Your regularly-scheduled "Monday Night Football" game for Week 5 is still taking place. There won't be a double-header featuring the Patriots and Broncos in the early slot, but the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Chargers will still square off. Drew Brees and company got off to a slow start to the 2020 season but have evened their record at 2-2, and will be looking to keep pace with the Buccaneers and Panthers in the NFC South. The Chargers, meanwhile, are simply looking to avoid falling into the basement of the AFC West.
Let's break down the matchup -- but first -- let's recap how you can follow along and watch it unfold.
How to watch
When the Chargers have the ball
Now officially the Chargers' starting quarterback, Justin Herbert has exceeded expectations through the first three starts of his career. Herbert will billed as a high-level talent who could become a long-term starter eventually, but would probably need to spend the year on the bench in order to get up to speed. That's how the Chargers saw him, too, which is why they steadfastly maintained until this week that Tyrod Taylor would be under center once he returned from injury.
But Herbert's play so far has to make the Chargers feel pretty good about the pick. He's completed at least two thirds of his passes in each of his three starts, while averaging a truly excellent 8.7 yards per attempt. He's been picked three times, but picks happen. He's shown off terrific arm strength, both on deep passes and on throws from the opposite hash to the wide side of the field. He's clearly locked onto No. 1 wideout Keenan Allen as his top target -- which is good because Allen is awesome and pretty much always open.
What he'll see when looking down the field on Monday night is still in question, because star Saints corner Marshon Lattimore (who hasn't really played like a star this year) is listed as questionable. Janoris Jenkins, the team's other outside corner, has already been declared out, which means P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson will likely play on the perimeter while C.J. Gardner-Johnson mans the slot. That leaves Gardner-Johnson matched up with Allen more often than not, because the Chargers' No. 1 guy runs a plurality of his routes (44 percent, per Pro Football Focus) from the inside. With Mike Williams still injured, it'll be Jalen Guyton, Tyron Johnson, Jason Moore, and possibly rookies K.J. Hill and/or Joe Reed getting the work on the outside.
Because that crew is not very imposing -- and for another reason we'll get to in a minute -- it seems likely that Herbert will look to work the matchups with Allen, his running backs, and tight end Hunter Henry in the short areas of the field. Henry is a mismatch for most linebackers and/or safeties over the middle, though the Saints have one of the stronger up-the-middle pass defense groups in the league with linebackers Demario Davis (one of the best coverage backers in the league) and Alex Anzalone, plus Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams at safety. That foursome will likely be primarily responsible for taking away Henry up the seam, plus Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson on any routes out of the backfield.
Because the Chargers once again have massive issues along the offensive line, it doesn't seem likely Herbert will get much of a chance to push the ball downfield. Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner are both out for this game due to injuries; they made up the improved right side of the LA offensive line, and now they won't be on the field at all. The left side of the line was already suspect, so now the Chargers just have a bad line in front of their young quarterback.
Saints defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport are listed as questionable after getting in limited practices during the week and if they don't suit up that would obviously benefit LA; but New Orleans still has Cameron Jordan, Trey Hendrickson (off to an excellent start), David Onyemata, Malcom Brown, and more up front. That group could and should cause a lot of problems for the Chargers' line, which in turn seems likely to cause problems for Herbert. It's possible the Chargers try to go with a more run-focused game plan to account for the likely weaknesses in pass protection and lack of depth at wideout, but it's not like they can expect to do much better clearing the road in the run game. Plus, their No. 1 running back (Austin Ekeler) is out as well, leaving them with two backs who are not quite as dynamic.
When the Saints have the ball
It seemed like the Saints were on track to get star wide receiver Michael Thomas back from a multi-week injury, but a practice altercation with Gardner-Johnson that apparently saw Thomas throw a punch at his teammate resulted in his being benched for the game by the team. He's not the only major contributor to the New Orleans pass game that will be absent, either, as tight end Jared Cook will miss his second consecutive contest as well.
That means Drew Brees will once again be working with a limited crew of weapons, both over the middle and on the outside. Emmanuel Sanders and Tre'Quan Smith will get the majority of the work at wide receiver, with Deonte Harris working in on occasion as well. They will each face difficult matchups against the trio of Casey Hayward, Desmond King, and Michael Davis. King should move back into the slot after the injury to Chris Harris Jr., while Hayward takes up his usual spot at left corner and Davis mans the right side. New Orleans moves its receivers all over the formation so there aren't any expected shadow matchups here.
The Saints used the combination of Josh Hill and Adam Trautman at tight end last week, though neither was heavily targeted in a game where they focused on the run. Hill got the majority of the snaps and targets at the position, though Trautman is the more athletic of the two players and could provide an additional element to the passing game if the Saints are struggling to get anything going. And of course, being that it's a primetime game, you always have to be aware of the possibility that the Saints will get Taysom Hill involved -- whether as a receiver, a runner, or even a quarterback.
But if the way they played last week is any indication, New Orleans will likely want to control this game on the ground. Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray combined for 37 touches against the Lions in Week 4, totaling 202 yards and three touchdowns. Murray was getting a bunch of the early-down work to spare Kamara some of the workload he was expected to carry throughout the game, and that ended up working out pretty well for New Orleans.
The Chargers have been slightly stingier against the run this season than they have against the pass, but the New Orleans offensive line is one of the best units in the league and should be able to clear the way for Kamara and Murray on occasion. Pro Football Focus had this game as its second-biggest offensive line vs. defensive line mismatch in the run game this week, a good sign for the Saints being able to control the game in that fashion, just as they did a week ago.
Prediction: Saints 24, Chargers 20