Game Preview: SD Chargers at NO Saints

I'm almost certain Drew found a way to complete this pass. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For those interested in the upcoming regular season, Week 3 of the preseason is always the most important. Yes, guys fighting for a roster spot are fun to watch but probably won't have too big of an impact on 2010. What is most important is how will the #1s do against a top-notch team like the New Orleans Saints?

 

When the Saints have the ball

Let's not beat around the bush, this Saints offense is really, really good. Let's go through their 2009 rankings, considering the team this year is almost identical...

  • 1st in yards per game (403.8) and points per game (31.9!). 
  • Tied with the Cowboys for the most yards per play (6.3) too.
  • 4th in passing yards per game (272.2), 3rd in yards per pass (8.3) and tied for 1st in passing TDs (34).
  • They were also 4th in "passing plays for 1st down", completed 39.5% of their passes for a new set of downs.
  • Despite how many times we saw Drew Brees chucking the ball downfield, the Saints were 8th in 20+ yard passing plays with 58 of them and 10th in 40+ yard plays with 11 of those.
  • Combine the bullet above with the team's 4th overall ranking in keeping Brees upright (sacked only 20 times all season) and it becomes obvious, this is a spread-your-out-get-rid-of-the-ball-quick passing attack.
  • Where the 2009 Saints start differing from the 2009 Chargers is with their balance. They ranked 6th in rushing yards per game (131.6) and tied the Jets and Jaguars for 5th in rushing yards per attempt (4.5).
  • The only real weakness this offense has is fumbles. They tied the Titans for 3rd worst in the league, losing 16 fumbles over the course of the regular season.
  • The Chargers defense is going to have to be on top of their game if they hope to stop the Saints offense. The only real way to go about it is to stop the run, force them to pass, and hope the secondary can play good coverage. Although the defense looks rather different than it did in 2009, let's take a peak at where the Bolts ranked last season:

    • 16th in yards allowed per game (327.0) and yards allowed per play (5.3). That's about as average as you can get, but shockingly they were 11th in points given up per game (20).
    • 21st in 1st downs allowed per game (19.3) and 23rd worst at stopping teams on 3rd down (40%).
    • 11th in passing yards allowed per game (209.2) and 9th in passing yards allowed per play (6.7), which confirmed our suspicions that the secondary was actually quite good last season.
    • Two areas that the team is always desperate to improve is it's 20th ranking in interceptions (14) and 13th ranking in sacks (35).
    • The run defense was where the team really struggled in 2009, ranking 20th in rushing yards allowed per game (117.8). Even that was affected by the team getting early leads and forcing the opponents to pass to catch up. The 24th ranked rushing yards allowed per attempt (4.5) speaks to that.

    The goal of the team shouldn't be to sack Brees. That's going to be really difficult, almost impossible. The focus should be entirely on getting push with the defensive line so that they can stop the running game from going anywhere, which would be a huge step forward from 2009, and at least get into the face of Drew. Instead of LBs being brought for pressure, I expect lots of DBs to be roaming the field and trying to stay close to this talented group of receivers.

    Advantage: New Orleans

     

    When the Chargers have the ball

    Luckily, if this becomes a shootout, the Chargers are no offensive slouches themselves. In 2009, the passing offense was arguably the best in the league and the rushing attack started awful and slowly crawled it's way up the stat charts over the second half of the season. Let's see where the ended up:

    • 10th in yards per game (360.1) and 4th in points per game (28.4). 
    • Tied with the Colts for the 3rd yards per play (5.9).
    • 5th, and right behind the Saints, in passing yards per game (271.1), 1st in yards per pass (8.7) and tied for 5th in passing TDs (29).
    • The Chargers were 1st by a lot in "passing plays for 1st down", completed 42.8% of their passes for a new set of downs.
    • All those time we saw Philip Rivers chucking the ball downfield were not a mirage, as the Bolts were 1st in 20+ yard passing plays with 67 of them and 6th in 40+ yard plays with 13 of those.
    • After giving up 15 sacks in the first 5 games of the season, the Chargers gave up only 10 more over the next 11. If they had been that good/healthy all season, they would've been ranked even higher than 6th in QB protection.
    • The weakness of last year's team, exploited by the Jets in the 2009 playoffs, was without a doubt the running game. The Chargers ranked 31st in rushing yards per game (88.9) and finished dead last in rushing yards per attempt (3.3).
    • The strength of the 2009 Chargers, besides the explosive passing attack, was in it's discipline. The team tied for the 3rd least fumbles lost with only 7. The team finished with the 4th least amount of interceptions thrown with only 10 all season, thanks to El Capitan. Only the Jaguars and Colts offenses had less penalty yardage accumulated. 

    For the Chargers to win this game, or at least the first 3 quarters of it, they're going to need to play disciplined and have a balanced offensive attack. It wouldn't hurt if the Saints D wasn't too hot also....so let's see how they were in 2009.

    • 25th in yards allowed per game (357.8) and 21st in  yards allowed per play (5.5). They were also 20th in points given up per game (21.3), so don't let anyone tell you the 2009 Saints D was any better than the 2009 Chargers D.
    • 22nd in 1st downs allowed per game (19.4), but 14th best at stopping teams on 3rd down (38%).
    • 26th(!) in passing yards allowed per game (235.6) and 15th in passing yards allowed per play (6.9). Now do you see why I was a little skeptical when I was told they had one of the best secondaries in the league?
    • Unlike the Chargers, the Saints were able to cover up holes in their defense by creating turnovers. They finished the season with 26 interceptions, good for 3rd best in the league. I attribute a lot of this to the play of veteran Safety Darren Sharper, especially because their 13th ranked pass rush was no better than the Chargers' in 2009.
    • Here's a shocker: You know that terrible run D that Charger fans are quick to point at and say "That's why they couldn't win a championship"? The Saints and their 21st ranked rush D (122.2 yards allowed per game) were worse. They tied the Chargers for 24th worst in terms of rushing yards allowed per carry (4.5) too. Hear that folks? That's the sound of Rex Ryan realizing that his team probably would've won the Super Bowl had they been able to beat the Colts.

    Here's the trick to beating the Saints. Have an offense that can score at will, keep Drew Brees & friends off the field and don't turn the ball over (see: Tracy Porter playoff interceptions) or make any other stupid mistakes. That plays right into the Chargers' wheelhouse, but that doesn't mean success is guaranteed. Focus and execute, fellas.

    Advantage: San Diego

     

    I'm skipping Special Teams this week because it's the one place where you'll see a lot more backups and guys fighting for roster spots than you will on offense or defense for the first 3 quarters.

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