The first of two Monday Night Football games in Week 1 features two of the league's most explosive offenses, and plenty of stars on defense as well. The Saints hosting the Texans in a domed environment should mean plenty of fireworks, with Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson opening things up and denting the SuperDome scoreboards.
We have a lot to break down on both sides of the ball, so let's get right into it.
Texans at Saints
- Date: Monday, Sept. 9
- Time: 7:10 p.m. ET
- TV channel: ESPN
- Streaming: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Odds: Saints -6.5, O/U 52.5 (via SportsLine)
When the Texans have the ball
The Texans went just a little bit crazy this offseason, with Bill O'Brien's tenure as de facto general manager seeing the team send Jadeveon Clowney packing for essentially nothing, while he also acquired Duke Johnson for a third-round pick and Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills for two firsts, a second, and two players. All of this maneuvering will likely come back to haunt the Texans at some point in the future (presumably after O'Brien has moved on), but in 2019, their offense is in a better position than it was a year ago.
Last month, we explored just:
Perhaps the biggest difference between Johnson and the player(s) he's replacing in Houston, though, is his effectiveness both as a receiver and a playmaker with the ball in his hands in open space.
PLAYER REC TGT REC % YARDS YPA TD 1D HOU RB 77 101 76.2% 672 6.65 4 28 Duke 235 303 77.6% 2170 7.16 8 73
Despite being on the field for only 2,044 of Cleveland's 4,293 offensive snaps (47.6 percent) during his career, Johnson has averaged more catches per game (3.7 to 3.3), receiving yards per game (33.9 to 29.2), and yards per reception (7.16 to 6.65) than all Texans running backs combined during Deshaun Watson's 23 career games played.
To give you an idea of just how under-utilized he's been in his career, Johnson has ranked inside the top 12 in PFF's Elusive Rating every single season he's been in the league. The full list of players who have done that: Duke Johnson. That's it. He's a tackle-breaking machine, forcing at least one defender to miss every 3.93 times he's touched the ball throughout his career. By way of comparison, Miller and Blue forced a miss tackle every 8.27 touches in 2018.
Johnson also provides insurance against more Keke Coutee injuries, as he has experience working out of the slot. Coutee is already banged up and is listed as questionable for this game, so it would not be a surprise to see Johnson take some snaps out there. Stills has extensive experience playing both in the slot and out wide as well, which should allow him to spell both Coutee and the similarly-injury-prone Will Fuller.
Tunsil has developed into a solidly above-average left tackle after a draft-day video of him smoking out of a bong mask surfaced and caused him to tumble down the board. He should certainly help the frankly embarrassing pass-protection issues Houston has had throughout Watson's career, but -- and Bill O'Brien may or may not be aware of this -- bringing in one good offensive lineman does not, like, solve all your issues up front. The Texans will still likely have a good deal of trouble protecting Watson, which is a shame because when that dude gets time to throw, he is damn near impossible to stop.
The Texans may be able to hold up better against a New Orleans front that is likely to be without Sheldon Rankins on the interior, but Cameron Jordan is more than capable of wrecking an opposing game plan all on his own. Jordan spent 97 percent of his snaps rushing off the left side of the line last season, per Pro Football Focus, so he likely will spend far more time working against Seantrel Henderson than Tunsil. Henderson is going to need some help in the form of tight ends and backs chipping on their release.
If and when Watson does get time to throw, the Saints' secondary is going to have its hands full. Given how often the Saints employed the tactic last season, Marshon Lattimore seems incredibly likely to shadow DeAndre Hopkins wherever he goes on the field. Lattimore shadowed in eight games last season, allowing 35 catches for 459 yards and two scores in those contests. Hopkins has essentially been shadow-proof throughout his career, and Watson is justifiably unafraid to pepper him with targets regardless of which corner he is matched up against.
The first NFL Sunday is in the books and there's a lot to go over. Fortunately Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Sean Wagner-McGough are here to break everything down on the latest episode of the Pick Six Podcast. Listen to the full show below and be sure to subscribe right here.
Lattimore following Hopkins around leaves Fuller to work against Eli Apple, where he should have a distinct advantage. Fuller is one of the best downfield receivers in the NFL, having caught nine passes for 373 yards and eight touchdowns on throws at least 20 yards downfield over the past two seasons, despite playing only 17 games during that time. Apple has been better in New Orleans than he was in New York, but Fuller has size and speed advantages over him, and with the threats elsewhere on the offense, the Saints may not be able to provide as much help over the top as they would like.
