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The Saints ain’t a walkover

Ain’t good either

Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Saints roster is in purgatory, and they’re in salary cap hell.

Alvin Kamara is having the worst season of his career, which was also true last year. Their QB is 35-year-old Andy Dalton, who started the season as the backup to Jameis Winston. They have extremely limited methods of upgrading that position. They of course don’t have their first-round pick in 2023; the Eagles do. Their best hope in the draft is that someone forks over significant draft capital to hire Sean Payton.

Free agency isn’t going to give them any help. As it stands now, they are $54 million over the cap for next year with 17 of their top 20 earners offering them no cap relief if released. They are by far in the worst salary cap position for 2023.

So this team is screwed. They’re too good to be truly bad (at least this year), but they’re too bad to be any good. Yet this team is no pushover. This game could be closer than the talent discrepancy would indicate.

The Saints pass defense is pretty good

The Saints unloading C.J. Gardner-Johnson to the Eagles has been a big help to the Eagles. But it also didn’t really hurt the Saints on the field; their pass defense has been their engine this season. Trading away a then-24-year-old because you signed older, more expensive players to the same position is a bad way to run a football team, but it hasn’t come back to bite them, yet. (It will.)

But for now, the Saints pass defense is playing really well. They are second in yards per attempt, third in completion percentage, fifth in TD%, eighth in yards per catch, and sixth in sack rate, which adds up to the second-fewest passing yards per game (behind the Eagles).

Their one problem is they are pitiful at interceptions, tied with the Giants for the worst INT% and fewest total INTs. Jalen Hurts has thrown more interceptions than Saints defenders have caught. Which in a way makes their pass defense numbers even more impressive; they’ve had to earn all of those the hard way.

If Jalen Hurts were playing this game you’d expect the Eagles to go with a run-heavy approach, as the Saints run defense is not at all good, and has struggled against QBs who aren’t afraid to run. Lamar Jackson had 82 yards, Marcus Mariota 72 yards and a TD, and Kenny Pickett 51 yards and a TD, though they did hold Kyler Murray to 30 yards on seven carries.

But with Gardner Minshew behind center, the Eagles run a traditional offense, which plays into the Saints’ hands. But the Eagles also have A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, which does not.

On the one hand, the Saints defense has yet to give up a bad game to a QB who shouldn’t have a great game. Joe Burrow threw for 300 yards and three TDs, but he’s Joe Burrow. Geno Smith threw for 268 and three TDs at the peak of his breakout that is now falling apart. But the Bengals and Seahawks have something in common that the Eagles have: an elite WR duo. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins combined for 198 yards and two TDs, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf for 192 yards and three TDs.

New Orleans is good at keeping it close

The Saints have also done a good job of not getting their asses kicked. They have 10 one-score games, and two more that were decided by 10 points or fewer.

Most of their schedule has been fellow flotsam and jetsam teams. In addition to the embarrassing NFC South, they’ve played the Cardinals, Raiders, Steelers, Rams, and Browns. They also played the Vikings and this may shock you, but the Vikings won by a FG with 24 seconds to play. But even the legitimately good teams they have played they have given a hard time to. Their biggest losses were by 14 to the Ravens and 13 to the Bengals and 49ers.

Jameis Winston alone had five interceptions in three games. Since Andy Dalton took over as the starter, the Saints have just 14 turnovers in 12 games, a rate that would give them 17.5 turnovers over a full season, 0.5 fewer than the Eagles have. Dalton replacing Winston has also cut down on sacks, Winston took 11 in his three starts, Dalton has 18 his 12 starts.

After getting 23 turnovers in their first 11 games, the Eagles have just three in their past four. That relative drought could easily continue on Sunday.

Andy Dalton is, well, was, playing relatively well

Dalton had a bad game last week against the Browns, completing eight of 15 passes for 92 yards and an interception. But entering the game he was on a hot streak. In the four games prior he completed 71% of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt, and had six TDs and zero INTs. We’ll ignore that the Saints were shut out in one of those games, or that he averaged only 211 yards, or that he never threw 30 times in a game. The Saints weren’t asking him to do much, but he was doing it well. There’s a limit to how far competence can take you, such as Andy Dalton never winning a playoff game or Derek Carr this week being told to go home so the Raiders don’t have to pay him next year. But it also builds a decent floor.

Good pass defense (vs a backup QB) + solid but unspectacular QB + not turning over the ball is a combination that could very well make it difficult for the Eagles to rest their starters in the fourth quarter. A close win over the Saints shouldn’t cause anyone to hit the panic button.

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