As teased at the end of last week’s column, this column was originally going to be about Dez Bryant’s potential impact on the Saints, and how even if he isn’t quite the same player he was in the best years of his career, he still offers a reliable target for tough, contested catches and end-zone balls.
As you probably know by now, though, after officially signing Bryant on Thursday, he tore his Achilles on Friday, his second practice with the team, and went to injured reserve. So it’s back to the drawing board for the Saints on that front, who are currently down to three healthy and active wide receivers after also putting Cameron Meredith on injured reserve.
The Saints also brought in Brandon Marshall and Kamar Aiken for workouts this week before signing Bryant, and the current news is that they’ll adjust by signing Marshall, who is like Bryant a bigger body, and doesn’t have his top-end talent anymore (he’s 34), but with his size and hands could also assist in those tough over-the-middle catches and in the end zone. Tre’Quan Smith will get there eventually, but for now he’s just a rookie. And the fact is, the Saints simply can’t go on in 2018 with only three active wide receivers (adding Austin Carr to Smith and Michael Thomas). Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more two-back sets this week, with Alvin Kamara taking snaps in the slot to make up for the lack of other players who can do it.
Now onto this week’s coming game. The Saints are 5.5-point favorites at Cincinnati, which seems to be a strong sign of their likelihood to win. However, after a game like their tough, high-energy, emotionally draining contest against the Los Angeles Rams, it’s easy for the team to experience a letdown game. In a league like the NFL, where no team is all that much worse than any other, a wrong bounce or two or a big play missed or made can shift the tide in any matchup.
Here are the biggest things I’d be cautious of against the Bengals on each side of the ball, and what I might do to counteract them:
John Ross and the deep passing game. The Saints will catch a break with A.J. Green out with a foot injury. Tyler Boyd is the Bengals’ second-leading receiver, and while Marshon Lattimore is more than capable of handling him, he’ll probably be deployed all over the formation and Lattimore won’t follow him. Still, though, the Saints’ talent on roster should be capable of reasonably containing him. The worry is Ross, who’s coming back from an injury and has fallen out of favor at points with the coaching staff. While he hasn’t been a big part of the offense yet, he’ll get more snaps with Green out, and his 4.22 40 time and quick moves give him the ability to beat people downfield and score a long touchdown at any time. The Saints have been better in recent weeks, but had significant problems giving up long passing touchdowns early in the season. Ross is the kind of player who can make those plays, so the Saints defense will have to be careful not to let him get behind the secondary.
With Green out, the focal point of the offense will probably be running back Joe Mixon, but the Saints’ run defense has remained outstanding all season, so I’m not particularly worried about their ability to perform there.
William Jackson could make life difficult for Michael Thomas. The Bengals’ first-round selection in 2016, Jackson missed his rookie season but has since grown into a top-flight man cornerback. Now, is he so good as to shut down Michael Thomas? Of course not, but if he can disrupt Thomas often enough, he can still throw the offense off schedule. The Bengals have had less success covering #2 WRs (26th in the league according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat), so Tre’Quan Smith may have to step up Sunday. It’s going to be more difficult to vary looks against the Bengals with only three healthy wide receivers*, so again, I’d expect to see Alvin Kamara in the slot some portion of the time. (He may be a heavy part of the passing game regardless: Cincinnati is 28th in DVOA covering running backs.)
* – The team promoted Keith Kirkwood to the active roster after placing Dez Bryant on injured reserve. However, Kirkwood has never played a regular-season snap and so it’s difficult to regard or evaluate how many offensive snaps he’ll play Sunday or even whether he’ll suit up.
The Bengals’ run defense hasn’t been particularly strong, either. With the Saints’ strength in their offensive line and running backs, I expect the game plan will rely more heavily on Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara than anyone else.
And now, a long-delayed promised bonus:
Your week 8 highlight GIFs vs. Minnesota
Taysom Hill’s deep completion to Michael Thomas– who catches it despite a clear pass interference:
Sheldon Rankins’ first sack of the game:
The forced fumble on Adam Thielen and Marshon Lattimore’s return of it:
Lattimore breaks up a fourth-down pass intended for Laquon Treadwell:
Marcus Davenport chases down and sacks Kirk Cousins (the call of a fumble on the field was overturned):
Kirk Cousins delivers an interception directly to P.J. Williams:
Rankins simply overpowers the center for his second sack of the day:
And Marcus Davenport shows off his rare blend of power, burst, and bend to notch his second sack of the game:
See y’all after the Bengals game.