A detailed look at the key players to watch for the New Orleans Saints, and the Kansas City Chiefs’ keys to victory leading up to their Week 7 game at noon Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The game will air on Fox (Ch. 4 in Kansas City).
Coach: Sean Payton (89-60) is in his 11th year as an NFL head coach, all with the Saints. Payton, 52, is one of the league’s most respected play-callers, someone who coached under Bill Parcells and won a Super Bowl as a head coach in 2009. Payton, a prolific quarterback at Eastern Illinois in the mid-1980s, has a well-deserved reputation as a quarterback guru. Since his arrival in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have scored the second-most points in the NFL (behind New England) and have racked up the most yards (403.5 per game). What’s more, they’ve finished in the top five in passing every year since his arrival. This year, they rank second in the league in points per game with 31. Payton is an aggressive coach who is not afraid to go for it on fourth down or make a gutsy call (see: onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV).
Offense: Pete Carmichael, Jr., 45, is in his eighth year as Payton’s offensive coordinator in New Orleans. He teams up with Payton to craft offensive game plans and has had great success. Get ready to see a ton of three-wide sets — the Saints operate this approximately 67 percent of the time. They also use a lot of shotgun and will carve you up with screens and short and intermediate passes, with the occasional deep shot mixed in. Expect plenty of passing, too; the Saints have thrown the ball at a 67 percent clip this year, tops in the NFL, and rank first in passing (335.4-yard average) and 29th in rushing (78-yard average).
Defense: Dennis Allen, 44, is in his first full year as Payton’s defensive coordinator and his second overall as an NFL defensive coordinator. He was promoted to the position last November when Rob Ryan as fired. Allen spent three years (2012 to 2014) as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach and has guided a unit that has struggled against the run (26th) and pass (31st) this year. The Saints have also struggled to dial up pressure — they rank 25th in the NFL in sacks — but it’s not for a lack of effort; they currently lead the league in blitz percentage at 41 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information. They run a base 4-3 but have been relying on a three-safety look of late that is, at least in theory, a little better against the pass
Special teams: Greg McMahon is in his ninth year as Payton’s special-teams coach and ninth overall as a lead NFL special-teams coach. The kicking game is solid. Kicker Wil Lutz was chosen named the NFL’s special-teams player of the week thanks to his game-winning 52-yard field goal against Carolina, while punter Thomas Morstead is in the midst of a nice season. The kick-return game has largely been ineffective, but punt returner Tommylee Lewis (5-8, 167) is very dangerous. He showcased tremendous speed and burst on a 59-yard punt return last week. Receiver Jake Lampman (6-0, 205) was called up from the practice squad and immediately made an impact, recording three tackles. The Saints did have a field goal blocked up the middle against the Giants in Week 2, so expect Chiefs special-teams coach Dave Toub to ramp up the pressure, if possible.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Run it at these guys
The Saints’ run defense has not been good through five games, and given the way the Chiefs pounded away at Oakland on Sunday — to the tune of 183 yards in 40 carries, a solid 4.6-yard average — they owe it to themselves to see if they can keep it up. Quarterback Alex Smith seemed to revel in the ground-heavy attack, managing the game and distributing the ball in a super-efficient 19-for-22 performance. The Raiders have a more talented defense than the Saints do, so why not see if a repeat performance is in order?
2. Attack the replacements
There’s plenty of ways to attack this defense; the Saints have surrendered 419.4 yards per game, which ranks 31st in the league. “This defense for us is going to be a matter of going out and getting first downs,” Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “Their defense is trying to find an identity right now — you’ll see some different coverages that they roll. They’re going to mix some things in with different blitzes, and you saw all of that last week against Carolina. They came out, played physical, got ahead, gave the offense the ball and did some good things.”
3. Bring it up the middle
The Saints throw the ball a ton, but they’ve only surrendered eight sacks this year — tied for the second fewest in the league. That not only speaks volumes about the offensive line’s ability to protect quarterback Drew Brees, but also Brees’ ability to get the football out quickly. Even when Brees does sit in the pocket, he’s difficult to sack; his poise is terrific and he is excellent at stepping up into the pocket to avoid edge rushers. But teams can disrupt him somewhat by bringing some heat up the middle and getting him off his spot. Using stunts against a quarterback the caliber of Brees can be a useless endeavor, largely because the ball is out so quickly, but if Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard and Chris Jones can be disruptive and win their 1-on-1 matchups, it will go a long way toward disrupting Brees. “Listen, if — in the drop-back passing game — the push inside is more than you’d like, it’s generally not good,” Payton said. “Obviously quarterbacks can flush either way, but Kansas City does a good job of getting that interior push. I think it’s a key battle every week; that proverbial 3-yard spot behind the center is important turf that both teams fight dearly for.”
4. Wrap up, wrap up, wrap up
This applies to the Chiefs’ defense, both vs. the run and pass. Mark Ingram is a solid, veteran running back who runs hard, catches well (18 receptions) and is a willing blocker, but he’s mainly a singles hitter this year. He’s averaging 3.9 yards per carry and his longest run this year is 17 yards, but if the Chiefs let him get going, it’s going to be a very long day. The Chiefs’ defensive backs better wrap up, too; the Saints rank seventh in yards after the catch. Thanks to Payton’s play calls and Brees’ accuracy, his trio of elusive receivers often find themselves running at full speed in open space as soon as they get the ball.
