After the first 4 games of their 2017 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints defense might finally be starting to have things 'fall in their favor'.
Following the first 2 games of the season in which they were embarrassed in back-to-back double digit losses, the Saints have won their last 2 games in a row in rather impressive fashion — by a 20 (plus) point margin both times.
There are many reasons for the defense's recent resurgence, and one of those reasons definitely has been an improved pass rush; that has seen them notch 8 sacks in the past 2 games.
That would seem to bode well for New Orleans as they prepare to face Detroit this coming Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And who could New Orleans have some success against when the Lions come to visit next Sunday?
You guessed it — Detroit's All-Pro QB, Matthew Stafford.
Stafford has been sacked more times in the last two weeks — 12 TIMES — than quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Jared Goff and Ben Roethlisberger have been all year combined, according to Detroit Free-Press beat writer Dave Birkett.
Which means that 12:00 p.m. Central time could be "rush hour" in New Orleans next Sunday, if the Saints have their way.
Yesterday afternoon, Carolina sacked Stafford 6 times — while constantly pressuring him and also forced him to commit a rare turnover (a forced fumble, only the 2nd time he's turned the ball over so far this season).
Stafford came up limping after one fourth-quarter sack Sunday, when his right leg bent awkwardly back as Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short rolled him to the ground.
Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell declined to offer much of an update on Stafford's health to Birkett and other writers at his weekly news conference today, although he did acknowledge the need to better protect his All-Pro signal caller.
"It's our job to protect him no matter what (is going on)," Caldwell said. "I don’t care if they’re blitzing, not blitzing, four-man rush, whatever it might be. We didn’t do a good enough job with that, but there are a lot of moving parts that deal with protection."
"It’s routes being run properly, guys getting open, ball’s delivered on time. Offensive linemen blocking, tight ends blocking, backs blocking. So there’s a lot of different things that go into it."
Stafford's struggles could mean that the Lions would run the ball a bit more this coming Sunday; though they only rushed for 50 total yards yesterday against the Panthers, and their running game has been anemic all season long thus far.
The Lions O-Line has had its share of struggles recently as well, which has been a reason for their ineffective running game. However, the Lions' issues yesterday weren't all the fault of the O-Line. Several times, the Lions simply were beaten with a cornerback or safety blitz and a free rusher got a hit on Stafford.
Stafford (who's had some notable success against the Saints in recent years) was held under 300 yards passing for the 5th straight time this season, as noted by NFL.com Around the NFL writer Kevin Patra.
Carolina's defense was able to "shut down" Stafford, and his receivers had difficulty getting open downfield against the Panthers defensive secondary.
Stafford finished with 229 yards on 23-of-35 passing and two touchdowns; although a lot of his numbers came late in the game in "garbage-time". Prior to that: Stafford had only 99 passing yards in the first 3 quarters.
The Saints are (3-3) all-time against Stafford, with their wins against him coming in his first-ever game as a rookie (a 45-27 beatdown at the Superdome) in 2009; and then twice in 2011: a 31-17 win at the Superdome in the first week of December that year, and then again just a few weeks later in the 2011 NFC Wild Card game (also at the Superdome), which actually was played in January of 2012.
But Stafford has had a lot of success against New Orleans in recent seasons, and stopping him and the Lions passing attack will be the key to winning next week's game for the Saints.
Dating back to 2014, Stafford and the Lions have beaten New Orleans 3 straight times — a 24-23 win at Detroit in 2014, and then back-to-back wins at the Superdome: a 35-27 win on Monday Night Football in 2015, and a dominant 28-13 win over the Saints last season.
However, given all of his recent issues, Stafford might find winning a 4th straight game against the Saints this coming Sunday, a bit more difficult.
Stafford — who's been sacked 18 times already this year (tied for 3rd most in the NFL) — walked with a slight hitch after his post-game news conference Sunday according to Birkett, which was conducted in the locker room (and not in the basement interview room at Ford Field) for one of the few times in his career.
That's presumably so Stafford wouldn't have to make the long walk over to the interview room and go down (and then back up) the steps, because he was in so much pain.
Caldwell declined to say Monday what benefits there might be to sitting Stafford for this Sunday's game against the Saints, since the Lions themselves have their own Bye Week on the following Sunday.
"Totally hypothetical situation, which generally, as you all know, I’m not going to answer," he told Birkett and the rest of the Detroit media.
Birkett notes that for now, there's no indication that Stafford will miss any time, and likely would take a significant injury for him to do so.
Stafford has made 101 consecutive starts, the fourth longest active streak among all NFL quarterbacks (even more than Saints QB Drew Brees, who missed a game due to a shoulder bruise in 2015); and he has played through an injured middle finger on his throwing hand for Detroit's final 4 games last season.
Now after the events of the past 2 weeks, he and the (3-2) Lions get to face a red-hot Saints defense that has to be "licking its chops" at the thought of facing a likely immobile Stafford for a majority of the afternoon next Sunday.
And with a Saints pass rush that has been getting better and better after a very slow start to the season, a visit from Stafford could be just what the doctor ordered for (2-2) New Orleans as they seek to have a winning record for the first time since (unbelievably) the 2013 NFL season.
It goes without saying: it's been quite a while, since things have been this 'favorable' for the Saints defense.
So buckle up and drive safely on your way to the Superdome this coming Sunday, Saints fans.
12:00 p.m. Central time could be "rush hour" in NOLA next Sunday, if the Saints have their way.......