Coming off of their Bye Week yesterday, the New Orleans Saints return to practice today and will begin making preparations for their next game; as they resume their 2017 regular season schedule next Sunday when they face the Detroit Lions in a key NFC match-up at home inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
After an 0-2 start, the Saints (2-2) have won their last 2 games — both on the road — in convincing fashion; with an impressive win over the NFC South division-leading Carolina Panthers (their only loss so far) and a 20-0 shut-out victory over the Miami Dolphins.
The Lions (3-2) meanwhile are coming off a tough loss yesterday at home at Ford Field in Detroit against those same Carolina Panthers; who dominated Detroit for the most part before their attempt to make a comeback fell short, by a score of 27-24.
In recent seasons, the Lions have "had the Saints' number". Dating back to 2014, Detroit has 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.
One thing that could play a huge factor in next Sunday's showdown at the Superdome: the turnover battle.
As noted by ESPN beat writer Mike Triplett last week, the Saints have earned a rare place in NFL history; by becoming just the third team since 1933 to play the first four games of the season WITHOUT a single turnover, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. As in, ZERO.
On the flip side, Detroit has "lived and died" by forcing turnovers this season. After having just 14 takeaways last season, the Lions already have forced 11 through five games, tied for the most in the League.
The Lions are tied for 2nd (with Buffalo) in the NFL in giveaway / takeaway ratio, with a plus +8. They have forced 7 interceptions and recovered 4 fumbles on defense, while committing only 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 fumbles) on offense.
In their 3 wins, the Lions have a plus +6 turnover ratio. In their 2 losses, they actually are a plus +2; although two of their takeaways in their loss against the Falcons 2 weeks ago, came on balls that went through the receiver’s grasp before they were intercepted.
So essentially, the Lions are break-even in turnover ratio when they've lost so far this year.
Yesterday against the Panthers, Detroit was unable to force a single takeaway, and they were EATEN ALIVE by the Panthers offense and QB Cam Newton.
Newton had a phenomenal performance, torching the Lions on 26-of-33 passing for 355 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a passer rating of 141.8.
Newton's top target was Panthers back-up TE Ed Dickson, who lit up the Detroit defense — which has played well all year so far — all day long, as he gashed the Lions linebackers and safeties for a career-high for five receptions and 175 yards.
He had two long receptions of 64 yards and 57 yards, both of which set up Panthers scores in the first half and helped blow the game open after another Panthers TD early in the 3rd quarter.
But it was the Detroit offense — which has given the Saints defense fits in recent years — that struggled even worse.
Detroit QB Matthew 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.
Where the Saints could really have some success against the Lions next Sunday is with their pass rush.
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).
The Lions O-Line has had its share of struggles recently as well, though it wasn't because of them specifically that Stafford had the issues that he experienced yesterday.
What it all adds up to is that this should be a winnable game for the Saints.
However, the Lions have "owned" the Saints for the past 3 seasons; so New Orleans will definitely have to be very focused and most importantly: they'll need to EXECUTE in all facets of the game — offensively, defensively, and on special teams.
If the Saints can continue the level of performance that we saw from them in their past 2 games, there's no reason why they can't finally get a win over Detroit, inside of a packed and wild crowd at home in the Superdome.
But this is the NFL, and as we all know: a team can look GREAT one week, and then come out and play like total crap the next.
The Saints in their first 2 games of the season in losses to Minnesota and New England, looked downright horrible at times, especially on the defensive side of the football.
But one of the reasons for the defense's noticeable improvement from their past 2 games has been a much better performance by the Saints secondary, which in turn has allowed the defensive line to have a markedly improved pass rush.
As New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill noted last week: one of the benefits of better pass coverage by the secondary is that it allows the pass rushers more time to finish their task.
In their last game (played at London, England) against Miami, New Orleans was able to generate pressure 16 times against Dolphins QB Jay Cutler and produced four sacks.
If they can have similar success next Sunday against Stafford, it could bode well for the Saints' chances of winning.
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.
Otherwise as it was noted above: 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.
One thing that could work to the Saints' advantage: NFL.com's Ian Rappaport Tweeted a short while ago that Stafford was seen after the game with his right ankle and quad heavily taped, and could be somewhat hobbled for the game against the Saints.
Injuries to watch #Lions QB Matthew Stafford finished the game with a heavily taped ankle and quad. He’s tough but he was hobbled.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 9, 2017
That could mean that the Lions would run the ball a bit more; though they only rushed for 50 total yards yesterday against the Panthers, and their running game has been anemic all season long thus far.
In order to win this game, the Lions will still have to rely on their passing game offensively, and hope that they can manage to somewhat "shut down" Saints QB Drew Brees on defense.
Conversely, the Saints simply need to "bend but don't break" on defense; and continue their normal success on offense.
New Orleans could have WR Willie Snead back for this game, and his return could give the Saints offense yet another option for Brees to choose from.
Snead had to serve a three-game suspension for an off-season alcohol-related incident back in June, and he obviously missed the first 3 games of the season; and then was inactive with a hamstring injury in Week #4 against the Dolphins.
All in all, it should make for a very entertaining day next Sunday; as the Saints face the Lions and try to win a game that could become a key determining factor later at the end of the year, for any potential conference tie-breaker procedures in the NFC Playoff picture.
It will be a "showdown" at the Superdome, in a game that could turn out to be very critical for the Saints' overall success further down the line................