Four Saints to watch
No. 9, QB Drew Brees, 37 years old, 6-0, 209, 16th season
Ranked No. 30 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016. Former Super Bowl MVP and future Hall of Famer who is still elite. Has thrown for 4,000-plus yards for 10 straight seasons and has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,734 yards, 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 2016. Is the ultimate conductor; the Saints are excellent in red-zone touchdown percentage (first) and third-down percentage (third), which is a testament to his efficiency and Payton’s play calling. Master preparer and decision-maker who spreads the ball around, throws a strong, very catchable ball and routinely showcases terrific anticipation, accuracy and touch. Has good footwork and is adept at feeling pressure from the edge, stepping up into the pocket and driving the football downfield despite his lack of height. Is dangerous in the clutch; has engineered 28 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter since 2006, tied for the second-most among active quarterbacks. “He orchestrates the whole thing,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Consistency is really the gauge of greatness.”
No. 10, WR Brandin Cooks, 23 years old, 5-10, 189, 3rd season
Former first-round pick has caught 25 passes for a team-high 428 yards — a solid 17.1-yard average — and three touchdowns. Boasts outstanding speed (4.33 40-yard dash) and is an electric vertical talent; he burned former Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith for a 98-yard go-ball touchdown in Week 1 against Oakland and added an 87-yard touchdown grab against the Panthers last week. Is coming off a 173-yard performance and needs to be accounted for on every play. He is lethal on double moves, so the Chiefs’ corners and safeties will need to be disciplined in their technique and not bite on Brees’ pump fakes or take ill-advised gambles in an attempt to undercut the ball. “He’s fast, he’s real fast, he’s a fast man,” Sutton said. “He’s turning into a really good receiver; he’s not just a blow-the-top-off guy. He runs routes and will be a really good guy for (Brees).” Is also targeted on screens.
No. 94, DE Cameron Jordan, 27 years old, 6-4, 287, 6th season
Ranked No. 99 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016. Has recorded 21 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and 10 quarterback pressures, the latter of which puts him in a tie for eighth in the league this year. Recorded 30 sacks from 2013 to 2015. Lines up against both tackles and occasionally reduces inside. Has a powerful bull rush — used it to beat the Giants’ Marshall Newhouse for a sack in Week 2 — and an effective swim move. Will also break out a rip move. Uses his hands very well and moves pretty good for a big guy. Aware football player who is also adept at reading blocks. Plays with a lot of force, understands leverage and gets off the ball, especially in passing situations. Plays hard and makes plays. “You’ve got to know where he’s at,” Nagy said.
No. 32, SS Kenny Vaccaro, 25 years old, 6-0, 214, 4th season
Former first-round pick who has recorded 27 tackles, a forced fumble, a pass deflection and zero interceptions. Played through an ankle injury early in the season that limited him some. Intense player who often plays near the line of scrimmage or in the box and likes to be physical; has averaged 85 tackles in his first three seasons. Was used head up in coverage on the Panthers’ star tight end, Greg Olsen, last week (whistled for pass interference, leading to a touchdown) and could potentially do the same with the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce. Is used as a blitzer — set a career-high in sacks last year with three — and is physical enough to overpower running backs in pass protection. Appears to be emerging as a leader. “He brings an edge to the defense,” Nagy said. “He’s a really talented player.”