The linebacker corps of Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, and Kiko Alonso could be similarly tested by Johnson when the Texans get him into open space. He's one of the most dynamic receiving backs in the league, and the attention paid to Hopkins and Fuller outside should open ample windows through which Watson can find him. If Coutee is able to play, he should have a similar amount of room to work with against slot corner P.J. Williams.
It remains to be seen how much work Carlos Hyde will get behind Johnson, but if the Texans are smart, it will be almost none. Hyde looked completely cooked as the lead back in Cleveland last season, and has been cast aside by two more teams since then. There's a reason for that. Maybe Johnson can't handle 20-25 touches per game, but he doesn't need to cede anywhere close to half the work to Hyde. All that would do is put Houston behind the chains, accentuating their pass-protection issues.
When the Saints have the ball
While the Texans made a whole bunch of changes in the lead-up to the season, the Saints are entering 2019 with almost the exact same offensive personnel with which they ended 2018.
Drew Brees is still under center, and he's still protected by Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford, and Ryan Ramczyk up front. The lone change there is that rookie center Erik McCoy has replaced the retired Max Unger. The team's top wideout is still Michael Thomas, and he's still joined by Ted Ginn, Tre'Quan Smith, and Keith Kirkwood. Alvin Kamara still figures heavily in the backfield, but the Mark Ingram role will now be played by Latavius Murray. Benjamin Watson, meanwhile, has been replaced by Jared Cook. There are now large-scale changes here.
The expectation is that Kamara will lead the backfield, but Sean Payton has been fairly open about not wanting to tax him too much by giving him a bell-cow workload. The Saints did that early last season when Ingram was suspended for four games, but in the other 27 games Kamara has played in his regular-season career, he's averaged 14.3 total touches per game. We should expect to see him a bit more involved than that, but the nearly 23 per game he saw while Ingram was out seems quite a bit high.
Figuring out a way to keep the Houston defense off-balance when it's expecting a run with Murray in the game will be key, and I'd be willing to bet Payton busts out a screen play for Murray early on, just to keep them honest.
Houston's defensive front, meanwhile, took a hit with the trade of Clowney, but they do still have J.J. Watt wrecking things inside, Whitney Mercilus coming off the edge, and the underrated D.J. Reader helping them out. Unfortunately for them, that crew is working against one of the very best offensive lines in the league. The Saints ranked second in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards last season, and third in Adjusted Sack Rate. They do an extremely good job of clearing running lanes and keeping rushers out of Drew Brees' face. Watt is of course a different type of challenge than most lines usually face, but without Clowney, the Saints should feel free to provide plenty of help to whoever is assigned to block him on a given play.
In any event, Brees gets the ball out faster than almost any quarterback in the NFL, as his mind-meld with Payton allows him to identify which receiver will come open the soonest after the snap before the play even begins. The average Brees throw came 2.43 seconds after the snap last season, per PFF, seventh-fastest among 36 passers who took at least 200 snaps from center. He completed 80.3 percent of his throws when releasing within 2.5 seconds, tossing 20 touchdowns and just three picks, for a 120.3 passer rating. He is practically impossible to stop when he's able to get rid of the ball at the moment he wants to, largely because that means he is probably targeting Kamara or Michael Thomas.
Thomas just keeps getting better, and he led the NFL with 125 catches last season. His 85 percent catch rate was the best ever for a wide receiver with at least 100 targets, and when Brees lets it fly in his direction it is essentially a running play that is nearly guaranteed to gain at least twice as many yards as a typical run. He seems incredibly likely to continue working out of the slot for a decent portion of his snaps, and his combination of size, strength, and body control gives him an enormous advantage over almost any slot corner in the league. Aaron Colvin, coming off a down year during his first season in Houston, is no exception.
Just when the Saints have the defense paying slightly too much attention to Kamara and Thomas underneath, Brees will load up and take a deep shot to Ginn, Smith, Kirkwood, or even Cook. Payton loves to set up his shot plays with play-action, and linebackers Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney have to be careful not to let Cook sneak behind them up the seams.
An interesting thing to watch will be whether the early-season struggles that have plagued the Saints for the past few years continue in this one. They're only 2-4 in Weeks 1 and 2 over the past three years, and they barely beat the Tyrod Taylor-led Browns in Week 2 last season.
Prediction: Texans 34, Saints 30