PHOENIX - When the Cardinals march into New Orleans on Sunday to play the Saints, don’t be surprised if they’re a little confused.
Wasn’t it the Saints defense that was supposed to be a liability? After all, the Saints finished dead last in total defense last season.
See, although the Saints have been able to finish off games this season with wins against the Falcons and Buccaneers, the Saints have not been finishing off drives.
In fact, the Saints tallied just one touchdown in a 16-14 win at Tampa Bay on Sunday. For reference, how many times did that happen all of last season? Just once.
What’s worse is that the Saints offense has converted just one of seven red-zone chances into touchdowns. That conversion rate (14.3%) ranks dead last in the NFL. (A year ago, the Saints ranked second in red-zone efficiency at 68.4 percent).
"We're averaging below 20 points a game. That's not what we're used to,” said Saints QB Drew Brees. “We're used to being much better than that. So there's a big sense of urgency around here, despite the fact that we're 2-0."
The Saints cite various factors, including penalties and lackluster play by the offensive line. To wit, Brees was sacked four times in Tampa and team statisticians counted 10 other times that Brees was under pressure.
Perhaps that’s good news for a Cardinals defense that has registered just a single sack through two games this season. Conversely, the Cards rushing defense has been stout in allowing 67 yards in a loss at St. Louis and then just 49 yards rushing in a home opening win against the Lions (Note: the Cards are now 7-1 in home openers at University of Phoenix Stadium).
However, lots of focus will be on a pair of former LSU stars in the Cards defensive backfield – Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, a native of New Orleans.
“The whole key to their offense, which everyone knows, is Drew Brees," said Peterson. “I believe that if you can get to him and harass him a little bit, although he's a great quarterback, a lot of quarterbacks don't like to get hit.”
When the Cards have the ball, they’ll be striving to improve their efficiency on third down, especially after going 1 for 11 in the Lions win.
And they’ll be going against a much improved defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan. After two games under Ryan, the Saints rank 11th in defense, yielding 320 yards per game, well below their record-440 average in 2012.
“It's two weeks, and we're encouraged,” said Saints Head Coach Sean Payton. “We’re going to see some really good offenses. This week presents a different challenge."
And the Cardinals aren’t buying the offensive futility storyline from a Saints team that still features weapons like tight end Jimmy Graham, running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore.
Remember, this is still mainly the same offense that gained an NFL-record 7,474 yards in 2011.
“That offense is always high-octane," said Cardinals Head Coach Bruce Arians. “They’re just a play or two away."
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