Projected Saints two-deep
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, AP=2015 All-Pro, PB=2015 Pro Bowl, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
9 Drew Brees (C), 6-0, 209, 16 | 7 Luke McCown, 6-4, 217, 11
*22 Mark Ingram, 5-9, 215, 6 | *38 Travaris Cadet, 6-1, 210, 5
10 Brandin Cooks, 5-10, 189, 3 | 16 Brandon Coleman, 6-6, 225, 2
*13 Michael Thomas, 6-3, 210, 2 | 16 Brandon Coleman, 6-6, 225, 2
*83 Willie Snead IV, 5-11, 195, 2 | 87 Tommylee Lewis, 5-7, 168, R
*82 Coby Fleener, 6-6, 251, 5 | 89 Josh Hill, 6-5, 250, 4
LT Terron Armstead, 6-5, 304, 4 | 76 Tony Hills, 6-4, 304, 6
65 Senio Kelemete, 6-3, 300, 3 | *75 Andrus Peat, 6-7, 316, 2
60 Max Unger (C), 6-5, 305, 7 | 68 Tim Lelito, 6-4, 315, 4
73 Jahri Evans, 6-4, 318, 11 | 78 Landon Turner, 6-3, 325, R
64 Zach Strief, 6-7, 320, 11 | 76 Tony Hills, 6-4, 304, 6
91 Kasim Edebali, 6-2, 253, 3 | 99 Paul Kruger, 6-4, 270, 8
*90 Nick Fairley, 6-4, 308, 6 | 93 David Onyemata, 6-4, 300, R
95 Tyeler Davison, 6-2, 309, 2 | 92 John Jenkins, 6-3, 359, 4
94 Cameron Jordan (C, PB), 6-4, 287, 6 | 55 Darryl Tapp, 6-1, 270, 11
*52 Craig Robertson, 6-1, 234, 5 | 53 James Laurinaitis, 6-2, 248, 8
54 Nate Stupar, 6-2, 240, 4 | 59 Dannell Ellerbe, 6-1, 245, 8
*46 Ken Crawley, 6-1, 180, R | 20 Brian Dixon, 6-0, 195, 3
*24 Sterling Moore, 5-10, 202, 6 | *28 B.W. Webb, 5-11, 190, 4
32 Kenny Vaccaro, 6-0, 214, 4
*48 Vonn Bell, 5-11, 200, R | 41 Roman Harper, 6-1, 205, 11
*31 Jairus Byrd, 5-10, 203, 8 | 41 Roman Harper, 6-1, 205, 11
3 Wil Lutz, 6-0, 190, R
6 Thomas Morstead, 6-4, 235, 8
38 Travaris Cadet, 6-1, 210, 5 | 23 Marcus Murphy, 5-9, 185, 2
87 Tommylee Lewis, 5-7, 168, R | 23 Marcus Murphy, 5-9, 185, 2
47 Justin Drescher, 6-1, 235, 7
Bonus notes on the Saints
▪ The Saints also used Travaris Cadet, a reliable receiver out of the backfield, as a pass-catching back last week. Rookie Daniel Lasco also earned a few snaps last week and showcases his plus size (6-0, 209) and speed (4.46 40) combination.
▪ Receiver Michael Thomas is performing well, rookie or not. Thomas, a 2016 second-rounder, leads the Saints — and all NFL rookies — in receptions with 26 and has racked up 307 yards and three touchdowns. He caught the game-winning score against the Chargers in Week 4. “I think we continue to put a little more on his plate each week,” Brees said. “He is a very conscientious kid who wants to do things the right way. He works extremely hard at it.”
▪ Receiver Willie Snead IV is a smallish former undrafted free agent, but he’s turned himself into a good football player. He’s a good route runner with a great feel in the slot. He can also make the difficult catch (despite the occasional focus drop) and is a general matchup problem who, like Cooks, needs to be accounted for due to his chain-moving ability.
▪ Tight end Coby Fleener signed a big-money deal this offseason but has gotten off to a somewhat slow start. He and Brees have largely not been on the same page. He is, however, showing signs of grasping the offense of late — he had a nice game against the Panthers — and might be developing into a nice weapon. He’s big dude with good hands and good athleticism.
▪ The Saints will occasionally break out a heavy look with six offensive linemen. They’ll also use fullback John Kuhn and/or tight end Josh Hill when they want some run-pass versatility. Hill caught an outstanding jump-ball touchdown against the Panthers.
▪ Guard Andrus Peat might not play because of an ankle injury he sustained against Carolina. When healthy, Peat — a physical player — and Terron Armstead make a nice combo on the left side. If Armstead and Peat both can’t go, the Chiefs might attack Tony Hills, who struggled at left tackle when Peat left last week with an injury.
▪ Defensive tackle Nick Fairley (team-high 3 1/2 sacks) will be playing with a heavy heart. He missed two days of practice this week to grieve his mother’s death. Provided he plays, expect an inspired performance from the immensely-talented former first-rounder, whose biggest issues have been his weight and his inconsistent motor.
▪ Inside linebacker Craig Robertson is having a nice debut season with the Saints. He’s come out of nowhere to emerge as the Saints’ leading tackler with 53 — 26 more than Vaccaro, the next closest guy. He plays hard, with lots of energy, and shows good quickness.
▪ The Saints might be without their best cover man again in Delvin Breaux. He will be missed. However, Sterling Moore shows some ball skills; he had a nice interception of Cam Newton last week in which he tracked a fade ball and hauled it in inbounds. B.W. Webb has also made a few plays in coverage, racking up a few pass breakups. Expect the Chiefs to test both of them, though, along with rookie Ken Crawley and fellow youngster Brian Dixon.
▪ Safety Vonn Bell has good athleticism for his position and he flashes ball skills, but as a rookie, can be late with his eyes. Fellow safety Jairus Byrd has been the target of fans’ frustration; he’s struggled to live up to the massive six-year, $54 million deal he signed in 2014. In 22 games in New Orleans, Byrd — a ballhawk in Buffalo — only has one pick. There are big plays to be made against this grabby secondary, but quarterback Smith has to make the throws.
Prediction: Chiefs 34-30
Predicting the Chiefs to win a shootout against this coach-quarterback combo is a tall order, but Sunday’s game marks Andy Reid’s 300th as a coach, and as long as the Chiefs can protect the football, they should score enough points against a bad defense to keep the Saints down. But New Orleans, which ranks 13th in takeaways with eight, is a threat to create some turnovers, and if the Chiefs get sloppy and give Brees and this offense extra possessions, they’ll be in major trouble.