Week 2: Saints @ Browns- Sunday September 14 2014, 12 pm CT, Fox
The New Orleans Saints will look to put last weekend's season-opening loss behind them as they travel to Ohio to face off with the Cleveland Browns, also 0-1 after suffering a 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on opening weekend.
Entering the weekend, the Saints and Browns have matched up a total of 17 times, with Cleveland holding an all-time advantage in the series with a 12-4 record. The Browns won the last meeting in October of 2010, defeating New Orleans 30-17 in the Superdome. That day, Cleveland's defense was coordinated by Rob Ryan, now with the Saints, and flustered the New Orleans offense all day long as Drew Brees tossed 4 interceptions and was sacked 3 times.
New Orleans won on its last visit to the southern shores of Lake Erie during week 1 of the 2006 season, which also happened to be coach Sean Payton's first regular season game at the helm for the Saints.
New Orleans- WR Kenny Stills was limited in practice Thursday, as he continues to battle a quad injury that dates back to July. FB Erik Lorig and S Marcus Ball were non-participants and are unlikely to play Sunday.
Meanwhile, CB Keenan Lewis and LB Curtis Lofton were full participants and should play.
Cleveland- All eyes remain focused upon Browns tight end Jordan Cameron as the 6-5 playmaker battles a shoulder injury. Cameron has been labeled "day-to-day," and did not participate in practice Thursday, though he is officially listed as 'Questionable' and has not yet been ruled out. Will Jordan Cameron suit up on Sunday?
Defensive linemen John Hughes and Desmond Bryant were both limited, as was OL Paul McQuistan. Former LSU standout and Louisiana native Barkevious Mingo did not participate, while RB Ben Tate has been officially ruled out of Sunday's game. Rookie Terrance West will get the start in the Browns' backfield.
Saints TE Jimmy Graham vs. Browns S Donte Whitner- This won't simply be Whitner vs. Graham as the Browns will likely take an all-hands-on-deck approach to defending the Saints' dynamic tight end. Graham is a matchup nightmare for anyone, including teams like Seattle and New England who must cramp their respective styles in some form or fashion in an attempt to compensate for the playmaking abilities of Graham, who led the league in touchdown receptions last season with 16.
The Browns will look to disrupt Graham off the snap, perhaps using a defensive end or outside linebacker to jam him off the line, and throw off his timing with Brees. Whitner, one of the game's most physical defensive backs, will likely absorb much of the coverage on Graham, and the Ohio State alum has had some success against Graham in the past, including last season as a San Francisco 49er, when Whitner helped limit the Saints' tight end to a somewhat pedestrian 6 catches for 41 yards.
CB Joe Haden could also be called upon to help cover Graham, who was disappointed not to find the end zone in Atlanta last weekend. Drew Brees missed a couple of open opportunities to hook up with Graham, and the Saints, as an offensive unit will be looking to capitalize on every opportunity they get to put 7 points on the board as opposed to having to settle for field goals, something that came back to haunt them a week ago in Atlanta.
New Orleans Saints DL vs. Cleveland Browns OL- A good, old-fashioned position group vs. position group battle. The Saints often rushed just 4 men last week against Atlanta, while playing S Jairus Byrd well off the line of scrimmage as a deep-lying single-high threat. Cleveland, however, does not pose the same downfield threat from the receiver positions as Atlanta did, with the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas forcing New Orleans to roll and bracket their coverages, which led to many poor angles and missed tackles in space, while allowing Douglas and Devin Hester to exploit the coverages underneath.
In addition, Cleveland's biggest playmaking threat, Cameron, may not dress as he continues to battle with his shoulder ailment. Josh Gordon remains suspended, so Brian Hoyer will be counting on Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins to get open and make plays in what should be much tighter coverage this week. Kenny Vaccaro and his defensive teammates will look to right the ship in week 2.
If New Orleans can get a better push from their 3 or 4-man rushes, the secondary could make things difficult for Hoyer and company. Expect Rob Ryan to bring more pressure, whether it be an extra linebacker or a safety buzzing into a vacant gap. Kenny Vaccaro had an unusually bad day at the office in week 1, but will be playing in his much more natural role against a team like Cleveland. The Browns' zone-blocking scheme could cause the Saints' defensive front some problems, but the unit as a whole is primed for a bounceback week in a big way.
Week 2 Prediction
New Orleans 27-17 Cleveland
The Saints are determined to put last week's loss behind them, particularly from a defensive standpoint. The offense, by and large, was on point and did the things it needed to do to win the game at Atlanta, sans a couple of untimely turnovers and missed red zone opportunities. Could Johnny Football make his NFL bow this weekend?
Cleveland will no doubt be smarting in their own right after erasing a large deficit, only to fall short to a late field goal in week 1. There is a chance that the Browns could throw out an interesting wrinkle in the form of rookie Johnny Manziel, with a package of plays built to suit the polarizing signal-caller's unique skill set alleged to have been in the works. The Browns are at home now, and it makes much more sense to unleash Johnny Football in front of his home crowd, as opposed to the unfriendly confines of Heinz Field.
Look for improvement across the board from the New Orleans defense, with much better secondary play predicated off better push up front and less of a need to alter their coverages to compensate for game-breaking receivers such as Atlanta's group.
It is always difficult to win on the road, especially against an AFC North team, but the Saints are much better than they showed us in week 1, and we expect them to make things right in week 2.
Rookie wideout Brandin Cooks had quite the debut in week 1, and garnered league-wide attention after his 7 catch, 77 yard, 1 touchdown receiving performance in addition to his 18 rushing yards and punt return duties.
Look for Cooks' role and usage to grow each week, and if Graham commands extra attention from Cleveland's defense, it should only help to free up extra wiggle room for the talented jitterbug. Cooks looks like the real deal, and this is the type of game he can thrive in.