offense, again.

3.  What are Saints fans' opinions on Brandon Browner this year? To an outside observer, it would seem he hasn't lived up to expectations. What's going wrong and what's going right with him? And what do you expect moving forward?

Oh boy...I've heard it all: "send him back to Seattle," "Maybe New England would want him back?" "Sit him already" and the list goes on. Browner has been abysmal for two main reasons:

  1. The Saints are playing him in a predominantly man-coverage scheme in which he is completely overmatched against fast (and even slower) receivers. In Seattle and to a certain extend in New England, he played in zone concepts that better suited his playing style: he could see the play coming, then go thump whoever came his way. Now he has to turn his hips and run with guys that he can't keep up with.

  2. He has completely lost confidence in his ability to stay with receivers, thus he panics as soon as the ball is in the air and grabs, holds and inevitably gets called for it by the refs.

What do I expect moving forward? If things do not improve, I think the Saints might cut their losses this upcoming offseason and release him outright. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is squarely on the hot seat in New Orleans right now, and if he gets fired, there's a chance the Saints will clean house from many of the free agent guys Ryan advocated for, Browner among them.

4.  How do fans feel about the future of the QB position in NO? What do they expect from Brees in the coming years and what do you think most fans would like to see as the plan for whenever Brees decides to hang 'em up?

There's that thing called HGH right? Maybe there are some increased doses we could give Brees so he never ages? Oh and how about the platelet-rich therapy thing that Kobe Bryant does to his knees in Germany? Can that be done to a throwing arm?

Brees is awesome. He has a little bit of Brett Favre in him in the sense that sometimes he'll try too hard to make a play and throw bad picks, but his accuracy and football IQ are simply uncanny. I think fans fully expect him to be good-to-great for the next two, maybe three years, but we all know that Father Time never loses. He just lets us flail our arms helplessly until we're too tired to fight and then he knocks us out.

The Saints can now see that the end is coming eventually for Brees and so do the fans. That is probably why New Orleans drafted quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third round of the 2015 draft. Of course, we have seen nothing of Grayson yet and this year, New Orleans doesn't even trust him to be Brees' backup yet, since they just signed free agent quarterback Matt Flynn to fill that role, with Luke McCown going on IR.

Brees' contract expires at the end of the 2016 season, but his cap hit next year is at about thirty million dollars, so it is widely expected that the Saints' will restructure and extend him for maybe two years until 2018. What most fans would love to see is Grayson slowly becoming the uncontested number two quarterback, getting on the field in late game situations (blowout wins or losses) or in case of an injury to an aging Brees and hopefully taking over as the full time starter after the 2018 season. That of course would be the best-case scenario. The truth is, we don't know if Grayson is that guy, and it is more likely that he isn't. In that case, the Saints will draft another quarterback really high either after the 2016 season or after 2017, then they'll pray they made the right decision. A long-winded response to a tough question, but I hope I somewhat answered it.

5.  The Saints defense has struggled pretty mightily this year. Is that due to injuries, lack of talent, scheme...? What's going on there?

All of the above? Let's look at it in those three distinct categories:

  • Injuries: The Saints started the season with half of their projected starting secondary on the sidelines. Keenan Lewis, Jairus Byrd were out several games, starting Rafael Bush was lost for the year and is on IR, only safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerback Brandon Browner haven't missed a game. These players are now healthy, but clearly, there are on-field chemistry issues in that group. That said, this is the NFL and as we all know, every team suffers injuries.
  • Lack of Talent: On the defensive line, the Saints' best pass rusher for the last two seasons, Junior Galette was a malcontent and was sent packing (after which he signed with you guys). Galette was replaced by a very promising rookie, Hau'oli Kikaha, but Kikaha is quite raw despite his great potential. It's been fairly easy to double-team defensive end Cam Jordan on one side of the D-line and boom: the Saints' pass rush is pretty much inexistent. The linebacking corps is led by yet another rookie in Stephone Anthony, who I think will be a star in the NFL, but is also going through his own growing pains. Alongside Anthony is a world of mediocrity with the likes of David Hawthorne, Dannell Ellerbe and Ramon Humber.
  • Scheme: I won't ever pretend to know defenses better than Rob Ryan, or even act like I know what plays he is calling from the sidelines. However, it seems to me (and many) that some of Ryan's defensive concepts are either too hard to grasp for some of the young guys on the Saints' defense, or players aren't put in a position that maximizes their talent. For illustration, we've seen coverage busts by the Saints' defense too often this season, where receivers are running free with no defender even close to them. What that tells me is that either players are having a hard time communicating on the field, or they just have no idea what they're supposed to do on certain defensive play calls.

BONUS:  What's the best way for the Redskins offense to attack the Saints D? Also, what does the 'Skins defense need to do to contain/slow the Saints high-powered offense?

  • When Washington has the ball: Go deep or go Browner. The Saints have found the most creative ways to botch the most simple of deep plays this season (see the play against the Titans where Keenan Lewis and Jairus Byrd collide trying to pick off a Mariota deep pass, they interfere with each other and the ball bounces right into the waiting hands of Delanie Walker, who then rumbles to the endzone for a touchdown).

    As for going after Browner, that's a no-brainer. Whoever is playing Browner already has a mental edge, because I truly believe that half of Browner's struggles are psychological at this point. Throw his way and you have a chance that something good is going to happen.
  • When the Saints have the ball: I haven't really watched the defensive system used by Washington, but here are two things that give Brees fits:

    1. pressuring him right over the middle and

    2. forcing him to dink-and-dunk by playing a Tampa two-like system with two-deep safeties while keeping everything in front of you.

    As is the case for all quarterbacks, Brees hates feeling pressure in the pocket, but in his particular case, he loves getting on his toes and climb up the middle of the pocket as he surveys the field. Teams that have given him trouble find ways to move him off his launching point and force him to throw on the run. That takes a bite out of his most important asset: his accuracy.

    On the second point, Brees can be patient most of the time and engineer long, double-digit plays drives. However, in his bad days (and even the good ones) he is always good for one or two "What the h...?" deep passes that either luckily fall incomplete or get picked off. The Saints love to pass the ball, and more often than not, they'll throw short and intermediate passes just to lull the defense to sleep and then take a deep shot. Taking away those deep shots is a sure way to keep them bottled up, maybe frustrate them and eventually have a chance at a turnover.