Both the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints are riding the winning wave into Sunday’s showdown in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And both teams are starting fresh on the sidelines. The Saints welcomed back coach Sean Payton from a one-year suspension; the Cardinals are adjusting to life with first-year coach Bruce Arians. One thing both these men have in common is a love of yards.
This will be a matchup of the long ball, as quarterbacks Drew Brees and Carson Palmer like putting up big numbers with a deep passing game. Which team will continue its winning ways?
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down Sunday’s matchup.
Josh Weinfuss: How much has Payton’s return to the Saints been felt so far this season?
Mike Triplett: Payton made a ton of changes in the offseason, from a dramatic overhaul of the defense to the team’s conditioning program to the run-blocking schemes. But so far during the Saints’ 2-0 start, I think the No. 1 area where his return has made an impact is in the team’s confidence. They’ve pulled out two gutty victories -- one which required a last-minute goal-line stand against the Atlanta Falcons and one which required an improbable game-winning field goal drive in the final seconds at Tampa Bay.
Neither performance was perfect, but the Saints were incredibly resilient in both games. Last season, they became unsure of themselves -- especially as the losses started to pile up during their 0-4 start -- something rarely evident in previous years. Now, you can see they’ve got some of that classic “swagger” back.
Of course, the Saints have a huge advantage in the confidence department because they’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees leading the way. ... Have the Cardinals started to develop some new confidence of their own in their new signal-caller, Palmer?
Josh Weinfuss: They have, and it’s obvious. For the past few seasons, the Cardinals haven’t had consistency under center, and it’s showed with significant losing streaks. With the addition of Palmer, who’s not just an accomplished quarterback but a talented one at that, the Cardinals' offense feels it can make the plays it hasn't made in years. There have been a few examples already, such as a fade to Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown in Week 1 or a 36-yard wheel route to Andre Ellington last Sunday. The receivers know they only have to worry about getting to where they’re supposed to be and Palmer will find them -- about a 180-degree change from last season, when Cardinals receivers would hope the ball would be close enough for them to make a play. And that confidence on offense carries over to the defense. Last year, the defense believed it had to score for the team to win. This year, it feels like all it has to do is get the ball back to the offense to win a game.
While we're talking defense, what kind of major changes did Rob Ryan make when he was hired as defensive coordinator, and how are the Saints responding?
Mike Triplett: Ryan has changed the defense significantly in everything from scheme to attitude. For starters, he’s a 3-4 guy, while Steve Spagnuolo was a 4-3 guy. But Ryan doesn’t really stick to one scheme or alignment -- and he’s had to get especially creative, because the Saints had so many injuries on the defensive line and at outside linebacker this summer. He’ll often use three or four safeties on the field together, moving them around from snap to snap. Sometimes he’ll have four down linemen. Sometimes he’ll have no down linemen, with all 11 guys standing up in an “amoeba” formation.
Ryan is very reminiscent of former New Orleans coordinator Gregg Williams in that sense. And the Saints players have clearly responded well to that approach under both coordinators. What they like best is they feel like Ryan tries to put them in positions and matchups that play to their strengths. And, sure, this much variety can lead to mental errors (a criticism that has dogged Ryan in past stops) -- but the players at least feel they’re being aggressive and attacking rather than sitting back in read-and-react mode. As I said, that seems to have brought out their confidence and their fire so far this season.
Speaking of a little “fire” on defense, what kind of early impact has New Orleans native Tyrann Mathieu made in Arizona? The Cardinals have done a pretty good job of plucking defensive players from down here at LSU.
Josh Weinfuss: Mathieu has been a pleasant surprise for everybody except the Cardinals. They expected him to come in and play at the very high level -- which is why they took the risk of drafting him in the third round in April while every other team all but ignored his presence. Palmer has compared Mathieu's closing speed to Troy Polamalu’s; Mathieu's football IQ draws locker-room raves. And his presence on the field is that of a veteran, not of a rookie ... and definitely not of someone who missed a full year of football. Mathieu made the jump to the second team early in organized team activities and minicamp, and he was a starter in the Cards’ nickel package by training camp. He’s proven himself in coverage, making the game-ending tackle against Detroit’s Nate Burleson last Sunday. And Mathieu has lived up to the Honey Badger persona, which he’s gracefully re-adopted this year. He tried to distance himself from it, but neither the fans nor his play allowed for that. That includes the play of the game in Week 1, when Mathieu tracked down Rams tight end Jared Cook to punch the ball out of his hands and prevent a touchdown. Big plays is what this kid does.
How long can Brees maintain his own high level of play, and are the Saints a legitimate 2-0 team?
Mike Triplett: I think Brees, at 34, is still very much in his prime, and I don’t really see him slowing down anytime soon. He had an uncharacteristically sluggish performance at Tampa Bay but rallied to lead a brilliant last-minute field goal drive. He’s the No. 1 reason the Saints always have a chance to win. And if the Saints can improve the defense and run game around him this season, I think he’ll be back in more of a comfort zone and not feel like he has to do everything himself as he did last season (5,177 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes, 19 interceptions).
As for the Saints overall, they’re very legitimate. They were obviously lucky to beat Tampa Bay after a sloppy offensive performance. But for the second week in a row, the improved D bailed them out. And we know the offense will get rolling sooner or later, making New Orleans a very dangerous team. The Saints need to fix their run game and their red zone offense. But we’ve already seen great flashes from go-to playmakers like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be a tough environment for the Cardinals to come into on Sunday. Will they at least have their best weapon, Fitzgerald, at their disposal?
Josh Weinfuss: Short answer? Yes. But there’s a caveat. I think Fitzgerald will definitely play, but the question is how effective he will be. He's likely looking at a limited week in practice to ensure he doesn't re-aggravate that balky left hamstring, but the chances of Fitzgerald missing this game are slim. As he said last week, if he can’t be effective as a receiver, he can at least be a decoy. The Saints will have to plan for him, because the second they don’t pay attention to Fitzgerald, hurt or healthy, he’ll make sure he makes them pay.